Six Thousand Reals

It started with The India Road, and since then it never stopped. I’m talking of course about the Portuguese diaspora. It’s patently clear to everyone but the Germans that the austerity policy in Europe is a miserable failure. If you want to cool down, you shed some clothing when it’s warm. If you do it when it’s snowing, you freeze to death. In this great polieconexperiment, the European economy is heading for absolute zero. Even the IMF has now understood.

The French, who like to do everything differently from other nations, are poised to elect a guy called Holland to rule their country. Not outright, and maybe in the end the far-right will, as the Portuguese say, ‘engolir um sapo.’ Swallowing a toad is what you do when you consume something extremely unpleasant – figuratively of course. In this case it will be Marine Le Pen and her supporters swallowing Uncle Nick. But I still expect France to swing left when all the other countries swung right. Vive la différence!

Whatever happens, in the next years of Europe, the Benjamin Franklin quote applies: European natiions must hang together or they will surely hang separately.

As in the days of the colonial wars, Portuguese immigrants from Hamburg to Hanoi will be sending money home to support their families. The problem is that the fauna has changed. No longer just bricklayers and cleaning women, Portugal bleeds highly competent people. I use the three ‘I’ to hire and fire: Integrity, Intelligence, Industry. And there are many of those now working in banking in Brazil, medicine in the U.S., or in other specialty fields.

Science rocked the world last week (not exactly the norm) with key findings on two of my favorite things: breasts. All was revealed in an article with the catchy title of The genomic and transcriptomic architecture of 2,000 breast tumours reveals novel subgroups. The article was published in Nature, and has a list of authors almost as long as its title. You’ll need to drill down to the author information, and you’ll find one Samuel Aparicio, who works in Vancouver.

A commentary, presumably from down under, proudly notes that ‘the research by British and Canadian scientists…is the largest global study on breast cancer.’ Later it refers comments by ‘Carlos Caldas, one of the authors and the chairman of cancer medicine at the University of Cambridge.’ And there I was looking for someone called Smith!

Caldas was on record on Friday, together with Aparicio, asking the press to note they were both Portuguese, and extremely proud of it. The reason the Aussie site quotes Caldas is that he is the last author. In American and British science circles, that place of honor is reserved for the head of the lab.

It was with such thoughts in my head that I fielded a question posed by the History Channel, or rather by a London TV producer they subcontracted. Following their successful History of America, the channel is filming the modestly titled ‘Mankind. The Story Of All Of Us.’ Twelve hours, out in the latter part of 2012.

Bartolomeu Dias, the man who rounded the Cape of Storms, which then became the Cabo da Boa Esperança, or Cape of Good Hope, is in the series. I’ve been discussing aspects of his route, the storm that blew him off course, ships and crew, motivation and recognition, for about two months now with the series producers. Those who have read The India Road will recall that the Perfect Prince, King John II of Portugal, was not enamored of Dias―he placed his faith on the chief pilot Pêro (nowadays Pedro, or Peter) de Alenquer.

Letter from a German doctor recommending Martin Behaim to King John II. Behaim features in The India Road, as part of the group of scientists gathered to prepare the great journey.

In the midst of a little historical fiction, the odd sex scene here and there to lighten things up, I was obsessive in cross-checking primary and secondary sources for those kinds of facts. As I was for dates, places, and people. You can take it to the bank.

Which is precisely what the History Channel wanted to know. The Perfect Prince paid Dias a stipend for his trip, Seis mil reais, six thousand reals. How much is that? Enough for a Porsche or Maserati, or just a plate of macaroni?

King Afonso V (The African) minted the gold Cruzado, a coin worth three hundred reals at the time of Dias. So there we have it: Dias got the equivalent of twenty gold Cruzados. You can imagine them in a black cloth purse, perhaps like the one Francis the Henchman carried, when he approached the physic who provided Queen Leonor with the white arsenic used to kill her husband.

The Cruzado was minted to compete with the Italian gold Ducat. McAlister and other sources agree on the ‘exchange rate’, and converge on a weight of about three grams for the 23 carat gold coin. One gram of gold is currently worth around fifty bucks, about the same price as street cocaine.

So Dias received about three thousand dollars at today’s prices for his trouble. It looks to me like an early take on seed capital, since the king would have granted him business rights over what he discovered. The problem is he discovered part of the route to the promised land, but the land he discovered showed no immediate promise.

The Portuguese gold Cruzado, and the relationship with other coin. The text is taken from Vol. 3 of 'Spain and Portugal in the New World, 192-1700', by McAlister.

In later years, the gold and diamonds of South Africa would be the making of De Beers and others. The Congo, discovered by the Portuguese Diogo Cão, who sailed a few years before Dias, is also immensely wealthy. As usual in Africa, the richer the country, the greater the suffering. Coltan mining in the Congo is right up there with blood diamonds. Complete with child labor, thirteen year olds with torches strapped to their heads working for the smart phones and tablets of the world.

When Vasco da Gama returned from Calicut, the Fortunate King rewarded him with a lifetime annuity of four hundred thousand reais. Not in cash, paid by the exchequer, but by authorizing the explorer to levy taxes from a variety of cities. Taxation used to be rather more discretionary.

Gama received over sixty times what Dias was paid, and as a yearly pension. Twelve hundred Ducats, or one hundred eighty thousand dollars. Fifteen grand a month, not too bad for the second son who was tonsured in order to take the cloth, as was traditional in those days. Unfortunately Gama was just too violent to serve god in that particular capacity.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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