It’s only fair to wrap up the year with a slice of history.

Ten days ago, I presented a book on the nautical science of the discoveries. I started off by recalling a previous such event I attended. The presenter was so thorough that when he finished I doubt anyone felt the need to actually read the book.

I didn’t go that way, but of course I read enough to be able to hold forth. Since the author is a retired naval commander, the session was chaired by a rear admiral, and much navy brass was in evidence.

The origin of the term rear admiral is in itself a curiosity. Apparently it stems from the disposition of the fleet in naval warfare. An admiral commanded the battle group, with a vice admiral commanding the lead vessels, most likely in harm’s way. The vessels at the rear were led by a third, lower-ranking (rear) admiral.

Figueroa is one of the longest streets in LA, all thirty miles of it, but, when I read the history of naval voyages in the early XVIIth century, the particular Mr. F who caught my eye was a Spaniard by the name of Garcia de Silva y Figueroa, ambassador to Philip III. All this took place in the period 1614-1615.

I read on, because this is the darkest period of Portuguese history, the Spanish occupation between 1580 and 1640. It’s also one of the periods we know least about, the kind of family secret we live with but don’t discuss.

Although I’ve seen it called the ‘Iberian Union’, that would be a most unfair euphemism, since the two countries were united only by mutual hatred. The Spanish occupation of Portugal illustrates the law of unintended consequences.

Al-quasr-al-kebir, or the great fortress, was a town in northern Morocco, near present day Larache. I was in the area three decades ago, with the obligatory backpack, and recall the smells of the souk: grilled lamb, hasheesh, open sewers running down the side of the alleyways. Perhaps those faraway days were on my mind when the spy from The India Road finds out his companion, Afonso Paiva, is dead in Cairo. The scene takes place in the fall of 1489, year 894 of the Islamic calendar, just after the Hajj.

As Pero rose up to leave, a man lurking in the shadows silently stepped out behind him and followed down the narrow alley. Th e spy heard a footfall and bent down to fix his sandal strap, but there was no one in sight. Once again he walked on, and once again he sensed a presence at his back.

He ducked around a corner into an archway, and pulled out his jambiya. He had purchased the eight-inch dagger in Hormuz, a masterpiece from the swordsmiths of Oman. The old woman in the darkened room was about to cry out, her veiled face unable to disguise her fear, but Pero whispered sharply for her to be silent. As the shadow fell across the arch, the spy reached out in one fluid motion and pulled the man in from the street, holding the curved knife to his throat.

In 1578, at the battle of the Three Kings, a young Portuguese monarch was killed in the sands of North Africa. It was the triumph of the Moroccan sultan Abd Al-Malik I, and it spelt tragedy for Portugal—sixty years of Spanish rule, during which the overseas colonies of Portugal were overrun, as Spain lost ground to the Netherlands and England.

In those days, Portugal had some of the best pilots in the world, men experienced in sailing the most challenging routes—pilots who knew the great circle route to Brazil and Africa, the crossing of the Cape of Good Hope, and the monsoons that led to Zhong guo, the Middle Kingdom. Portugal also possessed a fine fleet, commandeered in 1588 by Castille as part of the ill-fated Invincible Armada.

Two Lusitanian squadrons were involved, sixteen vessels in all, with names like São João de Portugal, São Bernardo, and Princesa. The crews would have been largely Portuguese, and some of the surnames may be found in an Irish cemetery in the Aran Islands, off the coast of Galway.

Figueroa was born in 1550, and studied law in Salamanca—he did not distinguish himself in the maritime field. He was already sixty-four, ambassador at the court of Philip III, when he was sent on an unusual mission: an embassy to Persia, in a geopolitical  move worthy of the Perfect Prince himself.

His mission was to encourage Shah Abas to oppose the Turks, acting as a counterweight to the western expansion of the Ottoman Empire, and simultaneously to observe how Anglo-Persian relations might endanger the Portuguese (now Spanish) monopoly on spice trade in the Indies.

In his book, Commander Malhão Pereira provides a comparison of the maritime and land routes: a one hundred and thirty ton caravel transported the equivalent of  one thousand camels, a highly favorable exchange rate. The king of Spain, with a huge debts from the Anglo-Spanish War, was in urgent need of Portuguese spice revenue.

Incidentally, the story of the Spanish Armada is one of the worst told tales of English history. As I learnt it, and probably many schoolchildren still do, the whole matter can be summed up as a rout preceded by a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. The King of Spain was defeated, end of story. While I researched this piece, I had a chance to read a good deal about the Anglo-Spanish War, which ended in 1604.

The Spanish Armada (which incidentally was never called the Invincible Armada) debacle was only the first battle in the war. In 1589, history repeated itself when Drake and Norris suffered a naval disaster off Portugal—that one hardly gets a mention. By the time the Treaty of London was signed, with the war essentially resulting in status quo ante, England was three million pounds in debt.

Garcia de Silva y Figueroa’s mission was not a huge success. I will refer to him as Figueroa, but that was his mother’s family name. In Spain and Latin America (except Brazil) the last name comes from the mother, which sounds very matriarchal and liberated, but in fact the penultimate, i.e. the father’s name, is the one used. Silva suggests Jewish descent from his father’s side, at least on the Iberian basis that names derived from plants and animals are of Semitic origin.

The 'Golfão', or great circle route (full red line), drawn by the great navigator Gago Coutinho.

The Golfão, or great circle route (full red line), drawn by the great navigator Gago Coutinho.

Figueroa sailed for Goa from Lisbon in April 1614, and his voyage was anything but easy. He was not the fleet admiral, but the navigation itself was entrusted to the piloto-môr, or pilot-in-chief, the Portuguese Gaspar Ferreira Reimão, who was on board his ship, the Nossa Senhora da Luz, or Our Lady of Light. Although (or perhaps because) Figueroa’s navigational skills were inexistent, he was consistently arguing details of the route with the pilot.

Reimão himself was extremely experienced, having previously (1588-1609) undertaken seven round trips to India, seven months each way. Works out to almost one hundred months at sea—by then the Portuguese were very well acquainted with the Golfão, the great circle route that took the caravels in a wide arc across the South Atlantic, east with the roaring forties, and around the Cape of Good Hope.

By 1612, Reimão had authored no less than three books instructing mariners on navigation—his final work was entitled Roteiro da Navegação e Carreira da Índia. By the time Figueroa was due to sail, the pilot had retired, and declined to go. After much persuasion, and financial stimulus, he joined the fleet.

Part of Figueroa’s problem was the late departure. There is a fictional discussion in The India Road where the astronomer Abraham, aided by the eccentric Martin Behaim, speak with the Perfect Prince about the timing of Vasco da Gama’s journey. The scientists know that Gama must be in Mozambique by February, in time for the summer monsoon, which would enable him to cross the Arabian Sea to India by May.

The Mathematical Junta work backwards, and reason that the expedition must round the Cape of Good Hope by Christmas—Gama did just that, which explains the province of Natal in South Africa. From Lisbon to the Cape, using the route shown, is a four month trip.

A departure from Lisbon in August will therefore comfortably allow a sailing ship to reach India by May. The summer monsoon blows May to September, but the harbor of Goa is too exposed, the fetch from the SW winds too strong, and in July or August landfall is almost impossible. The alternative then is to sail from Lisbon in February, early March at the very latest, and reach Goa in September, as the monsoon weakens. Any later, and the crossing is pure pain.

Figueroa finally reached Goa on November 7th 1614—half the crew died on the trip.

To cap it all, the Portuguese in Goa made the Castillian ambassador most unwelcome. In fact they imprisoned him for a time. Spanish Wikipedia puts it succintly:

Tuvo serios problemas con los portugueses, que se defendían hasta lo irracional de presuntas “injerencias castellanas”, e incluso pasó un tiempo detenido.

I wrapped up my introduction with the story of Figueroa, and a comment on the text above. I don’t see anything irrational about defending yourself.

So much for the Iberian Union.

Figueroa’s mission to Persia was not a big success, and he died the following year on the return journey. As for the pilot, he successfully completed his eighth round trip to India. One doubt remains in my mind: Reimão went to India twice in 1600 and 1601, as chief pilot aboard the São Francisco. In a list of vessels that formed the Spanish Armada, the Squadron of Portugal contains twelve ships, one of which is a fifty-two gunner called São Francisco.

I tried my best to find the names of the ships that made it back. All I could establish was that one hundred twenty-five ships sailed for England, and slightly under half returned.

Of the fifty-seven vessels that came back, was the São Francisco one of them? And was this the same ship that Reimão twice sailed to India?

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

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


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