The Highway

The book was in a stiff case. When I pulled it out it had that musty smell, the pages slightly yellowed.

It had been waiting over thirty years to be read.

In 1978 the Portuguese Academy of Sciences produced a tome to celebrate their bicentennial—fittingly, it was about the Discoveries. The academy printed two thousand signed copies, the one in front of me is number 80.

More than half the book is dedicated to listing all the known armadas that departed for the Indies since Vasco da Gama sailed in 1497. The remainder contains prints of the ships of the Carreira da India, the highway to India.

Whether in Africa, Asia, or the Americas, the little church with its terracotta tiles is the quintessential image of Portugal in the world.

Whether in Africa, Asia, or the Americas, the little church with its terracotta tiles is the quintessential image of Portugal in the world.

On the second last page is this church, perched on a hill. The text is a caption for the figure above this one—it tells of the loss of a nao, or carrack, at the harbor entrance to Goa, in 1563.

Vasco Lourenço da Barbuda; depois da nau ser chegada e surta na barra de Goa, com tormenta deu à costa com toda a carga que levava.

From this text we learn the name of the captain, and that the full cargo was lost due to a ‘torment’, or storm.

This recurring loss of vessels is evident in the historical record of the Portuguese sixteenth century fleets; different agencies, such as the Indian National Institute of Oceanography, have contributed to this research.

Take for instance the loss of the Bom Jesus in 1533, near the mouth of the Orange River. A recent update from National Geographic helps clear up a mystery about the cargo: why were there so many Spanish Excelentes aboard a Portuguese ship? The Excelente was first minted in 1474, during the times of the Perfect Prince, and a coin today is worth about five hundred dollars—seventy percent of the coins found in the wreck were Excelentes.

In February 1533, King John III of Portugal sent a knight to Seville to bring back twenty thousand cruzados in Spanish gold coins. It’s surprisingly difficult to determine exchange rates from this period, but a cruzado was probably about five dollars—the Andalucian businessmen were investing a hundred grand in the Portuguese spice routes.

Where did the Spanish get that kind of money? By 1533, over forty years after Columbus, it must have been gold from the New World—the Admiral of the Ocean Sea had finally got to India. Why Seville? Because the Spanish ships returned from America laden with gold and sailed up the Guadalquivir from Cadiz. They docked on the east bank of the river, near the aptly named Torre del Oro.

The name of the Bom Jesus, one of seven vessels that sailed to the Indies in 1533, is given in my book, a priceless XVIth century volume entitled Memória das Armadas—Record of the Fleets. The original is kept at the academy in downtown Lisbon; the copy in front of me is a facsimile, but what a find!

Every year a fleet was sent to the Indies. In 1533 the Bom Jesus was lost. This is illustrated simply in the XVIth Memoria das Armadas: two rigged masts sink into the ocean.

Every year a fleet was sent to the Indies. In 1533 the Bom Jesus sank. This is illustrated simply in the XVIth century Memoria das Armadas: two rigged masts sink into the ocean. Below them, the name of the captain, Dom Francisco de Noronha. Below that, only one word: lost.

The book covers every year from 1497 until 1566. There was a gap between Gama’s first journey and the discovery of Brazil in 1500—I try to provide some historical background for the Brazilian epic in Clear Eyes, and naturally some of the things I’ve read to research my writing filter through to these pages.

In some ways, this blog becomes my autobiography.

From the very beginning of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese sent at least one armada to the orient every single year—the Carreira da India. Most of those records were lost in the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755.

The Memória contains the date of departure, the intended destination, and the names of the captains. In some cases, ship names are given. In many, other details are provided.

The descriptions in the Memória are anchored, if you excuse the pun, on more detailed accounts of each voyage, which must have existed in ledgers and logbooks. Much of that is gone, but this book forms the core of a digital database that can be a new source of knowledge.

That’s a whole new adventure, an interactive tool on the web that lets the whole world explore what others explored before them. When they sailed, where they went, who lived and who perished, and so much more. Now there’s a New Year’s resolution!

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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