King Solomon’s Mines

In the year of our lord 1530, Vicente Pegado departed from Lisbon in a caravel commanded by a captain called Balthasar Gonçalves.

He was ordered to do so by King John III of Portugal—in the XVIth century, the age profile of the ruling class was rather different—the new king was only twenty-eight. John was the eldest son of D. Manuel, the cousin and brother in law of the perfect prince, who was a major protagonist of The India Road.

Manuel had married Isabel of Castile’s widowed daughter—like her previous marriage to the perfect prince’s son Afonso, this too was ill-fated—Isabel died at childbirth in 1498, the year Vasco da Gama returned from India.

John III was the son of her sister Maria, who married Manuel in 1501. Maria of Aragon and Castile had quite the pedigree—one of her sisters was Joana la Loca, and another was Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII of England.

Vicente Pegado was headed to Sofala, in Mozambique, appointed governor by the new king. In the same year, John III sent an expedition to Brazil.

Cover of the account of an expedition to Brazil that took place in 1530. Full accounts of such travels, with detailed names, dates, and places, are extremely rare.

The new king found an amazing panoply of wealth when he reached the throne—by then, Portugal had territory on three continents, and the small country, with a population of 1.2 million, was clearly over-extended—the skies at home might still be clear and blue, but abroad the vultures were starting to circle.

The young king was very religious, and in 1536 he officially brought the inquisition into the country—a very poor decision—one that his grandfather King John II, the perfect prince, would never have countenanced. The immediate consequence was an exodus of Jews to Antwerp and Amsterdam, and a significant loss in Portuguese trading capacity, precisely when it was most necessary.

One of John III’s main challenges was to maintain control over the dazzling array of new colonies: territories in Africa, including Angola in the west, Mozambique in the east, and the numerous Portuguese enclaves in Morocco. Then there was India, Ceylon, and parts of Malaysia—three of his captains even reached Japan, the first westerners to arrive on its shores.  And on the other side of the world, Brazil—an enormous territory which was rapidly turning into a coveted target for French and Dutch pirates.

The 1530 expedition to what had once been called the land of the true cross, Vera Cruz, aimed to set up a territorial administration, a huge issue across all the Portuguese possessions.

In the diary of the expedition, a certain Baltazar Gonçalves is mentioned in connection with an incident near the town of Pernanbuco. The diary’s editor, who writes in the middle of the XIXth century, notes that this cannot be the same man who was en route to India in 1530, with a mission of dropping off Governor Pegado on the shores of Mozambique.

The town of Sofala, south of the Zambezi estuary, in 1683.

Sofala is discussed in The India Road, because the Portuguese explorer Pêro da Covilhã visited it in 1489, disguised as an Arab merchant. In the book, I describe his journey to the fabled mines of the biblical King Solomon, but that tale is apocryphal.

The third king of Israel is famous for three things: wisdom, libido, and wealth. During the forty years of his reign (970-931 b.c.), he amassed an immense fortune that included an estimated five hundred metric tons of gold—twenty billion dollars in today’s money.

But where did the gold come from? There are theories that Sofala is actually the town of Ophir, referred in the Old Testament, and that Solomon relied on the Phoenician explorers to quench his thirst for gold.

The Phoenicians were world-class navigators: they certainly reached the Indian Ocean, and were familiar with the pattern of the monsoon—northeast in the late spring and southwest in the late fall—so there’s every chance that their square-sailed galleys, which possessed both deck and keel, could have found their way down to Sofala, and returned home through Bab el Mandeb, the gate of tears at the mouth of the Red Sea, at the turn of the monsoon.

The newly arrived Portuguese governor was the first white man to reach the ancient Shona settlement of Great Zimbabwe—he named it Symbaoe. The city’s construction dated from the eleventh century, and was still ongoing in the XVth.

Whether Solomon’s gold came from the famous mine is unknown, but these days, Zimbabwe, like Brazil, is no longer celebrated for its gold.

In fact, there’s little to celebrate in Zimbabwe, because unemployment runs at ninety-five percent, and the currency is worthless—in 2008, inflation reached five hundred billion percent, and there were banknotes in circulation with a face value of one hundred trillion Zim dollars.

Like Mozambique, Zimbabwe was a powerhouse of agricultural production, but now runs a huge debt and produces very little—the GDP is lower than England before the industrial revolution.

Today, the locals celebrated the return of the crocodile—it remains to be seen who will get eaten.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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