The Hakluyt Society has been good to me over the years—I discovered it by accident when I began writing about history, and I believe the society is not widely known, even within the United Kingdom.

When I wrote Clear Eyes, I used the translation of the log of Columbus by Clements Markham to plot the course of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. On a spreadsheet I entered every date and distance indicated in his diary, converting the infamous Italian sea miles that partly account for his navigational errors into today’s nautical miles—he should have used Arab miles in his first assessment of the distance to Cipango.

Imagine my joy when I found a book by G.R. Chrone, dated 1937, entitled ‘The Voyages of Cadamosto and other documents on Western Africa’—The Hakluyt Society does it again.

When I search for obscure tomes, my weapon of choice is Abe Books. The website appeared in 1996 and I used them frequently as I prepared The India Road—just as I finished the book, the company was bought by Amazon.

One of the most memorable things about Alvise da Ca’ da Mosto is the fact that he wrote—hardly any explorers did. Either they did not have a literary bent, or they perished before they could put quill to parchment. Although Cadamosto died in 1488, aged fifty-six, he nevertheless found time to write his memoirs, and the book survives to this day in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, which I visited in 2016 in search of an old Italian map drawn by Andrea Bianco in 1436.

What I was looking for then was a reference to the ‘Mar da Baga’, or Sargasso Sea, which suggested the Portuguese mariners had sailed considerably further west than the Azores, possibly reaching the Caribbean Sea or the coast of America.

The diary of Columbus, translated into English and printed by the Hakluyt Society in MDCCCXCIII (1893).

Getting into the Marciana is almost as hard as traveling to Mars itself, and I treasure my reader’s card—perhaps I’ll find myself in Venice one of these days and look up the Cadamosto original.

Chrone provides invaluable notes on the exploration of West Africa from the fourteenth century onward. The key reasons for this urge to go south are twofold: fighting the Moors in northwest Africa and… gold.

Alouise da Ca da Mosto, was the first that of the noble city of Venesia was moved to sail the ocean sea beyond the strait of Zibeltera towards the south in the land of the blacks of lower Ethiopia.

In 1454, Alvise set sail from Venice for Flanders. His ship encountered contrary winds near Cape St. Vincent, the tip of southwestern Portugal, and he paid a visit to the village of Raposeira, near what is now Vila do Bispo. There he had the good fortune to meet the greatest explorer of his day—Prince Henry the Navigator, then sixty years of age.

The prince turned the young man’s head, and twenty-two year old Luis, as he was known to the Portuguese, directed his attention south.

By then, the Portuguese had conquered the legendary Cabo Nam, or Cape No, so called because those who went beyond it did not return. In his book Navigazione, Cadamosto wrote, “Quem o passa tornará ou não“.

His journeys took him to Porto Santo, Madeira, the Canaries, the Cape Verde islands, and the African mainland.

The house of Cadamosto on the Grand Canal in Venice.

His accounts have the keen eye of the merchant—Venetian to the core. In Madeira, he speaks of the wonderful wine, made of the Malvasia grape, which the British call Malmsey. His report of the island’s colonization is remarkable. The island was thickly forested when the Portuguese arrived.

In order to make space for the colonists and allow agriculture to develop, the new arrivals set fire to the island. Cadamosto tells the story of Zuangonzales—aka the Portuguese captain João Gonçalves Zarco—who had to spend several days up to his neck in water, along with all the men, women, and children, without food or drink, until the flames subsided.

One of most fascinating descriptions is the silent trade, which took place south of Timbuktu on the inland delta of the River Niger. Here, groups of black men would arrive and place piles of salt on the ground. They then vanish, and a second group appears. These men place piles of gold opposite each salt pile. The gold men then disappear and the salt men return—if they consider the payment is sufficient, they take the gold.

If not, more gold is added until the deal is done.

And mum’s the word.

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

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