Friday, December 23, 2011

For God and Gold with Vasco da Gama

Holy War, Nigel Cliff's biography of Vasco da Gama, is not an easy read although in a sense it is a tale of triumph: the heroic Vasco opens up the sea route around Africa to India while poor Columbus persist in fumbling away unknowingly at what his successors finally figured out was the new world.  But Vasco, for all his courage and persistence, was an angry and violent man.  And sailing in any event was a dreadful business--"being in a jail," as Samuel Johnson said, "with the chance of being drowned."

More than a chance, it appears by the report of one Tomé Lopes, traveling along with Vasco in 1503 on the return from Vasco's second voyage.  Lopes' party leaves Mozambique...

All had gone well until they were eight days out. Then, without warning, a tempest had whipped up the sea like a bubbling cauldron. Night had fallen and ardent prayers had been said when the Lionarda crashed straight into Lopes’s ship. The collision sheared away part of its forecastle and splintered the topsides. The shrouds became entangled, and the waves were so high that the men swung wildly in the rigging as they tried to disengage them. When Lopes’s ship finally broke free, the Lionarda came straight at it again and smashed into the side near the bow. A huge gash opened up, and shrouds, planks, chains, and sails went crashing around. 
 The  sailors were convinced they were doomed, and every new crack and bang made their hearts jump. Most gave up, kneeled down, and prayed. Eventually a few stouter men managed to cut the rigging, and the two ships sheered apart. Relays of sailors bailed out the rising water, some with the pumps and others with any container to hand. Another party waded into the hold carrying lanterns and found the bottom of the hull still watertight. Even so, many were convinced the vessel was about to founder, and thirteen deserters jumped ship to the Lionarda.
Can you guess where this is going? These sailors are hard and violent men with an instinct for survival, but there is yet one more factor driving their efforts: there absolute certainty that they were favored by the Almighty:
Lopes and the rest who stayed on board were sure their lives had been spared by an act of God. It was impossible to be saved from such calamity by natural forces, the clerk recorded, and they all vowed to go on a pilgrimage when they reached home. Miracle or not, they were not safe yet. As soon as they tried to come around to the heading set by the admiral, the water rushed in again and the ship listed dangerously toward the holed side. With the waves still rearing high, the officers decided to risk lighting bonfires on thedecks as a signal to the rest of the fleet. Gama’s vessel was the first to arrive on the scene, and he shouted to the men to ask if they wanted to abandon ship. With God’s help, they cried back, they could last until morning. The Flor de la Mar appeared next and offered to send out its boat. Its crew tried to persuade their comrades that they were bound to sink in such furious seas, but Lopes and his men were convinced they were under supernatural protection.
And of course, nothing in their later experience disabused them of their conviction: they did in fact survive the tempest, and did indeed return home to Lisbon.  

Cliff, Nigel (2011-09-13). Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations (p. 348-9). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.  

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