Departure from Lisbon Harbour of the Fleet for the Indies 1592 by Theodor de Bry

The price and prizes of Portugal’s Discoveries

In 1487, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the stormy southern tip of Africa and named it ‘Cabo Tormentoso’. The king, with a different viewpoint, renamed it ‘Cabo da Boa Esperança’.

Vasco da Gama’s voyage in 1498 opened up a new chapter in trade history as the new Portuguese sea route disestablished the Italian overland route for the spice trade.

The distribution of goods imported from India was controlled by the Casa da Índia, next to the Royal Palace on the Terreiro do Paço in Lisbon. All the merchandise was received, valued, stored and sold there. Casa da Índia also supervised the loading and unloading of the ships and paid the sailors, and it was one of the largest employers in Europe at that time with 1,500 employees.

The disappearance of the archives of the Casa da Índia during the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 makes any thorough study of the history of the India voyages more difficult, but contemporary accounts allow some insight into the conditions of these voyages.

The king paid for the building and maintenance of his ocean-going ‘naus’. These ships were built at the Lisbon shipyard, the Ribeira das Naus, which included warehouses, foundry and powder factory. The maximum life-span of these ships was just three round-trips, and many ships did not complete even one return trip.

In 1600, even if only two out of four vessels completed the round trip, the king would make a handsome profit, since the cost of building and fitting four ships was about 5% of the total return brought by the two successful returners.

When Portugal became a part of Spain in 1580, English and Dutch ships and merchants were no longer accepted in Lisbon, which impelled the Dutch to seek their own trade route to India, and before 1600 Dutch ships were already in India.

The Portuguese were forced to change their sailing times in order to avoid Dutch and English privateers and pirates, and by doing so they lost more ships to bad weather.

It is estimated that Portugal suffered 219 shipwrecked East Indiamen between 1498 and 1650, roughly 20% of the total leaving Lisbon.

Richard Flecknoe, an English Catholic priest and a favourite of D João IV, commented in 1650 that “not one Portugal ship of three returns safe from that voyage, whilst not one in 10 of the Hollanders ever miscarries”. One problem was that in both Spain and Portugal, seamen were virtual social outcasts … “cobblers alone sometimes jostling with them for bottom position” in the social hierarchy.

Even senior naval officers were treated with disrespect because Portuguese land-based ‘fidalgos’ and soldiers regarded themselves as socially superior to their colleagues in the sea services – the total opposite to social attitudes in England and Holland.

Contemporary accounts of shipboard life show that 200 people living cheek by jowl led to an increased risk of disease and the conditions were ideal for rats, lice, fleas and cockroaches. And one of the most common finds in wrecks of Portuguese ‘naus’ is fine-toothed flea combs.

In comparison with Dutch or English ships, Portuguese ships were very dirty. Crew and passengers defecated and urinated in all corners. Boredom and lack of space generated quarrels and fights, and personal accounts show that seasickness was a major difficulty.

The inbound voyage was worse than the outbound as cargo and merchandise was piled high everywhere. Returning ‘naus’ were dangerously overloaded.

In 1993, the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia identified debris on the bottom of the River Tejo, near the fortress of São Julião da Barra to the west of Lisbon. The wreck proved to be that of the Indiaman “Nossa Senhora dos Mártires”, which was lost in September 1606.

The coast adjacent to the fortress is notorious for shipwrecks and at least 13 other wrecks have been found there. Among the thousands of artefacts recovered, there were about 2,000 from the “Mártires” including a small piece of the hull, from which archaeologists were able to project the size and design of the ship.

In March 1605, four ships (including “Nossa Senhora dos Mártires”) left Lisbon for India and arrived in India on September 28.

Loaded with pepper, they left for the return journey to Lisbon on January 15, 1606. As “Salvação” and “Mártires” sighted mainland Portugal, a southerly storm blew up. “Salvação” soon ran aground in the sandy bay of Cascais where most of the crew and cargo were safely recovered.

For two more days, “Mártires” withstood the storm but as her anchors began to drag, the captain decided to head towards Lisbon. In the narrow channel, “Mártires” lost her rudder on a shoal and was propelled by the current onto the rocky outcrop of São Julião da Barra where she foundered.

Over the next days, the whole of the northern shoreline (A Linha) was black with peppercorns and thousands of bales, barrels, kegs and sea-chests. To the people who rushed to take advantage of this catastrophe, it seemed that it was not a single ship but a whole fleet that had been wrecked. Amongst the flotsam, all that remained of one of the biggest ships in the world, jostled together more than 200 corpses, noblemen, seamen and slaves.

“Nossa Senhora dos Mártires” is so far the only Portuguese Indiaman whose discovered wreckage was not completely looted by the attentions of amateur divers and professional treasure hunters.

Her wreckage and remains remind us that many people paid a high price for their part in the ‘Carreira da Índia’, and for the one short moment in history when rich Portugal was the envy of the western world.

Much of the material for this article is drawn from the book “The Pepper Wreck”, by Filipe Vieira de Castro (2005).

By Lynne Booker
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Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

Departure from Lisbon Harbour of the Fleet for the Indies 1592 by Theodor de Bry
Fortress of São Julião da Barra