I was fortunate to be able to attend the public lecture ‘From 1498 to Magellan: Memories and Archives’ by Ângela Barreto Xavier, researcher of the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (ICS, UL) and a Visiting Professor of the Cunha Rivara Chair, Goa University. The lecture was held on July 23 at the Casa Basilio Dias riverfront premises of the Centro de Lingua Portuguesa- Camões.
In previous columns from a while ago, I have mentioned more than once how revelatory and insightful her lectures have been to my understanding of Goan and world history. I was truly sorry that my schedule didn’t permit me to attend her most recent lecture series ‘The Government of Difference in the Portuguese Empire (15th to 18th centuries)’.
In her Panaji lecture, Barreto Xavier invited us to imagine how the so-called voyages of ‘Discovery’ (‘Discovery’ being a loaded term, apparently provoking heated debate among contemporary academicians in Portugal and elsewhere) would have been viewed in the Iberian peninsula in the late 1400s and early 1500s, before what she terms “the tyranny of historical memory” coloured that perception forever. In other words, how were they viewed before they began to yield such disproportionate profit to the powers that bankrolled them.
And apparently the evidence seems to suggest that the voyages were seen at least by the common populace (judging from accounts in literature and theatre from that time) as a colossal waste. The focus until then had been on a land-based expansion of territory, and such ambitious (hare-brained even, as some may have thought then) plans for charting new courses in unfamiliar waters to seek ‘new’ lands so distant from home, were seen as an extravagance.
That feeling persisted even in the early years of the Estado da Índia and Carreira da Índia. Although the profits were colossal, the risks were exorbitant as well. The morbidity and mortality rate from shipwrecks, skirmishes, scurvy and tropical disease was extremely high. Barreto Xavier told us that a saying prevalent at the time translated thus: “When it comes to India, one man gets rich; but a hundred die and twice as many get poorer.”
That saying could apply just as well to the India of today, don’t you think?
Barreto Xavier also reminded us that the much-celebrated circumnavigation voyage of the Earth (1519-22) was not actually completed by Ferdinand Magellan (born Fernão de Magalhães) as he was killed in a skirmish on the island of Mactan (in today’s Philippines); it was completed by Juan Sebastian Elcano. Also, the expedition wasn’t meant to be a circumnavigation when it set sail from Spain heading west; it was thought it would be round trip, returning the way they came. But the unforeseen vastness of the Pacific Ocean (which got its current name from Magellan) dictated the change of course.
The credit for the circumnavigation seems to have another contender in South-East Asia (although Barreto Xavier informs me that the historical evidence doesn’t support it): Enrique of Malacca.
Enrique (Malay name Panglima Awang) was ‘acquired‘ by Magellan as a slave in Melaka (Malacca) in 1511 at the age of fourteen, possibly on account of his ability to speak Malay and other local languages and accompanied him on the circumnavigation voyage. A month after Magellan’s death, he presumably left the expedition to set sail for home ie Malacca, although there is no clear evidence of this. Indeed, there is no further mention of him from then on. But if he did succeed in getting home, he would have been the first to circumnavigate the globe.
Both, the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore and the Maritime Museum, Malacca that I visited, give Enrique much prominence. At the museum in Singapore, there is a statue of him, with the carefully-worded caption “In memory of Enrique de Malacca, who contributed greatly in the first circumnavigation of the world 1511-1522.”
Magellan had provided in his last will and testament that Enrique be freed upon his own death, although he was only allowed his freedom a month later. The relevant portion of Magellan’s testament is also highlighted in the museum.
It also plays on loop a short film documentary on Enrique (also called Henry the Black, Enrique el Negro, Enrique de Cebu). He is celebrated in verse as having “embarked upon the greatest adventure ever to circle the globe, the final frontier; To explore strange New Worlds, To seek out new life and civilisations”, and with shades of Star Trek here: “To boldly go — where no man has gone before.”
The Muzium Samudera (Maritime Museum) in Malacca (incidentally housed within an elaborate floating replica of Flor do Mar ‘Flower of the Sea’, the Portuguese nau or carrack used by Afonso de Albuquerque in its short lifespan from 1502 to 1511, and presumably the very vessel he commanded during the conquest of Goa in 1510) also has, apart from a statue of a very youthful Afonso de Albuquerque, a lifesize representation of Enrique de Malacca.
It was interesting to learn from Barreto Xavier’s lecture that Magellan’s expedition included among its crew from several disparate parts of the world, an unnamed Goan sailor, who she thinks could have been a slave. Perhaps he too was an ‘acquisition’ by Magellan, who did spend eight years in Goa, Cochin, and Quilon (or Coulão, the old seaport city on the Laccadive coast of Kerala) from 1505 onwards. He certainly would unwittingly have been the first Goan to clock so many nautical miles. So could we also celebrate his ‘contribution’ to the circumnavigation, just as Malacca does with Enrique?
I was pleasantly surprised to find, prominently displayed at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum, an oil-on-canvas painting, apparently dating to the late 18th century, artist unknown, titled ‘Sailor with Goa in the distance’. As you can see, it portrays a dark-skinned man in a ‘caxtti’ standing by the Panaji riverbank of the Mandovi.
The caption below the painting elaborates further: “The region of Goa on the western coast of India was captured by the Portuguese in 1510, and became a major trading port.
Under the figure is the Portuguese word ‘marinheiro’, which means sailor. He gestures towards the mouth of the Mandovi River. On the opposite shore, at the base of the hill, is the Reis Magos church. At the top of the hill is the Aguada fortress.”
I tried to ascertain more about the painting from the museum staff, but had no luck. The caption obviously should read ‘Reis Magos fort’, and not Aguada. But wouldn’t it be interesting to know who painted it, and how the museum acquired it?
A clue is provided by two other similar oil-on-canvas ‘Goa’ paintings in the same style, dated “around 1785-1800” and ascribed to a “private collection, Portugal”, one depicting a “Brahmin woman”, the other titled ‘Gentio de Angarca, Gentia de Pano’ (Man in Angarkha, Woman in Pano). The paintings complement a splendid display of costumes, jewellery, and furniture from Goa.
So while we may not necessarily circumnavigate, Goans and their cultural legacy do get around!