The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 16, 2003
Time Off

Heroic endings
Manohar Malgonkar

CHRISTOPHER Columbus and Afonso de Albuquerque. Both were like instruments of destiny more than creatures of flesh and blood. One goaded by an obsession to discover an earthly paradise, carried out amazingly daring voyages into the unknown and blundered into a new continent. The other, charged by his king only to set up trading posts on the sea route to India conquered bits of territory in India itself. Never before, since the Christian era began had any other person matched their achievements.

Both were driven by their dreams, bold as pirates, fanatically stern in enforcing their will on their subordinates and ruthless to the point of genocide. But they were intensely godfearing, too, and staunchly, almost pathetically, loyal to their monarchs who had financed their voyages: Columbus to King Ferdinand of Spain, Albuquerque to Dom Manoel of Portugal.

So it is natural to ask: how were these fantastic supermen heroes rewarded by their kings whom they had served so nobly? Christopher Columbus was one of the very few sailors of his time who believed that the earth was spherical in shape. It therefore seemed quite logical that, to reach the fabled ports of India and China, you had to sail directly westwards. He was, of course, right in this assumption, but no one at the time knew that a vast land-mass spanning an arc of the globe from pole to pole lay in between the Americas.


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That was how, when, on October 12, 1492, and after 70 days at sea, Columbus actually touched land, he believed that he had reached Japan, on the edge of Asia. Actually, it was an island now called San Salvador in the Hispaniola group. So when, convinced that his mission had achieved its aim, he returned to Spain and to a hero’s welcome, he already had a cut-and-dried plan for yet another expedition to reach India. King Ferdinand for his part, was ready to finance such a venture. In his enthusiasm, Ferdinand even agreed to sign a contract which Columbus had drawn up that ten per cent of all profits that might accrue from the newly acquired lands would be passed on to Christopher Columbus.

That contract was entered into when both parties to it believed that the purpose of these voyages was the setting up of Spanish outposts on convenient locations along the route to the Orient. So Columbus would be entitled to a ten per cent share of the income of these outposts. What his voyages had actually achieved was to bring unimaginable vast chunks of a new continent under Spanish ownership, to be thrown wide open to being plundered by almost anyone who cared to cross the seas and take whatever he wanted. There followed a virtual stampede by fortune-seekers from all over Spain. The untapped wealth of a rich continent poured into Spain to make it the richest nation in Europe. And Columbus claimed ten per cent of it as his share.

King Ferdinand sought to buy him off by giving him an estate in Castille, which offer Columbus turned down. Meanwhile, the Spanish settlers who had emigrated to the new lands were perpetrating the most horrendous excesses on their original inhabitants. It was these barbarities — or rather, Columbus’s severities in suppressing them, that caused his undoing.

The stark fact is that the sailors who went on these voyages were mainly from the drunks and vagrants of Spanish cities and convicts from jails pressed into service. They were contemptuous of authority and insolent. They were not easy to control.

In the year 1500, and at the end of his third voyage, Columbus found himself in absolute control of Hispaniola. He had been afflicted by arthritis and, as some say, been losing his mind. He was so horrified by the way his fellow Spaniards, now settled down in the islands, treated the inhabitants, that he sent an urgent request to the king to send him a judge, to try their offences. That judge, one Franscisco de Bobadilla, arrived in the month of August. He was appalled by what he saw: seven Spaniards dangling from a gallows. All had been hanged by the orders of Columbus de Bobadilla’s first act as the Judge in Hispaniola was to put Columbus in chains. A few days later, he had Columbus shipped to Spain, still in fetters.

The humiliation, coupled with his malady, must have broken Columbus’s spirit. On reaching Spain, he was put in jail for a time. He complained to a friend: "There is no one so vile that he does not think of insulting me."

It took him another year of persistent efforts to be sent on yet another voyage of exploration. When he returned from it, he was already crippled by arthritis, and still nursing his grievance against the King. He died on May 20, 1506, aged 55.

Even as in Spain, Columbus lay dying, across the border in Portugal, an armada such as Europe could never have seen before, was waiting to set sail: 23 ships manned by 1500 fighting men under the command of a battle-tested soldier who was also a proficient seafarer, Afonso de Albuquerque, who was 56 years old. He was to be styled ‘Captain-General of the Indian Ocean’ and, on reaching India become the Viceroy of Portuguese India, which then comprised of two trading posts.

The sea route to India had been found eight years earlier, and since then several Portuguese ships had been sent to India and beyond on trading missions. They had been so staggeringly profitable that King Dom Manoel had decided to make the passage to India safe for his ships. And this was the task of Albuquerque’s expedition.

For centuries, trade between Europe and Asia had been an Arab monopoly. They had built walled and strongly garrisoned towns at strategic points along their coast from which they could attack ships of rival traders. Dom Manoel had ordered Albuquerque to seize these Arab-held strongholds. His task-force sailed from Lisbon at dawn on April 6th, 1506.

The mission was insanely ambitious. It just didn’t have enough manpower to take fortified military bases by storm. Albuquerque took a couple of undefended localities and put their populations to the sword. But against their intended objectives, such as Socotra and Ormuz, their attacks were repelled again and again. Two years after they had set out, as Albuquerque was about to order yet another assault against Ormuz, his captains told him that they would refuse to obey him.

Perforce, Albuquerque gave in. He took his battered ships and their weary and dispirited crews to a Portuguese trading post in India.

Nearly a year later, with ships back in trim and their crews rested, Albuquerque was on his way back to the Arab coast to resume his attacks when a local warlord called Thimmayya approached him with a sensational proposal. Goa, the most prosperous port on the west coast was so lightly garrisoned that force such as Albuquerque commanded could take it with ease. What was more, the people of Goa were so fed up with their oppressive rulers, the Sultan of Bijapur, that they would welcome a change.

Albuquerque did not hesitate, with Thimmayya as guide, he sailed into Goa’s port and took the island with astonishing ease — without losing a single man.

And so Albuquerque changed the course of history. His star rose dizzily: he fought off an attack by the Sultan’s army to retake Goa, and then sailed off farther east to seize the islands of Mallacca and the Moluccas where the best spices came from. He returned to Goa to fend off yet another invasion by the Sultan’s army and ruled Goa like a king, thus giving validity to his empty title of Viceroy.

Then, more powerful and confident than ever before, he turned right back to his given task of taking Ormuz and Socotra before returning home. He had been already away for eight years.

The years of incessant campaigning had wrecked his health but his spirit was buoyant, and he conquered Ormuz after a desperate battle. Socotra, his last target, still remained. Then he would go home. That was the time when he received a letter from his king rebuking him for wasting time and money on conquering domains in the east instead of confining himself to his given tasks.

Shocked to the core, Albuquerque turned in his tracks and made for Goa, where after all, he was the Viceroy and could live in honour. Then, within sight of Goa’s shore, he hailed a passing shore-boat and learned that he was no longer the Viceroy. The king had dismissed him and sent a replacement.

He died as his ship was entering Goa’s harbour, sitting on his Captain’s chair, on December 15, 1515, and was buried almost furtively. Fifty years later, his nation decided to honour him. They dug up his grave and took his body to be reburied in Portugal.