“Hasty critics, who see the 15th and 16th centuries from the prism of their ideological convictions, particularly the ones with a crypto-Marxist pedigree, have tried to call The Tragic History of the Sea (as well as The Travels of Fernão Mendes Pinto) a sort of Counter-Epic in which they only accentuate what they designate as the negativism, cruelty, frantic wickedness and covetousness of the Portuguese Navigations and Conquests.” João Palma-Ferreira (1930-1989) wrote these lines in his book Textos e Ensaios (1984). The occasion was a brief essay about the classic The Tragic History of the Sea, the sort of oddball book he specialized in. Ever since I discovered him last I’ve been learning to pay attention to what he says about literature, history, and literary history. He wrote novels and diaries, translated (including Hemingway, Henry Miller and Ulysses), and taught literature in Spain, which perhaps accounts for his encyclopedic knowledge of the picaresque novel: his book Do Pícaro na Literatura Portuguesa opened up lots of new worlds for me – I had never heard of Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache, but now I want to read him. In 1987 he also published Vida e Obra de Dom Gibão, a self-conscious picaresque novel into which he pours everything he knows about the genre, making it hyper-inter-textual and self-referential: it comes with hundreds of footnotes where he has to explain to you every allusion and reference you’d otherwise miss, because you’re not as clever as he is. Trust me, you’re not. He was also providential in rescuing from oblivion books that were never part of the canon: novellas in the vein of Cervantes’ Novelas ejemplares, an anonymous satirical feuilleton popular in its time, an anonymous chivalry romance, a fantasy novella starring a devil, and other oddities that didn’t sit well with Portugal’s repressive Inquisition. I like reading him because it’s like stepping into a parallel Portuguese Literature. But for all his knowledge, diligence and devotion, no one knows or reads him anymore. “Margined and obscure,” the title of one of his books of essays, could easily apply to him. I do my best to remedy that injustice.
To my knowledge, and to my disappointment, he never wrote at length about The Tragic History of the Sea, a compilation of texts bibliophile Bernardo Gomes de Brito (1688-1759) put together in two volumes in 1735 and 1736. It’s an unusual book, so unusual I don’t know of another similar to it. At the height of the Portuguese Discoveries, there were dozen of ships en route to India and dozen more returning to the metropolis, its compartments filled with spices and other exotic goods that Europe craved. Although the Portuguese tend to idolatrize the 15th and 16th centuries, things were never quite as glorious as the version promoted by official history. It’s not so much that there was a bad side – which this book doesn’t even cover in great detail: slavery, forced conversions, extortion – it’s more that there was an incompetent, greedy side that was the main cause of the Empire’s decline and that few like to remember co-existed with the good if short-lived side. This book contains twelve “relations” of shipwrecks, from 1552 to 1601: most of them occur off the Western Coast of Africa, and there’s one in Brazil too. What titillated Marxist scholars so much in the 1970s, motivating Palma-Ferreira’s response to them, is that the causes of shipwrecks allowed them to create the so-called “Counter-Epic” that confronted much of the exalted rhetoric of official history, which is best represented by Luiz de Camões’ epic poem The Lusiads (far more critical of the Discoveries than many of its patriotic appropriators imagine). The Tragic History of the Sea, truth be said, does cast several shadows on the whole enterprise; what we glean from its narratives is that most of the ships were lost because of: ignorant, inexperienced pilots; rotten ships full of leaks in dire need of repairs; and a greed that translated into excessive cargo for what the ship could safely carry, making it vulnerable in sea storms. Covetousness! Corruption! Evil dead white men getting their due! And colonialism to boot! You have to forgive the Marxists for not jumping at the opportunity. In the 1970s there was an edition with commentaries by José Saramago, before he was a famous novelist, but already prestigious inside left-wing intellectual circles: you can imagine what he made of a book like this. Around the time American scholar Rebecca D. Catz was initiating her decades-long achievement to prove that TheTravels of Fernão Mendes Pinto was a pioneering critique of European imperialism (and why not?), whereas traditional scholarship tells us that it’s the autobiography of a vicious pirate. I think there’s ample room for all these interpretations. As a historian of literature, though, Palma-Ferreira was more interested in how the narratives related to literary currents, how they “come from a tradition deep-rooted both in the medieval novella and the prestige of travel literature and the exotic.” In fact the popularity of these narratives is due to the “generalized curiosity in the realism and veracity of the navigations and conquests” that the Discoveries had awakened in Portugal at the time. With dozens of thousands of people boarding ships to faraway lands, there was a hunger for knowledge of everything related to sea-faring. Because of the country’s engagement with nautical affairs, it’s no wonder the shipwreck news, because of their tragic content and sense of dramatic narrative, became favorite reads and continued to seduce new readers long after the decline of the Empire.
It’s interesting that Palma-Ferreira italicizes realism and veracity. Portugal, in part because of the Inquisition, was slow in developing fictional genres. Although rich in poetry and claiming a theater that enjoyed a golden age in the 16th century before decaying because of censorship, it doesn’t have a good track record of what we could call long narrative fiction: some novellas, nowadays forgotten, some chivalry romances, no picaresque romances, no novels until the 19th century. In the case of the picaresque, however, it could be said that its counterpoint was the shipwreck narrative. If by picaresque we understand realistic narratives about ordinary people at odds with a fatalistic world and determined to survive at any cost and by whatever means, many of the narratives The Tragic History of the Sea share similarities with that genre, although he goes so far as to say that they prefigure modern reportage, with their objective description of facts and ordeals. Without rejecting the book’s “documental richness” to history, he stresses that nowadays its “value is eminently literary.” And that’s how I personally prefer to read them.
The first of the narratives is the most famous, emblematic of the whole genre and of tremendous importance to Portuguese literature. It narrates the shipwreck of the galleon S. João and what befell the crew members who survived and made their way into the African continent looking for a place of civilization that could help them return to Portugal. The ship’s captain, Manuel de Sousa Sepúlveda, is an immortal figure now and even makes a cameo in António Lobo Antunes’ The Return of the Caravels. It’s also a good example of why I think these narratives constitute 16th century versions of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
In 1552 Manuel de Sousa’s ship sails from Kochi (in India; Portugal had a settlement there since 1500, its first in Asia, founded by explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral), full of merchandise to sell in European markets. But a sea storm, the ship’s weight and its bad shape caused it to suffer damage somewhere along former Natal (nowadays KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa), and a group of people got inside a boat and got ashore hoping to find the materials to repair the ship. They left just in time because next it fell apart and cracked into several parts, with over 500 people aboard. “More than forty Portuguese and seventy slaves died on jumping out; the others came to land swimming above and below the sea, as it pleased Our Lord, and many of them wounded from nails and wood. Four hours later the galleon was in pieces, without a seven-feet-sized bit showing up, and everything the sea cast ashore, with a great tempest.” And we’re told its riches were unique. “And the cargo that was in the ship, for the king and others, they say was worth a conto in gold, because since India was discovered no ship sailed thence so rich.” Some 500 people are alive, including Manuel de Sousa’s wife and children. Without materials to fix the ship or build a new one, they form a counsel and decide what to do, first take care of the wounded, then meet the natives to barter food. “So they made their trenches from some arks and barrels, and were there twelve days, and in none of them no black from the land came talk to them; except in the first three nine natives showed up in a clearing, and stayed there two hours without having any speech with us; and as if astonished they left. And two days hence it seemed good to them to send a man and a native from the same ship, to see if they found some negroes who with them wished to talk to barter some supplies. And they walked there two days without finding a living person, only some emptied straw huts, so that they realized the negroes had fled with fear, and then returned to the party, and in some houses they found arrows sticking out, which they say is their war sign.” Not long after natives resurface, with a cow, willing to trade it for iron; the captain offers nails, which they at first seem interested in, but then another group of natives dissuades them and they leave with the cow. After twelve days on the beach, waiting for the wounded to recover, they decide to set out and run up long a river that will take them to Mozambique, where Portuguese can help them. And so the 500 people go, about 180 Europeans and the rest slaves and natives in their pay. “In this manner they walked for a month with many efforts, hungers and thirsts, because in all this time they ate nothing but rice rescued from the galleon and some fruits from the bush, for no other supplies in the land they found, nor anybody who sold them; wherever they went through so great an aridness that it can’t be believed or written.” And so people start dying and disappearing, or simply left behind. “In all this time they could have walked a hundred leagues; and because of the great detours because of rivers they hadn’t yet walked thirty leagues up the coast; and already then they had lost ten or twelve people; just a bastard son, ten or eleven years old, who, already too weak from hunger, he and a slave who carried him on his back, were left behind. When Manuel de Sousa asked for him they told him he had stayed behind around a half a league back, he nearly lost his mind; and thus he lost him for thinking that he was moving in the rear-end with his uncle Pantaleão de Sá, as it sometimes happened; and immediately promised five hundred cruzados to two men who went back after him, but there was none who would take them, because it was already close to night and because of the tigers and lions; because as soon as some was left behind he was eaten; so that he was forced not to abandon the path he was taking and thus leave his son, where he lost his eyes. And so you can see the travails this nobleman endured before his death.”
And as they continue their journey they’re constantly attacked by natives. “There was so much work, of keeping watch and of hunger and walking, that every day more people passed out, and there wasn’t a day when one or two people didn’t stay on those beaches and woods, for not being able to walk; and immediately they were eaten by tigers and serpents, because of the earth having them in large quantities. And it’s certain that watching these men who each day remained alive, through these deserts, was a thing of great pain and feeling for ones and the others; because the one who stayed told the others who walked away from his company, perchance fathers and brothers and friends, that they go very away, that they prayed for them to Lord God. It caused tremendous sorrow to watch parents and friends unable to aid them, knowing that in a while he’d be eaten by mindless beasts, and if it causes sorrow to whoever listens how much more to whoever saw and went through it.”
Under the circumstances it’s every man for himself, and even though they’re all at risk there are still those who use the situation to make a profit. People can make money risking their lives to fetch water from the rivers; others amass money from selling it at exorbitant prices. Still others sell fish they catch in rivers. It’s extraordinary how greed will manifest itself even in such a situation, when there’s a slim margin of anyone surviving to enjoy the profit, but such is human nature. Morale also runs low, and the will to survive overpowers all other considerations. “For many days now they didn’t feed on anything but fruits they found by chance and toasted bones [??????]; and many times it happened that they sold in the party a snake skin for fifteen cruzados; and although it was dry they threw it into the water and ate it like that.”
The relations with the Africans are always interesting. At one point they come across a native king who rules over two villages; he offers to shelter and feed them the best he can, and urges them not to proceed since there’s another king up ahead who will steal and kill them. This first king, whom they nickname Garcia de Sá, has already met Portuguese before and is considered trustworthy. In fact in hindsight they regret not heeding his request since it doomed them all. Unable to prevent them from moving on, they nevertheless aid him in curbing an uprising in his lands and stealing cattle from an enemy. In hindsight the narrator tells us that the party had already reached the Lourenço Marques river but ignored it and so make the mistake of forging ahead. This is one of the most interesting parts of the narrative to me, because of the native king’s insistent requests that they remain, and the Portuguese’s will to continue, showing even a hint of mistrust and fear that is later shown to have been unfounded.
Going up another river they find more natives and are informed that the a ship with “men like them” had been there recently but sailed away, so they have to wait. It’s also around this time that Manuel de Sousa starts showing signs of dementia and what nowadays we’d call paranoia. After hiring a few Africans to help them cross a river he starts thinking they’re trying to kidnap them and pulls out his sword, prompting the rowers to jump out of the ship. Hunger, despair and fatigue were taking their toll on them. Reduced to 120 people by this time, they meet more natives who take them to the kind they had been warned against. Here their downfall is completed. The king welcomes them, shelters them, feeds them, but immediately starts plotting a way to steal and enslave them. Although a large number, they agree to be divided across several villages to be better served, and thus weakened they’re slowly overpowered. When they agree to hand the Africans their fire arms Manuel de Sousa’s wife, D. Leonor, remarks in terror, “You’ve given up the guns, now I give myself for lost along with all those people.” And so it is. They’re stripped naked and robbed of all their belongings. “Here they say that D. Leonor did not herself be stripped, and that with fists and slaps she defended herself, because she was such that she would rather be killed by the natives than be seen naked in front of people, and there’s no doubt that her life would have ended there if it hadn’t been for Manuel de Sousa, who begged her to let them undress her, who remembered her that they were born naked and, since it pleased God, that she be naked. One of the great travails they felt was watching two small boys, their children, crying in front of them, asking for food, without anyone being of aid to them. And D. Leonor seeing herself naked, she threw herself on the ground and covered herself up with her coils which were very long, digging a hole in the sand, where she fit up to her waist, without ever getting up from it. Manuel de Sousa then went up to an old maid of his, who had a torn scarf yet, and asked it to cover D. Leonor, and she gave it to him; but she never again wanted to get up from that place, where she fell into when found herself naked.” Not long after one of his sons dies, then his wife and other son. After digging their graves he sets out into the woods and is never seen again. Not long after a Portuguese shows up, hearing that countrymen are held captive: their ransoms are paid and they’re taken to Mozambique, arriving in May 1553.
This is one of the twelve narratives. The others don’t deviate a lot from it. Longer or shorter, they follow identical structures – usually there’s a storm (in the last narrative the cause if a naval battle with Dutchmen) that aggravates factors like excessive weight and lack of maintenance; the survivors make it ashore and then spend months walking around inside the African continent, looking for other whites and terrified of the natives, dying of hunger and thirst, and constantly fighting off attacks. The details of violence and squalor vary; there are amazing descriptions of people reduced to eating bugs and whatnot to survive. Manuel de Sousa’s figure haunts many of the following narratives, especially because several of the shipwrecks occur around the same area, so the survivors meet natives who knew. This attests to the popularity of the event and the swiftness with which they were written down and distributed in Portugal. Besides these harrowing tales of survival, there’s a wealth of detail on flora, fauna, native customs and nautical science that makes these narratives priceless documents. A lot can be learned about 16th century European-African relationships.
Why do I compare this book to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? I think they have many contact points: human horror; extreme conditions; insanity; dehumanization; the fragility of civilization. If that doesn’t convince you to read this book, here’s a cool detail: Guimarães Rosa, the Brazilian author of the The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, is a huge fan. This is from an interview he gave in 1966: “And I’m going to tell you something I never told anyone: what influenced me the most, maybe, what gave me courage to write was The Tragic History of the Sea.” A huge lover of classic Portuguese literature because of its richness of vocabulary, there are also basic similarities between this collection of shipwreck news and his huge novel: both depict groups of people in the middle of jungles, far from civilization, constantly fighting enemies in order to stay alive. It’s worth pointing out that Rosa’s novel in Portuguese is called Grande Sertão: Veredas. Sertão (big desert) is also the word the 16th century Portuguese used to name the African hinterlands.
C. R. Boxer (1904-2000) a lusophile historian who authored many books on Portuguese history related to the Discoveries, translated several of the narratives into English. He doesn’t credit Bernardo Gomes de Brito, but it’s worth noting that this isn’t the original edition. First of all, it only includes 7 narratives (it’s still over 500 pages!); secondly, it contains shipwrecks not included in Gomes de Brito’s version. For instance, this reviewer mentions the shipwreck of the São João Baptista that I had never heard, but it sounds pretty thrilling. There exist countless narratives that were left out. Over the years some have been published in different forms. The tireless João Palma-Ferreira, for instance, devoted an anthology to this genre called Naufrágios, Viagens, Fantasias & Batalhas. So see the positive side: you’re going to get translations of narratives we don’t even have access to. Reset assured, however, that the crown, the Manuel de Sousa Sepúlveda shipwreck, is included in Boxer’s edition, and that’s a great reason to buy it.