South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

The Story Of Almeida

Four hundred years ago, the bay where Cape Town now stands was a wild and savage place. The Portuguese loved to see the Cape pigeons, as they called the sea-birds of those waters, and the rocky headland rising out of the waves, for it was a great milestone on their road to India. Antonio Saldanha had even climbed the mountain, by way of the Skeleton Gorge, and from the top looked over sea and swamp and sand-flat and the long lines of mountains beyond. But the Portuguese seldom touched there, and the place had a bad name. And the way it chiefly came to have this bad name is the subject of this chapter.

But to tell it we must go half the world over—to Portugal and the Red Sea and the bar off Chaul, and the little coral islands on the eastern shores of Africa—and I should introduce you to a number of people who lived far enough from Table Mountain, the Sultan of Cairo and the Sheik of Mombasa, and the Russian renegado, Malik Aiyaz, who was governor of Diu, and Albuquerque of the long beard, who wanted to take away Mahomed's coffin, and a number of other outlandish people. For the hero of my story is Francisco d'Almeida, who dined at the king's table and gave him an empire, and fought the Sultan of Cairo and imprisoned Albuquerque and ended his days with a javelin in his throat on the shores of Table Bay.

Vasco da Gama and his friends trod heavily on the toes of the Infidel. The Moor might flash his scimitar over the Mediterranean; but he wore no armour on his back, and his back was the Indian Ocean. Here the Arab was a peaceful trader, he had no rivals and no enemies, he carried no cannon in his ships, and he was welcome at every port. From the Straits of Malacca his lateen-sailed dhows brought the silk and porcelain of China, and from India and Ceylon nutmegs and cloves, cinnamon and rice and pepper. With these he sailed to Ormuz in the Persian Gulf or Jeddah in the Red Sea, and was paid there in Venetian ducats or scarlet camlet, while his goods went in small boats and on camel-back to Cairo on the one side, and Trebezond, Aleppo, or Damascus, or Constantinople on the other. And so the Mamelukes and the Turks got their wealth with which to carry on the war against Christendom. On they went from India to the Eastern shores of Africa, to their own fair white palm-plumed cities, with mosque and minaret, pomegranate and vine, built on the coral islands along the shore, a bright eastern fringe to the black mantle of Africa, and there traded their glazed clay beads and black cotton cloths for ivory and gold and ambergris. The monsoons blew north-east or south-west according to their seasons, and with them sailed the great fleets of Arab dhows, with their pilgrims for Mecca or their spices to Ormuz, like birds migrating in flocks, and as defenceless as birds. With fair winds and fair seas and no rivals, in their coir-sewn boats, they went about their business as peacefully as a mill-wheel over a stream.

It was into this quiet scene that the Portuguese burst, as one of their own writers says, like a famished lion breaking into the fold, with their strong ships built to withstand the storms of the Atlantic, their armour, and their cannons, their crossbows and arquebuses. "They hung round the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea like birds of prey, and wherever the Arabs fled they sought them. Vincente Sodre destroyed a fleet of near two hundred ships and galleys in two days, and Albuquerque sank four hundred vessels under the walls of Ormuz. So great was the panic that the Arabs would no longer sail even on pilgrimage to Mecca, and the Sultan of Cairo could no longer take toll of the pepper that was of old his chief wealth. The Portuguese went everywhere, plundering and burning and massacring; they seized the spice islands and fought the Sultan of Calicut because he favoured the Moors, and plundered the tombs of the Emperors of China. Vincente Sodre seized the chief of the Egyptian merchants and flogged him at the mast, tied a piece of bacon over his mouth and sent him to his master to show him what the Christians thought of the power of the Crescent. Then the Sultan of Cairo swore by the beard of the Prophet that he would allow no more pilgrims to go to Jerusalem, and that he would destroy the Holy Sepulchre and the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, and the Portuguese replied that they would turn the Nile into the Red Sea, and take the coffin of Mahomed out of Mecca.

It was in this great quarrel that Francisco d'Almeida set forth from Portugal four hundred years ago. He was the son of the Count of Abrantes, a valiant knight and a good commander, and with him went his son, Lourenšo, a giant in stature and the best at sword-play and tournament in all Portugal. In all the land there were not enough sailors for the fleet. In one of the caravels not a man of the crew knew starboard from larboard, so that John Homem, the captain, the greatest madcap that ever put out of port, hung a string of onions on one side of the ship and a string of garlic on the other.

"Now," said he, "tell the clodhoppers to onion their helm and garlic their helm, and they'll understand, I warrant you."

There were twenty-one ships with fifteen hundred men-at-arms: such a fleet had never before put out of Portugal.

The king's commands were to clear the Moors from the Indian seas, and build a fort wherever a fort was needed to guard the king's ships and fly the king's flag. So they sailed, merrily round the Cape till they came to the Moorish town of Kilwa, on the eastern shores of Africa, and they anchored before the king's palace. Almeida was wroth with the king because he did not show the flag of Portugal, for the wolf will always find cause for quarrel with the lamb. He demanded an audience in the harbour, and set out with his captains in a boat, clad in the garb of peace, but with coats of mail beneath their cloaks and spears and crossbows hidden away under the thwarts. But the sheik was a man of discretion, aid he sent word that a black cat had crossed his path and he dared not venture forth. Then Almeida swore that "he should see more omens to-morrow than he sees to-day. We will visit them in our true finery," he said; "the Moors have always paid greater honour to our iron than to our gold."

So at dawn, when the light was striking upon the towers of the palace and the minarets of the mosques, the army landed. As it pressed through the narrow lanes the enemy rained stones and arrows and pots of boiling oil from the flat tops of the houses, and the men-at-arms could neither reach them with their spears nor shoot them with their crossbows. But they burst open the doors and so up the stairs to the roofs, and they chased the Moors like cats, running from house to house and jumping from street to street. Imagine the scene if you like—the white city, the flat-topped houses, the throng of spears and morions in the narrow street, Moor and Christian on the roof, scimitar to sword, the one in steel armour, the other in the gay silks of Asia. Then the bursting open of the doors of the inner chambers, the shadowy harems, the quiet courtyards with pomegranate tree and vine and fountain, with steel-clad men-at-arms everywhere killing and plundering, loaded with rare stuffs and great vessels of brass and silver. Then when they had spoilt the place, gathering silk and spices, ivory and ambergris in one great heap upon the shore, they set the town in a blaze while the monks put up a cross and chanted the Te Deum Laudamus.

Then on they went to Mombasa, which stands on a high island, like a great castle surrounded by its moat, a narrow arm of the sea. There the Moors made a better fight, for they had landed some guns from the wreck of a Portuguese ship, and as the streets were steep and narrow, they made barricades and rolled great stones down the slope, while the archers hot the Portuguese from the tops of the houses. But Almeida, with part of his army, got in behind the town and set fire to it and the palace while his son was attacking it from the shore, so again there was massacring and looting and burning, and Almeida sailed away, leaving the cross on the palace roof and "the nest of infidels" smoking to the skies.

To judge those old Portuguese is none of my business: the reader can do it for himself. When he thinks of Tristan da Cunha cutting off the arms of Arab women to get their bracelets, he will find it hard to forgive them. Romance and manslaughter are two sides of a mirror; you can choose which you like; it is my business to look only at one, like the Lady of Shalott. But the moral reader should remember the dungeons of the Saracens where so many Christians languished, as he may read in Don Quixote, and remember also that in those days it was war to the knife between Cross and Crescent. The Portuguese on the right flank of the battle had got round to the back of the enemy and were destroying his supplies and slaying his camp followers. It was Almeida and Albuquerque, not Dom John of Austria, that saved Christendom from the Turk.

But to return, when Almeida, the Viceroy, was fighting the Raja of Cananor and the Zamorin of Calicut, his son Lourenšo was prowling like a hungry lion up and down the coast. Once, with three ships and a brigantine he destroyed a fleet of near three hundred vessels which had been armed by the Zamorin with five hundred brass cannon cast by two Italian renegados. But the Soldan of Cairo was preparing a surprise for the Doms. He collected all the sailors in the Levant and gathered wood at Scanderoon. Scanderoon is in the Mediterranean, and it was a good chance for Almeida that the fleet of the Christian knights of Rhodes met the Sultan's ships as they were bringing the wood to Alexandria and captured some of them. Though in this case "the Turkish preparation" did not "make for Rhodes," all Christendom was then in alliance. The remainder of the wood was taken up the Nile, and then over to the Red Sea on camels, and there Mir Hashim built twelve ships and sailed to find the Portuguese. He and his ally, Malik Aiyaz, caught Dom Lourenšo off the bar of Chaul and sank his ship. We have our last glimpse of the valiant young captain, sitting on a chair by the main-mast after his leg had been carried away by a cannon shot, shouting to his men to fight for Portugal and the Cross. Then said the old Viceroy, "He who has eaten the cockerel must eat the cock"; he sailed down the wind with eighteen ships, caught the Infidels at Diu, utterly destroyed them and fired the limbs of his captives over every town on the Malabar coast. Such was the manner of man Almeida was, a fighter for love of it. When he was not fighting the Zamorin he was fighting the Raja, and when he was off with the Raja, he started a quarrel with the great Albuquerque himself and imprisoned him in Cananor fort.

But now I must come to his end, and the end of my story. The old man lost in his fight with Albuquerque, and, childless and sorrowful and in disgrace with his king, he set out for home in the rotten old ship that his rivals allowed him. It was a sad voyage, a strange contrast to the pomp and glory of his setting out. All the way he nursed forebodings of evil, for the witches followed him in their sieves, and it had been prophesied that he would never round the Cape. As they swung into Table Bay, "Now God be praised," he said, "the sorcerers of Cochin are liars." But he spoke too soon. There was a quarrel between some of his servants and the Hottentots, and in an evil moment he was persuaded to land and punish the savages. "Where are you taking these sixty years?" said the old man as he stepped into the boat. The Bay was white with squalls, the high caravels strained on their cables; a great white cloud lay on the mountain and fell in long streamers like a cataract into the valley; the forests of silver trees gleamed and flashed as they bent to the wind. It must have seemed a place altogether unearthly to the old man. But he went, and with him a hundred and fifty of the flower of his company. They scorned to put on armour to fight with savages; they did not even take with them their crossbows. They landed in the sand at the head of the bay, somewhere near the Salt River on the Woodstock beach, and the Viceroy, as one who still feared evil, bade those in charge of the boats on no account to leave the spot till he should return. And so he walked on gloomily towards the Hottentot village, seeing evil omens in everything, even in the sand that the men shook from their shoes. They found the Hottentot village almost deserted, for the men had gone up the hillside with most of the cattle; but the soldiers gathered together the children and such cattle as remained and began to drive them towards the boats.

Now the wind had risen higher; the air was dark with flying sand, and there was a great tumult behind the soldiers. Then out of the gloom a herd of cattle charged down upon them, with small naked men running and leaping on to their backs and yelling like fiends. They came with the rush of a storm, and from behind the cattle these black and naked devils threw their javelins. The sky rained spears and stones and flying sand. The Portuguese could neither fight nor run, for at every step they sank to the ankle and their foes danced here and there like birds. The points of their javelins were only wood charred in the fire; but they hurled them with such force that they pierced like steel. The soldiers blundered and stumbled on, and when a man fell, a swarm of the enemy were upon him in a moment pounding his head with stones. Dizzy with blows, those who were left staggered to the shore. And now the Viceroy saw indeed the evil conjunction of his stars, for the boats were no longer there; they had sought refuge from the storm near the ships. In their panic some of the men rushed into the sea, and others fled along the shore. The Viceroy stood alone save only George de Mello, his standard-bearer. He was the valiant knight to the end. "Where are those to whom you have done honour now?" said the ensign. "Surely this is the time to repay benefits!" And Almeida turned upon him: "'Tis no time for evil-speaking," he replied. "Those who owe me any favour lie behind me on the sand. Save the king's flag; it is being dishonoured." He spoke no more, for a javelin pierced him in the throat, and de Mello left him there and saved the flag. There he was buried, and fifty more with him, the man who had given the king an empire and been Viceroy of the Indies, among those nameless sand-hills at the watering-place of Saldanha.