HEN VASCO DA GAMA
sailed from the shores of Portugal early in 1498 on his momentous voyage of discovery, he
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did not leave the land without a final private conference with his master and friend, Abraham ben Samuel Zacuto. In the presence of the waiting, tumultuous crowd, chanting a litany, the King’s Astronomer also held a formal official conversation with da Gama as part of the solemn ceremonies which accompanied the departure. Manuel II, who had ascended the throne in 1495, keen on navigation, astronomy and the colonial expansion of his empire, had appointed Zacuto as his Astronomer Royal. The Admiral, under the special guidance of Zacuto, listened carefully and attentively to the scholar’s advice, and gratefully accepted from him a copy of his astronomical tables, a large wooden astrolabe, as well as smaller ones of iron and brass which Zacuto had specially invented for him. Together with other nautical instruments and documents, the master presented his pupil with the copy of a letter brought to Portugal eleven years earlier by Zacuto’s Jewish co-religionists, Rabbi Abraham of Beja and Joseph Zapateiro of Lamego. The letter contained the first known definite information that it was possible to sail to India by rounding the southern coast of Africa and thus pass from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean.
Because of their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, Jews were eagerly sought after as navigators and pilots in the Spanish and Portuguese fleets and as servicemen in the employ of wealthy merchants and shipowners, many of whom belonged to the Jewish faith or practised their religion secretly as Marranos. The Jews had many associations with the sea. Levi ben Gerson, early in the fourteenth century, had invented the Jacob’s Staff which served the purpose of a quadrant. He had invented also that ingenious instrument, the Camera Obscura. Another quadrant introduced by a Jew was that of Jacob ben Makir, after whom it was called “Quadrans Judaicus”. The best-known maps of the fourteenth century came from the Jews of Palma, in Majorca. Jaffrida Cresques, the Jew, is credited with that monument of cartography, the Catalan Map, now preserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale. It is unique in that it added the discoveries of Marco Polo to the contemporary map. Columbus, in his epic-making voyages, used Abraham Zacuto’s Almanac Perpetuus. The discoverer of the New World complained about the “Jew Joseph” who had rejected his proposals to sail west. He referred to Joseph Vecinho, a pupil of Zacuto, whom King John II of Portugal had commanded to prepare a terrestrial globe for an expedition of two members of his household to seek the legendary Prester John, and through him a new route to India.
The ships of the Jews travelled far and wide. They were intrepid travellers. They sought trade and security in distant corners, and their close ties of blood and religion ensured them a sympathetic welcome wherever they happened to alight. Their search for spices, jewels and commerce, whether they journeyed by land or sea, led them into dangerous and peculiar adventures. The native Spanish and Portuguese Jews, in addition to speaking the vernacular of the country in which they lived, were familiar with Hebrew and Arabic and probably with one or two of the Romance languages. Those that had journeyed abroad, and they were many, could also understand and sometimes speak the language of the lands they had traversed. Their fluency in many tongues encouraged the merchants to engage them as interpreters and as agents to foreign courts and for the purpose of discovery of new markets and new lands.
When Christopher Columbus was refused assistance by King John II on the advice of the “Jew Joseph” Vecinho, he pleaded before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain for help. They had spent all their money and pawned all their jewels to pay for the wars against the Moors. Luis de Santagel, a Marrano whose relatives had been persecuted by the Inquisition, came to the rescue of Columbus. He raised and lent the Spanish Treasury 17,000 ducats free of interest. Another Marrano, Gabriel Sanchez, and Juan Cabrero, a gentleman of Jewish descent, also encouraged and aided the brave sea adventurer. On 3 August, 1492, Columbus sailed for Palos. The day before, 300,000 Jews and Marranos had been forced to leave Spain by the cruel decree of the King and Queen, to make their way amongst strange peoples. In the search for freedom, five crypto-Jews joined the visionary Columbus in his mad sea adventure. Hardly anything is known about Alfonso de la Calle. Of Roderego Sanches it is told that as a distipguished personage he was commanded by Queen Isabella herself to make the journey. He stood next to Columbus when he made his first landing. Maestro Bernal, a physician of Tortosa, had faced an inquisitional court two years previously on a charge of Judaising. Another was Marco who also practised as a physician. As was customary on such voyages, the master included an interpreter in the ship’s complement. On his voyage to the west Columbus took Luis de Torres, a cultured scholar who, besides other languages, was well versed in Hebrew, Chaldaic and Arabic. Washington Irving wrote of Luis de Torres as a Jew, but unfortunately he was forced into baptism shortly before he sailed.
For centuries Jews were almost indispensable on mercantile voyages to the East and on journeys of discovery. Hakluyt, in his Voyages, relates that when Sir James Lancaster made the first journey for the Merchants of London to the East Indies in 1600 he was advised by his chief pilot, John Davis, who had returned from the Indies nine months previously in the fleet of Cornells Houtman, to carry a competent interpreter with him. Sir James chose a Jew as a personal body-servant. He had been captured by the English in the Barbary States and had resided in England for many years. Lancaster engaged him as the expedition’s interpreter. They sailed as far as Bantam and Java where the services of the Jew “stood him [Lancaster] in good stead at that time”.
The diplomatic and linguistic ability of the Jews and their forced wandering involuntarily involved them in strange maritime adventures. During Vasco da Gama’s return from his first voyage to India, in September, 1498, he put in at the island of Anchediva, sixty miles from Goa. Whilst there, a boat with a small crew approached, led by a tall European with a long white beard, clad in linen, with an uncommonly fine touca on his head and a short sword in his girdle. He greeted the Portuguese in Castilian. Overjoyed to hear their native tongue and to see a European, they plied him with questions. He informed them he had been sent by his master Sambajo, the Arab Prince of Goa, to negotiate with the Portuguese navigator. They invited him on board and promised him security. He told them his name was Gaspar and that he had been born in Posen, Poland. A local persecution compelled his parents to take refuge in Granada in Spain, whence they had migrated to Alexandria. As a young man Gaspar crossed the Red Sea to Mecca and travelled to India. Captured by slavers on the way, he remained in captivity for many years, eventually gaining his release by feigning conversion to Islam. He settled in Goa as a shipowner, marrying a Jewish woman and rearing a family. Entering Sambajo’s service he had gained much experience at seafaring, becoming in time Sambajo’s admiral.
On hearing Gaspar’s story, Vasco da Gama suspected him of spying for his Moorish master,” seized him, disrobed him and flogged him unmercifully. To escape torture and save his life, Gaspar confessed his Jewish origin and admitted that he had also been sent to discover the strength of the strangers. Resolved to retain a man with such rare qualities, Vasco da Gama promised Gaspar his life if he would baptize himself as a Christian. He who had feigned Mohammedanism did not object to assuming Christianity. Rejoicing at having saved a soul, Vasco da Gama accepted the role of Gaspar’s godfather. When the expedition returned to Lisbon in August, 1499, welcomed by King Manuel II, the Admiral, welcomed with great honours and gifts, presented his protege to his royal master as Gaspar da Gama. The King, pleased with Gaspar’s skill, granted him a charter of privileges and loaded him with many servants and other rewards.
Gaspar served King Manuel II well. He sailed in 1500 with Cabral, who had been appointed as a leader of an expedition and who, on Gaspar’s advice, shipped west on a voyage which led to the discovery of Brazil. He had by now become renowned, one captain writing of him as “a trustworthy man who speaks many languages and knows the names of many cities and provinces, who made two voyages from Portugal to the Indies Ocean and journeyed from Cairo to Malacca, a province on the East of that Ocean. He also visited the island of Sumatra, and he told me he knew of a great kingdom in the interior of India which was rich in gold, pearls and other precious stones.”
Within a few years, Gaspar had sailed round the Cape of Good Hope on a number of voyages. He sailed with Vasco da Gama to the Indies, with Francisco d’Almeida when he went to take possession of India as the first Viceroy, and with Cabral to Calicut and then to Cochin. There he met his wife again, but no inducement would sway this pious and learned woman to leave her faith or Cochin, where the Jews had established a number of synagogues. She negotiated the purchase of thirteen Sifre Torah for 4000 padraos from the son of Dr Martin Pinheiro, a judge of the Supreme Court at Lisbon. Young Pinheiro had brought with him a large trunk of scrolls which had been looted from the pillaged and destroyed synagogues of Portugal. D’Almeida heard of the transaction, confiscated the money, and after severely admonishing Pinheiro, reported the matter to the King.
After the murder of d’Almeida by the Hottentots on Table Bay, Gaspar served the next governor of India, Albuquerque. With him Gaspar made an attack on Calicut. The assault proved disastrous. Albuquerque was wounded and Gaspar was probably killed, for no more references to him are found after 1510. Nevertheless, his contribution to the rise of Portugal as a maritime power, in the few years he served King Manuel II, proved invaluable.
In spite of his fame, Gaspar was possibly not altogether a happy man in the service of Manuel II. Nor were any of the Marranos, particularly the patrician shipowners and merchants. They were in constant danger of losing their riches on a charge of Judaising. Even Abraham Zacuto, although under royal patronage as King’s Astronomer, knew when he bade farewell to his pupil Vasco da Gama on his voyage to India, that his days in Portugal were numbered. He had already experienced the bitterness of exile. On the day before Columbus sailed for America carrying Zacuto’s navigation tables and instruments, the mathematician, together with about 100,000 of his Jewish brethren, had crossed the borders of Spain into Portugal. John II of Portugal did not believe in the enslavement of the Spanish Jews, and declined the gold offered him as a token of their gratitude. He believed in inducing the Jews to embrace Christianity by treating them with kindness. With bundle on back and staff in hand, led by pipers and drummers for encouragement, about another 150,000 Jews struggled towards the ports of Spain to migrate to North Africa, Italy, Turkey, the Kingdom of Naples, Navarre, even the Papal State, and to any other outlandish place which would accept them.
On the death of John II in 1495, his enlightened cousin Don Manuel II came to the throne. An ardent admirer of the sciences and believer in tolerance, he confirmed Zacuto’s appointment as Court Astronomer and would not permit the fanatical friars to incite the people against the Jews. Love, however, changed his noble nature to tyranny. Don Manuel wished to marry the widowed Isabella, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. They promised him her hand on two conditions, one of which was that he exile all the Jews in Portugal, both native-born and Spanish-immigrant. The condition was disagreeable to Manuel as he derived considerable benefits from the Jews, from their gold, commercial activities and knowledge. When the King was awaiting his bride at the border, she sent him a letter saying that she would not set foot upon Portuguese soil unless that country was purged of the “accursed Jews”. Manuel bartered his honour, humanity and his Jews for the love of a woman.
On 24 October, 1496, the King of Portugal issued an edict compelling the Jews to choose between baptism and emigration. His initial mildness in carrying his order into effect lulled the Jews into a false sense of security. Angered by the small number of conversions, he issued a command for all Jewish children under the age of fourteen to be forcibly baptized. Heartrending scenes took place throughout Portugal, for as soon as the children were baptized into Christianity they were unmercifully separated from their parents; and the over-zealous minions of the King did not confine their work to children, but forced baptism upon youths and maidens up to twenty years of age. Greed and fanaticism now entered Manuel’s heart. He desired the Jewish wealth to remain in Portugal and he wanted the owners as Christians. The King deliberately hindered the arrangements of the Jews to leave the country, starved the recalcitrant, and dragged them from their prisons to the churches with ropes or by their hair or beards. Some Jews were fortunate to escape, amongst them Abraham Zacuto, who fled to Tunis and then to Turkey, where he remained for the rest of his life. The vast majority, however, entered Christianity which they, amongst themselves, intensely and fiercely despised. They practised their Judaism secretly with burning tenacity and fervour, praying that they would be granted the means to escape their unhappy lot in order to serve their God in tranquility and peace.