Return before passing it or never return at all. — Old proverb.
Continuing Portugese Discovery and Atlantic Slavery Begins,
our selection from The Spanish in America by Sir Arthur Helps published in 1855. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Portugese Discovery Begins; Atlantic Slavery Begins.
Place: West Coast of Africa
A contemporary chronicler, Azurara, whose work has recently been discovered and published, tells the story more simply, and merely states that these captains were young men, who, after the ending of the Ceuta campaign, were as eager for employment as the Prince for discovery; and that they were ordered on a voyage having for its object the general molestation of the Moors, as well as that of making discoveries beyond Cape Nam. The Portuguese mariners had a proverb about this cape — “He who would pass Cape Not, either will return or not”; intimating that, if he did not turn before passing the cape, he would never return at all. On the present occasion it was not destined to be passed; for these captains, Joham Goncalvez Zarco and Tristam Vaz, were driven out of their course by storms, and accidentally discovered a little island, where they took refuge, and from that circumstance called the island Porto Santo. “They found there a race of people living in no settled polity, but not altogether barbarous or savage, and possessing a kindly and most fertile soil.”
I give this description of the first land discovered by Prince Henry’s captains, thinking it would well apply to many other lands about to be found out by his captains and by other discoverers. Joham Goncalvez Zarco and Tristam Vaz returned. Their master was delighted with the news they brought him, more on account of its promise than its substance. In the same year he sent them out again, together with a third captain, named Bartholomew Perestrelo, assigning a ship to each captain. His object was not only to discover more lands, but also to improve those which had been discovered. He sent, therefore, various seeds and animals to Porto Santo. This seems to have been a man worthy to direct discovery. Unfortunately, however, among the animals some rabbits were introduced into the new island; and they conquered it, not for the Prince, but for themselves. Hereafter, we shall find that they gave his people much trouble, and caused no little reproach to him.
We come now to the year 1419. Perestrelo, for some unknown cause, returned to Portugal at that time. After his departure, Joham Goncalvez Zarco and Tristam Vaz, seeing from Porto Santo something that seemed like a cloud, but yet different — the origin of so much discovery, noting the difference in the likeness — built two boats, and, making for this cloud, soon found themselves alongside a beautiful island, abounding in many things, but most of all in trees, on which account they gave it the name of “Madeira” (Wood). The two discoverers entered the island at different parts. The Prince, their master, afterward rewarded them with the captaincies of those parts. To Perestrelo he gave the island of Porto Santo to colonize it. Perestrelo, however, did not make much of his captaincy, but after a strenuous contest with the rabbits, having killed an army of them, died himself. This captain has a place in history as being the father-in-law of Columbus, who, indeed, lived at Porto Santo for some time, and here, on new-found land, meditated far bolder discoveries.
Joham Goncalvez Zarco and Tristam Vaz began the cultivation of their island of Madeira, but met with an untoward event at first. In clearing the wood, they kindled a fire among it, which burned for seven years, we are told; and in the end, that which had given its name to the island, and which, in the words of the historian, overshadowed the whole land, became the most deficient commodity. The captains founded churches in the island; and the King of Portugal, Don Duarte, gave the temporalities to Prince Henry, and all the spiritualities to the Knights of Christ.
While these things were occurring at Madeira and at Porto Santo, Prince Henry had been prosecuting his general scheme of discovery, sending out two or three vessels each year, with orders to go down the coast from Cape Nam, and make what discoveries they could; but these did not amount to much, for the captains never advanced beyond Cape Bojador, which is situated seventy leagues to the south of Cape Nam. This Cape Bojador was formidable in itself, being terminated by a ridge of rocks with fierce currents running round them, but was much more formidable from the fancies which the mariners had formed of the sea and land beyond it. “It is clear,” they were wont to say, “that beyond this cape there is no people whatever; the land is as bare as Libya — no water, no trees, no grass in it; the sea so shallow that at a league from the land it is only a fathom deep; the currents so fierce that the ship which passes that cape will never return;” and thus their theories were brought in to justify their fears. This outstretcher — for such is the meaning of the word bojador — was, therefore, as a bar drawn across that advance in maritime discovery which had for so long a time been the first object of Prince Henry’s life.
The Prince had now been working at his discoveries for twelve years, with little approbation from the generality of persons; the discovery of these islands, Porto Santo and Madeira, serving to whet his appetite for further enterprise, but not winning the common voice in favor of prosecuting discoveries on the coast of Africa. The people at home, improving upon the reports of the sailors, said that “the land which the Prince sought after was merely some sandy place like the deserts of Libya; that princes had possessed the empires of the world, and yet had not undertaken such designs as his, nor shown such anxiety to find new kingdoms; that the men who arrived in those foreign parts — if they did arrive — turned from white into black men; that the King Don John, the Prince’s father, had endowed foreigners with land in his kingdom, to break it up and cultivate it — a thing very different from taking the people out of Portugal, which had need of them, to bring them among savages to be eaten, and to place them upon lands of which the mother country had no need; that the Author of the world had provided these islands solely for the habitation of wild beasts, of which an additional proof was that those rabbits the discoverers themselves had introduced were now dispossessing them of the island.”