Chapter 3

My Voyage to Macao, via Mombassa and Cochin

DaCosta's observations and illustrations from the Indian ocean crossing, in 1596-1597. In this chapter, he writes about the start of their voyage, the jobs on the ship, and the terrible sicknesses that befall most sailors.

It is in the year of our Lord 1596 that the São Catarina has set sail. Our voyage is underway. After some delays in finding men and provisions, the voyage to Macao and Nagasaki has begun.

Capitão Vassallo talks unceasingly of tricking more men aboard in Cochin, to help us through to Macao. The sailors and many of the men-at-arms see that his mind is weakening. He fails to make allies among them, and the constant demands on our rations is a burden on our sense of peace.

The Master of the ship, d’Amota, his Under-Master Jorge Paez, and a man named Viegas are three of Vassallo’s more trusted men. They stay in his wobbly shadow, as these kinds of snakes are accustomed to, and my numbers quietly grow larger. Already, de Sousa openly sides with me; we have sailed together for many years. This will not end well, but it is too early to make my move. Once we are clear to Mombassa and the Indian Ocean, we can act.


The first bold hero who to India’s shores
Through vanquish’d waves thy open’d path explores,
Driv’n by the winds of heav’n from Afric’s strand,
Shall fix the holy cross on yon fair land.



Images showing ships, along with scenes from the sea, created during the Age of Exploration.

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The ships I navigate on carry a mix of outcasts. There are many African men, freed and slave. There are also white Portuguese, and the occasional Moor. Other ships carry Chinese, Indians, Persians, men from the New World. What name do you put to such people?

We have clearly separated jobs and roles on this ship; I will try to explain them.

The captain is responsible for the command of the ship. These men are chosen by the Crown, many times after they pay for the title with large sums of money. In the case of Vassallo, these captains are often unqualified and poorly fit for life on the water. Only greed motivates them. Capitão Vassallo bought his way aboard the São Catarina; he has little experience managing a ship of this size.

Rather than understanding his place as a figurehead, Vassallo has already begun to argue even my small navigation decisions in front of the men. My navigation skills, ones he praised when we met for the first time in Lisbon, have mysteriously become useless and incorrect. The argument is his right as captain, but what kind of man has not the sense to let his piloto navigate? We spend much time negotiating with him over every small course correction; others have begun to comment on his actions, his forgetfulness, his unsteadiness on the deck. I think this will be more problematic as we continue. The São Catarina is still afloat; our bow is headed towards the East.

After our much-beloved captain, I am second in command, the Piloto; responsible for the navigation and functioning of the ship. Next to me is my soto-piloto, de Sousa. He assists me in all matters, and watches the compass when I cannot.

The Master of the ship is Vassallo’s man, Fabiam d’Amota. He and the Under-Master, a nasty, rude man named Jorge Paez, are in charge of the sailors, and the cargo. We give each other room, but he resents me for being black, for being a man over him. His skill with navigation and reading maps is too poor to be worth much on the compass, and despite his entreaties for me and de Sousa to train him, we will not give him help.

The Boatswain is Vincente de Brito. He looks after the rigging, anchors, hull, and other matters on the deck.

Next comes Neves, the Escrivão (Clerk). Neves is in charge of all records. He takes an inventory of our foodstores, possessions, and cargo at each port. Neves and Vassallo are old friends, and Neves makes sure that the captain’s cargo goes untouched. He watches us constantly and hardly does any work on the decks. Instead, he sticks close to the hold and the food. Neves detests my reading and writing. The man sometimes sneers when I am drawing pictures on deck, and has asked the other men about my books. Does he feel threatened? When we must speak about ship matters, I make sure to entertain him with jokes and stories to remove suspicion of my motives, even briefly.

The Guardian (Quarter-Master), runs the grumets (ship-boys). It is a wonder how he manages to stay outside at all times, in all weather. His endurance is legendary among the boys, and they would follow him over the side of the ship if he asked. His crew takes on all sorts of dirty tasks whenever he yells.

We also carry Men-of-Arms, soldiers destined for our forts and holdings in India and the African coast. The Portuguese among them are paid well for their abilities, and many have other technical skills besides fighting.

The sailors are the most numerous among us, and the roughest. So many of them are unskilled fools, given to the ocean life by accident, trickery, or bribery. The best sailors are only interested in the shorter Brazil voyages, and in returning home quickly. We must often pick up new crew members at our ports, and I have also seen captains visit the jails and prisons to recruit more unwilling hands for their voyages.

We also carry store-keepers, stewards, the marinheiros, Bombardieros (Constables), priests, and their pages. It is a crowded affair.



A carrack was a three- or four-masted ocean-going sailing ship which developed in the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe. The name “carrack” likely derives from an ancient middle-eastern Akkadian word for a type of river barge. Carracks were used by the Portuguese for trade with the African coast and finally with Asia and America from the 15th century before evolving into the galleon of the 16th and 17th centuries.

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I should think the best opportunities for these brave sailors lie now in the Far East, in Macao and Cochin; getting there will mean much danger and malaise. The trip is brutal on our bodies and minds; lesser men die on the way, and even greater men can drown. Men and ships leave for Asia and don’t return for years, some for good. We come back fewer, always poorer in health, often near death.

The vapors on the ship give us blackened gums, weaknesses, and I’ve even seen old wounds reopen themselves, as if freshly cut on our limbs. The sailors call it mal de Luanda; perhaps the pictures in my diary will suffice. I took the time to draw Paçanha as he lay suffering on the deck. I’m afraid; my hands shake, gripping the rails as I see vital men low with pain. My health suffers; seeing your friends die is not easy. I try to make a few quick sketches so as not to forget their faces. If I cannot ease their suffering, at least I can hide my own.

Living on the water with these men is strange and hearty; I think we roughly match other crews on the Asian trade route. As time drifts, however, the men sicken with mal de Luanda. We will add sailors from the ports in Mombassa and India. Now, on towards Africa, where I am sure there will be deserters, more dead, and more new blood. There are over 90 of us.

Jesuits pretend to minister to my sailors. They only feel the lure of converts and a little Japanese gold. We bide our time, and keep thoughts of overthrow to ourselves.

I love the sound of the water, he way the sea and sky blend together on an overcast day, and the creaking of the wooden hulls, the ship talking to use as we cut a path over the ocean. I have gained skill and some stature on the ships, and for an African, it is nothing to be laughed at. My eye is firm; being able to read, and therefore negotiate with the captain over our progress, has given me a reputation as trustworthy among the men. To them, the maps are simply lines on parchment, not real as coastlines or ticklish sand beneath toes. To truly read maps, to carry men across oceans, is a mythical skill. I take special care to demonstrate it for the captain. The sailors, my men, see this and quietly offer support for the coming mutiny.

The lure of the ocean—it first brought me out of bondage. Now, it teaches me to navigate over it, towards freedom. In mapping it, in navigating it, I take command of a destiny that stole me away from my home and mother.

July, 1596

Trading in Mombassa

For a port in this part of the world, Mombassa has great life. The land rears up in places, and palm trees hang together, as if watching for incoming ships. Small canoes and larger ships come and go; trade moves from the Ottomans and Egyptians up north, and among the Africans on the coast.

Some of the local Muslim traders came today to share food and discuss business. While we ate, they shared stories of old Mombassa, and how it came to be this large. Malindi was the Portuguese outpost in this region for some hundred years; the Portuguese decamped from there, and moved down the coast to the port of Mombassa.

From isle to isle our trading vessels roam,
Mozambique’s harbour our commodious home.
If then your sails for India’s shore expand,
For sultry Ganges or Hydaspes’ strand,
Here shall you find a pilot skill’d to guide
Through all the dangers of the perilous tide

These men know the waters around their home, and my ship is but a visitor. The Portuguese try to squeeze this coast, but it will wriggle free any way it can, like silverfish in an old net.


East Africa

Images related to the Portuguese control of trade posts along East Africa, including Mogadishu, Kilwa, Mombassa, Mozambique, and Madagascar.

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September 1596


We entered the port of Cochin this past week. The captain is too sick to walk. He gives orders from his bed, telling anyone who will listen that he was chosen by the King to lead this mission. The men laugh at him. Some have asked me, discreetly, how long he can continue to claim the captaincy in that condition.

We visited St. Francis Church. Vasco De Gama died in the year of the Lord 1524, and was buried here until about 50 years ago, when his body was sent back to Lisbon. The Maharajah of this place is called Keshava Rama Varma. He works closely with the Portuguese here, and our trade routes are all the better for it.

The monks said prayers for the souls of my friends Pedro and Affonso de Loronha, Gomez Taviera, Ruy de Sousa, Symão Torres, and Pero Fernandez. The transit of the ocean between Mombassa and Cochin has been rough, and many men have fallen ill with mal de Luanda, other ailments, and one accident in the rigging. We lost 33 men in the crossing to Cochin, and another eight who passed away after we made port.

The surgeons looked after the men as best they could, but we were all afflicted to a degree. Twelve of the dead were black sailors. Neves took an account of their belongings and noted any last wills and testaments they provided. The priest in Cochin had them all buried in the church graveyard. Cold comfort after their aid in the journey here.

Those Indian converts to Christianity in Cochin have been terribly abused by the Church. Impossibly, the Inquisition has reached across the deserts of Arabia, to this lush garden. Even the white Portuguese in Cochin joke bitterly about the Christian Church. They say only the most idiotic religious graduates are allowed to become Inquisitors.

Like in Lisbon, they tell the joke:

Que cosa es Inquisicion?
Un santo Cristo, dos candaleros, y tres mayaderos.
What makes an Inquisition?
One crucifix, two candles, and three fools.

The people of Cochin are varied, all colors and shouting as they conduct business under the hot Indian sun. There are a small number of Jews and Africans living in Cochin, wrapped up in the flow of the town. It’s the lascarim who intrigue me most, however. These men sign themselves away for years at a time on the voyage to Japan and Macao. What privilege is there in leaving their homeland, such a verdant place? In any case, we enjoy their company, especially their wonderfully accented Portuguese.

We left Cochin in the morning, under a grey sky. The lascarim signed to our ship felt the tension among the sailors and crew, and took pains to stay out of the way. In any case, some of them did not speak more than a few words of Portuguese; perhaps that was for the best, because of what happened next.

That evening, after a rough line east, we cooked our meagre meals on the deck and began preparations for the night. The captain, in his infinite wisdom, decided that the day’s rations were to be cut after one of his dangerous commands was ignored earlier. After all the long days at sea after Mombassa, our dead friends, and furious sun and rain beating down on us day after day, cutting our food rations was too cruel. But it was fortuitous. We were looking for any excuse to abandon him—after all this time, we needed only lead the cow to the slaughter.

The captain is usually too sick to walk. He gives orders from his cabin, telling anyone who will listen that he was chosen by the King to lead this mission. The men laugh at him. Some have asked me, discreetly, how long he can continue to claim the captaincy in that condition. Vassallo was red in the face as he hobbled around, looking for a challenger to his order. My men avoided his eye, but looked to me to navigate this treacherous water as well. They knew I would not contain my anger forever. As is custom, the sailors and ship-boys split into three groups between myself, the Master, and the Under-Master to eat.

While we bent over the cooking pits around the mast, I quietly gave the signal to Abrão to set our plan in motion. For some time now, my men had been speaking quietly with the Africans, the sympathetic Portuguese, and others among the crew who felt Vassallo was unable to continue. We knew it was time to act.

A choppy sea mumbled under an overcast, moonlit sky. It was enough to mask our movements and whispered commands. We pretended to sleep, some men on the decks and others below, hands near stored weapons; they were mostly knives, axes, and pikes. Later in the night, a small group of us rose quietly; moving past snoring soldiers, we woke the trustworthy ones. The weapons were handed out. Some others we took from the sleeping soldiers. And so we took the ship.

The São Catarina groaned. As if preordained, a sickly moon broke free beneath the low clouds. We walked, first quietly, then forcefully, to the Capitão’s cabin in the stern. Tirstam Duarte Gonçalves was the first to the cabin; a large man, he burst through the door in front of me. As if part of our mutiny, the sea surged beneath the ship, fighting to be heard. Somewhere behind our clotted group, rigging snapped tight; men shouted. The sound of the water fell away, and then the moment of confusion was gone. The Capitão woke to the commotion, groggy and still angry, reaching for a knife. Gonçalves fell upon him; after a few blows, he fell silent.

In the next hours, a cold peace returned; the São Catarina is now under my control. The men have consulted and elected me captain. Those few remaining dissenters have been convinced, through careful threats and promises, to take our side.

An argument over rations became a battle for the ship between those loyal to Capitão Vassallo and the men loyal to me.

Vassallo should have seen his side was lost, but he was sick and blinded by pride. The man would not admit an African could best him so thoroughly, this far from safe harbour. I gave him no choice. My men have been sailing with me for years; our bonds are deeper than his measly portions of liquor or biscuit from Neves the escrivão.

Today we buried Capitão Vassallo and de Veigua at sea. Some of the men standing near the Jesuits crossed themselves; the others spit into the sea.

November, 1596

The People of Macao

We entered the port of Macao this past week. My men spent the day walking the streets of Macao, quietly amazed. There are so many rich women and men in this port. Those Portuguese who live here wear fine-fitting clothes; even servants and maids dress brightly. I saw a group of women here wearing what is called a kimonoe, from Japan. From the amount of it on the markets and in the streets, clearly silks and other finery covered in detailed patterns, flowers, and animals are in fashion.

There is a small Japanese community here. Until recently, they had a poor reputation as pirates on the China Sea. The Japanese daimyo Hideyoshi has started a system of official permits, called the red seals, to stop piracy and violence in these waters, but it continues on occasion. Because of the bad blood between the red seal ships and others in the region, we are instead trusted by both Chinese and Japanese to deliver and trade goods to Nagasaki. Each country has heavy regulations on each other regarding trade and negotiation; Portugal makes much profit by acting as a middleman in their petty rivalry.

There are some thousands of slaves among the Portuguese here in Macao. Most of them are Africans and Moors, but there are also many Koreans and Japanese who belong to the Portuguese. Walking in some parts of this city, I see how deeply Portuguese intentions have been duplicated, all over the world. The daimyo is constantly complaining to the Chinese here, demanding that the trade of Japanese slaves be put to a stop, but their edicts fall on so many deaf ears. Lisbon was no different. The market for human bodies stains the earth like spilled ink.

November, 1596

Boxes and Birds

I happened to meet an African here, Luis Menezes. He has collected great power as a trader and broker. He speaks Chinese and Portuguese; the city administrators and functionaries quietly trust him with all manner of delicate tasks and trade negotiations with the foreigners. Upon our arrival, he sent word that he would like to meet me, so on the agreed day we went up to his home.

Menezes has a great house; the main rooms hold colorful birds in cages. He told me their names, over and over, but I could not note them down. What surprised me the most, however, was his staff. Menezes had Japanese and Korean slaves throughout his home. To see an African so wealthy like this in China—even the men accompanying me to the house could not believe it at first. From what I can gather, this arrangement is uncommon, but not unknown.

The two of us spoke for some time, throughout the afternoon. Our conversation was mostly about trade with Japan. He implored me to acquire certain items for him, in addition to the traders’ regular invoiced goods from Japan. His wife Tiao Chan, a Chinese, was particularly desirous of an inlaid box decorated with peacocks and birds. Menezes had not been able to find a Japanese one of sufficient quality for her in Macao. I will see what I can do to help them in Nagasaki, and expect the same on our return trip.

The man has not visited Japan himself; he is intelligent enough to leave dangerous sea voyages to fools like me.

Tiao Chan displayed much keen knowledge of Japanese customs and bits of language, teaching me much about what to expect and how to prepare my men. It impressed me greatly. No doubt much of it came from their servants and business dealings; her other motivations were not clear to me. I spent little time in their household, and know only that she is a force of her own in their small empire.

November, 1597

The Goddess of Macao

I will retell a wonderful tale for you, told by Mei Tiu, one of the Chinese here during our visit. Her Portuguese is excellent, having been a translator for our trade missions for some years now.

While we waited for evening to come, we sat and drank some local tea. She asked me if I knew the story of the name Macao.


Many years ago, Chinese legend tells of a poor woman who lived in the area. She had gone up the coast to market but did not sell a single thing. As the afternoon sun set, she desperately tried to get back to her home. At the docks, the woman asked many junk captains to allow her aboard; none of them would give her passage. She had no money to pay her way, after all. Finally, with some pleading, she found space on a kindly fisherman’s boat.

As they were sailing home, a storm came up, destroying all the other ships and putting the fisherman’s junk in great danger of sinking. In the face of driving rain and wind, the woman stood up on board and commanded the storm to stop. She drove the storm away, almost as quickly as it had risen. When they reached shore, the woman leaped off and walked up from the sea to a hill above the water. There, a beam of light came down and carried her up to heaven. The people of that village built a temple to honor her, calling it Ah Mah.

When the first Portuguese came here, they asked what the place was called. The people replied Ah Mah Gao, or Ah Mah Bay. Our tongues struggle with this language, so we shortened the name to Amagao, or Macao.


I asked Mei Tu if she believed the story. Laughing, she replied that perhaps if I agreed to take her with me on the voyage to Nagasaki, she might prove it.