Chapter 1

My Early Life in Lisbon

Captain Dacosta’s diary illuminates the lives of African Portuguese sailors during the Age of Discovery. In this chapter, he examines his early life as a slave, then as a sailor. DaCosta mixes in short observations of society, religion, and urban life.



Once, only the ocean would have me. So much time has passed, and until now my time in Japan has been one of quiet labor, safe from drowning or shipwreck. My life started aboard Portugal’s ships. They gave me a chance of escape, and brought me to the shores of Japan, this strange and exquisite island. Along that strange journey, I have written down my story, and the stories of others; I have filled my books with drawings of my sailors. Lashing my fortunes to Portugal’s ships has given me life.

Perhaps the water still calls out to me, even here in Nagasaki. This diary is an illustrated account of my travels–my memories as a young man, as a navigator, and finally as a captain on a trade mission to the East.

Capitão Avãgelho let me escape from Lisbon. The man was my owner for many years, and trained me to be a navigator and sailor. One day, he came stumbling back to the ship, carrying some new maps of the world. He laid hands on them in the city; I guessed the original owner did not want to part with them. They are beautifully drawn, with details we have sought for many years, and some terrors we hope to avoid. Parts of these world maps are missing; the gaps in the ocean fill me with dread, and a quiet hope. To think that we had charts of God’s entire earth was incredible; even my home on the gold dream coast of Africa is there.

They are all black lines and careful notes. How Avãgelho came upon them he will not say, but his knuckles are bloody.


I knew my life would be one of travel on the rough sea; my mission is to draw more of those missing places on those maps. I am willing to take great risks; any ship that brings me away from Portugal and gives me new luck to draw upon is welcome.

On land, people are cruel; life as a black African can be intolerable. We are called all kinds of names– moriscoBlack more, even infidell. We are treated as animals by monks and freedmen alike. On the ships, there is a different atmosphere; we are more often judged on our strength and willingness to step foot in dangerous ports overseas. As navigators, with maps and astrolabes, we can bring our ships to safe harbor in any kind of weather. We all trust this is enough.


The Trade in Carved Ivory

Depictions of trade goods from Africa began appearing in European art around this time.

Dom Miguel de Castro’s servants with a decorated casket and ivory oliphant

Paintings of a Congolese Ambassador’s servants holding a decorated box and carved ivory oliphant.

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Carved Tusk/Oliphant

Carved ivory oliphant from pre-colonial Congo.

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The steady stream of maps and letters from the Jesuits in India and Asia continues. These men of God cannot help but make images of land they think is conquered, even if the lands do not agree. How arrogant. The large numbers of Chinese slaves and servants here in Lisbon could be consulted on these depictions.

Word from our ships speak of monsters, satyrs, even giants in newly discovered lands. Dutch engravers have become wealthy creating pictures of Indians, writing down their languages, and drawing their beasts. But how much in these reports is true? When I compare what I have read in the letters about Africa to what I have seen with my own eyes in the Gold Coast and Luanda, I know much of it to be fancy. The tropical fevers bring strange dreams, perhaps.

The trip to Asia is a constant conversation among the sailors. The Moor Bernalldo de Sousa, my right arm, is always quick to perform for them. He makes their eyes dance with reports of spice and gold on the other end of the trip. In the men’s eyes, I remain the leader, eyes on the horizon. de Sousa tells them what I cannot.

We decide we must see for ourselves.

I often see those wretches come off the ships; they stream in from slave markets in Lagos. What a pitiful sight. They have been removed of clothing—standing, squatting, waiting to be sold. They sometimes wail; the sound is a lance into my heart. I too was a slave, but my star is rising as a navigator, and the old goat Capitão Avãgelho is senile enough to let me get escape.


I dimly remember my own taking years before. I also came to Lisbon through the slave markets as a boy. I cried, just as they do, for my mother, for any god listening. The slavers, of course, split us up as they pleased. That is how I, a black African, came to be in Portugal; separated from my mother at an early age. There is an emptiness when I try to imagine her, but little else.


That is to be these people’s fate as well. Could you say I was complicit in their taking? The religious say, “Surely they are better off now.” They have the Lord, and if He is not enough, the Jesuits can take His place. Surely, they say, this life, however tortured, is better for their souls than the one they left in dark Africa. But only a free man can have these thoughts.

I wonder if my mother is better off. Every day, I hope to meet her again in a crowd, or coming off the docks, or from a storehouse. What tiny thing, what trinket, could I have saved from her, to remember her by?

One of every 10 here in Lisbon is African. I walk to and from the docks, passing through the stone arches in front of the water. Ship builders on the water’s edge work on carracks. The buildings are salty, lying well-rooted to the hills.

There is a great stone courtyard on the ocean’s edge, piled with goods for trade—sometimes it is also filled with slaves. It is always filled with freedmen looking for work. The low hills in the distance are dotted here and there with trees, and the spires push up and out above it all, crying for attention. The walls of the city show sometimes between the red and yellow stone buildings. In the right light, it is a beautiful place, and built by many who will never enjoy it.



Art and illustrations showing the people and culture of Portugal during the Age of Exploration.

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