Da gama and ibn majid

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Unit 2 – Exploration and Conquest, 1500-1600

Unit Question: How have migrants and those they encountered viewed each other?

Document 1


This account of Vasco da Gama preparing and sailing for Calicut in 1498, from G. R. Crone’s The Discovery of the East (St. Martin’s, 1972), emphasizes the importance of Ahmed Ibn Majid, a prominent Indian Ocean navigator of the day, who was hired by da Gama in the Swahili port of Malindi. Ibn Majid’s navigational skills assured the success of Portuguese entry into the Indian Ocean world.

”Unlike the other ports visited, Malindi was Persian rather than Arab in character and had an independent king. The Portuguese were much impressed with its appearance and setting: “The houses are lofty and well whitewashed, and have many windows; to land-ward are palm groves, and all around maize and vegetables are grown’, all of which reminded them of their distant homeland. The son of the king, who was incapacitated, welcomed them warmly, the elderly Moor acting as interpreter, but da Gama, growing a little more wary, twice refused a pressing invitation to visit him ashore. Interviews were at last arranged, the Captain-major in his boat just offshore and the ruler in a palanquin at the edge of the sea.

Da Gama’s reluctance to land was due to a warning from Indian traders that the Moors were not sincere in their protestations of friendship. This was probably not disinterested, for they had their own reasons for fearing too cordial relations between the Portuguese and the men of Malindi. Da Gama also believed that he had deliberately been prevented from making contact with certain Abyssinians in the town. Nevertheless, the king was sincere in his overtures for friendship and in fact gave most valuable assistance which went far to assure the success of the whole enterprise, entertaining members of the crews and allowing them to replenish their stores. In particular he had several tanks made from timber joined together with coir twine and caulked with pitch which were installed in the ships and proved to be more watertight than the customary water barrels. But most important of all, he provided a skilled pilot for the crossing of the Indian Ocean.
The chroniclers call this man Malemo Cana, but it has been shown that this was a corrupt form of his title, ‘master of astronomical navigation’, and he was in fact one of the leading Arab pilots of the day and the author of numerous navigational treatises and sailing directions, Ahmad Ibn-Majid. That the King of Malindi should have persuaded so distinguished a pilot to assist—indeed that he should have been on the spot at precisely the right moment—was certainly fortunate for da Gama. Later, when the consequences of the Portuguese intrusion into the Indian Ocean were only too clear to the Arabs, the story was circulated that Ibn-Majid had made his bargain in a bout of drunkenness.
Despite local warnings that the right season for the crossing was some weeks away—the south-west monsoon not being due until July—da Gama was now eager to depart, and after further festivities he put to sea, carrying with him a royal officer seized at the last moment as a hostage for one of the convicted men. Despite the warnings against haste, the crossing to India was uneventful, no doubt due to Ibn-Majid’s skill, and the sight of the North Star once again above the horizon served to raise the crews’ spirits. After twenty-one days at sea and having passed through the Maldive archipelago, they sighted at a distance of twenty-four miles the coast of southern India with the lofty wooded slopes of Mount Eli in the background. Owing to poor visibility, Ibn-Majid was at first unable to recognize their precise position, but two days later he brought them to an anchorage off a village seven miles to the north of their objective, the city of Calicut.

There da Gama remained several days while the astonished ruler of Calicut, generally referred to as the Zamorin, pondered the next step. Calicut was then the centre of a small, semi-independent state, nominally subject to the great Vijayanagar kingdom of southern India. As the most considerable trading port on the Malabar coast it was frequented by merchants and skippers from countries as far apart as Arabia and China. The Zamorin had thus a more acute problem to face than the rulers of the East African coast.”

Document 2
Epidemics in New Spain

This list, created by Peter Gerhard and based on material in Mexican archives, was published in 1972 (Cambridge University Press). It shows estimates of the devastating decline of the indigenous population of New Spain (Mexico) because of diseases brought by immigrants from Europe and Africa.

1520­1. Hueyzáhuatl (probably smallpox), began on the coast near Vera Cruz in May or June 1520, reaching Tenochtitlan in September and spreading over much of the country. Great mortality.

1530s. Many die from disease, especially in the hot country on both coasts, to a lesser extent inland. Plagues reported in 1531,1532, 1538.

1545­8. Severe cocoliztli spread everywhere, with greater mortality in coastal areas.

1550. Mumps in Tacuba and elsewhere, many deaths.

1559. Plague similar to that of 1545­8 but less serious.

1563­4. Various diseases of epidemic proportions in valley of Mexico; great mortality at Chalco.

1566. Cocoliztli, especially on Gulf coast.

1567­68. Plague at Teguantepec.

1576­81. Great cocoliztli or matlazáhuatl (probably typhus) began in April 1576, spread east­west from Yucatán to Chichimecas. By late 1576 300,000 to 400,000 were dead and the disease was spreading, aided by famine. Affected both lowlands and mountain areas, with greater mortality in latter. By October 1577, the disease was less virulent; in December 1578, it was reported to have stopped altogether. Same disease returned in August 1579, afflicting both Indians and Negroes, but with fewer deaths. Still going on in April 1581; many Negroes dead.

1587­8. Cocoliztli at Mexico, Toluca, Tlaxcala.

1590. Tlatlacistli (influenza) ­ many deaths.

1591­2. Plague beginning in the Mixteca, where it was quite virulent, and spreading to Pacific coast.

1592­3. Various diseases in valley of Mexico; many children died.

1595­7. Plague (several diseases?), with many deaths near Toluca; spread, with less mortality, to Oaxaca and Guatemala.

1601­2. Cocoliztli at Sochimilco.

1604­7. Epidemic in valley of Mexico, especially among Otomies, with many deaths.

1615­16. Various diseases in valley of Mexico accompanied by drought and famine.

1629­31. Cocoliztli with high mortality, especially in valley of Mexico.

1633­4. Plague in Mexico City ­ many deaths.

1639. Measles in Mexico City ­ many deaths.

1641­2. Cocoliztli with drought; more severe in 1642.

1659. Measles with high mortality in valley of Mexico.

1663. Widespread plague with drought (various diseases), afflicting both Indians and Spaniards.

1667­8. Several diseases in spring of each year, high mortality.

1692­7. Several diseases, beginning in valley of Mexico, with many deaths; spread to Lower California in September 1698.

1714. Widespread fever: over 14,000 deaths in New Spain.

1731. Matlazáhuatl reported at Churubusco.

1736­9. Severe matlazáhuatl (probably typhus) began in Tacuba late August 1736, reached Cuernavaca early February 1737, spread all over New Spain; notable mortality in Michoacán and Oaxaca, although there were pockets (Nochistlan­Teutila, Guayacocotla­Yagualica) which were not afflicted. It had disappeared in some places by the summer of 1737, but continued in others; reached Lower California, 1742; Sierra Gorda, 1743­4. 200,000 deaths.

1761­4. Typhus and smallpox in Mexico City and elsewhere; 25,000 deaths in Mexico City, ‘many’ at San Luis Potosí.

1768­9. Measles at Mexico City; many children died.

1772­3. Matlazáhuatl in the valley of Mexico with much mortality.

1779­80. Measles and smallpox; 18,000 deaths in Mexico City.

1788. Plague in Mixteca Alta.

1797­8. Smallpox at Mexico City, Puebla, Orizaba, Oaxaca etc. Over 10,000 deaths.

Document 3


This excerpt, from Jonathan Israel’s European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550­1750 (Oxford 1989), describes forced migrations of the Jewish populations of Europe in the sixteenth century. Expelled from several kingdoms and territories, the Jews were compelled to settle distant cities in segregated “ghetto” communities. Although this helped preserve the essence of Judaism, it also excluded Jews from activities in the larger society.

”The century 1470­1570 thus witnessed the near-destruction of Jewish religion, learning, and life in western and central Europe. Open allegiance to Judaism was now entirely extinguished in Spain, Portugal, Italy south of Rome, the Netherlands, and Provence outside the Papal territories of Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin. And in Germany and Italy, where the last remnants persisted, Jewish life had suffered a drastic contraction. By 1570, the Jews had been cleared from every major German secular territory except Hesse, and from every Imperial Free City of any importance except Frankfurt. What was left was a much reduced remnant largely confined to the ecclesiastical states of the Empire and some, though not all, of the principalities of northern Italy.
Economically, the role of the Jews had been reduced to an extremely narrow span of functions. As money-lenders they still had a certain significance here and there. William of Orange was one of Europe’s great men who turned to Jews in this period to help assuage his need for cash, even before he embarked on his fateful struggle against Spain: in September 1563 he borrowed 20,000 Frankfurt gulden for six years at 5 per cent interest from the Jewish money-dealer Wendel of Deutz, who lived in the village of that name outside Cologne. But, beyond money-lending, the Jewish role in western and central Europe had become altogether marginal practically everywhere. . . .

The great influx into Poland and the Levant moulded a preponderant central mass of the Jewish people which was German- or Spanish-speaking in lands where non-Jews spoke neither German nor Spanish. This was one factor lending unity and cohesion of outlook while, at the same time, interposing distance between Jewish culture and that of the surrounding populace. Among the spiritual centres of mid sixteenth century Jewry, the most important was not Cracow, Salonika, or Jerusalem but Safed, in Galilee, which, owing to its flourishing textile industry, at this time had more than twice the Jewish population of Jerusalem.

The quickening of spiritual activity in the Holy Land communities, and the recently arisen ascendancy there of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and German immigrants, helped tighten the links between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi zones and reinforced the overall cohesion of Jewish culture. As conditions changed in western and central Europe, from around 1570, these Galilean influences spread westwards, fusing with local trends which display a clear affinity with those in the Levant, at any rate in Italy, by as early as 1550.

In Italy, the radical reorientation of the mid sixteenth century was caused less by the influx of immigration from Spain, Portugal, and the Balkans (though this was a factor) than by the programme of ghettoization and the upsurge of conversionist zeal and propaganda emanating from the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Before 1555, Italian Jews did not dwell in ghettos and had participated if not fully, then extensively, in the intellectual pursuits of the Renaissance, including philosophical debate. Now this was impossible not only due to the much intensified ideological assault which denounced Judaism, as one scholar has put it, as ‘theologically inconsistent, idolatrous, irrational and immoral’, but also because of the ghetto itself.

The ghetto, as an instrument of the Counter-reformation, was specifically designed to segregate Jews from Christian life—to reduce contact at every level—and this it certainly did. But while the ghetto was a mark of humiliation, intended to remove Jewish influences from Italian life, this powerful cultural device enhanced Jewish political and educational autonomy and powerfully boosted the vitality and comprehensiveness of Jewish culture.

Document 4

This letter from King Affonso of Kongo to the king of Portugal was written by João Teixeira, probably an Angolan scribe educated by Portuguese missionaries at Mbanza Congo, the capital of Kongo. The letter expresses how Portuguese merchants undermined the structure of this African community. Affonso requests support for continued expansion of Christianity in Kongo and help in stopping the trade in slaves.

”Sir, Your Highness [of Portugal] should know how our Kingdom is being lost in so many ways that it is convenient to provide for the necessary remedy, since this is caused by the excessive freedom given by your factors and officials to the men and merchants who are allowed to come to this Kingdom to set up shops with goods and many things which have been prohibited by us, and which they spread throughout our Kingdoms and Domains in such an abundance that many of our vassals, whom we had in obedience, do not comply because they have the things in greater abundance than we ourselves; and it was with these things that we had them content and subjected under our vassalage and jurisdiction, so it is doing a great harm not only to the service of God, but the security and peace of our Kingdoms and State as well.

And we cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the mentioned merchants are taking every day our natives, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives, because the thieves and men of bad conscience grab them wishing to have the things and wares of this Kingdom which they are ambitious of; they grab them and get them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is the corruption and licentiousness that our country is being completely depopulated, and Your Highness should not agree with this nor accept it as in your service. And to avoid it we need from those [your] Kingdoms no more than some priests and a few people to teach in schools, and no other goods except wine and flour for the holy sacrament.

That is why we beg of Your Highness to help and assist us in this matter, commanding your factors that they should not send there either merchants or wares, because it is our will that in these Kingdoms there should not be any trade of slaves nor outlet for them. Concerning what is referred above, again we beg of Your Highness to agree with it, since otherwise we cannot remedy such an obvious damage. Pray Our Lord in His mercy to have Your Highness under His guard and let you do for ever the things of His service. I kiss your hands many times. At our town of Congo, written on the sixth day of July.”

João Teixeira did it in 1526.

The King. Dom Affonso.

Document 5

In 1550, Nicolas Lancilotto, an Italian Jesuit priest in South India, wrote to St. Ignatius Loyola (who founded the Jesuit order) in Rome complaining of licentiousness and concubinage in Asia. Thirty years later another Italian Jesuit listed current racial categories in Portuguese India as “reimol” (European), “mestiços” (European-Indian), and “castiços” (European father and mestiço mother).

”Your Reverence must know that the sin of licentiousness is so widespread in these regions that no check is imposed on it, which leads to great inconveniences, and to great disrespect of the sacraments. I say this of the Portuguese, who have adopted the vices and customs of the land without reserve, including this evil custom of buying droves of slaves, male and female, just as if they were sheep, large and small. There are innumerable Portuguese who buy droves of girls and sleep with all of them, and subsequently sell them. There are innumerable married settlers who have four, eight, or ten female slaves and sleep with all of them, and this is known publicly. This is carried to such excess that there was one man in Malacca who had twenty-four women of various races, all of whom were his slaves, and all of whom he enjoyed. I quote this city because it is a thing that everyone knows. Most other men, as soon as they can afford to buy a female slave almost always use her as a girl-friend (amiga) besides many other dishonesties in my poor understanding.”

Document 6


Michael D. Coe, a modern historian, offers reasons why such a small force of Spaniards was able to conquer the Aztec. In this excerpt from Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs (Thames and Hudson, 1962), Coe argues that rebellion, disease, brutal tactics, and superior weapons aided the Spaniards in their victory.

”How was it that a tiny force of about 400 men had been able to overthrow a powerful empire of at least 11 million people? First of all, there is little question that the weaponry of these men of the Renaissance was superior to the essentially Stone Age armament of the Aztecs. Thundering cannon, steel swords wielded by mounted horsemen, steel armor, crossbows, and mastifflike war dogs previously trained in the Antilles to savor the flesh of Indians—all contributed to the Aztec downfall.

A second factor was that of Spanish tactics. The Spaniards fought by rules other than those which had prevailed for millennia in Mesoamerica. To the Aztecs, as Inga Clendinnen has noted, ‘battle was ideally a sacred duel between matched warriors’; in fact, before the Aztecs waged war on a town or province, they would often send them arms to make sure that the contenders were so matched. The ‘level playing field’ meant nothing to the Spaniards, whom the Aztec warriors perceived as cowards—they shot their weapons at a distance, avoided hand-to-hand combat with native braves, and took refuge behind their cannons; the Spaniards’ horses were held in far higher estimation! Equally incomprehensible and thus devastating to the Aztecs’ defense was the Spanish policy of wholesale terror, so well exemplified by the act of Cortés in cutting off the hands of over 50 Tlaxcallan emissaries admitted in peace into the Spanish camp, or the massacre of vast numbers of unarmed warriors at the order of the terrible Pedro de Alvarado, while they were dancing in a feast.

Thirdly, the role played by thousands upon thousands of seasoned Tlaxcallan warriors—the deadliest enemies of the Triple Alliance—can hardly be overlooked. Not only were they vital to the defeat of the Aztec Empire, but they continued to serve as an auxiliary army in the conquest of the rest of Mesoamerica, even participating in the takeover of the highland Maya states.

But most significant of all was that invisible and deadly ally brought by the invaders from the Old World: infectious disease, to which the New World natives had absolutely no resistance. Smallpox was apparently introduced by a black who arrived with the Narvaez expedition of 1520, and ravaged Mexico; it had decimated central Mexico even before Cortés began his siege. Along with measles, whooping cough, and malaria (and perhaps yellow fever as well), it led to a terrible mortality that must have enormously reduced the size and effectiveness of Aztec field forces and led to a general feeling of despair and hopelessness among the population. Given these four factors, it is a wonder that Aztec resistance lasted as long as it did. The completeness of the Aztec defeat is beautifully defined in an Aztec lament:

Broken spears lie in the roads;
we have torn our hair in our grief.
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
are red with blood.

Worms are swarming in the streets and plazas

and the walls are splattered with gore.
The water has turned red, as if it were dyed,
and when we drink it,
it has the taste of brine.

We have pounded our hands in despair

against the adobe walls,
for our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead.
The shields of our warriors were its defense,
but they could not save it.”

Document 7


This recent excerpt shows that Hernando De Soto’s expedition from Florida to the Mississippi Valley from 1539 to 1543 was unsuccessful in creating an empire for Spain. In Mississippi, de Soto portrayed himself as a Great Sun, the regional term for leader. Population of the region declined sharply after 1550 because of epidemics. The excerpt is from Lynda Shaffer’s Native Americans before 1492 (M. E. Sharpe, N.Y., 1992).

”By the spring of 1542, de Soto thought that he had mastered the system of alliance networks that characterized the moundbuilding region and began to claim that he, himself, was a Great Sun. When he had been powerful, local rulers came to him offering tribute, hoping to forge an alliance with him against their enemies. But by this time de Soto’s ability to attract allies was withering away. Already he had lost half of his men and all but forty of his horses, and he was still losing men and horses at a steady pace. Furthermore, after his best interpreter died, de Soto no longer wanted to lead his army into unknown territory for fear that the expedition would get lost. He was then in what is now Arkansas, so he returned to the western bank of the Mississippi River with the intention of going back to Spanish bases in Cuba in order to get reinforcements and supplies.

Before he could leave, he had to find a town on the Mississippi River with abundant provisions where his men could spend the summer constructing seaworthy vessels to take them down the river and across the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba. The larger towns in Arkansas had now turned against him and were denying him their supplies so that he would be forced to leave their territories. He tried sending runners far afield saying that he was a “Child of the Sun . . . and whence he came all obeyed him, rendering him tribute.” One of his messengers managed to go as far south as Quigaltam, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, in what is now northern Mississippi. (Some authorities believe that the Natchez, who lived in this location in the eighteenth century, were the descendants of the Quigaltam people.)

Although de Soto’s attempt to manipulate the local system failed miserably, it did provoke a reply from the ruler of Quigaltam that is one of the most revealing statements ever made about Mississippian politics. Quigaltam had one of the largest and most thickly settled populations in the Mississippi Valley. A Spanish account from the sixteenth century indicates that its principal town had some 500 houses and that its paramount chief could mobilize some thirty or forty thousand warriors. Although this estimate of his forces may be exaggeration, there is no doubt that he was a major power in the region between the Lower Mississippi Valley and the Gulf of Mexico and that he had no intention of submitting to de Soto’s demands. He replied to de Soto as follows:

As to what you say of your being the son
of the Sun, if you will cause him to dry
up the great river, I will believe you:
as to the rest, it is not my custom to
visit any one, but rather all, of whom
I have ever heard, have come to visit me,
to serve and obey me, and pay me tribute,
either voluntarily or by force. If you desire
to see me, come where I am; if for peace, I
will receive you with special good-will, if for
war, I will await you in my town; but neither
for you, nor for any man, will I set back one

A Chinese emperor could not have put it better.”

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