The last voyage of Bom Jesus


The King, the Fugger and the ‘perdido’ nau….
The India run was like no other adventure. The sailors on that Carriera da India which left out from Lisbon March 1533 on the 30 meter long Nau Bom Jesus were a motley collection of priests, sailors, soldados, degredados, nobility and officers, totaling to 250 or so. Only two sets of natural phenomena separated them from life and death on the voyage, not to mention disease. The natural phenomena were the summer storms near the Cape of Good Hope, South of Africa which they would round and then slingshot off in a tangent to ride the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea heading to Cochin and Goa. The distance of 12,000 miles separating Lisbon and Cochin was remarkable in the sense that it not only tested man’s valor and courage, but also his persistence and health. The voyager’s intention was not just to procure all the black gold of Malabar they could lay their hands on, but also make riches in trading the goods their carried on their carrack. The Estado da India was already in conception and a robust trade was in place. And so the Portuguese braved these terribly long voyages, financed by their king and his friends, some of them who were immensely rich, like the Fugger’s of Germany, who by themselves could decide the fate of many a monarchy in Europe.

On the other end of the route, they dealt with rich Indian middlemen. Let it not be understood that the ships came empty and returned full to the brim, in fact they were heavily laden both ways, as trade progressed into the second decade of the 16th century.

The regimento (sailing directions) from the Casa da India situated on the mouth of the Targus were straightforward in the case of the Armada of 1533, a measly set of just seven ships. Round the cape, and proceed to Cochin and Goa. The departure was as planned, in March and the naus or carracks were to berth at Goa by September. I am sure most readers would have assumed that riding monsoon and storm winds was not for the faint hearted, and it was not like one of the modern cruise liner trips. The journey was at best, one which could be termed violent and filled with nightmares of all sorts, one the fear of the unknown brings in. Sailors thus reported of dragons, huge snakes, people with many heads, mermaids and so on, brought about by delusion and intense boredom coupled with the vigorous swings of the ship’s floor and horible sea sickness. Beating drums or playing tambourines as mandated did not quite help, nor did confessions to the priest and telling taller tales. In fact many a priest after hearing the violent confessions was reduced to shaking caricatures in cassocks. Handling some of the mutinous types and violent quarrels between soldiers were but natural activities that any experienced captain had to handle. He had to be tough to handle punishments like getting the guilty walk the plank, subjecting them keel hauling (dump them with a rope tied to their waists and drag them along the waters for a period of time) or pinning the worst offender’s hands to a mast with a deep knife thrust. Four hour watches had to be kept and if one had to relive himself, he had to enter a lavatory cage suspended over the rails, where the wary would look down with terrible consternation at sharks and dolphins and other animals swimming under, in the hope that the creature above was prey. On stormy days, they went down to the bilges at the bottom of the ship to relieve themselves and that make the voyage a very stinky one indeed, even after vigorous cleaning by the ships boys.
The crew ate only one hot meal a day, usually around noon. Because there were as yet no galleys aboard ships, meals were cooked over a fire kindled in a box of sand on the open deck. When it rained, food was eaten cold, but hot or cold, a sailor’s diet was monotonous. It consisted of salted pork, a bit of cheese, some beans, onions, and the staple of all nautical diets, ship biscuit. Supplies, stored in leaky barrels, soon went bad. The meat putrefied and weevils attacked the biscuit. Antonio Pigafetta described the food Magellan’s crew subsisted on: “They ate biscuit and when there was no more of that they ate the crumbs, which were full of maggots and smelled strongly of mouse urine.” When even the crumbs gave out, men captured the ship’s vermin and auctioned them off as food. Pigafetta reported that “a mouse would bring half a ducat or a ducat. To wash down their unappetizing meals, the crew had water and wine, both of which quickly spoiled in their wooden casks. The wine turned to rancid vinegar. The water became so foul and smelly that sailors held their noses while drinking it.” So do you envy the Portuguese sailor?

Those six months on board an ‘Indian Run’ Nau were hell. Many a sailor wondered why he endured it, some of course for the adventure and prospective riches, some for deliverance from their prison sentences and some for glory. Some others just got pulled along. The Portuguese even had a proverb “If you want to learn how to pray, go to Sea!!” Scurvy, thirst and all kinds of things were braved, for the king and the lord! And I must now bring one fact to your notice. If you look at merchant ships worldwide today, a good number of the sailors and officers hail from Goa. Well, after all some of them could just be descendants of these early sailors. Every year an armada sailed out with goods and came back laden with riches a year later. There were some losses, but manageable in the scheme of things and after all, it was an era where human life was expendable (not that it is not these days!). The profitability was quite high and the riches at Lisbon accumulated, as the Estado Da India and the Casa Da India (India house) kept becoming bigger and more bureaucratic.
The winds of trade were however more predictable. The monsoon was a southwesterly wind (blowing from East Africa to India) in the summer (between May and September) and then abruptly reversing itself and became a northeasterly (from India to Africa) one in the winter (between October and April). The ideal timing for a ship getting out of the cape was to catch the late summer monsoon to India, and return with the early winter monsoon, minimizing its time at sea. But then again, winds die and the ships would wallow in the sea waters where sailors went crazy of thirst, hunger and malnutrition. Perhaps it was better to follow words of wisdom and leave in February, but it was not always possible to outfit these ships by then. Anyway as you can see it was critical to reach the East African coast in time before the SW monsoon. The ships would then stop at one or more staging posts on the African East coast, fill up with rations and catch the monsoon at the equatorial line. If they were late, they had to take a diagonal cut into the wide ocean to slingshot the monsoon, but this as you can imagine increased the mortality rate owing to riding the violent storms without rest, coupled with malnutrition and sickness. There were so many more things to consider while putting together the regimento, but let us not clutter our mind with such things for it will dull your senses and put you to a sleep before I complete the story.

But I must not forget to tell you about the doldrums. Well, today the word means different, but it had much to do with winds or the lack of it near the west coast of Africa south of Sierra Leone (Let not your eyes widen, we are not talking about Sunny Leone the damsel who is popular for other matters, this here is a place in Africa…). It is a low pressure area where the oceans are still and only a skilful or lucky captain could steer a sailing ship through it using little breeze and the ocean currents. Get past it and you have passed your first obstacle enroute India. The next few weeks would be straightforward sailing to the cape of storms or the Cape of Good Hope as it was more properly called, riding the Brazilian current. But as you hit the tip and cross it, the next obstacle presents itself, the contra Agulhas current on the east coast which speeds down to collide with the Brazilian current. Stay away and cross it courageously, but not in a fleet or as an armada, for the losses, god forbid, could be huge. Spread out, and converge back to the East coast past the eddies, that was the advice of the experienced or so they thought, for it was easier said than done, as not only the currents, but also the winds created havoc, well actually whirlwinds. You also had to stay clear of coral reefs and shoals around Madagascar. If they got through, they stopped at Mozambique for repairs and for picking up more items for the India trade, namely elephant ivory, gold, coral and pearls.
By now it has been close to four months already, since the ship had left Lisbon and it was time to head north and turn eastwards at the Seychelles islands for the final burst to India with the monsoons. If they could not manage it they headed to Malindi and remained there for a year. Goa, with its better harbor and greater supply base, served as the first anchorage point of Portuguese armadas while Cochin, with its important spice markets, remained the ultimate destination. Yes, riding the monsoon winds also required skill, but the additional pilots from the African ports provided the required skill and guidance to the Portuguese.

Who were the people who decided the destinies of these brave or foolish people who fought through their destinies and tussled the sea gods? They were of course the traders and the merchants who wished to profit. In reality they were the ones who actually decided the fates of the people who rode the ‘carriera da India’ and what these merchant ships carried or not carried. We have the merchants in India, we had the merchants in Portugal and Germany and we had the conduits or middle men like the Zamorin and the King of Portugal. And so if you walked around the streets of Lisbon before the dammed 1755 earthquake, one could hear statements ending in a sigh like “I am neither an Indian merchant, nor yet a Fugger, but a poor boy like yourself” (Gusman d’Alfarache).
Recall also that the very first armada that set out with Vasco Da Gama was in 1497 and once the flood gates were opened by him, many followed with regularity though many a ship was lost near the cape. It is approximated that some 806 naus sent on the India Run between 1497 and 1612. Of those, 425 returned safely, 20 aborted their voyage and returned, 66 were lost, 4 were pirated, 6 were destroyed, and 285 remained in India.

But let us get to the period of the story, for the year was 1933. Oh! What a year that was for mighty and rich Anton Fugger, who decided to go into self-exile. Jakob the rich of Augsburg had already passed away and the riches were left to his nephew Anton. They controlled vast copper and salt mines in Europe and provided finance to the nobles who traded with the East. In fact their efficient banking and supply chain ran like clockwork. But life is never simple and the envious did not leave him or his family alone, and as the Fuggers were Catholics in a Germany that was swiftly embracing protestant Christianity, the rest of the people ganged up against them.  Marx Ehem and Anton Fugger ended up in a tussle on Ascension Day in May (this was after the ships left, but gives you a feeling of the times) and Anton was locked up in church for a day as punishment and released after he paid bail or compensation. The furious millionaire left Augsburg and went into exile to his village of Weisenhorn (As years passed, matters improved, but that is another story). Anyway, the Fugger’s had by them become immensely rich and had far more creditors than they could manage. They were also venturing out into the newly discovered South America where Anton got the Spanish license to colonize Chiel and Peru!
Lisbon had been suffering too with floods, sweating plagues and pestilence (there and in Europe) since the late 1520’s and the earthquake in 1531 added to its miseries (Perhaps the curse had come from Malabar which they were raping in the meantime!). The Spaniards were seething in anger as the papal bull was broken by the Portuguese when Magellan ventured into Spanish waters. The king Joao III or John III was proving to be a bad manager of his finances, racking up huge debts in his Moroccan and Indian ventures (Imagine a two million cruzado deficit during 1522-1544). This coupled with the problems Anton Fugger was going through, perhaps resulted in the smaller Armada in 1533, just seven ships.

And so the armada readied itself for the Carriera da India. The Nau Bom Jesus was one among them and all of 400 or so tons in displacement. That the Portuguese knew how to build sturdy ships is clear, but you must also understand that the life of such a ship was not more than four or five years. Usage of nails, galagala caulking, lead in the seams, and a final black coat of pine tar from Germany gave these ships a sinister look. The heavy guns and cannons they carried for defense made them difficult to confront. The crew comprised a captain major, a deputy, a captain, a record keeping clerk (the royal agent – like our Barros or Carrera), a pilot and a deputy pilot. Then came the master, the boatswain, ships boys, pages and the sailors or seamen. We can also see chaplains, German bombardiers, stewards, specialist technicians like carpenters, caulkers and barber surgeons in this group.
The armada comprised the Flor delamar captained by Jaoa Pereira, Santa Barbara captained by Lourenco Da Pavia, Santa Clara captained by Diogo Brandao, Cirno (Cisne) captained by Goncales Coutinho (perhaps he was the guy who first sighted Mauritius!!), Sao Roque captained by Simaoa de Viega, St Barthalomeou captained by Nuno Furtado da Mendoca and Bom Jesus captained by Dom Francisco de Noronha.

Noronha was not feeling right as he twiddled about with his shining astrolabe, and something told him that this would become a major ordeal, call it a sailor’s hunch or intuition. The rusted astrolabe discovered 475 years later would prove him right. In India the Portuguese had decided to move north from Cochin. Goa had been taken and the Portuguese were settling down, Vasco da Gama was back but died soon after and after a few mediocre administrators, Nuno Da Cuhna took charge. A large amount of finances were demanded from Lisbon, so also guns to secure their foothold. The 1533 armada perhaps was loaded up for this very purpose with copper and gold. The Moghul king Baber had passed away in 1530 and Humayun had taken charge, and the Shah Bahadur of Cambay was toying with the idea of signing a treaty with the Portuguese to keep Humayun at bay.
The Bom Jesus was loaded with 18 tons of Fugger’s copper and 4 tons of tin and pewter ingots for trading, with this heavy load serving as ships ballast. Elephant tusks were also loaded in large quantities, and large amounts of gold (20,000 coins), copper and silver coins (Personal effects such as syringes and mercury used to treat syphilis, astrolabes, charting dividers, pots, pans, plates and so on) as well as cannons and guns, muskets and swords. We know that Indian trade was done only in cash and little barter, and that was why a lot of cash was carried in gold, the tusks were sent so the craftsmen in India worked on it and finished goods were sent back to Portugal. The ship must have been armed with some 180-200 small iron and copper guns (some later ships had as many as 366!). What was the copper doing in the holds? Well, they were melted down to make coins by the Indian kings. The profit in the sale of copper was quite large as a quintal of copper costing 4.5 Cruzados at Augsburg would be sold in Cochin for 14 cruzados. The freight and handling cost was 4.5 cruzados, so the profit was 5 cruzados per quintal. Cherina Marakkar at Cochin was one would buy a lot of it and it would go on to be sold to make coins and other.
As the ships crossed the doldrums, it was winter time in the African south. Six of the ships got through, one did not. The fate that befell the Bom Jesus was simply announced as ‘ship lost’ – Perdido!!
But to get to the ship’s story, we have to speed through to the year 2008, a full 475 years later and go to a place called Orangemund in Namibia situated on the west coast of Africa. After completing a huge sand seawall the Diamond Mining Company De Beers were carrying out a surface-mining operation when a geologist found a spherical rock in the sand to realize it was a copper ingot. It became clear later that this was Fugger’s copper ingot for it had the trident trademark on it. Other evidence quickly pointed to a Portuguese shipwreck. Mining was halted excavations were started and soon the 1533 Portuguese wreck was uncovered by April 2008. Treasure hunters were kept away as it was one of the world's most zealously guarded diamond mining area. Perhaps it was worth even more than the diamonds that could be mined in that area!

The ships of the armada which sailed down the Tagus River were built for the voyage and two of them were brand-new and owned by the king himself. One of these two was the Bom Jesus (Good Jesus) captained by Dom Francisco de Noronha. How do we know that the ship dug up at Orangemund was Bom Jesus? As we saw from previous studies, the Casa Da India and its records were destroyed in the earthquake and the fires, but some papers survived. In these old Portuguese navy annals, the following critical epitaph is provided. The Cirne and S Roque will arrive in Goa in September, not the Bom Jesus. Periera is still in Africa, at the Cape of Good Hope. Noronha’s ship capsized near the Cape and nobody escaped, perhaps by his carelessness at the critical moment while the other nau’s scattered and escaped.

This shows that the tragedy occurred near the Cape in the winter storms and the ship was blown backwards and further north to the Orangemund area. Everything points out that the vessel is the Bom Jesus of the fleet of 1533 that didn’t succeed to pass the Good Hope Cape and that turned back and sunk near the sands of Namibia. We also read that the combination of thick fog, strong winds and heavy swells make the Namibian coastline quite a hazardous area for ships. Just how risky the area is, is clear since some 300 shipwrecks have already been located, with a further 200 relics that cannot be identified. The cold water of the Benguela Current is also dangerous for shipwrecked sailors, for death can result after five hours after exposure to water of 15°Celsius or less.  As the Bom Jesus would have capsized offshore, most if not all of the sailors must have perished in the freezing waters and strong currents that make swimming very hard. Of the 21 Portuguese ships lost on their way around Africa to the east between 1525 and 1600, only the Bom Jesus was recorded as being lost near Namibia. And so the Orangemund became its graveyard. - Diogo Affonso who captained the Santa Clara also states that he saw the Bom Jesus founder off the Cape of Good Hope.
We also note from studies by Roff Smith about the intriguing pointer to the Bom Jesus from a letter unearthed in the royal archives. Dated February 13, 1533, it reveals that King João had just sent a knight to Seville to pick up 20,000 crusadoes' worth of gold from a consortium of businessmen who had invested in the 1533 fleet that was about to sail for India.  As he concludes, “Spanish investors, it seems, had an unusually large stake in the 1533 fleet."


As Smith explains, It is easy to envision what might have happened next: The storm-battered ship was caught up in the powerful winds and currents that surge along the southwest African coast and was driven helplessly northward for hundreds of miles. As the windswept scrub of the Namib Desert hove into view, the doomed nau struck an outcrop of rock about 150 yards from shore. The shuddering blow broke off a big chunk of the stern, spilling tons of copper ingots into the sea and sending the Bom Jesus to its grave.

Did anybody survive? We cannot say for no human remains have been found save some human toe bones in a shoe found pinned beneath a mass of timbers. Did some of them walk on, surviving in the wild or did they intermingle with the Kaffirs as they called the natives? It is possible as we saw in the case of the crew of the Grosvenor. Perhaps, we may never know.

Convicts and Orphans: Forced and State-sponsored Colonizers in the ...  Timothy J. Coates
The Fuggers of Augsburg: Pursuing Wealth and Honor in Renaissance Germany - Mark Häberlein
Indo Portuguese trade and the Fuggers of Germany – KS Mathew
Relação das náos e armadas da India (page 49)
Bom Jesus picture – Thanks to linked site
Thos who wish to see the wreck pictures click here
Annaes da Marinha Portugueza, Volume 1 By Ignazio da Costa Quintella
Maritime Archaeology and Trans-Oceanic Trade: A Case Study of the Oranjemund Shipwreck Cargo, Namibia- Shadreck Chirikure, Ashton Sinamai, Esther Goagoses, Marina Mubusisi, W. Ndoro
Livro em que se contém toda a fazenda & real patrimonio dos reinos de Portugal, India ... - Luiz de Figueiredo Falcão (pages 156, 157)
Shipwreck in the Forbidden Zone – National Geographic - Roff Smith
The 16th century Portuguese shipwreck of Oranjemund, Namibia - Francisco J. S. Alves
Decay or Defeat? Ernst Van Veen

Pics – Courtesy Wikipedia


1. The Relação das náos e armadas da India, Livro Contem toda  as well as AJR Russell Wood (the Portuguese empire 1415-1808) states that another armada of 12 caravelas redondas and One galleon (bigger nau) sailed to India in 1533 under the command of Dom Pedro de CastelaoBranco in Oct 1533.
2. There is a paragraph about the sailor’s food extracted from a paper where the author's name is not provided. I do not know the author of that fine paper, but thank him for the contribution and would be pleased to add his name here if he gets back to me!