In the 15th and 16th centuries, Malacca was the Big Apple in these parts. Affonso de Albuquerque led a fleet that included Magellan which took revenge for a previous failed Portuguese invasion under Dom Lopes de Sequiera. Malacca at that time was the richest city in south-east Asia, commanding traffic through the Strait of Malacca as Singapore does nowadays. Today, it is a backwater attracting some tourists, but not many, because little remains of historic ruins apart from the portal of the Famosa fortress, built by the Portuguese and allowed to fall into ruin by the subsequent conquerors, the Dutch.
We made the acquaintance of a Portuguese priest, Father Pintado, who was passionate about the history of Malacca and had written a book on it. He belonged to the Society of St Peter but was fascinated with St Francis Xavier, who was buried in Malacca for nine months before his body was shipped to Goa, where it still lay, placed on public display once every ten years. He introduced us to some of the locals, who still spoke a Portuguese patois, and entertained us to a feast of fish and crab on the beach. Magellan was one of his heroes, as it turned out.
“Such a great man. Incorruptible. He had faith, and he lived and died by his faith.”
Being a man of little faith myself, I was not convinced faith was a suitable motive for anything. I prefer hard evidence and, I suspect, Magellan did too, which is one of the reasons he got a hard time in mystical, medieval, Roman Catholic Spain. We sailors tend to be fairly pragmatic chaps. No one would ever call Magellan a dreamer, although, towards the end of his life, he might be called eccentric or even fanatic.
The only way you can get to know a man who lived and died half a millennium ago is through what other people have said about him. Magellan arouses such passion in the Spanish and Portuguese that the commentary can hardly be regarded as impartial. Both sides hate him. The Portuguese think he is a traitor and the Spanish think him an interloper. These jealousies mean nothing to me. As far as I am concerned he was just a great sailor, on which the Spanish and Portuguese must agree.
The Portuguese pillaged Malacca to such an extent that the treasure stolen from the locals was probably the greatest haul in history. Much of it was loaded into Albuquerque’s flagship, Flor de la Mar, heading back to India. Unfortunately, a storm came up before she cleared Malacca Strait and the ship was lost. To this day, somewhere off the coast of Sumatra, there is a fabulous treasure of gold, silver, rubies and porcelain, buried in the mud. In Singapore, we met an adventurer, sailing a yacht called Nan Yang, which had once belonged to American President Roosevelt, who was setting out to find Albuquerque’s treasure. I have not heard anything of his success or failure, but I’m sure I would have heard had he been successful.
There seems little realisation among these early explorers, or even among modern historians recounting their deeds, that what they were doing was nothing more than burglary. If they did realise it and feel any guilt, their sins were forgiven by a compliant Catholic Church, which had its own agenda. Heathen souls were the object of the church’s cupidity, not gold, although later, in South America, the Spanish priesthood and nobility joined forces to enslave, rob and massacre the natives.