Ferdinand Magellan and me (18) Constipation

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Vasco da Gama arrives in India

The Portuguese arrive in India.Under Viceroy Almeida, the Portuguese invaders including Ferdinand Magellan ranged across the Arabian Sea. They built forts at strategic points on the east coast of Africa and west coast of India. Numerous battles were fought as resistance grew.  Calicut, about 70 miles north of Cochin had been a  prosperous  part of the Arab spice trade for many centuries and had powerful allies. The Zamorin of Calicut raised a fleet of about 200 ships but was defeated by Almeida’s son, Lourenςo, at the Battle of Cannanore. He fought back with the help of the Mameluke Emir Hussein of Egypt and inflicted the first defeat upon the Portuguese, in which Lourenςo was killed.

Affonso de Albuquerque arrived in 1508 with a commission from King Manuel to relieve Almeida as Viceroy. Almeida had unfinished business, including revenge for the death of his son, and promptly clapped Albuquerque into prison. Almeida put together a fleet of 18 ships, probably with Ferdinand Magellan as one of its captains and  Duarte Barbosa, who was to become Magellan’s brother-in-law, as scrivener or accountant. The fleet sailed northwards towards the rich province of Gujarat and was met by an opposing fleet of 12 ships near the island of Diu. The Portuguese ships were the most formidable ocean-going men-o-war of their day; heavily armed and manned by seasoned sailors. Opposing them were small vessels designed for commerce in the relatively sheltered waters of the Mediterranean and Red Seas. They included Venetian galleys whose only real advantage was the ability to manoeuvre in windless conditions. Fortunately for the Portuguese, the breeze held and they inflicted grievous damage upon the enemy but not sufficient to satisfy Almeida’s thirst for revenge for the death of his son. He embarked on a murderous campaign against the populace that was to inform the policies of his vice-regal successor who still languished in prison: Albuquerque.


Calicut, now also known as Khozhikode, was definitely on our agenda since Ferdinand Magellan played a big role in the conflict with the Zamorin. Evidently, Almeida gave him a letter of marque that authorised him to attack enemies of Portugal almost at will. Magellan is credited with a few attacks upon local shipping.

For some reason that I failed to understand, the Cochin officials refused to give me a clearance for Khozhikode because on our entry form I had given our destination as Goa.

“We’re still going to Goa but I want to go to Calicut first,” I explained to the harbour master.

“Ah, but I’m afraid there is an extra fee payable for the paperwork ,” he said with an apologetic little smile. He was a middle aged man with a trimmed moustache and in our previous dealings had been affable and helpful.

I smelled a rat. I took the matter up with our friend, the father of Indira, the girl who wanted to study in Australia. He was a retired colonel of the Indian army and I guessed he knew a thing or two about how bureaucracy works.

“Oh yes,” he said, “unfortunately the wheels require a little grease to keep turning, but you should be careful. If you do offer to pay and the so-called fee is not legitimate, you could be in trouble for bribing an official.”

Robin also had an opinion. “Bloody outrageous,” she said in her endearing straightforward way. “We didn’t come all this way to miss out on Calicut.”

“Okay,” I said. “Never mind. “We won’t miss out on Calicut.”

The sailing is beautiful off the coast of India when the monsoon is right. You get a nice breeze off the land with a hint of cinnamon or coriander in the air. By this stage we were aficionados of spices which, after all, is what the story was all about. Bucko couldn’t stop sniffing.

If you read Wathara’s logbook for that period you will see that Robin and I had suddenly developed stomach cramps, high temperature and even a touch of diarrhoea. Suspected cause was food poisoning. By the time we reached the latitude of Calicut I, as master of the ship Wathara, declared a medical emergency and claimed Force Majeure under the International Law of the Sea.

We dropped anchor near the lighthouse, launched the dinghy and rowed ashore straight into the clutches of a person in a khaki uniform waiting for us on the beach.

“You are a foreign yacht?” he asked.

“Well, yes, you could say that.”

“Your papers, please.”


“Yes, your papers,” he said with infinite patience as if addressing a half-wit. “Passports. Travel documents. Clearance from last port.”

“Oh, the papers. Yes we do have papers.”

“May I see them please?”

I handed over our passports duly stamped with visas and our clearance from Cochin stamped by the harbour master.

“Your clearance is for Goa, not Kozhikode. Why have you come to Kozhikode?”

“Force Majeure,” I said.

His eyebrows lifted and he looked around the horizon at the placid sea with a gentle breeze blowing under a clear blue sky.

“I see no severe weather. Why do you claim Force Majeure?”

Now I saw why the yachties in Cochin had said the Indian bureaucracy was worse than the Indonesian. You can bullshit Indonesian officials because most don’t speak very good English but I couldn’t even bullshit this bloke in French.

“Medical emergency,” I said. “Food poisoning. You can read my logbook.”

“You require medical attention?”


“I may inspect your logbook.”

He turned and waved towards the lighthouse and before long an inflatable dinghy with a powerful outboard motor arrived from nowhere, came in through the low surf and landed on the beach.

“We shall visit  your vessel, please,” he said in velvet tones concealing an iron fist.

We returned to Wathara but had to put a collar and leash on Bucko, who was barking his head off. After verifying our medical condition in the logbook the official made a thorough inspection, opening lockers, lifting cushions and peering into the bilge.

Somewhat reluctantly it seemed to me, he stamped our passports and said, “Your medical condition will be dealt with.”

He took us back ashore and then escorted us to a pharmacy in the business district. He introduced us to the pharmacist, who seemed to be a friend of his and described our condition as ‘loose motion.’ He watched while the pharmacist stirred up some brew with a mortar and pestle and then watched to make sure we took our medicine. We were both constipated for a week after. To this day I wonder whether he had been tipped off by the Cochin harbour master. I fondly remember this incident as the Zamorin’s revenge.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (14) Malacca Strait

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Portuguese ship replica in Malacca

Malacca had a nautical museum featuring a replica of Albuquerque’s flagship Flor de la Mar, which sank with a fabulous treasure. Father Pintado, the Portuguese priest, was a keen supporter of the museum. He and his sister had been in Malacca since 1948 and had accumulated many antique books; original sources in old Portuguese that were unfortunately inaccessible to me. He translated some of the choice bits for me. He seemed a peaceful man rather than happy, with a gap in his top row of teeth and an impish squint when he laughed. Although he belonged to the Society of St Peter he was fascinated with St Francis Xavier, who was buried in Malacca for 9 months before being shipped to Goa, in India. It still lies in state and is placed on view every 10 years. He and his sister waved goodbye from the jetty when we set off on the next leg through the Malacca Strait.

Strong tides, foul winds and frequent squalls made the going fairly tough but snug anchorages compensated somewhat. Pangkor was a pretty place marred only by over-friendly fishermen and holidaying Chinese singing Karaoke on the beach at night, pounding out old chestnuts like ‘I’ve got a loverly bunch of coconuts’ in nasal, high-pitched accents. The fishermen redeemed themselves by trading a bucket of crabs for two glasses.

As in other parts of the region, Portuguese colonisers were succeeded by the Dutch and then the English, with the British East India Company setting up a trading post on Penang Island in the 18th century.  Independence came after a turbulent period of insurrection and war but the British colonial influence was still evident in a number of yacht clubs along the Malacca Strait. Club- houses resembled English pubs, with silver sporting trophies in glass cabinets and international yacht club pennants pinned up on the walls. Robin and I felt quite at home in these places. We left behind a pennant of our own.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (11) :Pirates

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Pirates in the Malacca Strait

Cruising yachts are like a travelling village and you often find familiar faces in ports all over the world. It’s nice to sail into a foreign port and encounter old friends who can fill you in on where to do the shopping, how to find a good mechanic, which bureaucrats need bribing and other vital matters. At Ong’s marina in Singapore expat sailors swapped yarns over barbecues. Here we met James, who had sailed with us in the Ambon race. He also had a female crew, although of a different moral persuasion than Robin. James had celebrated his birthday in Ambon and his gift from his crew was a short time with one of the whores at the Halong brothel. Apparently, she was trying to divert attention away from herself.

It’s true that piracy is a problem in the Malacca Strait. They even attack big ships and the previous year a cruising yacht had been boarded, the wife raped and the husband badly wounded. Whether cruising yachts should arm themselves was a frequent debate. Some; especially the Americans among us, claimed they could scare off pirates with a sufficient show of force. Others, including myself, believed the complication of a firearm on board outweighed the fairly low probability of meeting pirates on the high seas.

James was obsessed with pirates and he scoured Singapore in search of the equipment needed for his ultimate weapon. The marina had a dedicated barbecue space on the waterfront and on the occasion of someone’s birthday we gathered to celebrate. James proudly displayed his creation. Through piping and tubing and a specially manufactured venturi tube, he had rigged up his scuba-diving tanks to the fuel tank of his outboard motor. He created a flame thrower; a weapon that sidestepped the problems associated with carrying firearms aboard a yacht.

“Those bastards come anywhere near me and they’ll end up grilled chops,” he said.

To demonstrate his point, he opened the valve on the scuba tank, struck a match to fire up the flame thrower and turned it on the chops quietly grilling away on the barbecue plate. They were blasted off into the dirt.

“Oh shit, sorry,” James said.

The chops tasted not only of dirt but also of petrol and James’s demonstration strengthened the anti-firearm lobby.

As for me, I had my own anti-pirate measure in mind.

Next: the Ultimate defence against piracy.