Old fashioned diplomacy
Pigafetta was riding an elephant. The great beast walked with a swaying motion, swinging its trunk while a man wearing a turban sat astride its neck and steered by poking one big ear or the other. Pigafetta’s elephant was one of a convoy led by the Shahbanda along a winding road towards the fortress with the king’s palace inside. Each bore a crew member of the Armada de Maluku carrying gifts of Turkish robes, red caps, bolts of fine cloth and glass goblets that Carvalho judged suitable for a native rajah.
They passed through the fortress gate into the palace compound guarded by no less than 300 foot soldiers with swords, lances and shields. The driver ordered the elephant to squat and Pigafetta hung on as the beast went down on its knees so they could disembark. The Shahbanda led them into a large room full of priests and nobles, some dressed all in white and others in gold embroidered silk robes. Many wore curly-bladed daggers adorned with pearls and rubies. Suddenly, the gifts brought by the visitors seemed paltry and Pigafetta was almost ashamed.
The old fat rajah sat on a platform with a young boy. Both chewed betel nut and red juice ran down their chins. Behind them, many women sat in silence. The Shahbanda explained they must bow to the king three times with their hands on their head , raise each foot off the floor one at a time and then kiss their hands to the king.
This they did.
“You must not speak to the king directly. If you wish to say anything, tell it to me and I will pass the message to the king’s brother, who will tell it through a speaking tube to the prime minister, who will tell it to the king if appropriate.”
It fell to Carvalho, as spokesman for the Armada, translated by Pigafetta, to explain that the ships wanted nothing but to trade in peace with the great Rajah Siripada, to stock their ships with food, water and firewood.
This message passed along the tortuous line of communication, was received and acknowledged with a nod. The gifts passed along the same path, placed at the king’s feet and also acknowledged with a nod. Then a curtain was drawn across the stage and the king disappeared from view. The audience was over. The king would consider their request.
The elephants took them back to the big house on the shore where the Shahbanda lived and that night they were treated to a feast of goat, fish, chicken, peacock and rice wine but no pork and no women.
After morning prayers next day, the Shahbanda announced he was going to make war and they were invited, if they chose. Startled, they followed him to the stone ramparts overlooking the harbour where Trinidad and Victoria lay at anchor. Thirty six bronze and six iron cannons pointed their muzzles out at the harbour. The Shahbanda displayed them proudly. Each cannon was engraved near the touch hole with the Five Wounds of Christ, the Portuguese coat of arms. These cannons came from the royal foundry of Lisbon. The Shahbanda explained they traded gold and spices with Malacca in exchange for guns to enable them to fight the heathens inhabiting the interior.
“These people do not believe in Allah and reject the teachings of the prophet Mohammed. (Peace be upon him.) We have tried every way to enlighten them but they continue to worship their pagan idol.”
Suddenly, the hospitality of their hosts took on a different context. With the memory of the disaster in Cebu and the death of Magellan fresh to mind, Pigafetta was not the only one to express uneasiness. Were the Christian invaders being softened up like lambs for the slaughter?