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ArribaAbajo Fernão Mendes Pinto and His Peregrinação
Rebecca Catz

University of California, Los Ángeles

Little is known about Fernão Mendes Pinto except that he was born (1509?, 1511?) and died (1583) in Portugal, that he spent the best years of his life in Asia, and that he wrote a book which he never lived to see published. His total literary production is represented by the Peregrinação18 which appeared in 1614, some thirty odd years after the author's death, plus three extant letters, one written from Malacca on December 5, 1554, which was published immediately after it was received in Portugal; the second, written from Macao on November 20, 1555, which was not published until the beginning of this century; and a third, written from Almada on March 15, 1571, in Italian, and addressed to Bernardo Neri, an ambassador who was sent to Portugal during the years 1569-1571 by the Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany. This last letter was purchased by Harvard University in 1966 and published for the fast time in 1983 (Catz, Cartas 39-45, 60-65, 114-16).

The Peregrinação purports to be an autobiographical account of one man's journey through Asia during the 16th century, a journey that begins ostensibly in the year 1537 and ends twenty-one years later in 1558, the year our weary traveler returns to Portugal. As the title implies, the Peregrinação is also a tale of a spiritual journey through life, with trials, tribulations, and tests of Christian morality, with only death to separate a man from his spiritual home and eternal bliss. There is no doubt that the Peregrinação is a work of profound moral and religious philosophy. Its thesis, in simple terms, is «sin and punishment», the sin being regarded as a crime against God, and the punishment, inflicted by the divine hands of God.

The author is extremely critical -though never openly- of the overseas action of the Portuguese, whose self-proclaimed mission to conquer and convert all non-Christian peoples with whom they come in contact, was viewed, within the fiction of the work, as a false and corrupt ideal. This is what sets Pinto apart from his contemporaries, because he alone, at the dawn of the age of European colonialism, had the courage to question the morality of the overseas conquests, which he condemns as acts of barbaric piracy. This is what makes the Peregrinação a unique document in the history of Western ideas. According to Mendes Pinto, the mission to conquer was inspired by greed, and masked by hypocrisy, whereas the mission to convert was condemned to failure from the beginning because the Portuguese were well aware of the fact that they were sinning against God by violating his Commandments.

There are three religious groups in Pinto's world: the Muslim, the Christian, and everyone else, who are characterized as pagan. The Muslims are represented in the darkest colors of evil, but so are the Portuguese, who are depicted as their equal in cruelty and deception. Pinto's pagans, particularly the Chinese, seem to live in a utopia. They have never heard of Christ, yet they obey the laws of God. They are governed with justice, charity, and mercy, by kings who also obey the laws of God. That is why they are blessed by God with abundance of wealth and all the good things of this earth. Tolerance exists among them, and they have the freedom to worship God in many different ways, and even the freedom not to worship God -a daring concept for a man of his age. In other words, Pinto is saying that there is a morality possible outside the bounds of the established Church.

The Asia of Mendes Pinto is full of violent wars, motivated by greed, masked by hypocrisy and almost always instigated by warrior-priests trying to force men to abandon the faith of their   —502→   fathers. The pagans of Mendes Pinto's utopias detest war and their priests are forbidden to carry arms. The greatest Catholic saint of his time, Francis Xavier, is obliquely presented in the work as a warrior-priest who spurs men on to combat. The portrait of Xavier is in sharp contrast to that of the pagan priests who are forbidden to carry anything capable of drawing blood. Seen in those terms, how can the Portuguese, who are depicted as the very incarnation of evil, hope to convert the Asians, who live in harmony with the laws of God and who are prepared to go to far greater lengths than the greatest Catholic of the times in order to grasp the eternal -as depicted in the Juggernaut festival of Tinagogo, which takes place in Calaminham? (Chapter 160). This theme is presented throughout the work, together with warnings of divine punishment that awaits the sinner every step along the way.

This was a dangerous theme to expound in an age when an individual's innermost thoughts were the particular object of episcopal censorship. In the formulation of his indictment, Pinto was forced to make use of all the stock devices of rhetoric and indirection that have been used by the satirist since time immemorial. Pinto is a master of the art of satire. It is very difficult to define satire. Even today, we do not have a precise definition for it. Its nature is very protean, and contrary to popular conviction, it is rarely «honest» in the send of direct expression of emotion or opinion. But at the same time, it does not stray far from the truth. It is a deformed truth. In order to be successful, the satirist must practice the art of persuasion and be skillful with the tools of that art. All of literature is, in a certain sense, rhetorical, but satire is the most rhetorical of all kinds of literature and that is the stuff of which Pinto's book is made.

Pinto's criticism of the Portuguese is expressed indirectly, with the utmost duplicity. His book pays full and absolute lip-service to the orthodoxy of his day, and is overlaid with the same hypocrisy with which he charged them. As long as outward appearances and the proper ritual were observed, he was safe. This was an age when people lost their lives for inattention to form and ritual. The risk he took in writing such a book was but an extension or transmutation of the active life, fraught with danger, that he had led in Asia. It was a gamble, and in the end he triumphed. He gambled perhaps on posterity; but certainly on the select audience that his message was directed to, and was confident that his irony and duplicity would pass -as it did- unperceived, right over the head and under the nose of the Inquisition, which praised his book warmly.19 The Censor was satisfied with the surface homage paid to the reigning orthodoxy, for Pinto was careful to cover his indirect criticism with formal protestations of faith. He understood all too well the spirit of the age which laid great stress on the formal observance and outward trappings of piety.

But let the master speak for himself. Pinto begins the tale of his wanderings with a brief account of his early life in Portugal beset by hardship and poverty, followed by a pirate encounter at sea, and his years of service in the households of the rich and powerful. Dissatisfied with his lot and the paltry pay he received -for that is the reason he gives us- he decided, like many of the young men of his day with poor prospects at home, to seek his fortune in India.

On March 11, 1537, Pinto sails for India. After an uneventful voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and a brief stop in Mozambique, he arrives on September 5, 1537 at Diu, a fortified island and town northwest of Bombay, which had come into the possession of the Portuguese two years before. At the time of his arrival, the fortress was under threat of siege from the combined Muslim forces, headed by Suleiman the Great, who were determined to throw the Portuguese interlopers out of India and maintain their monopoly of the eastern trade.

Enticed by tales of money to be made by attacking Muslim shipping, Pinto joins a reconnaissance mission to the Red Sea, with a brief stop in Ethiopia to deliver a message to the Portuguese soldiers then guarding the mother of Prester John in her mountain fortress. After departing from the Ethiopian port of Massawa, the Portuguese engage three Turkish galleys, are beaten, taken to Mocha -a port on the Red Sea in southwest Arabia- and put on the auction block. Pinto is sold to a Greek Muslim, a cruel master, he says, who in turn, frightened by Pinto's threats of suicide, sells him to a Jewish merchant for about thirty ducats' worth of dates. His new master takes him along the caravan route to Hormuz, the leading mart in the Persian Gulf at that time, where Pinto is offered to both the Captain of the fortress of Hormuz, and the king's special magistrate for Indian affairs, who had been sent there just a few days before by the Governor of Portuguese India on a mission for the Crown. With the funds they collected throughout the city, plus the money they both contributed personally, they were able to ransom   —503→   him from the Jew for about 300 ducats.

A free man again, Pinto signs on with a Portuguese cargo ship bound for Goa. However, on the way he is seized at sea and transferred against his will to a naval fleet bound for Dabul to try to capture or destroy a Turkish vessel anchored there. After several engagements in the Arabian Sea, not all of them successful, Pinto reaches Goa, then the capital of Portuguese India. Broken, bruised, and destitute, he decides that the life of a soldier is not for him. He enters the service of Pero de Faria, the newly appointed Captain of Malacca. From 1539 on he seems to have been based in Malacca. There he serves the captain as a sort of ambassador-at-large and is sent out on ostensibly diplomatic missions to the petty kingdoms of Sumatra, then allied with the Portuguese against the Muslims of Achin in northern Sumatra. These missions permit him to engage in private trade, while at the same time looking after the commercial interests of the officials he serves, many of whom, as he maliciously points out, enriched themselves by engaging in private trade, to the detriment of the King and their allies, who are allowed to go down to defeat.

His next mission takes him to Patani, on the eastern shore of the Malay peninsula, where he meets up with a group of his countrymen. In a joint business venture, they send a shipload of merchandise up the coast to Siam, where huge profits are to be made. However, a sudden attack by a Muslim pirate leaves the Portuguese of Patani penniless. Thirsting for vengeance, they set out in search of the pirate who victimized them and in the process become pirates themselves. Their leader, António de Faria, has become immortalized in Portuguese literature as the anti-hero of a swashbuckling episode that functions within the work as a parody of the overseas action of the Portuguese conquerors.

After many months of operating profitably in the Gulf of Tongking, in and around Indochina and the waters of the South China Seas, and on up to the northern coasts of China -possibly Korea- to raid the Emperor's tombs, the expedition ends in shipwreck. A small band of survivors is tossed up on the shores of China, where they are arrested for vagrancy, tried, and sentenced to one year of hard labor on the Great Wall of China.

Before Pinto and his companions have completed their sentence, the Tartars invade China and capture them. They win the favor of the cruel Tartar invaders by showing them how to storm a fortress and, in return, win their freedom. In the company of a Tartar ambassador, they travel overland to Cochinchina, whence they are conducted to the coast of China, where they hope to take ship for India. On the way, they meet up with a pope-like figure, strongly reminiscent of the Dalai Lama, who had never been heard of in Europe. Arriving too late in the season and faced with the prospect of cold and starvation on the barren, deserted islands off the coast of Canton, Pinto and two of his companions board a Chinese pirate junk, which is driven by a storm to the Japanese island of Tanegashima, just south of Kyushu. Landing in 1542 or 1543,20 -the date is uncertain- Pinto makes the plausible claim that his was the first group of Europeans to set foot in Japan -a claim that has been rejected by his European critics. The pirate captain, posing as a peaceful merchant, sells his goods at enormous profit. The Portuguese endear themselves to the local feudal lord, who is enchanted by their tales of their country at «the other end of the world», and especially by their gift of an arquebus -the first firearm that the Japanese have seen- which they copy and rapidly reproduce, thereby turning the tide of the civil wars then raging in Japan.

Pinto returns to the coast of China, to Ningpo -a Portuguese enclave near Canton- with tales of the riches to be made by trading with the newly discovered land of Japan. In their rush to be the first to get there, the Portuguese merchants of Ningpo set out against the monsoon and are shipwrecked off the Ryukyu Islands, where they are arrested and charged with piracy. Thanks to the compassionate women of Ryukyu, who plead for their lives, they are released, though not absolved, and Pinto returns once more to Malacca.

There he reports to Pero de Faria, who is still serving as Captain of Malacca, and is sent on a mission to Martaban, a small, wealthy state -today part of Lower Burma, but then tributary to Pegu- which had recently been conquered by the Burmese. He arrives in the midst of a siege and takes refuge in the camp of the Portuguese mercenaries who had abandoned the «King» -actually the Viceroy- of Martaban and passed over to the Burmese, attracted by the higher pay. There is no question that the chapters devoted to the fall of Martaban, the betrayal of the King, the cruel executions that follow, and the frenzied sack of the city, form one of the most dramatic episodes in the book. They are an impassioned condemnation of war, tyranny, and man's capacity for brutality.

At the end of the siege, Pinto, betrayed by a   —504→   Portuguese mercenary, is made a captive of the Burmese and placed in the charge of the king's treasurer, who takes him on a journey to the kingdom of Calaminham -identified by modern scholars as Luang Prabang. On that journey he learns of strange religious customs among the heathens and witnesses bloody scenes of self-sacrifice strongly resembling the Juggernaut festival, which in the sixteenth century was reputed to be the most dreadful scene of religious frenzy in all of Asia. On his return, while the Burmese are besieging Sandoway, Pinto escapes and makes his way back to Goa.

There Pinto meets up with Pero de Faria again, now ex-captain of Malacca, who sends him to Java to buy pepper destined for China. While waiting for the monsoon, forty of the Portuguese merchants in the port of Bantam are invited to join forces with the Muslim emperor of Demak, supreme ruler of Java, in a holy war against the Hindu King of Pasaman, a small independent royalty at the eastern end of the island. The crusade comes to a sudden halt when the emperor is slain by his page boy over a ridiculous point of honor. The Portuguese, alarmed by the chaos and anarchy that mark the election of a successor, return to their ships already loaded with pepper, and set sail for China.

The voyage is a disastrous one for them. They are driven off by the Japanese Wako, pirates, then ravaging the coasts of China, are shipwrecked in the Gulf of Siam, their raft tossed up on the coast of Java, where they resort to cannibalism and where the few survivors sell themselves as slaves in order to be taken out of the swamps by a passing riverboat. They are then sold to a Celebes merchant and re-sold to the King of Calapa -the present-day Jakarta- who generously sends them back to Sunda whence they had departed.

From Sunda, Pinto sails for Siam to start a new on borrowed money. Shortly after his arrival, the King of Siam sets out to quell a revolt on his northern borders and asks the Portuguese residents of Siam to enlist. On his return from the wars, the good King of Siam is poisoned by his adulterous Quee, who murders the nine-year-old heir and succeeds in placing her lover on the throne. The usurper in turn is murdered, and during the interregnum and the unrest that follow, the King of Burma lays siege to Ayuthia, the capital of Siam. The siege is suddenly lifted when the Burmese receive word of rebellion at home. Though Pinto does not claim to have been present throughout, he dwells at great length on the palace intrigues and the Burmese wars of unification. As for his description of these events, scholars are generally agreed that Pinto had a genius for grasping the essentials of Burmese politics at a time when nothing had been written on the subject in Europe.

Pinto makes a second voyage to Japan. As he is preparing to leave from the port of Kagoshima, he takes on board a Japanese fugitive by the name of Anjiro, literally snatching him from the arms of his pursuers. On his arrival in Malacca, he hands Anjiro over to Francis Xavier, the «Apostle of the Indies», as the future saint came to be known. Xavier converts Anjiro, baptizes him Paul of the Holy Faith, and sails with him to Japan in 1549 to begin missionary work that was to bear fruit for the next hundred years, until the Japanese closed their doors to all foreigners. In 1551, on his third voyage to Japan, Pinto encounters Francis again and is present at the saint's disputations with the Japanese Buddhist priests at the court of Bungo. Later that year, Pinto departs from Japan with Francis Xavier as his shipmate.

The final chapters of the book are devoted to the saint, his miracles, his disputations, and his lonely death, in 1552, on the doorstep of China, where he is forbidden to enter.

Pinto makes a fourth and final voyage to Japan (1554-1556) in the company of Xavier's successor, as the ambassador of the Viceroy of Portuguese India to the daimyo or feudal lord of Bungo, on the island of Kyushu. In the last chapter of the book, he rapidly covers his return to Portugal in 1558, the four and a half years he spent cooling his heels at the court of Lisbon, and his disappointment at not obtaining a royal sinecure for his twenty years of service to God and king.

That in essence is the incredible saga of Fernão Mendes Pinto, during the twenty-one years he wandered over Asia, as he chose to tell it. But there is much more that he chose not to tell and just as much that he distorted in the telling -to suit his purpose.

Though in the book he complains constantly of his poverty, we know from the scant documentation available on his life that sometime during his twenty-one years in Asia Pinto amassed a considerable fortune. It was as a wealthy merchant, on his third voyage to Japan, that he befriended Francis Xavier in the year 1551. It was there that he lent the future saint money to build the first Christian church in Japan. In 1554, Pinto   —505→   decided to return home with his fortune, settle down and raise a family. While in Goa, waiting for the homeward-bound ships, Pinto underwent a mystic conversion and divested himself of a large part of his fortune on behalf of the Society of Jesus, which accepted him into its ranks as a lay brother. Concurrently with these events, a letter arrived in Goa, from Otomo Yoshishige, the daimyo or feudal lord of Bungo, a province of northeast Kyushu, asking the Viceroy to send Francis Xavier back to Japan and holding out a promise for Otomo's conversion. The daimyo's letter arrived about the same time that the saint's corpse was being viewed in Goa by thousands of fervent worshipers.

It was decided that Father Belchior Nunes Barreto, vice-provincial and universal rector of the Society of Jesus in Asia, should head a religious mission to Japan. Pinto was to accompany the mission, but in the capacity of ambassador, sent by the Viceroy, to establish diplomatic relations between Japan and Portuguese India. Though Pinto had already been sworn in as a member of the Jesuit Society, it was agreed that he would not don his religious robes until after the completion of the mission, the cost of which was borne almost entirely by Pinto. Indeed, when the Viceroy appointed Pinto ambassador to Japan, he did not know that Pinto was already a member of the Society.

As it turned out, the evangelical side of the mission was a failure, though Pinto seems to have carried out his embassy with some degree of success. It took them almost two years to reach Japan, and by the time they arrived, Otomo Yoshishige was embroiled in a civil war and could hardly risk alienating his people by converting to a foreign faith. Twenty-two years were to pass before Otomo finally converted, in the year 1578. Pinto may or may not have been aware of it, for the same year in Almada, the city to which he had retired, he was just putting the finishing touches to the Peregrinação, which makes no mention of this important conversion.

Sometime between this last voyage to Japan and his return to Goa in 1557, something must have happened to Pinto -about which we can only speculate- that caused him to undergo a change of heart. He was separated from the Society of Jesus, apparently at his own request and on good terms with the Order. Lending credence to this supposition is the fact that years later, in 1582 (a year before he died), Pinto was interviewed in his retirement by the official Jesuit historians of India, and shortly thereafter, Philip II, then reigning monarch of Portugal, granted him the long awaited stipend in the form of wheat, which was the equivalent of about three loaves of bread a day.

When Pinto returned to Portugal on September 22, 1558, he was already famous in Western Europe as the author of an edifying letter that had been published by the Society of Jesus in 1555. In 1562, Pinto complains bitterly about the four and a half years he wasted at court in hopes of receiving some award or compensation for his service to the Crown. On December 20, 1562, Catherine handed over the reins of the government to her brother-in-law, the Cardinal Henrique. It must have been in the early months of the latter's regency when Pinto came to realize that his cause was hopeless, for under the Cardinal's rule, the strictest economy was practiced at court. With his claims unrecognized, Pinto retired a disappointed man to a small estate near Almada, opposite Lisbon, where he married a woman named Maria Correia de Brito and settled down to raise a family. He had acquired somewhat of a reputation as an old China hand, for there he was consulted by João de Barros, the foremost historian of his day, for information about China and Japan. Between 1569 and 1571 he was visited by an ambassador of the Grand Duke Cosimo de'Medici, who had come to Lisbon in search of information on China. In 1573 and again in 1578, he was elected president of the Board of Guardians of the Hospital of Saint Lazarus in Almada, a post usually reserved for the rich and powerful. Sometime between the years 1569 and 1578, he wrote the Peregrinação. This we know from internal evidence.21 Pinto died on 8 July 1583, only three months after he had received the small but long-awaited stipend from the crown, in recognition of his long years of service to God and king.

Of Pinto's family, little is known for certain except the information derived from Jesuit sources. Even the two extant letters written by him at the request of the Society of Jesus contain no information about his family and very little about himself, despite the fact that the Father Master of the Order had instructed him to compose a long letter about his life. From a letter written by Francis Xavier to King John III in 1551, we learn that he had two brothers, António and Álvaro, and that the latter was present at the siege of Malacca in 1551. Other letters reveal that one of his brothers suffered martyrdom in Malacca, that he had «sisters and a brother» in Lisbon in 1554 and a wealthy cousin named Francisco García de Vargas, who was present in Cochin in 1557 (Catz,   —506→   Cartas 18, 132). We also know that the children he refers to in his book were daughters, for it was they who, after his death, donated the manuscript of the Peregrinação («Privilégio», n. p.) -as was his wish- to the Casa Pia das Penitentes of Lisbon -a chariable institution for wayward women, which published it in 1614.

Was Pinto telling the truth? Was he a reliable witness to the events he describes? Is the Peregrinação a literary hoax of some sort? These are some of the questions that both the historian and the literary critic must be concerned with when dealing with a work like the Peregrinação. But veracity and reliability, it must be stressed, should be seen as two distinct problems. This delicate distinction becomes important when we stop to consider that if Pinto -to take the question of the discovery of Japan as an example- was not actually present on that historic occasion, he was certainly among the earliest group of travelers to arrive on the scene. As such he was close enough to events to have been in a position to pass on a fairly accurate description of the discovery, which can not be easily dismissed by the historian as unreliable, or as any less reliable than hearsay European accounts, written long after the facts.

A similar situation arises in the case of Java, where Pinto claims to have fought in the Muslim ranks. Yet the Dutch historian, P. A. Tiele, writing in 1880, did not believe that Pinto was actually present in person during the Javanese campaign against the Hindus of Pasaruan, but that he wrote his account from information received second hand. «For all that», writes Tiele, «Pinto provides us with a document which cannot be disregarded, for little is known of Javanese history at this period» (cited in Collis 202).

But the opinion most worthy of being considered is that of Maurice Collis, a modern expert on Asian affairs, who, like Pinto, lived in those parts for twenty years. He insists that even in the most fantastic episodes of the Peregrinação there is a note that rings true. Collis believes that Pinto had an instinct for picking out the essentials of the Asian scene and that he had the genius to throw it all together in the most dramatic form. Although Collis cautions that «no episode can be wholly taken as a direct source for history», he believes that Pinto has given us in the Peregrinação «the most authentic and complete picture of sixteenth century Asia that had been written or that would ever be written». For in a certain sense, Pinto surpassed the historians of his day. He took the essence of history and extracted from it a moral lesson, just as valid in his day as it is in ours.


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