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Identity and Acculturation in Travel Literature


The Tragic History of the Sea is the happy and successful title of the Bernardo Gomes de Brito’s collection of 12 shipwreck narratives, occurred between 1552 and 1602, edited in Lisbon, in 1735 and 1736.

In this masterpiece of Portuguese Travel Literature the process of meeting the Other (European, African, Amerindian or Asian) gives us the awareness - sometimes painful - of our identity and afforded the several narrators a cultural detachment which made them blow up ethnocentric narcissism, common vice in the European literature.

Pioneers in the transoceanic navigation since the 15th century, only by the end of the 16th century were the Portuguese faced with the competition of their European rivals, fighting for oversea hegemony. Such advance allowed them some liberty and diversification in their commercial contacts - by establishing fortresses and factories; nevertheless it created some kind of inaction in Portuguese minds: the easiness of a self-confident attitude, risen from the economic monopoly.

The Tragic History of the Sea, even if it doesn’t systemize the Portuguese technological, military and naval process of the time, will afford us a feeble image of their historical performance when concerned to the other European naval forces.


The Inhuman French

We only refer the VII narrative. In 1565 already, the French appear as the first great rivals of Iberian domination, established at Tordesilhas. In fact the French vessel appears near Azores, facing the Portuguese light-armed Nau Santo Antonio with an undeniable military superiority. However when the seventeen Frenchmen come into the Portuguese ship they are amazed at the unbelievable courage of the Portuguese captain, Jorge de Albuquerque. His brave attitude as he fights with such few military equipment, changes his braveness into heroic courage and weakens his enemy’s power for they need to hide their weakness behind such an excess of weapons.

It is interesting to note that the craft of the French vessel is already European - there were French, English, Scottish and even Portuguese warriors and sailors in it; we may say, indeed, that pirate attacks to Iberian ships were an European enterprise, aiming to destroy Tordesilhas monopoly. However the way the Portuguese captain is treated by the Frenchmen is quite different from that the Dutchmen and Englishmen do. According to the traditional military ethics it is correct enough.

The religious conflict is also present in this narrative. The French are referred as heretics and Lutherans and the impact comes out when Jorge de Albuquerque, the Portuguese captain, blesses a table what makes the French pirates destroy their rosaries and catholic prayer books.

At last the French take the Portuguese goods and leave their enemies naked, just like it happens in other narratives, among Negroes / "Cafres", as if there was not much difference in European or African civilizations when covetousness is concerned.


The barbarian Dutch

Following the Portuguese seamen in the Eastern routes, the Dutch became a real danger to their economic and political power, either in the Indian or the Pacific Oceans. By building up a new route, from Boa Esperança Cape to Sunda, avoiding India, the Portuguese soon realized they were their worst enemies with a powerful and coherent strategy, which menaced their monopoly, mostly because of their naval superior power both in craft and military equipment. To these economic conflict History added the religious impact: it is well known that Portuguese men of the 16th century named the Netherlands "o rebelde Estado de Holanda" / "the rebel Dutch State". However it is very interesting to remark the fact - according to Portuguese information - that they had their own cartographers and some other artisans to draw coastlines and peoples’ clothes wherever they pass. This strange behaviour, indeed, soon made the Portuguese realize that Dutch seamen were not common pirates, for their had a very clear and coherent purpose: to take not only goods from Iberian ships but to attack and destroy their imperial bases in their sources, not only on sea, but also on land. To fulfil this aim they used all possible means, from common sea-piracy to scientific methods and tools. Nevertheless, it is their cruelty, by killing inhumanly the desperate Portuguese men who throwing themselves into the sea tried to escape death, and their covetousness for precious stones - looking for them everywhere and only saving the lives of those who had them - which mostly impress our contemporary reader’s sensibility.

In short, we may say that, according to the Tragic History of the Sea narratives, the Dutch are the sharpest and cruelest counter-image of North-European peoples.


The bloodthirsty English

They are the lords of Azorean sea but they also come down the Atlantic to Santa Helena island. According to the Tragic History of the Sea, they are the terrible ravagers of the Portuguese ships. Likewise French and Dutch pirates, the English are referred as having a much superior naval power, both in military equipment and the size and tonnage of their vessels. That is why the Portuguese Indianmen have to find improvised solutions to face the terrible real problems caused by that undeniable superiority. Once again it is this disproportion of forces and equipment that makes Portuguese braveness really heroic and superhuman. In fact, in the 11th narrative, this Portuguese epic courage is able to break the furious attack of their enemies. However a disastrous burning causes their destruction. Then, once again trying to save their lives in sea water, they are fiercely killed by their enemies in an impressive bloodthirsty performance. Such cruelty is explained by the narrator in religious terms, as the English are victims of the "cegueira divina" / "divine blindness" in their Anglican schism (although the narrator includes them in the general reformist group of Lutherans). Like all European pirates, it is avarice that moves them and they, too, only save the lives of those who possess precious goods.

In this brutal and anti-chivalrous attitude two exceptions are referred: the Lutheran Francis Drake in his respect for the Portuguese whom he has just vanquished and the earl Chumberland, when he avoids his men to enter a Portuguese lady’s chamber to sack it (12th narrative).

In short and in what new European powers are concerned, we may say that the Tragic History of the Sea gives us a clear dysphoric image of the Other, from a nacionalist sensibility, which had to face the recent emerging process of new European economic, political and religious powers, raising the bases of their future empires. But History in the 16th century could not afford other attitude. Only nowadays, when European empires have declined and western peoples are at home again, is cultural and civilizational convergence possible. However it is not an easy process, even today.


Among Negroes / Cafres: from opposition to cooperation

The most interesting news in the Portuguese Travel Literature, mostly in the Discovery Literature, is the planeterian view which the Portuguese introduced into the old-European world, based on Greek-Roman and medieval patterns. This enlargement of horizons not only shakes but also brings a new breath to the European culture of the 16th century, giving birth to a new Renaissance, quite different from previous Renaissances, as it has to face the exotic experience of new seas, lands, climates, animals, plants and, most important of all, new peoples. From this global adventure a new identity was born, lightened by the Christian Humanism of the time.

Among those new discovered worlds the preeminence clearly goes to African negritude (Negroes), since Zurara’s Chronicles (15th century) to the Tragic History of the Sea. They are the strange human beings named Cafres. However a special care has to be taken as we study the relationship between Europeans and Afro-Negroes. The 19th century coloured our anthropological sensibility with prejudiced readings of that relationship. Nevertheless the Tragic History of the Sea leads us to a quite different approach: it tells us of the slow development process of two peoples who start their mutual knowledge, in a progressive dynamics that swings between fear and childish trust, clear opposition and the first steps towards cooperation.

In almost every narrative the first contact between European and Cafres / Negroes leads to an initial reaction of amazement, fear and flight. Sometimes this escape is simultaneous in Africans and Europeans. In these cases what remains is only the general outlook of the Other. This instinctive reaction, indeed, comes from a common xenophobe suspicion and ethnocentric isolation. Then the European stranger has to find a different strategy in order to obtain a closer contact: he learns how to hide himself not to frighten his hunt.


War Signals

After a flight, hostility raises, when Negroes try to defend their territory from the strangers’ invasion. But Europeans need desperately food, which they try to get from land. The impact becomes inevitable. One of the most common means, used by Africans, is the compulsory unclothing of Europeans as both punishment for their arrogance and an imposition of their own living patterns. Besides the shame of being naked in public, the unfortunate strangers still have to bear the regional climate changes, especially night cold. It is, in fact, an ironic tragedy: comedy which amuses Negroes, and tragedy desperately felt by Europeans.


Looking for Communication

However commerce needs communication. Beyond the barriers we previously mentioned there is another, no less important: the linguistic obstructions in communicating with the Other. Sometimes mimic is a useful means to overcome the difficulties as it is an universal language. In such contexts the importance of lingoas / interpreters are too evident. However, some of them created serious difficulties in the Portuguese dialogue with the African Negroes as they were much more interested in their own profits.


The Sun’s Children

The natural surprise of African natives, before the new arriving Europeans, is based on an ethnological curiosity. What mostly seems to impress them is their skin colour, especially in European women. Some of them welcome the strangers with local festivities, in the 10th narrative for instance. The reason for such a reception is very curious: they identify those light skinned strangers with their mythological Sun’s children.


The Magic Fire

One of the reasons for the cultural amazement of the Negroes is the Portuguese superior military technology. In fact, fire had for the Cafres of the 16th century a mythological origin; that is why the strangers’ fire guns and artillery made them both frightened, weak and suspicious. In this context Manuel de Sousa Sepulveda’s mental disease becomes an effective danger for the desperate shipwrecked persons as he agrees to give their fire weapons to the local Negroes (1st narrative).


The Robbing Art

A very common opinion held by critics shows the Portuguese Indianmen and traders as rude robbers of the wealth of the different peoples with whom they had any kind of contacts. Nevertheless, as we read the 16th century’s chronicles we clearly realize that greed, covetousness and robbery were common vices both in Europeans, Asians or Africans. In fact, as we read the different narratives of the Tragic History of the Sea - all of those which concern Cafres - we understand that they all have the robbing art in common, from local leaders to common people. An explanation may be found in their weak economic systems and the anarchy of their social organization which lead them to pillage.


From the Outlook to the Others’ Characterization

Nakedness, one of the most common aspects in African-Negro societies, is felt by the European Portuguese as an effective difficulty in trying to distinguish social hierachies.

Exceptionally the characterization of the leader Luspance gives the reader an appreciate amount of elements, mostly physical, with a special emphasis on longevity (10th narrative).

In generally African societies are referred in the Tragic History of the Sea as very heterogeneous human groups: their power symbols (from clothes to simple rings, long white beards or a typical stick); their ways of living, mostly half-nomad; their attitude towards foreigners (agressive or cooperative); their precious metal (which is strangely iron, neither silver nor gold, like in Europe or in Asia).

In what religion is concerned, African Negroes are generally considered to be monotheistic, believing in soul immortality although they are sensual and materialistic.

Women in general have a very dependent relation in society, mostly derived from their poligamic social organisation. They are also the main source of agricultural economy as most of them are peasant women.



 A long process has led us from the suspicion of the first contacts to cooperation, we are dealing with now.

In the 1st narrative the African friendly leader asks Manuel de Sousa Sepulveda to help him in a war against an enemy. Eager to go forward, to his own destruction, the Portuguese captain refuses such help. It is very interesting to remark that this narrative clearly shows one of the most common aspects in Afro-Negro civilization: the unquestionable tribal characteristics of their institutions and history.

On the other hand, having to survive in very hard conditions, in hostile and unknown regions, the desperate Portuguese look anxiously for a native guide. However experience have told them not to trust too much in such men. Negroes are smart and very covetous. They are always thinking of their own profits. This is the reason why it is of the most importance to have a good relationship with the guides’ kings or leaders: then they will think of well treating the Portuguese in order to get a correspondent reward.



This concept resumes, at last, the great complexity of the Portuguese and Afro-Negro long dialogue: its new progresses and recessions, cooperation and opposition, mutual trust and mistrust. Learning the Portuguese language by the Cafres is one of the clearest signs of such acculturation (1st narrative).

Food is another rich field of cultural dialogue: the Portuguese try to understand the vegetarian regime of the Negroes and they themselves taste new dishes, tiger meat, for instance (2nd narrative).

However religion is the heart of acculturation, according to the missionary Catholic spirit which so deeply marked Portuguese oversea empire. Some Negroes, both leaders and their peoples, accept Christianism, receive Christian names and get used to worship the Cross mythogram, which they religiously and emotionally kiss.


Among Amerindians: the new world imaginary


Our study is based on the 11th narrative by Father Gaspar Afonso. Even if it has neither the freshness of Pêro Vaz de Caminha’s Letter of Brazil Discovery nor Magalhães Gândavo’s or Fernão Cardim’s various ethnological information, it will afford us the main characteristics commonly referred and it will also be an important document of the Portuguese expansion in the American continent. The edenic look, slavery and Jesuitic villages are the essential triangle in this narrative, the collective hero of which is the Brazilian Indian. Only secondarily is the Afro-Negro referred, as imported slave from Africa.

In our opinion, the three diversified looks that hero has in European eyes is an analogical paraphrases of biblical history of Man: Adam’s paradise; Sin at its slavery; Messianic liberation.


The Edenic Look

Nakedness in Brazilian Indians both impresses and delights Europeans, prisoners in civilizational chains, who admire in those strange creatures the pure, Genesis innocence of our biblical parents. The trust they show in their social way of living, having no locks in their houses, is something that touches European sensibility, too. But it is not the mythological Golden Age, as they are very skilful warriors. In fact Brazilian Indians are studied by the narrator either in their body’s outlook or in their inner soul in two different, combined contexts: war and peace. This latter is connected to festival rites, music, dance, rhythm and colour, in an amount of visual, audio and cinetic sensations.




The Brazilian Indian’s slavery is the counter-image of that edenic look we referred above. Now it is their real inhuman condition that makes Jesuit priests raise their voices against such injustice and cruelty.

One of the examples, in the 11th narrative, is the slaughter of Porto Rico Indians, especially that of a boy, son a master of 500 slaves who worked in a gold mine, who becomes himself a slave for bad luck or bad administration of his family’s wealth.

On the other hand the denounce of social injustice is explained by material and spiritual needs in a context which progressively enrich ambitious slave masters. It is also a reason appointed for local steals, a natural consequence of the economic and social instability, and not only coming from human perversity.

Curiously English piracy is a way of slave liberation, as it is referred in this same narrative. Nevertheless not only Amerindians but also African Negroes are commercialized since the 15th century, as the royal chronicler Zurara painfully writes. Sometimes they escape from urban centres and become free in the hinterland, less civilized regions. There are commonly named Simarrones.


The Jesuitic Action

Jesuitics act both in urban and rural centres. Their favourite aim is the dignity of the Indian or African slave. Of course it is a pastoral action based on faifh education and sacramental catechesis. But it also supplies some of the polis essential needs, by generous, pure, spiritual behaviour which deeply contrasts with the inhuman exploitation of the local masters.

Both in Cuba and in São Domingos island Jesuitic priests were courageous fighters for human dignity, against the general genocide.

According to the 11th narrative, in villages, priests educate children both in their physical appearance and in their spiritual capacities. To come closer to the natives they pray and teach in their own language, which Jesuitics consider sweet and delicate.


Among Asians: the amazement poetics

In a clear contrast with the cultural primitivism of Africans and Amerindians, Asian peoples are in general referred in the Tragic History of the Sea, despite their vices, as men and women of great dignity, owing their leaders fabulous wealth, heirs of a deep cultural knowledge, marked by the excellency of their religion.

It is a fact that Moors are the mortal enemies of Portuguese in the Eastern empire, mostly in the Indian ocean; that there are cannibals in Sumatra island, just like among Amerindians; that a military spirit is an evident characteristic among Asian peoples - there are countless pages in Portuguese literature (from Mendes Pinto’s Peregrinação to Barros’s or Couto’s Decades) which narrate inhuman and brutal attitudes marked by Asian cruelty - nevertheless the Portuguese chronicles in general show a clear admiration and even sympathy for the high development of Eastern societies, mainly Chinese, Japanese and Indian.


Sumatra Island

The first contact is based on the suspicion of the identification of the natives with cannibal Lampões what makes any closer approach rather difficult; besides between Portuguese and Sumatra natives there is no possible linguistic communication - both need a third element, a Javanese interpreter.

Despite these effective obstructions, trade is possible, at least in certain islands, Mitau, for example. In this case the good fame of Portuguese Malaca is a precious help in commercial relationship between both parts. A portrait of one of king Menencabo’s sons is a typical characterization of the Asian refinement and accurate education. As usual, in such meetings with Far-Eastern princes, both parts try to impress the Other with an excentric show of their power, in a military wealthy and even sumptuous exhibition. Unfortunately the Portuguese captain makes a blameful, imprudent mistake: instead of receiving the native lords himself he sends a gentleman of an inferior social rank what raises unsuspected difficulties in the so wished trade licence.

But, even when cooperation is possible it is never free nor unilateral: the necessary food and the supply of their goods is always achieved by the European trade in terms of their effective artillery superiority.


In Ceylon Island

Being an acute observer, the author of the Descrição de Columbo (Columbo Description), spreads his look over the whole island, referring land, its fertility, its animals and plants, people’s customs, not only in Ceylon but also in the small islands in the South of India. He writes of the different Indian castes, strangely starting by the most inferior of all, out of the Hindu caste system itself - the Pareas of Moroto village. Despite their miserable living conditions, they have their own honour sensibility, which the narrator refers when he describes their wedding local rites.

The worship of Nature is also something which clearly impresses the narrator.

But external honour deference is given to their leaders, like Simão Correia - whose name is an evident proof of local Portuguese acculturation - despite the fine irony used by Father Manuel Barradas to describe the local Naique (a military and political chief), calling him Cafrão (the Portuguese augmentative for Cafre, ugly, greedy, sensual and unwise. However, in a remarkable opposition to this pejorative example, the narrator refers another portrait of another Naique, that of Maduré. In this man, it is the splendour and the elegant refinement of great Indian princes or Maharajas that remains in the leader’s mind.


Selected Bibliography




Cod. 490 (Colecção Pombalina) - Portuguese National Library: Summario da viagê que fez Fernão d’ Alvarez Cabral ... Feyto por Manoel da mifquita Paleftrelo. MDLXIIII.

Additional Mss 28 487 - British Museum: Summario de todas as cousas que socederão a Dom Paulo de Lima Pereira... Por Diogo do Couto Chronista e guarda mor da torre do tombo da India.

CXVI / 1-16 - Biblioteca Pública e Arquivo Distrital de Évora: Viagem da não S. Francifco efcrita pelo P. Gafpar Afonfo hum dos oito da Compa(n)hia que nella hiamos anno de 1596.

Published Sources

Brito, Bernardo Gomes de, Hiftoria Tragico-Maritima. Em que fe efcrevem chronologicamente os Naufragios que tiveraõ as Naos de Portugal, depois que fe poz em exercicio a Navegaçaõ da India. 2 Tomos, Lisboa Occidental, na Officina da Congregaçaõ do Oratorio, Livraria d’Alcobaça, 1735-36.

Translations into English

Boxer, Charles Ralph, The Tragic History of the Sea, 1589-1622. Narratives od the Shipwrecks of the Portuguese East-Indiamen, São Tomé (1589), Santo Alberto (1593), São João Baptista (1622), and the journeys of the survivors in South East Africa. Edited from the original Portuguese by..., Cambridge, 1959.

Further Selections from the Tragic History of the Sea ,1559-1565. Narratives of the shipwrecks of the Portuguese East-Indiamen Aguia and Garça (1559), São Paulo (1561), and the misadventures of the Brazil-ship Santo Antonio (1565). Translated and edited from the original Portuguese by..., Cambridge, 1968.


Moniz, António Manuel de Andrade, A História Trágico-Marítima: Rosto de uma identidade numa Poética da condição Humana, 4 vols., Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 1995.

, As Lágrimas na Peregrinação de Fernão Mendes Pinto (Para um Estudo Semiótico, Intertextual e Sócio-Cultural), Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 1989.

Moniz, Maria Celeste F. Rego de Oliveira de Andrade, Glória e Miséria nas Décadas Da Ásia, de Diogo do Couto, Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 1995.


Various Authors, Quaderni Portoghesi, Nº 5, Pisa, Giardini Editori e Stampatori, 1979.

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, "Terminologia da História Trágico-Marítima. O Naufrágio",in III Colóquio Internacional de Estudos Luso-Brasileiros - Actas, Lisboa, 1959.

Boxer, Charles Ralph, "An Introduction to the História Trágico-Marítima", in Miscelânea de Estudos em Honra do Professor Hernâni Cidade, Lisboa, Faculdade de Letras, pp. 48-99.

"The Carreira da India, 1550-1570", in The Mariner’s Mirror, 46, 1, 1960. pp. 35-39.

"The Carreira da India (ships, men, cargoes, voyages) in O Centro de estudos Históricos Ultramarinos e as Comemorações Henriquinas, Lisboa, 1961, pp. 62-66 e in Studia, VIII, pp. 120-130.

"The Tragic History of the Sea 1559-1565, London, Hakluyt Society - Second Series, Vol. CXXXII, Cambridge, 1968.

Cidade, Hernâni, "A História Trágico-Marítima", in A Literatura Portuguesa e a Expansão Ultramarina, vol. I, Séculos XV-XVI, 2ª ed. Col. Studium, Coimbra, Arménio Amado Editora, Sucessor, 1963, pp. 311-324.

Duffy, James, Shipwreck and Empire, Harvard University Press, 1955.

Lanciani, Giulia, Os Relatos de Naufrágios na Literatura Portuguesa dos Séculos XVI e XVII, Lisboa, Biblioteca Breeve, Instituto de Língua Portuguesa, 1979.

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, Santa Maria da Barca. Três Testemunhos para um Naufrágio, Introdução e leitura de..., Lisboa, Imprensa-Nacional, 1983.

, Naufragi e Peregrinazioni Americane di Gaspar Afonso, Milano, Cisalpino-Goliardica, 1984.

, Tempeste e Naufragi sulla Via delle Indie, Biblioteca di Cultura / 440, Roma, Bulzoni Editore, 1991.

Oliveira, Fernão de, Livro da Fabrica das Naus, Lisboa, Academia das Sciencias, 1898.

, Arte da Guerra do Mar novamente efcrita por Fernando Oliueyra, & dirigida ao muyto magnifico Senhor, o Senhor Dom Nuno da Cunha Capitão das Galees do muyto poderofo Rey de Portugal Dom Iohão o terceyro, Coimbra, 1555, Lisboa, Arquivo Histórico da Marinha, comentários de Quirino da Fonseca e Botelho de Sousa, 1937.

Passos, Carlos de, Navegação Portuguesa dos Séculos XVI e XVII, Naufrágios Inéditos, Novos Subsídios para a História Trágico-Marítima de Portugal, Coimbra, Imprensa da universidade, 1917.

Rego, António da Silva, "Viagens Portuguesas à Índia em meados do século XVI", in Anais da Academia Portuguesa da História, II Série, V, Lisboa, 1954, pp. 71-142.

, "Quelques Problèmes de l’ Histoire Maritime de l’ Océan Indien", in Studia, Nº 11, Lisboa, 1963.

Sanceau, Elaine, "Vida a bordo de uma nau da Índia de Quinhentos", in Centro de Estudos da Marinha. Memórias, vol. IV, 1974, pp. 7-15.

Sérgio, António, "Em Torno da História Trágico-Marítima (informes para leitores nada eruditos, mas amadores das relações e visões globais dos acontecimentos)", in Ensaios, Vol. VIII, Lisboa, Editora Sá da Costa, 1974, pp. 75-174.

Simões, Manuel, A Literatura de Viagens nos Séculos XVI e XVII, Textos Literários, Lisboa, Editorial Comunicação, 1985.

Vasconcelos, José Augusto do Amaral Frazão de, Pilotos das Navegações Portuguesas dos Séculos XVI e XVII, Lisboa, 1942.

Viterbo, Francisco de Sousa, "Trabalhos Náuticos dos Portugueses nos Séculos XV e XVI", in Historias e Memorias da Academia Real das Sciencias de Lisboa, Lisboa, 1898-1900.

, Trabalhos Náuticos dos Portugueses nos Séculos XVI e XVII, Lisboa, 1900.


Lisbon, February 17, 1998

Foco Course "Language and Culture, Identity and Sharing" - Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa.