When I began reading British historian Peter Frankopan’s 2015 best-selling book ‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the world’, I had an inkling that Goa would feature at some point(s) in it. And it does, several times. So no surprises there.

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But the book not only re-emphasised what was already common knowledge, but also shed new light on historical episodes involving Goa that certainly I had hitherto not been aware of.

Take the story of the ‘Madre de Deus’, for instance. It made me look it up further, and there hangs a truly exciting tale.

It was the year 1592, nearly a century after the Portuguese 1510 conquest of Goa. Goa was experiencing its ‘Dourada’ phase, and the Armadas da Índia (Portuguese India Armadas), large fleets of ships did the Carreira da Índia (“India run”) annually back and forth between Lisbon and Goa. The timing of these trips depended on the monsoon wind. It was a southwesterly wind (i.e. blew from East Africa to India) between May and September, and became a northeasterly (from India to Africa) between October and April.

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Typically the ships would commence the return journey from Goa in December-January, groaning under the weight of spices, silks, textiles and precious stones and other booty. Once in the Mozambique channel, they would catch the Agulhas Current to round the Cape of Good Hope. In the Atlantic, their sails would catch the southeast trade winds to the west of Ascension and Saint Helena as far as the doldrums, then sail almost straight north to the Azores islands, where they would catch the prevailing westerlies, sailing due west into Lisbon.

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Since 1580 (and this would prevail until 1640), the Iberian Union had joined the crowns of Portugal and Spain, which put the 1373 Anglo-Portuguese Treaty into abeyance. The Anglo-Spanish war (1585-1604) was in full swing, with Spain still smarting from the rout of their mighty Armada in 1588 (which had actually set sail from Lisbon) by England. Portuguese vessels were now fair game for the English Royal Navy.

Ever since Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church in 1534 to form the Church of England in order to marry his mistress Ann Boleyn, England found itself isolated from the rest of Christendom, while Spain assumed an ever-increasingly dominant role within it.

The 1494 Tratado de Tordesillas (Treaty of Tordesillas) had neatly divided the ‘newly discovered lands’ outside Europe between the Portuguese Empire and the Crown of Castile, with the approval of the Pope.

Now, with the Iberian Union of these two, plundered riches from both halves of the world poured into Iberia, while England, which didn’t recognize the treaty, looked on enviously.

But whether it was Aztec gold or Indian spices or Chinese silks, the riches arrived by sea, and this is where England struck, and often.

In June 1592, the English pursued the 800-ton Portuguese carrack ‘Santa Cruz’ and ran it aground onto one of the Azores islands. Under threat of torture, the Portuguese crew revealed that a fleet of five ships (including the Santa Cruz) had departed from Goa, and that the others were expected soon: ‘Buen Jesus admiral’, ‘Madre de Deus’, ‘San Bernardo’, and ‘San Christophoro’.  ‘Madre de Deus’, captained by Fernão de Mendonça Furtado, was the largest of the fleet, a thirty-two gun vessel of 1,600 tons, one of the Portuguese crown’s greatest and one of the largest sailing ships ever built.

She was sighted on 3 August, and engaged by the much smaller, perhaps aptly-named ‘Dainty’. Others: ‘Golden Dragon’, ‘Roebuck’, ‘Foresight’ and ‘Prudence’ joined the attack as the ‘Battle of Flores’ (so named as it took place off Flores, one of the Azores islands) progressed.

Madre de Deus

The ‘Madre de Deus was boarded at 10 pm after bloody hand-to-hand combat, its decks strewn with bodies. It was nearly destroyed when a cabin filled with ammunition caught fire, but saved by quick English action on account of her precious cargo.

Capt. John Burrough, who along with Sir Walter Raleigh had led the expedition, wrote in his report:  “God’s great favour towards our nation, who by putting this purchase into our hands hath manifestly discovered those secret trades & Indian riches, which hitherto lay strangely hidden, and cunningly concealed from us”.

Among these riches were chests filled with jewels and pearls, gold and silver coins, ambergris, rolls of the highest-quality cloth, fine tapestries, 425 tons of pepper, 45 tons of cloves, 35 tons of cinnamon, 3 tons of mace and 3 of nutmeg, 2.5 tons of benjamin (a highly aromatic balsamic resin used for perfumes and medicines), 25 tons of cochineal and 15 tons of ebony.

There was also a document, printed at Macau in 1590, containing valuable information on the China and Japan trade, which was “enclosed in a case of sweet Cedar wood, and lapped up almost a hundredfold in fine Calicut-cloth, as though it had been some incomparable jewel”.

The haul from the Madre de Deus, which was then towed into Dartmouth harbor on England’s south coast, was reckoned to be at last half a million pounds, worth more than half of England’s regular annual imports at the time.

While at Dartmouth, it was subjected to looting on “an industrial scale”, from “all manner of traders, dealers, cutpurses, and thieves from miles around.”  By the time order was restored by Sir Walter Raleigh, the cargo’s value had shrunk to £140,000.

Despite this, ten freighters were needed to carry the treasure around the coast and up the River Thames to London. Thanks largely to the haul from the ‘Madre de Deus’, the expedition yielded the reigning monarch of England Elizabeth I a 20-fold return on her investment.

Nevertheless, lessons has been learnt: When later ships were brought into the Thames for unloading, the dockers were made to dress in “suits of canvas doublet without pockets, to reduce opportunities for theft.”

The other result of this incident was that England saw first-hand how staggering were the riches of the East. The Macau document became the template for voyages that would eventually lead to the establishing of the East India Company in 1600.

Isn’t it ironic? A ship that set sail from Goa gets ambushed by the English off the faraway Azores, and becomes the stimulus for what would eventually be the British rule over the Indian peninsula?

I try to imagine the port in Goa (today’s Old Goa, surely?) where such a large cargo was loaded. Who did the loading? Who were the traders responsible for the cargo; were they Portuguese descendentes, mestiços, or native Goans?  How did they deal with such a catastrophic loss? Was the cargo insured against such eventualities? It was a colossal gamble, loading such a precious consignment in one ship. Even setting aside enemy raids (and it was wartime, so a clear and present danger), there was always the risk of shipwreck due to stormy weather. Did it change the way future shipments were sent out?

So many unanswered questions.

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 December 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)