The Terrifying Wreck Of The “São João”

By the close of the fifteenth century, the maritime enterprise of Portugal had established a reliable network of trading routes from the Iberian peninsula to the Indian Ocean.  These routes were won at great cost; we note the results of the budding Age of Exploration, but forget the fearsome human toll that this Age exacted.  Shipwreck, loss at sea, loss of life on land, loss of property:  any one of these misfortunes—or a combination of them—could befall the intrepid explorer or trader at any time. 

The História Trágico-Marítima is a fascinating collection of tales of shipwrecks and survival adventures from the second half of the sixteenth century.  This multi-volume work was a product of the efforts of author Bernardo Gomes de Brito, and was published in Lisbon in 1735.  Using this antique work as a guide, we will here relate the grisly tale of the wreck of the great galleon São João, which took place off the coast of southern Africa in 1552.

The São João was captained by Manoel Sousa de Sepulveda.  We are told that he came from a good family in Portugal and had made a name for himself in the Indian trade.  At some point he was granted control of the trade conducted from the island of Diu, which is located on India’s western coast.  In 1552 he decided to return to Portugal, and departed from the city of Cochin (today Kochi), a port city on India’s Malabar Coast.  His galleon was outfitted in style, and contained a full cargo of valuable Eastern exotica.  In all, the total number of passengers and crew numbered about six hundred, which was a huge total for ships of that era.  Also aboard were Sousa’s wife Leonor de Sá, the daughter of Portugal’s general of the Indies, her children, and his brother-in-law Pantaleão de Sá. 

Title page of the Historia Tragico-Maritima, 1735

The ship left India in February 1552 and slowly made its way back to Portugal.  By early April it was sailing along the coast of “Caffraria,” an old name for the eastern coast of southern Africa.  When the ship began to traverse the Cape of Good Hope, its luck changed for the worse.  Severe thunderstorms and lightning pounded the ship; the seas became turbulent; and towering waves threatened to send the vessel to the bottom.  The crew debated whether to try to round the Cape, or to turn back to India; they decided to act prudently, and chose the latter course.  But by this time the São João had been seriously weakened by her encounter with the storm.  As she began to take on water, the crew tried to lighten her by jettisoning every box of cargo.  It soon became clear that the vessel’s only option was to head for the unknown coast of southern Africa.

The ship struck rocks just offshore, driven by wind and wave.  Sousa was able to save his wife and children, along with some of his valuables.  Those who could not make their way ashore in the rowboats had to swim for it and hope for the best; three hundred of the passengers and crew perished in the effort.  The survivors were trapped in unknown and probably hostile territory, with very little food and water at their disposal.  They lit large fires to warm themselves and raise their morale; a small amount of flour salvaged from the ship was distributed to ward off hunger. 

After much debate about what to do, the decision was made to walk in the direction of the Portuguese settlements of Sofala, near the Santo Spiritu River, in what is today Mozambique.  Unfortunately this was about six hundred miles north of where they had been shipwrecked; but there was no other alternative.  Sousa gave a short speech to the other survivors and closed with these words, asking that the others not forsake him if he became unable to walk:

Uma mercê vos quero pedir, a qual é que me não desampareis, nem deixeis, dado caso que eu não possa andar tanto, como os que mais andarem, por causa de minha mulher e filhos.  E assim todos juntos quererá Nosso Senhor pela sua misericordia ajudar-nos.

[I want to ask of you a mercy, which is that you do not forsake me, nor leave me, in case I cannot walk as much as those who can do more, because of my wife and children. And so, all together, Our Lord, for his mercy, will want to help us].

The trek was a terribly difficult one; their way was impeded by thickets, vegetation, brambles, streams, and rocks.  They were forced to forage for fruits and other edibles.  After about four months of effort, the survivors reached the Santo Spiritu River.  The local king welcomed the survivors, told them they were moving in the right direction, but also warned them about a neighboring king who was not so well-disposed to foreigners.  He advised that they take a long detour around the domain of this hostile prince.  Sousa was determined to reach a Portuguese settlement as soon as possible, however, and pressed on.  It would prove to be a disastrous decision.

The account of the wreck of the “São João”

The survivors were soon met by a party of about two hundred armed tribesmen.  The tribesmen appeared to be friendly, and showed no overt hostility; they even told Sousa that he should visit their king, who would be happy to guide them through his territory.  Seduced by these promises, and desperate for food and water, Sousa led his people to meet the local chieftain; the Portuguese bartered with him and tried to establish good relations.  He even asked the leader if he could build rudimentary shelters there for his people while awaiting a rescue expedition to arrive from Sofala.  The chieftain agreed on one condition:  that the Portuguese surrender their muskets and swords, since their presence, said the chieftain, his people found to be “frightening.”  Manoel de Sousa’s wife warned him not to disarm voluntarily, and that to do so would place them at at the mercy of unknown entities.  But Sousa chose not to listen.      

As soon as the Portuguese surrendered their weapons, they were treacherously attacked by the chieftain’s men.  Those who resisted were killed, and all their provisions were stolen; Sousa’s wife was even stripped of her clothing.  In horror and shame, she tried to conceal her nakedness from her servants and the other survivors.  His party now scattered and destroyed, Sousa lingered in the area for some time, trying to forage for food and keep his family alive.  As Bernardo Gomes de Brito, the author of the História Trágico-Marítima,says:

Quando Manoel de Sousa isto vio, bem se lembraria quão grande erro tinha feito em dar as armas, e foi força de fazer o que lhe mandavam, pois não era mais em sua mão. 

[When Manoel de Sousa saw this, he would remember what a great mistake he had made in giving up the weapons, and he was strong enough to do what he was told, since it was no longer in his hand].

His wife and children soon starved, however; and after burying them, he himself vanished, probably the victim of hostile tribesmen.  Perhaps he wandered off into the African wilderness, tormented with pain and guilt, dying ultimately of exposure and shame.  Twenty-six survivors were enslaved by the local chieftain.  They were later discovered by itinerant Portuguese traders in the area, who bought their freedom for four piasters per head.  A piaster was roughly equivalent to the Spanish silver dollar or “piece of eight.”  It was a horrific end to what might have been a heroic tale of survival and endurance.   

In retrospect, Sousa’s decision to trust a native chieftain whom he was specifically told not to trust, seems unbelievable, but is nevertheless supported by the record.  Even worse, his disastrous agreement to turn over all his weapons condemned his family, himself, and many of his band of survivors to predictable and miserable deaths. 



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