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Chapter III 

The author embarks with the patriarch, narrowly escapes shipwreck near the isle of Socotora; enters the Arabian Gulf, and the Red Sea. Some account of the coast of the Red Sea.

The patriarch having met with many obstacles and disappointments in his return to Abyssinia, grew impatient of being so long absent from his church. Lopo Gomez d'Abreu had made him an offer at Bazaim of fitting out three ships at his own expense, provided a commission could be procured him to cruise in the Red Sea. This proposal was accepted by the patriarch, and a commission granted by the viceroy. While we were at Diou, waiting for these vessels, we received advice from Aethiopia that the emperor, unwilling to expose the patriarch to any hazard, thought Dagher, a port in the mouth of the Red Sea, belonging to a prince dependent on the Abyssins, a place of the greatest security to land at, having already written to that prince to give him safe passage through his dominions. We met here with new delays; the fleet that was to transport us did not appear, the patriarch lost all patience, and his zeal so much affected the commander at Diou, that he undertook to equip a vessel for us, and pushed the work forward with the utmost diligence. At length, the long-expected ships entered the port; we were overjoyed, we were transported, and prepared to go on board. Many persons at Diou, seeing the vessels so well fitted out, desired leave to go this voyage along with us, imagining they had an excellent opportunity of acquiring both wealth and honour. We committed, however, one great error in setting out, for having equipped our ships for privateering, and taken no merchandise on board, we could not touch at any of the ports of the Red Sea. The patriarch, impatient to be gone, took leave in the most tender manner of the governor and his other friends, recommended our voyage to the Blessed Virgin, and in the field, before we went on shipboard, made a short exhortation, so moving and pathetic, that it touched the hearts of all who heard it. In the evening we went on board, and early the next morning being the 3rd of April, 1625, we set sail.

After some days we discovered about noon the island Socotora, where we proposed to touch. The sky was bright and the wind fair, nor had we the least apprehension of the danger into which we were falling, but with the utmost carelessness and jollity held on our course. At night, when our sailors, especially the Moors, were in a profound sleep (for the Mohammedans, believing everything forewritten in the decrees of God, and not alterable by any human means, resign themselves entirely to Providence), our vessel ran aground upon a sand bank at the entrance of the harbour. We got her off with the utmost difficulty, and nothing but a miracle could have preserved us. We ran along afterwards by the side of the island, but were entertained with no other prospect than of a mountainous country, and of rocks that jutted out over the sea, and seemed ready to fall into it. In the afternoon, putting into the most convenient ports of the island, we came to anchor; very much to the amazement and terror of the inhabitants, who were not used to see any Portuguese ships upon their coasts, and were therefore under a great consternation at finding them even in their ports. Some ran for security to the mountains, others took up arms to oppose our landing, but were soon reconciled to us, and brought us fowls, fish, and sheep, in exchange for India calicoes, on which they set a great value. We left this island early the next morning, and soon came in sight of Cape Gardafui, so celebrated heretofore under the name of the Cape of Spices, either because great quantities were then found there, or from its neighbourhood to Arabia the Happy, even at this day famous for its fragrant products. It is properly at this cape

(the most eastern part of Africa) that the Gulf of Arabia begins, which at Babelmandel loses its name, and is called the Red Sea. Here, though the weather was calm, we found the sea so rough, that we were tossed as in a high wind for two nights; whether this violent agitation of the water proceeded from the narrowness of the strait, or from the fury of the late storm, I know not; whatever was the cause, we suffered all the hardships of a tempest. We continued our course towards the Red Sea, meeting with nothing in our passage but a gelve, or kind of boat, made of thin boards, sewed together, with no other sail than a mat. We gave her chase, in hopes of being informed by the crew whether there were any Arabian vessels at the mouth of the strait; but the Moors, who all entertain dismal apprehensions of the Franks, plied their oars and sail with the utmost diligence, and as soon as they reached land, quitted their boat, and scoured to the mountains. We saw them make signals from thence, and imagining they would come to a parley, sent out our boat with two sailors and an Abyssin, putting the ships off from the shore, to set them free from any suspicion of danger in coming down. All this was to no purpose, they could not be drawn from the mountain, and our men had orders not to go on shore, so they were obliged to return without information. Soon after we discovered the isle of Babelmandel, which gives name to the strait so called, and parts the sea that surrounds it into two channels; that on the side of Arabia is not above a quarter of a league in breadth, and through this pass almost all the vessels that trade to or from the Red Sea. The other, on the side of Aethiopia, though much larger, is more dangerous, by reason of the shallows, which make it necessary for a ship, though of no great burthen, to pass very near the island, where the channel is deeper and less embarrassed. This passage is never made use of but by those who would avoid meeting with the Turks who are stationed on the coast of Arabia; it was for this reason that we chose it. We passed it in the night, and entered that sea, so renowned on many accounts in history, both sacred and profane.

In our description of this famous sea, an account of which may justly be expected in this place, it is most convenient to begin with the coast of Arabia, on which part at twelve leagues from the mouth stands the city of Moca, a place of considerable trade. Forty leagues farther is the Isle of Camaram, whose inhabitants are annoyed with little serpents, which they call basilisks, which, though very poisonous and deadly, do not, as the ancients have told us, kill with their eyes, or if they have so fatal a power, it is not at least in this place. Sailing ninety leagues farther, you see the noted port of Jodda, where the pilgrims that go to Mecca and Medina unlade those rich presents which the zeal of different princes is every day accumulating at the tomb of Mahomet. The commerce of this place, and the number of merchants that resort thither from all parts of the world, are above description, and so richly laden are the ships that come hither, that when the Indians would express a thing of inestimable price, they say, "It is of greater value than a ship of Jodda." An hundred and eighteen leagues from thence lies Toro, and near it the ruins of an ancient monastery. This is the place, if the report of the inhabitants deserves any credit, where the Israelites miraculously passed through the Red Sea on dry land; and there is some reason for imagining the tradition not ill grounded, for the sea is here only three leagues in breadth. All the ground about Toro is barren for want of water, which is only to be found at a considerable distance, in one fountain, which flows out of the neighbouring mountains, at the foot of which there are still twelve palm-trees. Near Toro are several wells, which, as the Arabs tell us, were dug by the order of Moses to quiet the clamours of the thirsty Israelites. Suez lies in the bottom of the Gulf, three leagues from Toro, once a place of note, now reduced, under the Turks, to an inconsiderable village, where the miserable inhabitants are forced to fetch water at three leagues' distance. The ancient Kings of Egypt conveyed the waters of the Nile to this place by an artificial canal, now so choked with sand, that there are scarce any marks remaining of so noble and beneficial a work.

The first place to be met with in travelling along the coast of Africa is Rondelo, situate over against Toro, and celebrated for the same miraculous passage. Forty-five leagues from thence is Cocir. Here ends that long chain of mountains that reaches from this place even to the entrance of the Red Sea. In this prodigious ridge, which extends three hundred leagues, sometimes approaching near the sea, and sometimes running far up into the land, there is only one opening, through which all that merchandise is conveyed, which is embarked at Rifa, and from thence distributed through all the east. These mountains, as they are uncultivated, are in some parts shaded with large forests, and in others dry and bare. As they are exceedingly high, all the seasons may be here found together; when the storms of winter beat on one side, on the other is often a serene sky and a bright sunshine. The Nile runs here so near the shore that it might without much difficulty be turned through this opening of the mountains into the Red Sea, a design which many of the Emperors have thought of putting in execution, and thereby making a communication between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, but have been discouraged either by the greatness of the expense or the fear of laying great part of Egypt under water, for some of that country lies lower than sea.

Distant from Rondelo a hundred and thirty leagues is the Isle of Suaquem, where the Bassa of that country chooses his residence, for the convenience of receiving the tribute with greater exactness, there being a large trade carried on here with the Abyssins. The Turks of Suaquem have gardens on the firm land, not above a musket shot from the island, which supply them with many excellent herbs and fruits, of which I doubt whether there be not a greater quantity on this little spot than on the whole coast of Africa besides, from Melinda to Suez. For if we except the dates which grow between Suez and Suaquem, the ground does not yield the least product; all the necessaries of life, even water, is wanting. Nothing can support itself in this region of barrenness but ostriches, which devour stones, or anything they meet with; they lay a great number of eggs, part of which they break to feed their young with. These fowls, of which I have seen many, are very tame, and when they are pursued, stretch out their wings, and run with amazing swiftness. As they have cloven feet, they sometimes strike up the stones when they run, which gave occasion to the notion that they threw stones at the hunters, a relation equally to be credited with those of their eating fire and digesting iron. Those feathers which are so much valued grow under their wings: the shell of their eggs powdered is an excellent remedy for sore eyes.

The burning wind spoken of in the sacred writings, I take to be that which the natives term arur, and the Arabs uri, which blowing in the spring, brings with it so excessive a heat, that the whole country seems a burning oven; so that there is no travelling here in this dreadful season, nor is this the only danger to which the unhappy passenger is exposed in these uncomfortable regions. There blows in the months of June, July, and August, another wind, which raises mountains of sand and carries them through the air; all that can be done in this case is when a cloud of sand rises, to mark where it is likely to fall, and to retire as far off as possible; but it is very usual for men to be taken unexpectedly, and smothered in the dust. One day I found the body of a Christian, whom I knew, upon the sand; he had doubtless been choked by these winds. I recommended his soul to the divine mercy and buried him. He seemed to have been some time dead, yet the body had no ill smell. These winds are most destructive in Arabia the Desert.

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