Born in Barreiro, a soldier, Álvaro Velho is a character about whom not much is known. He was a member of the Vasco da Gama fleet which sailed from Restelo to India on 8th July, 1497. During most of the outward voyage he was on board of the São Rafael carrack ship, captained by Paulo da Gama, but the position he took there is not known.
He was also one of the thirteen members of the entourage that went with Vasco da Gama ashore, to the hearing with the Zamorin of Calicut.
The authorship of the anonymous ?Relação? [a description] of that voyage is controversial, for it could have been Álvaro Velho or João de Sá, clerk of the São Rafael. It is even possible that the author was one of the other members of the entourage, whose names are not known. Yet, there is a certain consensus in awarding the authorship to Álvaro Velho, an opinion shared by Diogo Köpke, the first publisher of the text in the 1830s. Anyway, as Sanjay Subrahmanyam remarks, the author?s identification is not important to the analysis of the report.
The ?Relação? is the only contemporary document which reports in detail the 1497-1499 voyages. The voyage until the Cape of Good Hope (rounded on 22nd November, 1497) takes up relatively little room in the manuscript. There are some lines describing the contact between the Portuguese and the African of the Santa Helena and São Brás Bays and Álvaro Velho himself, as the presumed author of the text, went ashore.
As the text progresses and describes the eastern African shore, it is more favourable in depicting the local inhabitants; the conversations held with these led Velho to believe that the Portuguese were close to fulfilling the desired commercial purpose of the voyage.
When they reached the island of Mozambique, the author was on board of Nicolau Coelho?s Bérrio. After the Mozambique and Malindi incidents, the account tells of the suspicions towards the ruling class of the region. So many suspicions that in Calicut Vasco da Gama himself will only touch land on 28th May, 1498, some days after having arrived, together with Álvaro Velho and eleven of his men. The account describes the events while on land: meeting the Zamorin, the curiosity felt by the inhabitants, the misunderstandings and the protocol mishaps, as well as the rising tension between the Portuguese and the Muslim merchants. Velho also describes the physical appearance of the people, the town and the buildings.
These were the first features of the reality the Portuguese would have to deal with in the following years.
The terms of comparison used by the author refer the Portuguese and Christian realities: temples seen as churches, dignitaries as bishops. And the São Brás oxen reminded him of the ones of Alentejo, and Malindi of Alcochete.
What is relevant and present in all the lines about Calicut is that Velho believed that the inhabitants were Christians ? although somewhat debased ? and regarded several actions and aspects of the local people as being those of Christians.
The manuscript of the ?Relação? still dwells on other themes. The first is a list of all the realms south of Calicut and respective produces, something the author gathered from not very exact information given by Gaspar da Gama, a Jew imprisoned by the Portuguese at the island of Anjadip. The third part of the manuscript comprises a list of the presumed Portuguese-Malayalam vocabulary.
After the fleet of Vasco da Gama sailed from the port of Calicut ? on 29th August, 1498 ? the ?Relação? describes the adventures of the return voyage to Lisbon, where they arrived in September 1499.
Nevertheless, the ?Relação? meets its end, for reasons unknown, on 28th April, 1499, when the fleet reaches Rio Grande on the Coast of Guinea.
Nothing further is known about the author, but the fact that the ?Relação? ends when they were sailing along the coast of Guinea was used by some authors to defend the thesis that Álvaro Velho had stayed behind at Guinea for eight years, thus being the same Álvaro Velho who later provided information to Valentim Fernandes for his 1507 ?Descrição da Guiné? [Description of Guinea].
AMES, Glenn J., Em nome de Deus: The Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama to Índia, 1497-1499, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2009. SUBRAHMANYAM, Sanjay, A Carreira e a Lenda de Vasco da Gama, Lisboa, C.N.C.D.P., 1998.
Author: Pedro Cerdeira
Translated by: Maria das Mercês Pacheco