CAMINHA, Álvaro de
Captain of São Tomé Island between 1493 and 1499. A member of a family of the small nobility, he probably was born in Faro, where his sisters and an uncle also resided. In the letter nominating him captain, his feats on land and sea are recognized, ?in Guinea and in parts of Africa against the infidels;? these achievements, however, are unknown to us. A knight of the Royal House, he was one of the confidants of King João II, who not only conferred on him the position of tax collector of the Lisbon Customs House but, in 1488, also entrusted him with a confidential mission involving great responsibility. He was to go to England in a caravel well equipped with weapons and arrest or physically eliminate Lopo de Albuquerque, Count of Penamacor, a declared enemy of the Portuguese King, who was accused of organizing expeditions by foreigners to the Guinea coasts. For this purpose, Caminha received three thousand six hundred and ten French crowns and nine silver coins, an amount that, despite the lack of success of the mission, was deemed well spent.
On 23 November, 1493, he was given a letter of release for payments which were made when he was tax collector of the Customs House. A few months before, on 29 July of that year, he had received a donation charter granting him and his descendants the captaincy of São Tomé Island. The terms of the charter were similar to grants in other Atlantic islands, both in the list of economic privileges and fiscal rights and in the civil and criminal jurisdiction over the inhabitants, which excluded death penalties and dismemberment. This last exception would be eliminated by the royal charter dated 8 December, 1493, which ceased all limitations on Alvaro de Caminha´s jurisdiction, granting him, in addition, the power to nominate treasury and justice officials. Caminha was the third captain of São Tomé (after João de Paiva and João Pereira), and the only one that we are certain resided there permanently and worked effectively towards populating the island. His selection occurred within the context of deliberate action by the Crown to encourage colonization of the island. He promoted sending settlers and invested a significant amount of royal funds in the expedition commanded by the new donatary. The objectives were essentially to develop the production of sugar and to create a solid base of support and supply for the Mina commerce, which would also be an outpost and serve as a seaport for ships either headed to South Africa and to India or returning from there, a matter that was the top priority on the date the decision was made.
With the objective of promoting the sugar industry, specialized laborers (carpenters, blacksmiths, and at least one Madeiran ?sugar master?) accompanied Caminha and beasts of burden were also sent, as well as boilers and other copper utensils, which were essential for the first mills. To fulfill the mission of populating the island, which had not been adequately accomplished when left to the sole initiative of the captains, the King sent some expatriates with Alvaro de Caminha, whose penalties were reduced by exile. In addition, an unknown number of children were also boarded (Valentim Fernandes speaks of 2,000), who had been taken from Jewish couples, who had recently entered into Portugal, due to being expelled from Castille.
As a way of promoting voluntary settlement, and since the ?island is so distant from our kingdoms that the people do not want to live there unless given ample freedoms and privileges,? the royal charters of 21 November and 11 December, 1493 granted the inhabitants great privileges, the most important of which was the right to trade freely any merchandise, except gold, in the coastal frontier, from the Real River to the kingdom of Congo.
From an economic point of view, Alvaro de Caminha´s intervention as captain resulted in the increase of the slave trade with the African coast and in the clearing of land for cultivation in the North and Northeast areas of the island. Although plantations were cleared and the cultivation of sugar cane was promoted there, no sugar mills were set up during his government, because other projects took priority and many of the technicians, who were indispensable, died before the production of cane reached the required quantity and quality.
One of Caminha´s great preoccupations was establishing the settlement that would be the city of São Tomé. Although in general the houses were made of wood and palms, he wanted to build a nucleus of whitewashed stone buildings with a well fortified tower, as a residence for the captains, a monastery for the Franciscan Friars, which was never occupied, and a church in honor of Our Lady.
I'll with fevers (probably malaria) since the beginning of 1499, the captain saw his condition worsen during the month of April and prepared for death by dictating an extensive will to Rui Dias, Apostolic Notary Public, which currently constitutes fundamental documentation of the first phase of colonization of the island. He died on 28 April, 1499, and was burried in Nossa Senhora da Conceição Church. Devoid of direct heirs at the time of his death, a cousin who resided on the island, Pedro Alvares de Caminha, was in line to succeed him and, for this purpose, gathered the support of the majority of the inhabitants. The king, however, opted to give the position to Fernão de Melo, nobleman of the Royal House, who was designated captain on 11 December, 1499.
Descobrimentos portugueses: documentos para a sua história, public. e pref. de João Martins da Silva Marques, vol. III, Lisboa, Instituto de Alta Cultura, 1971. MORENO, H. Baquero, ?Álvaro de Caminha, capitão-mor da ilha de São Tomé?, in Congresso Internacional Bartolomeu Dias e a sua época: actas, Porto, Universidade /CNCDP, 1989, vol. I, pp. 299-311; Portugaliae Monumenta Africana, vol. II, Lisboa, CNCDP/INCM, 1995.
Author: Arlindo Caldeira
Translated by: Maria João Pimentel