In 1444, Fernandes João, a squire, travelled in the fleet commanded by Antão Gonçalves, and was left in the area of the River of Gold to gather information about the Azenegue Berbers [African natives of the region south of Sahara]. He was collected by Antão Gonçalves seven months later, in 1445. We do not have much information about this Portuguese adventurer, but his biography is particularly important because he was the first known «lançado» of the Portuguese Expansion.
The men called «Lançados» were those who explored the backlands of the African continent, acting upon superior orders or by their own initiative, with the intention to gather information about the habits, languages and trade of the locals and about geographical aspects, especially about the hydrographical nets. Some of these were men sentenced to exile, convicted with severe punishments (including death) because of their crimes; but their penalties could be substituted for this extremely hard service by the King.
According to Zurara, a Portuguese chronicler, this was not the case of João Fernandes, who volunteered to explore the region, the language and the traded products. When he was collected by the fleet of Antão Gonçalves in the following year, the same chronicler wrote that the local population that had welcomed João Fernandes felt sorry when he left, which, if this was true, showed the strong connection they had established. Zurara also wrote that João Fernandes, despite his undeniable adventurous spirit, sought to be careful when he tried to contact the relatives of a Moor who had been taken captive in the previous travel of Antão Gonçalves, in 1442. This Moor had been taken to the Kingdom but managed to return without being ever a slave.
Fernandes baptized the land that he had visited as the ?Land of the Blacks?, where nomad tribes, which practiced animal husbandry, lived. The region was described as having few rivers, the short amount of water available being taken from wells; therefore, the trees were of small size. Although the population did not speak the Arabic Language, they used its symbols and they were converted to Islam. Because they did not have an organized military system, they avoided open conflicts with the black tribes of the South. Still, they were able to capture some of their enemies and sell them in the North of Africa.
In the ?Land of the Blacks?, João Fernandes received information about the ?Reign of Meli?, which had already been registered in charts and which was considered an important meeting place of Africa?s hinterlands trade routes. This Kingdom, that Zurara doubted existed, had already been visited by the famous Arabian traveller Ibn Batuta. During his stay with the nomad tribes, João Fernandes was invited by two knights to go to the house of a rich Merchant, Aude Meimão, where more than 150 people lived, and he was very well received by him. When, in 1445, he was collected by Antão Gonçalves, João Fernandes told the captain about the existence of this Moor and his will to make business with the Portuguese. In fact, in the same year, Aude Meimão exchanged nine black slaves and a small amount of gold powder for a small quantity of goods, which did not have much value from the point of view of the European market. This meeting was registered in cartography with the name of the Cape of Ransom.
ALBUQUERQUE, Luís de, Navegadores, Viajantes e Aventureiros Portugueses, Lisboa, Caminho, 1992. ZURARA, Gomes Eanes de, Crónica dos feitos notáveis que se passaram na conquista de Guiné por mandado do infante D. Henrique, 2 vols., Lisboa, Academia Portuguesa de História, 1981.
Author: Teresa Lacerda
Translated by: Ana Pereira