Peregrinação is a tale of two heroes – António Faria and St Francis Xavier – says TEOTONIO R DE SOUZA
Peregrinação, in 226 chapters, is a fascinating European account of Asia of the age of Iberian discoveries. It is a sort of Portuguese version of Marco Polo´s Travels, and concentrates curiously in the same region. While in Portugal the book was printed twice in the 17th century (1614, 1678), there were six Spanish, four English, four German, two French and two Dutch editions issued during the same period. Its popularity may be gauged by the fact that even the Lusiads saw only six foreign editions in that century. Till date, the number of editions in different world languages certainly exceeds 170.
A new English-Portuguese edition in four volumes, a collaborative work of a dozen-odd scholars, has been released a couple of months ago in Lisbon to mark the 500th birth anniversary of the author: Fernão Mendes Pinto and the Peregrinação, 4 vols. ed. Jorge Santos Alves, Lisboa, Fundação Oriente / Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 2010. Vol. 1: Studies - 375 pp. - Vol. 2: Restored Text - 797 pp. - Vol. 3: Notes - 335 pp. - Vol. 4: Indexes - 107 pp. - ISBN 978-972-785-096-9 Price: € 150 (Rs9,150).
Fernão Mendes Pinto left for India in his late teens to find some remedy for his miserable life conditions. He returned to Portugal in September 1558, after nearly 21 long years in Asia and decided to leave a record of his memories before he died on 8 July 1583. He claims that if he had to record all he experienced, he would need the oceans for ink and the skies for paper. His Peregrinação is part of the contemporary literature of voyages, and since much of it circulated among erudite persons, he draws from others and adapts it to his plan of work. Camões, the author of the Portuguese national epic, was one of his contemporaries. He seems to have drawn information from the writings of the Portuguese chronicler João de Barros and Bras de Albuquerque, the son of Afonso de Albuquerque, author of Comentários. He also draws from the Dominican friar Gaspar da Cruz, author of Tratado das Coisas da China, published recently, just like the voluminous work of the Jesuit Luis Fróis; that too had to wait till the very recent past to be published. These works were not likely to be best-sellers and could not find interested publishers. That was also one of the reasons why the Peregrinação was published only posthumously, but still in 1614.
The Peregrinação contains the earliest reference to the introduction of guns into Japan through the mediation of the Portuguese, a fact that changed the political organisation of that country. Firearms gave the advantage to Nobunaga against his feudal rivals. Fernão Mendes Pinto was one of the first Portuguese to have been in Japan at least four times. He even assisted Francis Xavier (later Goencho Saib) with funds to build a church in Japan.
The main personage in Peregrinação is António Faria, a Portuguese pirate in South East Asia, presented as a fascinating hero. He was his co-villager from Montemor-o-Velho, and benefited from his patronage during his adventures. The other hero, of a diametrically different type, is St Francis Xavier, whom Fernão Mendes Pinto met in Japan in 1551. Possibly attracted by his zeal and influence, he gained his vocation for the Society of Jesus. But the habits of free life and adventure acquired during two decades of wanderings across the seas and lands of Asia, perhaps, did not permit him to settle into a novitiate routine.
Peregrinação was looked upon till very recently as fiction, but more recent research has revealed that Fernão Mendes Pinto was telling more truth than it was generally believed. He was even given the bad name of `liar'. The Jesuits contributed partly to this notoriety: From Gianpietro Maffei, who interviewed him in his home before he died, to George Schurhammer, the master biographer of St Francis Xavier, who utilised him as a contemporary witness for preparing the process of canonisation and for promoting the image of St Francis Xavier, all were wary of the dubious life background of the author of Peregrinação and the one-time benefactor and novice of the Society of Jesus.
As Professor Boxer has rightly pointed out in one of his appreciations of Peregrinação, the Jesuits tended to wipe out the written records of those who left the Society or denigrate the character of those who were expelled from it. I would endorse the existence of such a tendency till very recent times, or at least till Vatican II brought new ways of looking at religious life, ceasing to judge ex-members as some kind of delinquents.
One important contribution of Fernão Mendes Pinto is his ability to combine facts and fiction in order to present to the posterity the real world in which he moved in Asia. His text had to pass through the censors of the Inquisition, and he adapted his style accordingly. He made others say what he wanted to say.
He has left a vivid picture of the greed and violence of the Portuguese adventurers that entered South East Asia and far-eastern seas in significant numbers after the death of Afonso de Albuquerque in a new policy adopted by the Portuguese home government. It came to be known as grande soltura (free-for-all) and increasingly more Portuguese sought fortunes in private trade, away from the controls of the Goa-based government. Recent historical scholarship has designated it as the Portuguese `shadow empire' (império da sombra) in the Bay of Bengal and beyond. The clues provided in Peregrinação, deliberately woven as a puzzle of truth and fiction, need further historical research to unravel the full contents of the satire that was conceived as sharply critical of the ambivalent behaviour of the contemporary Portuguese colonial society in Asia.
To conclude, his two heroes, the `pirate' and the `saint', met in Goa. The last will of Antonio Faria, signed on 2 June 1548, was discovered a few decades back in the archives of the Misericórdia of Oporto. He had made his will through the Misericórdia (Holy House of Mercy) of Goa and left his inheritance to his family in Montemor-o-Velho. Francis Xavier was one of the witnesses who signed the last will and also pardoned his many sins! It was yet another documentary proof that Antonio Faria was a real personage and had really gathered significant wealth and survived all the blood-curdling incidents narrated in the Peregrinação.
TEOTÓNIO R DE SOUZA
(director da Lic. em História na ULHT)
Texto publicado no diário Herald, Pangim, Goa, 31 de Julho, p.8.