Jan 17, 2007

Book Review: Crónica da tomada de Ceuta (The Chronicle of the Capture of Ceuta)

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Prince Henry the NavigatorLeft: Prince Henry the Navigator

Gomes Eanes de Zurara (Azurara).

Lisbon: Publicações Europa-América, 1992


Zurara was a fifteenth-century court chronicler and keeper of the national archives for the Portuguese Aviz dynasty who recounted the life and actions of Infante Dom Henrique, known to the English-speaking world as Prince Henry the Navigator. While providing valuable details of a number of historical events, the writing of Zurara must be recognized for its inherent biases. Zurara, after all, derived his income from the royal court, and there could be repercussions for producing text that was unflattering to the Infante. In addition to his role as court chronicler, Zurara was a comendador (commander) in the Order of Christ, and he stood to lose an important, well-paid benefice if he portrayed Henry in anything other than the most devout and heroic fashion. Finally, the work was not written until 1449-50, and Zurara relied upon the memory of Dom Henrique to provide the narrative of the expedition:
Then all this was told to me by the Infante Dom Henrique, Duke of Vizeu, and Lord of Covilha, in whose household I dwelt for some time by the order of our lord the King; and this Infante, better than any other person in the kingdom, could inform me as to the very spirit of the principal things which constitute the true value of history.
The capture of the Moorish city of Ceuta, on the north coast of Africa, occurred on August 21, 1415. Under the command of Portuguese King Dom João I, 242 armed ships left with an estimated 45,000 men from Lisbon toward North Africa, taking Infantes Dom Henrique, Dom Pedro and Dom Duarte. After conquering the city, Dom João left Count Dom Pedro de Menezes in charge of a contingent of 2,700 men. Zurara recounted the logistics of outfitting the expedition, the actual battle, and the long-term effects of the battle on the subsequent rise of the Portuguese sea-borne empire.

Map of Ceuta The text is transcribed in its original archaic Portuguese; linguistic scholars often date the birth of the modern form of Portuguese to 1516 with the publication of Cancioneiro Geral de Garcia de Resende, a collection of some three hundred poems about the reigns of kings Afonso V, João II, and Manuel I. Thus, scholars attempting to work through this text face the additional challenge of the evolution of the Portuguese language. For example, the Portuguese word causa (“motive” or “cause”) is spelled cousa in the Zurara text, while the verb ter (“to have”) is spelled teer. Words with the letter “v” instead have the letter “u” in many cases (as in caualeiros → cavaleiros), and some verb conjugations differ between Old Portuguese and the modern language. In addition, the editor left misspellings and alternate spellings as Zurara originally recorded them. For those unfamiliar with Portuguese an abridged English translation exists, although this translation leaves out at least half of the original text.

One of Zurara’s most important contributions is his delineation of Prince Henry’s motivations for his sponsorship of voyages of exploration. In Crónica da tomada de Ceuta Zurara discussed the importance for the sons of Portuguese nobility to earn their proverbial spurs in a glorious battle against the Muslims (fazer seus filhos caualeiros o mais honrradamente que se bem podesse fazer- “to make his sons cavaleiros, the most honorable that they could become”). The prince, according to Zurara in Crónica do descobrimento e conquista da Guiné, had six reasons for his exploratory zeal. The first was "a wish to know what lands there were beyond the Canary Isles and a cape which was called Bojador." Zurara next declared that Dom Henrique wished to develop trade with distant lands "which the traffic would bring great profit to our natives;" specifically, the Portuguese hoped to tap into the trans-Saharan gold, ivory, and slave trades. The third reason, explained Zurara, was to learn the extent of Muslim influence in Africa, because “every wise man is moved by the desire to know the strength of his enemy.”

Prince Henry the NavigatorLeft: Sixteenth-century image of the legendary Prester John

Henrique’s fourth motivation was the desire to find a Christian monarch who would provide the Portuguese with an ally in its struggle with the forces of Islam: the fabled Prester John. The Infante also wanted to send out missionaries “to increase the holy faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ” and "to lead to this faith all souls desirous of being saved…” Finally, Zurara cites an astrological aspect of Dom Henrique, noting that the alignment of the planets proved that the Infante “was bound to engage in great and noble conquests, and above all he was bound to attempt the discovery of things which were hidden from other men…”

While Ceuta never proved to be the foothold into North Africa that allowed the Portuguese to exploit the trans-Saharan trade, the 1415 capture of the Moorish city is a convenient point with which to demark the era of European expansion and colonialism. From his court at Sagres, Dom Henrique planned and financed expeditions that expanded European knowledge of the Atlantic coast of Africa, ultimately providing focus and drive to nascent European expansionist behavior.

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