Mar 14, 2007

Book Review: The Travels of Pedro Teixeira

The Travels of Pedro TeixeiraTeixeira, Pedro,and Sinclair, William F. (editor, translator)

Nendeln, Lichtenstein: Kraus Reprint Limted, 1967, 404 pages

Teixeira’s travel narrative was originally published by the Hakluyt Society in 1902 as part of the Society’s Second Series of historical accounts from what is know in the West as the "Age of Discovery". Little is known of Teixeira’s early life, save for the fact that he was born of Jewish parents in Lisbon and later converted to Christianity.

Teixeira likely first arrived in Goa in 1586, staying off and on in the Portuguese enclave for six years. He spent the years 1593-97 in Hormuz, most of 1597 in Persia, and 1598-1600 in Malacca. From 1601-05 Teixeira embarked on a multi-year mission to recover some money that he entrusted to persons unknown, and this journey – upon which the bulk of this book is based – found the author on a quest that nearly circumnavigated the globe.

Teixeira’s exact business in his travels is unclear, although there are clues throughout the text that suggest certain possibilities. In an encounter with a band of “Turquymanis” in the desert west of Baghdad, Teixeira’s companions described him as “a physician sent with them to Aleppo by the Amir.” Throughout the text Teixeira noted various medicinal commodities he encountered; for example, the author was familiar enough with different types of camphor to know that Borneo produced “the pure and perfect camphor… [which is] not brought to Portugal, because it fetches high prices in India.” Teixeira discussed at length the pharmaceutical properties of areca, the betel nut:
It is good against all disorders of the stomach arising from the cold, strengthens and preserves the teeth and gums, and sweetens the breath. For these and many other virtues it is highly valued, and exported to the lands where it does not grow.
Teixeira was above all else a man with impressive linguistic capabilities, demonstrating in the text varying degrees of fluency in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Portuguese, and at least another four other European languages. While he may have joined the Estado da India as a merchant (Sinclair believed that he might have been a gem speculator), Teixeira’s ability to communicate with people in a wide variety of languages made him an extremely valuable addition to any expedition or business enterprise.

This text includes three distinct works of Teixeira, beginning with his Travels. The travel itinerary is followed by A Short Narrative on the Origin of the Kingdom of Hormuz and A Relation of the Kings of Persia. All three works demonstrate Teixeira as an author who blended first-hand observations with material that he read in secondary sources or heard second-hand. While Teixeira sometimes acknowledged his sources of particular information, readers need to be aware that some of his writing contains synthesized material.

Map of the Portuguese empire at its heightLeft: Map of the Portuguese empire at its height (click for larger image)

Perhaps the most intriguing of Teixeira’s recollections is his journey from Hormuz to Alexandretta(now Iskenderun). He, a fellow Portuguese noble named Diego de Melo, and a group of Arabic traders and guides traveled up the Persian Gulf in April 1604. After a failed start, they regrouped and reached Basra in August, Baghdad in October, and Aleppo in April 1605. Throughout this journey Teixeira documented the flora and fauna of the region, and he described every town and hamlet that he encountered. The narrative offers a great deal of information about seventeenth-century life in what is now Iraq and Syria, and the text provides many insights about the commercial, political, and social relation between Europeans and the indigenous peoples they met in Asia. While Teixeira’s writings contain typical European biases, his accounts nonetheless present readers with edifying vignettes of everyday life in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, such as the following description of a hamlet named Adatha:
…the place is a very poor open hamlet. Everything is scarce and dear, especially wood, for want thereof they burn dry dung of camels and other beasts. The climate is unhealthy, provisions scanty and bad; and, for all that, I saw in this town some women as beautiful as angels.

Map of the Strait of HormuzLeft: Map of the Strait of Hormuz

Teixeira’s histories of Hormuz and Persia provided European readers with brief dynastic accounts of these little-understood lands. The author, however, avoids boring his audience with mere lists of rulers and wars, interjecting his chronological narratives with digressions that provide a great deal of information on matters as diverse as commerce, sociology, and geology, as exemplified in the following passage on an island near Hormuz in the Persian Gulf:
This Isle of Gerun was of old volcanic, for which reason it remains so rugged as to amaze the explorer of its interior … There is plenty of good rock salt, and pure sulphur, whereof, during my stay, there were found mines, and much got out of them ... And it is a thing of wonder, that though this isle stands in 27-½ deg. N. lat., its summer heat is almost past bearing, and such as only one on trial could be believed.

The editors of this collection of the writings of Teixeira included a lengthy introduction to help readers understand the context of the author’s journeys. The book includes a thorough, cross-referenced index, and contains hundreds of detailed footnotes, and one of the most impressive facets of this particular edition is Sinclair’s efforts to corroborate Teixeira’s textual claims. Every step of the journey – whether from Malacca to the Philippines, from Mexico to Lisbon to Goa, or from Goa back to Venice - is subject to scrutiny and cross-checking against other extant accounts and then-current contemporary maps.

Sinclair pointed out information in which Teixeira may have relied on secondary sources, and offered opinions on the likely texts upon which Teixeira might have relied. The result is a remarkable travel narrative and brief histories of Hormuz and Persia from Western eyes that – although possessing methodological weaknesses – provides a rare glimpse of the Middle East in the early seventeenth century.

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