Tomé Pires: not a ficcione

Tomé Pires, author of Suma Oriental, the earliest extensive account of the East written by a Portuguese, was born around 1468. The son of an apothecary to King John II (1455-95) of Portugal, he himself became apothecary to Prince Afonso (1475-1491). In September 1511, Tomé Pires was appointed feitor das drogarias (factor of drugs) at Cochin in India. He was also in charge of a botica (supply of medicines) worth a considerable amount of money. Tomé Pires' next appointment was as Writer and Accountant of the trading fleet in the newly acquired Portuguese possessions of Malacca and Java. During these various appointments in Estado da India, Pires gathered the vast amount of information on trade, geography, commodities and pharmacology contained in the Suma Oriental.

It is not known if the book was compiled in Malacca or Goa; probably, by stages, in both ports and on board ship as well. On his way home to Portugal, having made his fortune, Pires was delayed at Goa and then sent back to Malacca, and thence, in 1517, as the first Portuguese Ambassador to China. He was unfortunate in that, not long after his arrival, a Portuguese ship’s captain named Simão Peres de Andrade caused some trouble in Canton; the Chinese decided Pires was not an ambassador after all but a spy, and seized him and the twelve men with him. They were tried, sentenced, flogged and tortured; five of them died, eaten by lice, in prison; and the rest were banished separately into internal exile. Nothing was heard of Tomé Pires for many years.

Then, in 1543, the great Portuguese traveller Fernão Mendes Pinto, arrived by river boat, a prisoner himself, in the Chinese city of Sampitay. Here the wife of the chifu – mandarin – who had bound and flogged Mendes Pinto and his companions, fell ill, delaying the party in the town. The Portuguese, still in their chains, were allowed ashore to beg alms from the people. While they were thus begging in the streets a young woman, seemingly Chinese, came forward and, unbuttoning the sleeve of the purple satin coat she wore, showed a cross tattooed on her arm – like the brand of a Moorish slave. Mendes Pinto and his men all fell to their knees, whereupon the woman uttered a cry, raised her arms heavenward and began to repeat the Lord’s Prayer in Portuguese.

Mendes Pinto spent five days at the house of Inez de Leiria, as she called herself, who was a wealthy woman and had her own chapel with a wooden crucifix finished in gold leaf, silver candlesticks and lamp; she was, she said, the daughter of Tomé Pires, who had met her mother during the period when the Chinese first entertained him as ambassador and later, when they decided he was a spy, contrived to be exiled near her. The two had married and lived a very Catholic life together for twenty-seven years, converting over three hundred local people and meeting every Sunday to worship in the chapel. Their marriage was only ended by Tomé Pires’ death at the age of about seventy years.

When Inez de Leiria heard Mendes Pinto’s own story of shipwreck and loss, she remarked, sounding very Chinese: Men who seek their livelihood at sea find their graves at sea. That is why the best and surest thing is to value the earth highly, and labour on the earth, since it pleased God to create us out of earth. Afterwards, Mendes Pinto passed on to the many other adventures related in his Peregrination, also known as The Travels of Mendes Pinto. He himself died, an old man surrounded by family, at Pragal near Almada on the opposite bank of the Tagus from Lisbon, in July, 1583 at the age of seventy-four years.

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