Fourth Portuguese Armada to India (1502-1503)
In 1502, four years after his discovery of the sea route to India earned him the titles Dom and Admiral of the Indies, Vasco da Gama was once again appointed Captain-Major by the Portuguese King Dom Manuel I for a voyage to India. Following the disastrous outcome of Pedro Cabral’s earlier (1500-1501) command of 13 ships, of which only six made it to the Malabar coast, da Gama was apparently a late replacement for Cabral of this 4th Portuguese voyage that was central to the prestige and military ambitions of Dom Manuel. The Portuguese King’s investment in the Indian Ocean had yet to turn a profit nor had it resulted in finding large numbers of friendly Christians in India that could be allies against the Mamluks of Egypt who controlled the spice trade through the Red Sea. In fact Cabral’s relations with the Zamorin of Calicut was decidedly unfriendly. Continuing da Gama’s policy of hostile trade Cabral’s fleet first seized a Muslim ship, which in turn precipitated a retaliatory attack by the enraged Muslim merchants on the newly established Portuguese feitoria (factory) in Calicut. Fifty-four Portuguese, including the feitor Aires Correia, were killed in the ensuing battle. Cabral’s reply to the heavy loss of his men and goods was to capture still more Muslim ships and then to bombard Calicut with his heavy guns killing as many as 500.
In replacing Cabral, Dom Manuel opted for a fleet that was full of military intent and family members of da Gama. Of the 20 ships, the largest Carreira da India fleet to date, five were commanded by present, or soon to be relations of da Gama, including: his uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré, a cousin Estêvão da Gama, a brother-in-law Alvaro de Ataíde, and a future brother-in-law Lopo Mendes de Vasconcelos. The main figure however, other than da Gama himself, was Vicente Sodré who was given his own regimento (instructions) by Dom Manuel and was to assume the role of Captain-Major if anything happened to his famous nephew. Sailing in the nau Esmeralda, Vicente led a separate five-ship squadron (three naus and two caravels) and together with his younger brother Brás engaged in some of the most brutal and notorious attacks on enemy ships they encountered off the coast of India.
After da Gama returned to Lisbon with the main part of the fleet in early 1503, the senior Sodré was instructed to patrol the waters off the southwest Indian coast. From this post he could protect the newly established Portuguese factories and their allies in Cochin and Cannanore from the inevitable Zamorin attacks, and still be able to capture Arab ships trading between the Red Sea and Kerala to fulfil the Royal regimento. However, Sodré ignored these instructions and instead sailed to the Gulf of Aden where his fleet captured and looted a number of Arab ships of their valuable cargoes. In conducting this high-seas piracy Sodré was abetted by his brother Brás in the nau São Pedro who led the brutal attacks, which spared no lives as every ship was burnt after being plundered. According to Pêro d’Ataíde, who was captain of the third nau, the Sodré brothers then kept the lion’s share of the stolen cargoes (pepper, sugar, clothing, rice, cloves) leading to dissension amongst the other commanders and crews.
In April of 1503, Sodré took his fleet to the Khuriya Muriya Islands off the southern coast of Oman to shelter from the southwest monsoon and to repair the hull of one of the caravels. They remained on the largest and only inhabited island (now known as Al Hallaniyah) for many weeks and enjoyed friendly relations with the indigenous Arab population, including bartering for food and provisions. In May the local fishermen warned the Portuguese of an impending dangerous wind from the north that would place their anchored ships at risk unless they moved to the leeward side of the island. Confidant that their iron anchors were strong enough to withstand the tempest the Sodré brothers, along with Pêro de Ataíde, kept their ships in the northern anchorage whilst the smaller caravels moved to a safe location on the other side of the island.
When the strong winds came, as the Arab fisherman had accurately predicted, they were sudden and furious and were accompanied by a powerful swell that tore the Sodré brothers’ ships from their moorings and drove them hard against the rocky shoreline smashing their wooden hulls and breaking their masts. An illustration made later for the pictorial chronicle Livro das Armadas dramatically captures the demise of the two naus. Whilst most men on the São Pedro survived by scrambling across her fallen mast and rigging onto land it was reported that everyone from the Esmeralda, including Vicente Sodré, perished in the deeper waters of the bay. Although Brás initially survived the wrecking of his ship he later died of unknown causes, but not before he had two Moorish pilots killed including the best pilot in all of India left to him by Vasco da Gama, in misplaced revenge for the death of his brother.
After burying their dead on the island the surviving Portuguese spent six days salvaging as much as they could from the wrecks before setting fire to the hulls. Under the new command of Pêro de Ataíde, the three remaining ships sailed back to India where they met Francisco D’Albuquerque and according to Ataíde handed over 17 pieces of artillery they had salvaged from the wrecks. Ataíde later succumbed to illness and died in early 1504 after his ship wrecked near Mozambique during his return journey to Lisbon. Shortly before he died, however, Ataíde wrote a five-page personal letter to Dom Manuel relating the events described above. This letter, the original of which is held in the Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo in Lisbon, represents the most complete first-hand account of what transpired with the Sodré squadron.