Today we’re going to talk about – and talk with – one of my favourite authors.
Let’s start with an excerpt:
..Pisani could hear the cries from the ducal prison. Putting his head to the bars, he called out ‘Long live St Mark!’ The crowd responded with a throaty roar. Upstairs in the senatorial chamber a panicky debate was underway. The crowd put ladders to the windows. They hammered the chamber door with a rhythmic refrain: ‘Vettor Pisani! Vettor Pisani!’
Reads like a novel?
It’s history – as written by the British historian, Roger Crowley.
The excerpt above is from City of Fortune, Roger Crowley’s book on the rise and decline of Venetian naval power. If you’d like to find out why – the clearly popular – Admiral Pisani (1324-1380) was languishing in the Doge’s prison and what happened next, you know what to do.
Fui a Portugal para una semana con un libro, y volví con dos; lo nuevo está en portugués.
Eso suena muy bien pero no tengas que envidiarme: no logré aprender portugués en una sola semana (echo la culpa a los portugueses, ya que insistieron en hablar conmigo en inglés). Sin embargo, he comprado un libro en portugués, y no cualquier libro, sino la más famosa obra de literatura portuguesa: el poema épico, Los lusiadas, escrito por el poeta nacional de Portugal, Luís Vaz de Camōes.
Aunque sólo en la forma de un libro de historietas.
Todos aquí pueden confirmar que el español y el portugués son suficientemente similares para ser posible leer portugués un poquito sin aprenderlo, ¿no? Por esta razón me parece que tengo posibilidad de comprender Los lusiadas cuando el texto va acompañado con MUCHAS ilustraciones. Y un poco mejor: cuando el texto va acompañado con MUCHAS ilustraciones y ya conozco el argumento.
Porque la historia que Luís de Camões narra en Los lusiadas es de la era héroica de la navegación portuguesa: el viaje de Vasco da Gama en 1497-98, cuando él se convirtió en el primer europeo en llegar a India doblando el Cabo de Buena Esperanza. Y el libro con el que fui a Portugal, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire (Conquistadores: Como Portugal creó el primer imperio global) por Roger Crowley, se trata del mismo viaje – y un poco más. (Conquerors es el último libro de Crowley, y desgraciadamente todavía no está traducido al español, pero espero que no tardaría mucho.)
Caravels were the preferred ships for discovery of the Portuguese and the Spanish in the 15th and 16th century on account of their seaworthiness, speed and manoeuvrability, not to mention their shallow draught which allowed the close exploration of unknown coasts. Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama and Columbus all sailed in caravels; one of Magellan’s ships was a caravel too. Having recently read a book about Portuguese explorers and visited Portugal, I noticed these famous ships (perhaps understandably) were just about depicted everywhere…
Carabelas fueron los naves preferidos de los navegantes portugueses y españoles en la era de los descubrimientos en los siglos XV y XVI, debido a su navegabilidad y velocidad, por no mencionar que por ser barcos de poco calado los navegantes pudieron acercarse más a las costas desconocidas. Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama y Cristóbal Colón navegaban en carabelas; uno de los naves de Magallanes también fue una carabela. Como acabo de leer un libro sobre los navegantes portugueses, en mi viaje reciente a Lisboa me fijaba en como esos barcos famosos eran representados en todas partes (tal vez con razón)…
I went to Portugal for a week with a book and came back with two; the new one is in Portuguese.
This sounds grandiloquent but you needn’t turn yellow with envy: I did not manage to learn Portuguese merely in one week (I blame the Portuguese who insisted on speaking to me in English). Nevertheless, I acquired a book in Portuguese, and not just any book but the most famous piece of Portuguese literature: the epic poem The Lusiads by Portugal’s national poet, Luís Vaz de Camōes.
Although only in the form of a comics book.
Any Spanish speaker will testify to the fact that if you can read Spanish, you can read Portuguese to a very decent degree. Consequently I fancy my chances of making sense of The Lusiads when accompanied by LOTS of pictures. Better still: I fancy my chances of making sense of The Lusiads when accompanied by LOTS of pictures and when I already know the plot.
Because the story Luís de Camões tells in The Lusiads is from the heroic age of Portuguese navigation: the journey of Vasco da Gama in 1497-98, when he became the first European to reach India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope. And the book I went to Portugal with, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley, treats the same journey – and a bit more.
Sometimes people have the misfortune to live in ‘interesting’ times. Exciting, even. In the case of Spain, in fact, it’s difficult to find a period of history when the times were not ‘exciting’ – so it shouldn’t come as surprise that the excitement in Cayetano Valdés’s life not ended with Trafalgar, but rather, it began.
I mean you’d think there he was, sitting ashore in the naval ports of Cádiz and Cartagena, figuratively licking his wounds… having been promoted to senior officer, safely behind a desk in an office, pushing paper in the grand Spanish fashion, into quiet old age – since there wasn’t much of a navy left for him to command, right?
Date: 14 February 1797
Place: The Atlantic, off Cape St Vincent (Portugal)
If you’re English and into naval history, you will recognise the time and place as the Battle of Cape St Vincent – one of nine, that is. (Clearly it was a popular place for enemy fleet rendezvous.) This particular Battle of Cape St Vincent was the one which became famous for Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates1 so you’re now settling in for a nice read about Horatio Nelson and various associated heroics of the Royal Navy, right? Let’s go:
It was a cold and foggy day…
Er, no. It was a cold and foggy day but you should have taken a look at the title perhaps.
Rather than detailing Nelson’s heroics of which you can read on plenty of other websites, I’m going to write about a Spanish naval officer: Cayetano Valdés, who had been cast in the role of having to save the Santísima Trinidad, the pride of the Spanish navy, the largest warship of its time.
A topic that you won’t find much discussed in English elsewhere (for entirely understandable reasons).
In 1900, sponge divers discovered the wreck of an ancient Greek galley off the Aegean island of Antikythera more than fifty metres deep under the surface. As usual, the find threw up a load of questions: Where did the galley come from? Where was it going to? Why did it sink? Who were the passengers? And what is that mysterious, complex mechanism found in the wreck?
The two hundred galleys of the Holy League – Venice, the Spanish Empire, Genoa, the Papacy, the Knights of St John and sundry smaller states on the Mediterranean seaboard – were sailing south on the Ionian Sea in battle order when a small brigantine passed them: a Venetian ship from Crete carrying the news that the town of Famagusta, the last stronghold of the Republic of Venice on Cyprus, fell to the Turks.
The date was 4 October 1571, three days before the Battle of Lepanto.
Countless films have been made about the pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention the countless books written, both fictitious and factual. But how many of you knew that there used to be pirates on the Adriatic too? Or who they were or where was their lair? (Anybody who doesn’t know where the Adriatic is is probably reading the wrong blog by the way.)
A few years ago, in one of the galleries of the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich there was exhibited a life-size model of a boat trapped in pack ice, with a suitably gruesome frozen hand protruding from under frozen canvas: a striking illustration of the fate of Captain Sir John Franklin and his crew for the younger visitors. Franklin’s expedition set out in 1845 with 129 men on board of two ships to search for the North-West Passage – a route from the Atlantic into the Pacific through the islands of Northern Canada – and was never heard of again. Despite repeated search missions in the following years and decades, the exact fate of the lost expedition remained unknown until 2014 when a Canadian research team finally located one of Franklin’s ships, the HMS Erebus.
On Monday morning, when I started to write this post, of course I couldn’t have imagined the news that broke in the media that same afternoon: that Franklin’s second ship, HMS Terror, has now also been found – the last piece of the puzzle falling into place? But although Franklin’s expedition is without doubt the most famous among all the attempts to navigate the North-West Passage, I wanted to write about another sailor who searched for the passage nearly three hundred years earlier and from the opposite direction: Francis Drake on the Golden Hind in 1579.
For me, a good non-fiction book is not one that simply gets its facts right; it also has to read well, like a novel. (Showing my lack of sophistication here.) It helps of course if the author of the non-fiction book has a good subject to work with; and the Royal Navy in the time of the Napoleonic wars certainly makes for a good subject.
The Arsenale, the ‘Forge of War’, was Venice’s naval dockyard where the SerenissimaRepubblica built the fast, sleek war galleys that ran the length and width of the Mediterranean, protecting Venetian trade and interests.
Most people who took any notice of the Persian wars in their history class would know about the battle of Marathon in the first Persian war and the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the second; maybe, if you were really into it, you’d be aware that in fact there were a couple more battles, that of Plataea and Mycale the year after, that marked the genuine end of the Persian invasion of Greece. But the battle that almost everybody invariably forgets is the battle Artemisium, a sea battle fought simultaneously with the battle of Thermopylae. Yet without holding the Persian navy up at Artemisium there would have been no battle of Thermopylae – nothing would have prevented Xerxes to simply sail his troops round the wretched pass, making its defence wholly pointless. It’s hardly surprising, however, that in the end the battle of Artemisium got entirely overshadowed by the fame of Thermopylae.
So what happened in the forgotten battle at Cape Artemisium?