Madre de Deus

Madre de Deus (Mother of God; also called Mãe de Deus or, in Spanish, Madre de Dios) was a Portuguese  ship, renowned for her fabulous cargo, which stoked the English appetite for trade with the Far East, then a Portuguese monopoly.

In 1592, by virtue of the Iberian Union, the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 was in abeyance, and as the Anglo–Spanish War was still ongoing, Portuguese shipping was a fair target for the Royal Navy.

That year, a six-member naval squadron was waiting off the Azores to intercept Spanish shipping from the New World when a Portuguese fleet came their way near Corvo Island. The English forced the Santa Cruz ashore, taking whatever goods the Portuguese had failed to retrieve from her burnt-out hull. Under threat of torture, they also forced her purser and two foreign gunners to reveal that further carracks were on their way.

One of these was Madre de Deus, returning from the East Indies and headed for Lisbon. Built in Lisbon in 1589, she was returning from her second voyage East. She was 165 feet in length, had 47 feet of beam, weighed 1,600 tons (of which 900 were cargo) — three times the size of England's biggest ship.She had seven decks, thirty-two guns in addition to other arms, 600 to 700 crew members, a gilded superstructure and a hold filled with treasure. On August 15 or 19 (sources vary), the English took her after a fierce day-long battle near Flores Island in which many Portuguese sailors were killed; the decks were bloody and strewn with bodies when the English boarded, especially around the helm. Still, Burrough spared Captain Fernão de Mendonça Furtado and the rest of the wounded, sending them ashore to the Azores.

Among these riches were chests filled with jewels and pearls, gold and silver coins, amber, rolls of the highest-quality cloth, fine tapestries, 425 tons of pepper, 45 tons of cloves, 35 tons of cinnamon, 3 tons of mace and 3 of nutmeg, 2.5 tons of benjamin (a highly aromatic balsamic resin used for perfumes and medicines), 25 tons of cochineal and 15 tons of ebony.The English crew had stuffed their pockets full of these goods before their squadron commander, Sir John Burrough, could take charge of the cargo.

There was also a document, printed at Macau in 1590, containing valuable information on the China and Japan trade; Hakluyt observes that it was "enclosed in a case of sweet Cedar wood, and lapped up almost an hundredfold in fine Calicut-cloth, as though it had been some incomparable jewel".

The ship docked at Dartmouth harbor on September 7, towering over the other ships and the town's small houses. Nothing like it had ever been seen in England and pandemonium broke loose. Madre de Deus attracted all manner of traders, dealers, cutpurses and thieves from miles around, and even from as far as London and beyond; they visited the floating castle and sought out drunken sailors in taverns and pubs, buying, stealing, pinching and fighting for the takings. Local fishermen as well would constantly venture aboard and back to shore, further depleting the cargo.

English law at the time provided that a large share of the loot was owed to the sovereign, and when Queen Elizabeth found out what was happening, she sent Sir Walter Raleigh to reclaim her money and punish the looters. Sir Walter swore, "If I meet any of them coming up, if it be upon the wildest heath in all the way, I mean to strip them as naked as they were ever born, for Her Majesty has been robbed and that of the most rare things."

By the time Raleigh had restored order, a cargo estimated at half a million pounds (nearly half the size of England's treasury and perhaps the second-largest treasure ever after the Ransom of Atahualpa) had been reduced to £140,000. Still, ten freighters were needed to carry the treasure around the coast and up the River Thames to London.

This foretaste of the riches of the East galvanized English interest in the region. It also taught them a more practical lesson, as some years later, when a rich ship was captured and brought into the Thames for unloading, the Dockers were made to dress in "suits of canvas doublet without pockets".

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