The World of Gerard van Oost and Oludara

Posts Tagged ‘historical figures’

Madre de Dios shipwreck, The

In “The Fortuitous Meeting”, Piraju tells Gerard:

“I am called Piraju, but long ago I was known as Miguel.  I was a sailor on the Spanish carrack Madre de Dios, which shipwrecked here in the Bay of All Saints in 1535. Most who survived the wreck were killed by the Indians, but some twenty of us were taken prisoner, to be used in one of their cannibalistic feasts. Just as they prepared to cook us, Caramuru arrived and convinced them to set us free. Most of my shipmates eventually returned to Spain, but Caramuru’s daughters with the Indian princess Paraguacu were the most beautiful women I had ever laid eyes on, so I convinced one of them to marry me and I joined the tribe.”

The carrack Madre de Dios did indeed shipwreck off the coast of Brazil in 1535, on the island of Boipeba.  Over 100 of the 110 sailors made it to shore, but most of them were massacred by Tumpinambá natives.  Seventeen escaped on on a small boat to the nearby Tinharé Island.  There they were captured by other natives and would have been slain if not for the arrival of the famous Caramuru, who convinced the natives to let them go.

Shipwreck by Joseph Vernet

A famous legend arose from this event, that Caramuru went seeking the survivors because his wife Paraguaçu dreamt of a shipwreck.  In her vision, she saw a shipwreck of many men, dead or exhausted, and among them a single woman carrying a child.  Caramuru discovered the shipwreck and found only men, but inside the wreckage he recovered a statue of the Virgin Mary with child, the very own “Madre de Dios” his wife had seen in her vision.

Painting by Manuel Lopes Rodrigues representing Paraguaçu’s vision

Whatever the case, Caramuru rescued the survivors, and while most returned to Spain, four of them remained to live with him and his tribe in Bahia.  The Holy Roman Emporer Charles V wrote a letter to Caramuru thanking him for the aid given to the survivors.

Governors of Colonial Brazil

In “The Fortuitous Meeting”, Gerard is called before Governor Almeida to face charges of “vagrancy and practicing the Protestant religion”.

The governors were the highest authorities in Colonial Brazil, appointed by the King of Portugal himself (or, during the unification, the king of Spain).  The governor was the king’s official representative in the massive colony.

The position originated when King Dom João III appointed Tomé de Sousa first Governor of Brazil and sent him to establish the capital city of Salvador.

Tomé de Souza

Three positions were created just below the governor: the “ouvidor-mor” (head of justice), “capitão-mor” (head of defense), and “provedor-mor” (head of the treasury).  At the regional level, city councils were established which could communicate with the governor or directly to the king.

Over the years, the position of Governor evolved to that of General Governor and eventually to Viceroy, as both Brazil and its importance to Portugal expanded.

Except for two short periods where the colony was spilt into two different territories with two different governors (north and south), the governor and government resided in Salvador.  In 1763, near the end of the Colonial period, the capital was transferred to Rio de Janeiro.  In 1808, when Prince John (later John VI) left Portugal to live in Brazil, the position was discontinued.


In “The Fortuitous Meeting”, Gerard hears mention of Caramuru.  Even in the late sixteenth century of Gerard’s adventures, Caramuru was already a legend.  His extraordinary life would change Brazil’s history forever.

Born Diogo Álvares Correia, Caramuru was a Portuguese who shipwrecked in Brazil around 1510, at the age of 17.  Despite his inauspicious shipwreck, he had the fortune to swim ashore just ten kilometers from the Bay of All Saints, one of the greatest natural ports in the Western Hemisphere.  He also had the luck to shortly thereafter meet Paraguaçu: daughter of Morubixaba Taparica, a great Tupinambá warrior-chief in the region.

It is told that Caramuru first impressed the natives by shooting down a flying bird with one explosive shot from a harquebus.  But what truly saved him was the love of Paraguaçu.  They soon became husband and wife, and with a few other shipwreck survivors and many Tupinambá, he settled his own tribe in what would later become the city of Salvador.  The Tupinambá gave him the name Caramuru, which probably came from the Tupi word for the moray eel, in reference to his long, “stinging’ harquebus.  There are some, however, who claim it is a distortion of “caraymuru”, which means “wet white man”, since he washed out from the sea.


Scenes from the life of Caramuru

(Image: Anonymous. Mosteiro de São Bento da Bahia)

For years, Caramuru worked with the French and others who visited Brazil looking for Brazilwood and other plunder.  The French came to know the area where Caramuru lived as “Pointe du Caramourou”.  There are tales of him saving shipwrecked Portuguese, French and Spanish sailors, and rescuing them from other Tupinambá tribes which would have killed or in some cases even eaten them.  Charles V, Holy Roman Emporer, once sent Caramuru a letter of thanks for his aid.  Some shipwreck survivors and deserters remained with Caramuru, marrying his daughters or other natives.

In 1526, Caramuru and Paraguaçu travelled to France.  In 1528 Paraguaçu was baptized and given the name Katherine du Brézil in honor of her godmother, Catherine des Granches (wife of the famous french explorer Jacques Cartier).  Upon their return to Brazil, Caramuru and Paraguaçu became the first Christian couple in Brazil on record.  As far as is known, no other Christian women were living in brazil at the time, and very few would move there even to the end of the century.

Caramuru portrait

The Portuguese soon became interested in taking advantage of Caramuru’s excellent relations with the natives for their colonization attempts.  in 1536, Francisco Pereira Coutinho arrived in Brazil to found the Captaincy of Bahia.  He allied himself with Caramuru and officially granted him his tribe’s land: right in the heart of modern Salvador.

When the time came to set up the General Government of Brazil, John III, the king of Portugal, decided to locate the capital in Salvador: in large part to Caramaru’s presence there and his prestige with the local natives.  Several other settlements had failed because of fights with the natives, and the Portuguese needed somewhere stable to make their base.  John III sent a letter to Caramuru in 1548 asking for his aid in establishing the new government, which Caramuru provided on the arrival of Tomé de Souza a year later.

Caramuru died in 1557, and Paraguaçu in 1582. The name Caramuru became immortalized when José de Santa Rita Durão published an epic poem under his name in 1781.


And if Caramuru had never shipwrecked near Salvador, the entire history of Brazil could have been radically different.


In “The Fortuitous Meeting”, Oludara is called from his village to appear before the Oba of Ketu.

During Oludara’s lifetime, the supreme ruler of each Yoruba kingdom is known as an oba.  In most cases, they trace their ancestry back to the Orisha Oduduwa, creator of the earth, and thus they are considered sacred.  Subjects must prostrate themselves before an oba, after which they may sit or kneel on the ground in his presence.

Subjects prostate themselves before an African oba as the Portuguese make their first contact – Late fifteenth century

(Image: Wikipedia, public domain)

Only obas may wear the sacred Yoruba regalia: a conical bead crown, beaded slippers, and a beaded fly whisk.  The crowns are made from red coral beads, first introduced by the Portuguese.  Obas have several different crowns for different occasions, and each crown has its own history.  These crowns contain lines of beads which cover the oba’s face, in order to protect subjects from his divine gaze.

Oba Ademuwgun Adesida II in full regalia, 1959.

(Image: Smithsonian Institution. Photo by by Eliot Elisofon)

The oba is responsible for resolving problems external to the kingdom, and is the maximum authority on questions of justice.  He is aided by a council of elders, who will also choose his successor upon his death.  The village bale (chiefs), typically the eldest of the clan, handle local matters.

Due to the oba’s sacred nature, it is unthinkable to commit an act of violence against his person.  In some circumstances, however, the oba may have to perform violence against himself.  Once such circumstance is when the people rise up in protest against the oba’s rule, in which case the chiefs may demand the oba’s suicide.  Tradition also dictates that the oba can also never come face to face with the Oni Oja (the market chief), under penalty of death.  Thus, he can never leave the palace on market day.

The crowning of a new oba is a long, ceremonial process, requiring the future oba to make a pilgrimage through various shrines and holy places and participate in many rituals before returning to his city for coronation.  It often takes months to complete all the steps.  To give one example, the Ida Oranyan (Oranyan’s Sword, the Sword of Justice) must be brought from Ile-Ifé and placed in the the Oba of Oyo’s hand before he can come into power.

Once crowned, the king almost never ventures out during the daytime, except during a few very important festivals.  He may, however, leave his palace in cognito at night.

Brass oba head – Sixteenth century


The obas still exist throughout the Yoruba kingdoms today, although traditions have been modernized, particularly during the last hundred years.  For example, the custom of suicide has disappeared over time, but the Alaketu Adegbede was forced to take his own life as recently as 1858!  When he was called from his palace and saw the Oni Oja (perhaps by arrangement from his enemies), he and two of his wives had to drink poison.

Those who visit Africa today may have a chance to visit one of the Yoruban obas and learn more about their long traditions.  I hope to make my own visit soon!