Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The people of Pemba

Four centuries ago today, an explorer and sailor named Robert Coverte was landing on the island of Pemba, part of the Zanzibar archipelago off the east coast of Africa. A few days later, some of his crew were to be murdered there. Nevertheless, he wrote in his diary that the people of Pemba ‘seeme to bee louing and kind’.

Not much is known about Coverte, other than what can be deduced from his diary first published in 1612 with a very lengthy title (as copied from the British Library catalogue): A True and almost Incredible Report of an Englishman, that, being cast away in the good ship called the Assention in Cambaya the farthest part of the East Indies, trauelled by land through many vnknowne kingdomes, and great cities. With a particular description of all those kingdomes, cities, and people. As also a relation of their commodities and manner of traffique, and at what seasons of the yeere they are most in vse. Faithfully related. With a discouery of a great emperour called the Great Mogoll, a prince not till now known to our English nation.

An American rare book dealer, William Reese Company, is offering a copy of the second edition, published in 1614, for sale at $25,000. Its website provides what little information there is about Coverte. He and his men, it says, left Plymouth in March 1607 and were among the first Englishmen to see the Cape of Good Hope, arriving there in July 1608. Coverte eventually reached Gujarat, where his ship ran aground while approaching Surat. Not granted permission to remain in Surat, the crew departed to various destinations, but Coverte and others set out for the Moghul Court at Agra, arriving there in December 1609. They left in January 1610 and made their way back to the Levant travelling by way of Kandahar, Esfahan, and Baghdad. They reached Aleppo a year later, and then sailed to England, arriving the following April.

Here are some entries taken from a copy of Coverte’s journal privately printed in Philadelphia in 1931. It has an introduction and notes by Boies Penrose (a lawyer and politician) who said the narrative was ‘vigorous’ and ‘one of the best examples of a travel journal that the period produced.’ The following extracts date from December 1608, starting with one from exactly 400 years ago today.

‘The tenth day of December about two or three of the Clock in the morning, and the Moone shiny, we espied on a sudden low land with high trees growing by the shore side, we being not a league form the shore, so that if we had not espied the trees, we should haue thought the land to haue been a shadow of the Moone, and so might haue run ourselues on shore, and cast our selues away with ship and goods but it was Gods good prouidence thus to defend us from so great and eminent danger, whose name be blessed and praised now euermore.

This was the island of Pemba, which we tooke to be Zinzabar, untill by one of the people of the Countrey we found it to be Pemba. At the sight of this low Iland - after we plainely perceiued it, wee presently tackt about and set from the shore till day and then we tackt about againe to the shore side, and neering along the shore side for a harbour to ancor in, wee sent Pinnis in the meane time, to the shore withe the Gang onlie and master Elmore to seeke for a conuenient watering place, wee keeping our course till our Pinnis came to the shore side. Then two or three people of the Iland demanded in the Portugall language what we were, and one of our men made answer, that we were Englishmen.

Then they demanded againe what we had to doe there, in regard the King of Portugall was King of that Iland: wee replied, that wee knew not so much, neither came we thither for any euill intent whatsoeuer, but only to water, and would giue them satisfaction, for any other thing we should haue of them. Then it drew towards night, and our man came aboard and acquainted the whole Company with this their parly on shore.’

‘The 19 day our Long-boat went a shore in the morning verie early, to fill our Caske with water . . . they gaue the watchword and sounded a horne, and presently set upon our men at the watering place and slew Iohn Harrington, the boat-swaines man, and wounded Robert Buckler. Master Ellmores man very sore, with 8 or 10 seurall wounds, and had killed him, but we discharged a Musket or two, which (as it seemed) hurt some of them; for then they retired and cried out: and so (though weake and faint) he did at length recouer our boat. Also two or three more of our men by creeping, and lying close in the ditch, untill they espied our, got also safe aboard, and then counting our men, we only missed Edward Churchman, and Iohn Harrington, that was slaine: and so comming aboard, we certified the company of all our proceedings on shoare; and our surgeon dressed Robert Buckler; and after, did his best for his cure and recouery of his health. . .’

‘The twentieth day in the morning we went on shoare . . . we found Iohn Harrington dead and starke naked, whome we buried at another Iland, hard by the main Iland. . . The naturall people of the Iland Pemba, seeme to bee louing and kind: for they made signes to me and others, at our first comming, to beware of our throats cutting: which we tooke no heede or notice of, untill this their treachery put in minde thereof againe.’

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