Francisco Serrão


Francisco Serräo, died 1521, was a Portuguese navigator and relative of Ferdinand Magellan. Both took part in the conquest of Malacca in 1511. Serrão was appointed captain of one of three ships on a voyage of discovery to the Spice Islands under the command of António Abreu. He then remained on the island of Ternate as an adviser to the Sultan. He communicated with Fernão de Magalhães and other Portuguese sailors about the wealth of spices, which led to the establishment of trade with Portugal. Serrão died in 1521 a few months before the first circumnavigation of the world reached the Spice Islands.

In the 15th century, the great European voyages of discovery began. Spain and Portugal took the lead and the motive was both religious and economic. Both countries were ruled by Catholic kings who crusaded against the Moors, who had been driven out of the Iberian Peninsula after 700 years. Muslim traders controlled the caravan routes in Africa and the silk route to China; Arab seafarers traded freely on the shores of the Indian Ocean from Mozambique in Africa to the Sunda Islands in Indonesia. The Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453 and then controlled shipping in most of the Mediterranean. Pope Nicholas V mandates Spain and Portugal to lead a new crusade and convert Jews and Muslims to the Christian faith.

Henry the Navigator (1395-1469) developed the art of navigation and shipbuilding of ocean-going vessels in Portugal. Christopher Columbus of Genoa dreamed of finding the sea route to India by travelling westwards. In 1494, Pope Alexander VI divided the world with a meridian from pole to pole in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (see Treaty of Tordesillas 1494). All land to the west of this would belong to the Spanish royal family and land to the east to Portugal.

Francisco Serrão and his cousin Fernando Magellan went to sea around 1500. In 1505, Magellan was sent to India to install Francisco de Almeida as Viceroy of Portugal. It is not known whether Serrão served in Portuguese India in the following years. But they met again during the expedition to Malacca in 1509.

Commercial trips to Malacca

The lucrative trade in spices and other riches was carried out by Arab sailors. In the east, merchant ships had to pass through the Straits of Malacca and the goods came to Europe via the Red Sea and were sold in Venice at sky-high prices.

The Portuguese King Manuel I sends Diego Lopez de Sequeira to seek out the Sultan of Malacca and try to secure a trade agreement. A four-ship expedition, led by Admiral Sequeira with Magellan and Serrão as its captains, set out in 1509 and was well received by Sultan Mahmud Shah. But in the court there was a group of Muslims who had been in Goa at the same time as Vasco da Gama. They could tell how the Portuguese had fired on a ship carrying pilgrims on their way to Mecca. The Portuguese were cruel and untrustworthy. The Sultan therefore ordered his soldiers to hijack the ships and capture or kill the Portuguese. Magellan perceived this and warned Sequeira and his kinsman Serrão and the four caravels were able to sail out unharmed. But many Portuguese ended up in the Sultan”s prison. The expedition returned to Portuguese India.

The conquest of Malacca

In the early 16th century, Malacca was a major city in the East. Trade between China and Japan to India and Europe passed through the Straits of Malacca. In 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque, the new Viceroy of India, was ordered to equip a fleet and conquer the Sultanate of Malacca. He led a squadron of 14 ships, 900 soldiers and 200 Hindu mercenaries and sailed east in April. Magellan and Serrão each captained a ship. On arrival at the strategic strait, Albuquerque demanded the immediate release of the Portuguese prisoners. But the Sultan wanted to buy time to strengthen the city”s defences. On 25 July, the Sultan”s capital, Malacca, was attacked. But despite the capture of an important bridge and the burning of parts of the city, the Sultan”s troops held out.

The Portuguese hired Chinese junkers to anchor in the harbour. Antonio Abreu secretly sailed up the river with a force and was thus able to attack the Sultan”s forces from two directions. The city was then captured on 10 August and the Sultan fled to the province of Riau in Sumatra.

It was a rich spoils of war. Magellan acquired a Malay slave who became a servant and interpreter on further voyages. Albuquerque planned a voyage of discovery to the Spice Islands and gave Abreu three ships to equip and sail eastwards. Serrão was appointed captain of the ship Sabaia. Magellan volunteered to captain the third ship, but was recalled to the larger squadron that was to return to Portuguese India. On the way, they ran into a storm and several ships and much of the spoils of war were lost.

To the Moluccas

The voyage of discovery to the Moluccas began in December 1512 with three ships under the command of António de Abreu, accompanied by the Portuguese cartographer Franscisco Rodrigues and a master pilot from Java who knew the sea around the Sunda Islands. During a stopover in Java, Serrão had married a Javanese woman who then joined his ship. The voyage then continued eastwards and north of Timor the ships headed for the island of Ambon. In early 1512, the expedition arrived at the mythical Banda Islands and after a month they had filled the ships with nutmeg and cloves. The expedition bought a dungeon from a Chinese trader.

On the return journey, Sabaia was hit by a gale and drifted onto the small island of Hitu. Serrão and nine Portuguese and as many Indonesians survived. They were then able to take over the dungeon, but had to travel north to the island of Ternate. The Portuguese were able to help the Sultan Bayan Sirrullah, who was at war with the neighbouring island of Tidore and gratefully received the Portuguese sailor with mercenaries. Abreu, with two ships and a valuable cargo, returned to Portuguese Malacca in December 1512.

After the conflict between the islands of Ternate and Tidore, Serräo became an advisor to the Sultan and received a salary and a nice place to live. He stayed on Ternate and corresponded via Portuguese Malacca with Magellan, describing the archipelago and its natural resources, not least the spice wealth of the Banda Islands. Magellan was able to use these documents to persuade the Spanish King Carlos V to finance a voyage across the Atlantic around South America in order to compete with Portugal for these riches.

Francisco Serrão died in 1521 at Ternate at about the same time as Magellan, who had reached the Philippines just north of the Moluccas. Sultan Bayan died in the same year and this may have been due to a plot in the Sultan”s court.

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