In 1506, Lopes headed off to India in search of military glory, but, shortly after Afonso de Albuquerque’s capture of Goa in 1510, drops out of the historical record, only to reappear much changed in 1516. By that date he was in Bijapur, had converted to Islam, and begun to fight alongside Portugal’s enemies. This, needless to say, did not go down well with his countrymen and, captured as a renegade, Lopes was exposed to degrading punishments. Over three days he was smeared with pig dung, urinated on in the stocks, and had various body parts (his nose, ears, right hand and left thumb) lopped off. Lopes then had to choose between remaining in Goa or returning to Lisbon. He opted for the latter option but jumped ship at Saint Helena, where he remained for 14 years. Lopes appears to have carved out a relatively comfortable existence on the lonely island, and did his best to hide from any passing crews that put ashore.
Encounters could not be avoided entirely, however, and news of Lopes’ curious existence in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean made him something of a celebrity back in Portugal. Eventually, the Portuguese king forced Lopes to return to Lisbon (for the first time in 24 years) but after Lopes was quizzed and sent to meet the pope, he was allowed to return to Saint Helena. By 1546, when Lopes would have been 66, he was reported dead.This, as mentioned, would be wonderful bare bones material for a novelist but, with so little to go on, how is a historian to produce a book-length study of this enigmatic figure?
Abdul Rahman Azzam deploys two strategies. Firstly, Lopes’ story is skilfully inserted into a much broader account of Portugal’s sea-going adventures. We learn a great deal about how and why the country ‘launched its empire like a drunken love affair: chaotic and random, impetuous and cruel.’ Azzam also offers masterful portraits of two cities, Lisbon and Goa, that were central to Lopes’ story, and makes a decent fist of explaining the era’s religious tensions.
Azzam’s second tactic is less secure. When facts are not available, speculation ensues. It is suggested, for example, that Lopes, while Christian by the time he enters the historical record, may have originally been Jewish and that this could account for a ‘life in deep existential crisis’. Perhaps, but there is no significant evidence to support the claim. The book naturally looks at why Lopes converted to Islam and Azzam constructs a detailed theoretical trajectory in which Lopes first becomes culturally attracted to life in Bijapur, then develops a syncretic religious outlook that allows him to blend his beliefs with Islam, and finally finds ‘comfort, solace and tranquillity’ in his new faith. Perhaps, but where’s the proof of this?
There are, meanwhile, various possibilities when it comes to accounting for Lopes’ voluntary exile on Saint Helena: perhaps he had become mentally unhinged, perhaps he just wanted to hide from the world. Who knows? Azzam prefers a more romantic explanation. He declares that, early in his exile, Lopes ‘must have sensed the inkling of a profound inner transformation’, a chance for spiritual redemption through solitude. There will apparently have been ‘days of despair where he felt that he had dropped off the face of the Earth’ but these will have ‘been woven into days when he felt he was at the centre of the universe and that he was God’s sole focus.’ How, though, can Azzam possibly know this?
Azzam wants the ‘strange and poignant tale of Fernão Lopes’ to open up a meditation on ‘the secret of solitude’. This lofty goal presumably explains the various flights of fancy but it’s a risky move in the context of a history book, however passionate and well-written it may be.