Onions and garlic

Feet that rarely touched solid ground: Vasco da Gama's final resting place, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon

“The East is a career,” wrote Disraeli of the work of imperialism. “Career” in Portuguese is carreira, and for centuries the carreira also meant the journey east: six or seven months in a cramped ship from Lisbon around Africa to India, no stopping. Portugal’s historical identity is tied up in the heroic voyages of discovery and conquest of five hundred years ago. Some say the Portuguese were the first agents of globalization, and in Portugal the caravel remains an icon of the country’s venturesome spirit. Yet Boxer tells us that in ocean-braving Portugal, wanting to be a sailor was like wanting a disease. It was desperation work. To scrape crews together some men were pressed into service, and chained to the deck until the ship left harbor.

So even though Portugal had centuries of experience navigating the seas, ships were largely manned by novices who only learned to sail on route. One captain, frustrated that his crew couldn’t tell port from starboard, tied bags of garlic to one side of the ship and onions to the other. “Now,” he ordered his pilot, “tell them to onion their helm, or to garlic their helm, and they will understand quick enough.”

Spain had the same problem. According to one British observer of the Spanish fleet, in 1731, “the people were so ignorant what ropes they were to go to, having been put on board in such a hurry, that they put cards on all the different ropes, and so were ordered to ‘Pull away the Ace of Spades,’ ‘Make fast the King of Hearts,’ and so on.”

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