Magazine article The Spectator

'The Other Exile: The Remarkable Story of Fernão Lopes, the Island of St Helena and a Paradise Lost', by A.R. Azzam - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Other Exile: The Remarkable Story of Fernão Lopes, the Island of St Helena and a Paradise Lost', by A.R. Azzam - Review

Article excerpt

This is the story of a 16th-century Portuguese knight and mariner who survived alone on a lump of volcanic rock in the South Atlantic for 26 years. The island was St Helena, and Fernão Lopes is the 'other exile' of the book's title, in contrast to Napoleon, who pitched up 300 years later. But Lopes's lonely sojourn was self-imposed.

He was born in Lisbon in Portugal's Golden Age, when Manuel I embarked on an ambitious period of expansion and ushered his nation into the ranks of the great European powers. Lopes was not of noble line, but had a good education and rigorous military training and rose to become a servant of the king, sailing to India in 1506 as an officer in a 15-ship armada with the explorer Tristao da Cunha. He probably never saw his wife and children again.

R. Azzam, the author of a life of Saladin, has researched and sleuthed scrupulously, hiring a translator to mine the archives in Portugal. But a paucity of sources mentioning Lopes, especially in the early years, means there is too much speculation about how 'he would have felt' and so on. Inevitably, this slows the narrative drive. While Lopes vanishes, Azzam diligently fills his pages with the history of Portuguese naval conquests in the period.

The Indian chapters unfurl in a blizzard of attacks, victories, internal disputes, pillage, the vengeful slaughter of Muslims, and the eventual securing of Goa, a port of crucial strategic importance. Under the command of Afonso de Albuquerque, who co-ruled Portuguese India in a viceregal capacity and is known in Portugal today as 'the Caesar of the East', Lopes marched through the gates of Goa behind a friar holding aloft a jewelled cross and the banner of the Order of Christ.

Then, mirabile dictu, Lopes walked for eight days to the neighbouring sultanate of Bijapur and converted to Islam, offering to fight against his countryman for Yusuf Adil Khan (later Yusuf Adil Shah). A number of other Portuguese, a group known as renegadoes, did the same thing. At this point in the story, as Azzam says, 'Lopes emerges from the shadows'. Retribution, when it came, was brutal: Albuquerque ordered his henchmen to chop off Lopes's nose, ears, right hand and left thumb.

In 1516 our mutilated hero received a royal pardon and opted to return to Portugal. …

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