The greatest survival story

24 June 2017

9:00 AM

24 June 2017

9:00 AM

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.

  1. 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. But the prospect of traitor status in Lisbon defeated him, and he jumped ship at St Helena, where vessels stopped to take on water. Azzam comments that the island was ‘a godforsaken place for a godforsaken soul’.

I was on St Helena last year, and a Saint (as the residents are called) showed me the cave where Lopes supposedly took shelter, lining the walls with gorse. It’s a rough old landscape, and Lopes’s is one of the greatest human survival stories. He ate plants, eel, angelfish and seabirds’ eggs, and passing ships deposited supplies, without ever glimpsing the Hermit of St Helena. Earlier sailors had planted fig trees, which Lopes cultivated. (Remember he only had four fingers.)

On the whole, the prose of The Other Exile is a model of clarity, notwithstanding a scattering of clichés of the ‘his fate was sealed’ and ‘words spread like wildfire’ variety. One can forgive this engaging author for touches of purple: ‘As the ship made its way to Lisbon, Lopes would have had no idea what lay ahead.’ Twice within one paragraph Azzam informs us that the story he has to tell is ‘fascinating’. He paints a bleak picture of the island today (never having visited it), which, airport fiasco notwithstanding, was not my experience.

Remarkably, Lopes survived for 14 years. Then, at the age of 50, he returned to Lisbon in a passing ship (the sources about how this occurred are contradictory). By then he was a famous man in his native land. He had his hair cut and met the king and queen, but quickly returned to his island solitude, dying there a dozen or so years later. For this second stay he took pigs, chickens and goats, the descendants of which flourish on the island today.

The book ends with a meditation on solitude. Azzam calls the St Helena years ‘redemptive and transformative’. He raises the exile into a kind of apotheosis: ‘It was there that Lopes would make sense of the thread that linked the events of his life and would finally liberate him from his torment.’ This is pure speculation. Following some ghostly leads, the author contends that Lopes was born and raised Jewish, and converted to Islam ‘because in that faith he found what he had once lost’. Readers must decide for themselves.

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