Essays on Early Ornithology and Kindred Subjects/The Penguins and the Seals of the Angra de Sam Bràs

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785543Essays on Early Ornithology and Kindred Subjects — The Penguins and the Seals of the Angra de Sam BràsJames R. McClymont




THERE exists exists an anonymous narrative of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama to India under the title Roteiro da Viagem de Vasco da Gama em MCCCCXCVII. Although it is called a roteiro, it is in fact a purely personal and popular account of the voyage, and does not contain either sailing directions or a systematic description of all the ports which were visited, as one might expect in a roteiro. There is no reason to believe that it was written by Vasco da Gama. An officer in such high authority would not be likely to write his narrative anonymously. The faulty and variable orthography of the roteiro also renders improbable the hypothesis that Vasco da Gama was the author.

The journal of the first voyage of Columbus contains many allusions to the birds which were seen in the course of it by the great discoverer. In this respect the roteiro of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama resembles it. The journal of Columbus is the earliest record of an important voyage of discovery which recognises natural history as an aid to navigators, the roteiro is the next.

The author of the roteiro notes that birds resembling large herons were seen in the month of August, 1497, at which time, I opine, the vessels of Da Gama were not far from the Gulf of Guinea, or were, perhaps, making their way across that gulf. On the 27th of October, as the vessels approached the south-west coast of Africa, whales and seals were encountered, and also 'quoquas.'

'Quoquas' is the first example of the eccentric orthography of our author. 'Quoquas' is, no doubt, his manner of writing 'conchas,' that is to say 'shells'; the til over the o is absent; perhaps that is a typographical error; probably the author wrote or intended to write quõquas. These shells may have been those of nautili.

On the 8th of November the vessels under the command of Vasco da Gama cast anchor in a wide bay which extended from east to west, and which was sheltered from all winds excepting that which blew from the north-west. It was subsequently estimated that this anchorage was sixty leagues distant from the Angra de Sam Bràs; and as the Angra de Sam Bràs was estimated to be sixty leagues distant from the Cape of Good Hope, the sheltered anchorage must have been in proximity to the Cape.

The voyagers named it the Angra de Santa Elena, and it may have been the bay which is now known as St. Helen's Bay. But it is worthy of note that the G. de Sta. Ellena of the Cantino Chart is laid down in a position which corresponds rather with that of Table Bay than with that of St. Helen’s Bay.

The Portuguese came into contact with the inhabitants of the country adjacent to the anchorage. These people had tawny complexions, and carried wooden spears tipped with horn—assagais of a kind—and bows and arrows. They also used foxes' tails attached to short wooden handles. We are not informed for what purposes the foxes' tails were used. Were they used to brush flies away, or were they insignia of authority? The food of the natives was the flesh of whales, seals, and antelopes (gazellas), and the roots of certain plants. Crayfish or 'Cape lobsters' abounded near the anchorage.

The author of the roteiro affirms that the birds of the country resembled the birds in Portugal, and that amongst them were cormorants, larks, turtle-doves, and gulls. The gulls are called 'guayvotas,' but 'guayvotas' is probably another instance of the eccentric orthography of the author and equivalent to 'gaivotas.'

In December the squadron reached the Angra de São Bràs, which was either Mossel Bay or another bay in close proximity to Mossel Bay. Here penguins and seals were in great abundance. The author of the roteiro calls the penguins 'sotelycairos,' which is more correctly written 'sotilicarios' by subsequent writers. The word is probably related to the Spanish sotil and the Latin subtilis, and may contain an allusion to the supposed cunning of the penguins, which disappear by diving when an enemy approaches.

The sotilicarios, says the chronicler, could not fly because there were no quill-feathers in their wings; in size they were as large as drakes, and their cry resembled the braying of an ass. Castanheda, Goes, and Osorio also mention the sotilicario in their accounts of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama, and compare its flipper to the wing of a bat—a not wholly inept comparison, for the under-surface of the wings of penguins is wholly devoid of feathery covering. Manuel de Mesquita Perestrello, who visited the south coast of Africa in 1575, also describes the Cape penguin. From a manuscript of his Roteiro in the Oporto Library, one learns that the flippers of the sotilicario were covered with minute feathers, as indeed they are on the upper surface and that they dived after fish, upon which they fed, and on which they fed their young, which were hatched in nests constructed of fishbones.[1] There is nothing to cavil at in these statements, unless it be that which asserts that the nests were constructed of fishbones, for this is not in accordance with the observations of contemporary naturalists, who tell us that the nests of the Cape Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) are constructed of stones, shells, and débris.[2] It is, therefore, probable that the fishbones which Perestrello saw were the remains of repasts of seals.

Seals, says the roteiro, were in great number at the Angra de São Bràs. On one occasion the number was counted and was found to be three thousand. Some were as large as bears and their roaring was as the roaring of lions. Others, which were very small, bleated like kids. These differences in size and in voice may be explained by differences in the age and in the sex of the seals, for seals of different species do not usually resort to the same locality. The seal which formerly frequented the south coast of Africa—for it is, I believe, no longer a denizen of that region—was that which is known to naturalists as Arctocephalus delalandii, and, as adult males sometimes attain eight and a half feet in length, it may well be described as of the size of a bear. Cubs from six to eight months of age measure about two feet and a half in length.[3] The Portuguese caught anchovies in the bay, which they salted to serve as provisions on the voyage. They anchored a second time in the Angra de São Bràs in March, 1499, on their homeward voyage.

Yet one more allusion to the penguins and seals of the Angra de São Bràs is of sufficient historical interest to be mentioned. The first Dutch expedition to Bantam weighed anchor on the 2nd of April, 1595, and on the 4th of August of the same year the vessels anchored in a harbour called 'Ague Sambras,' in eight or nine fathoms of water, on a sandy bottom. So many of the sailors were sick with scurvy—'thirty or thirty-three,' says the narrator, 'in one ship'—that it was necessary to find fresh fruit for them. 'In this bay,' runs the English translation of the narrative, 'lieth a small Island wherein are many birds called Pyncuins and sea Wolves, that are taken with men's hands.' In the original Dutch narrative by Willem Lodewyckszoon, published in Amsterdam in 1597, the name of the birds appears as 'Pinguijns.'

  1. Roteiro da Viagem de Vasco da Gama. 2da edição. Lisboa, 1861. Pp. 14 and 105.
  2. Moseley, Notes by a Naturalist on the 'Challenger,' p. 155.
  3. Catalogue of Seals and Whales in the British Museum, by J. E. Gray. 2nd ed., p. 53.