Pinto’s Travels, written in Portugal between 1569 and 1578, is a crazed, dreamy, fascinating, elliptical book. Mendes Pinto lived and traveled extensively in Asia during the years 1537 to 1558, and the Travels is his attempt to come to grips with those experiences, and the fantasies and reflections that accompanied them. The huge, rambling manuscript was finally published in 1614, thirty-one years after Pinto’s death, and enjoyed an immediate success. A fussily emended Spanish edition appeared in 1620, a complete French translation in 1628, and an abbreviated English one in 1653. Pinto’s own title for his book was The Peregrinations, and that seems to say something different from Travels. “Travels” sounds either purposeful or at least touristic, whereas “Peregrinations” can begin and end anywhere, can change purpose and goal constantly, or indeed lack them altogether.

Pinto’s book baffled his editors and translators, who were always trying to tidy him up. The Spanish translator tried to give a proper baroque elaboration to the text, while the English translator compiled an elaborate historiographical essay in an attempt to prove Pinto’s accuracy. But English readers were not convinced. As Dorothy Osborne wrote to Sir William Temple just after the book’s English publication, Pinto’s “lyes are as pleasant harmlesse on’s as lyes can bee, and in noe great number considering the scope hee has for them.” By 1695, in Love for Love, the playwright William Congreve could have one of his characters reproach another with the words “Ferdinand Mendez Pinto was but a type of thee, thou liar of the first magnitude.”

Now, with Rebecca Catz, Pinto has at last found his perfect editor-translator, and the University of Chicago Press gives us their words in a beautifully produced book, embellished with a wealth of rare sixteenth-century illustrations. As Ms. Catz sensibly says, the protracted arguments over Pinto’s historicity and veracity have obscured the fact “that Pinto’s masterpiece belongs not to history, but to literature, specifically to the genre of satire.” Thus “the inconsistencies and improbabilities of the Travels are an integral part of its design, a deliberate puzzle.” The shades of the various scholars who tried to reconcile Pinto’s recorded adventures with the historical calendar should accordingly rest in peace, for Pinto’s chronology “is glaringly and daringly inaccurate. More than that, it is absurd.”

Freed by Ms. Catz’s common sense from the need to read Pinto as history, we can instead relax and read Pinto as a fiction that blends the elements of the satirical and the picaresque. Pinto’s central goal, Ms. Catz suggests, was to offer a deep and protracted criticism of the actions of the Portuguese in building their overseas empire, and of the Christian crusading ethos that lay behind them. Pinto’s critique was thus directed both at the men of war and the men of God involved in the enterprise. Descriptions of Asian beliefs and actions are used to highlight the absurdities and hypocrisy of the Portuguese, something that could hardly be expressed openly by a Portuguese living at home in the later sixteenth century. Again and again, I kept noticing how precisely Pinto was a precursor of Montesquieu and Voltaire, of Defoe and Goldsmith. Yet at the same time, we can see Pinto as narrator in the emerging tradition of the Spanish picaresque novel.

Ms. Catz shrewdly draws a parallel between Pinto’s relationship with one of his more rascally employers and that of Lazarillo de Tormes (of the 1554 novel) with his fifth master, the seller of papal indulgences. In Ms. Catz’s words,

since the picaro is never quite so corrupt as the society he enters, he has to be taught the tricks of the trade, and in the process much that is underhanded is exposed and analyzed for the reader.

To achieve his satirical goals, Ms. Catz believes, Pinto presented his narrative through a single central persona who, however, spoke in four different voices that echo and interact with each other: the four voices are those of the vir bonus, the moral and virtuous man who wins our trust by his evident sincerity; the ingénu who wins our sympathy by his naive innocence about the horrors he describes; the hero-patriot, always rushing into the fray against evil; and the picaro who participates in the very evils he condemns.

The structure of Pinto’s book is an ungainly one, and takes some getting used to. Pinto himself wrote the entire work (his text fills 523 large pages in the current Chicago edition) without any chapter breaks. His posthumous early-seventeenth-century editor divided the book into 226 sections, each with its own descriptive title. These divisions, followed in the original Spanish and French translations, though not in the British, are retained by Ms. Catz. But this makes for slightly disjointed reading, since many of the sections are more like vignettes, and the roll of the narrative often spans dozens or even scores of them. According to my reading of this strangely powerful book, it is essentially constructed of ten major, integrated narrative blocks, these ten blocks being enclosed within brief opening and concluding chapters that give some accurate autobiographical detail and present Pinto’s views on fate and his own life. The opening lines, especially, are wonderfully effective in giving us the voice of Pinto the narrator, with their mixture of whining, faith, and apparently circumstantial detail:


Whenever I look back at all the hardship and misfortune I suffered throughout most of my life, I can’t help thinking I have good reason to complain of my bad luck, which started about the time I was born and continued through the best years of my life. It seems that misfortune had singled me out above all others for no purpose but to hound me and abuse me, as though it were something to be proud of. As I grew up in my native land, my life was a constant struggle against poverty and misery, and not without its moments of terror when we barely escaped with our lives. If that were not enough, Fortune saw fit to carry me off to the Indies, where, instead of my lot improving as I had hoped, the hardship and hazards only increased with the passing years.

But on the other hand, when I consider that God always watched over me and brought me safely through all those hazards and hardships, then I find that there is not as much reason to complain about my past misfortune as there is reason to give thanks to the Lord for my present blessings, for he saw fit to preserve my life, so that I could write this awkward, unpolished tale, which I leave as a legacy for my children—because it is intended only for them. I want them to know all about the twenty-one years of difficulty and danger I lived through, in the course of which I was captured thirteen times and sold into slavery seventeen times, in various parts of India, Ethiopia, Arabia Felix, China, Tartary, Macassar, Sumatra, and many other provinces of the archipelago located in the easternmost corner of Asia, which is referred to as “the outer edge of the world” in the geographical works of the Chinese, Siamese, Gueos, and Ryukyu, about which I expect to have a lot more to say later on, and in much greater detail.

I had never read Pinto before, having merely seen him referred to as a source in various scholarly works. But with these words I was hooked, and I was determined to follow Pinto wherever he might lead. It is of course typical of Pinto, as I later discovered, that he was not captured thirteen times and sold into slavery seventeen times—or not according to the evidence presented in his own book. He does describe being captured eight times, in various parts of the world, and being sold into slavery seven times, to masters of varying degrees of nastiness, which would be enough for most people. But with typical Pinto wit he observes of one of those sales that nobody at all wanted to buy him, and he was left sheepishly standing on the auction block unloved, unwashed, and half-starving, “like a sorry old nag put out to pasture.”

The world according to Pinto is an unpredictable one, full of violent juxta-positions: insane and sickening cruelties alongside gentleness and concern, accumulation of dizzying fortunes followed at once by the loss of absolutely everything, the crassest of superstitions overlayed with philosophical profundity. Each of the ten narrative blocks pursues all these themes to varying degrees, through the confrontations between Portuguese and native rulers, which is usually (though not always) also a confrontation between Catholicism and Islam. Blame is distributed evenhandedly by Pinto, and the Portuguese are not the only sadists and masters of deceit. But cumulatively they emerge as the worst, because they, with a bemused Pinto always in their midst, are the constants in the book, while the other societies and rulers enter the stage and depart again to the wings in a rhythmic sequence. Since some readers may be baffled or deterred by the 226 sections into which Pinto’s book was, and still is, divided, it is worth briefly describing the ten main narrative blocks; the blocks are sequential chronologically, so the sequence gives at least some sense of how Pinto spent his long years in the East.

Block one, comprising sections 2–12, is set in the Middle East and Ethiopia, focusing on the search for Prester John’s descendants, and on Pinto’s life both as slave and freebooter around Hormuz and Diu. In block two (sections 13–20) Pinto is in Sumatra, involved in the Battak wars; block three (sections 21–37) continues the Sumatra saga with a protracted account of the bitter Aaru-Achin wars. Block four (sections 38–59) is the tale or a different kind or confrontation, as Pinto’s piratical employer Antonio de Faria pursues his equally villanous and piratical sworn enemy, the Khoja Hassim. The long block five (sections 60–116) is a tale both of Pinto’s adventures in China and of Antonio de Faria’s obsessive quest for a mystical Chinese paradise.


Pinto’s “farewell to Peking” ends this section and brings the book to its midpoint, and Pinto to his farthest remove from Europe. His slow road home begins as he campaigns with the Tartars, explores Japan and the Ryukyu Islands, and observes the savage Martaban war in Burma, and the convoluted world of Siamese politics. The last major block (sections 200–225) centers around Francis Xavier’s mission to Japan, and the saint’s miracles, death, and burial. Back home at last in Portugal, deprived by faithless rulers of the rewards that he believed to be his due, Pinto closes his book with a brilliantly composed rhetorical sigh:

Though I did not get the satisfaction I sought in exchange for so many hardships and services, I realize that it was due more to the workings of divine Providence which ordained it so, for my sins, than to any negligence or fault on the part of whoever, by the will of heaven, had the responsibility for compensating me. For inasmuch as I have always observed in all the kings of this kingdom (who are the pure source from whence flow all compensations, though at times through channels affected more by favor than by reason) a saintly and grateful zeal and an extremely generous and grandiose desire, not only to reward those who serve them, but also to bestow many favors even on those who do not serve them, from which it is clear that if I and the others as neglected as I have not been compensated for our services, it was merely the fault of the channels and not the source, or rather, it was so ordained by divine justice, in which there can be no error, and which disposes all things as it sees fit and as is best for us.

Therefore, I give many thanks to the King of Heaven, who has seen fit in this manner to carry out his divine will on me, and I am not complaining about the kings of the earth, since I did not deserve any better, for having sinned so deeply.

To unravel the fact from the fiction in all this, to decide what actions Pinto really performed, which ones he saw at first hand, which he heard about from others, which he read about in various travelers’ accounts, and which he made up, is an impossible task. Ms. Catz gives some good guidelines in her notes, which constitute a heroic attempt to summarize all the various assessments of Pinto that can be found in the various subspecialties of scholarship among which his world is now divided.

From my own narrow perch on the cliff of China studies, I would venture the guess that Pinto never traveled in China at all, though he probably visited Macao, Hainan Island, and possibly Quemoy or some other coastal towns where a little semilegal trading was carried on by enterprising Chinese merchants. But he had certainly read some of the accounts by various Portuguese and Spanish diplomats and missionaries who had the misfortune to be imprisoned by the Chinese* and transcribes quite recognizably a few Chinese bureaucratic terms.

Near the end of his book Pinto mentions having a Chinese attendant or male servant at sea with him, which is certainly feasible in light of the prevailing sixteenth-century practices. In an account of a shipwreck in the Ryukyu Islands he also mentions that he and the other Portuguese had “some women” with them, four of whom subsequently died of terror and exhaustion. Given Pinto’s accounts elsewhere in his book of the awful casualness with which Chinese women villagers were seized and carried off by the Portuguese after their coastal raids, these tragic figures might also be real, not fictional.

Some of Pinto’s adventures, however, can be authenticated from other sources. He did have various diplomatic and trade assignments in Southeast Asia, and he knew Francis Xavier, the Spanish Jesuit who set up a mission in Japan, and traveled there, returning to Japan as an envoy in 1555 after Xavier’s death in 1552 off the China coast. But Pinto, for his own evasive reasons, often did not tell things he could have done, which would greatly have enriched the verisimilitude of his narrative. For instance, he nowhere mentions the fact that not only had he accumulated a large fortune in Far Eastern trade by the late 1540s, but that he gave much of this money to Xavier in 1551 to build a church in Japan. Nor does Pinto mention that in 1554 he himself joined the Society of Jesus as a lay brother, only to leave the order again in 1557. The fact that in just this period Pinto was both in Goa and at his most devotional helps to explain the moving prose in which he describes the reception of Xavier’s corpse in Goa for burial in February 1554. In the recollection of this moment, satire falls silent:

By this time, as day was breaking, six vessels arrived from the city with forty or fifty men on board who, during the lifetime of the deceased, had been very devoted followers of his, all of them carrying freshly lit candles in their hands, with their slaves carrying tapers. Upon entering the church they all prostrated themselves before the tomb or coffin where he lay and paid him reverence, shedding many tears, and at sunrise they set out for the city.

On the way they saw Diogo Pereira, who was there on a sloop with many people on board carrying lighted torches and tapers, all of whom prostrated themselves face down on the deck as the cutter passed by them. Close behind them, in the same order, were ten or twelve other vessels, so that by the time it reached the pier it must have been accompanied by twenty rowing vessels carrying about 150 Portuguese from China and Malacca, all very rich and respectable people. They were also carrying lighted torches and tapers while their servants, who probably numbered over three hundred, were carrying candles as big as torches, creating altogether a magnificent Christian spectacle that inspired deep devotion in all those who beheld it.

Much of the vigor of Pinto’s lengthy narrative derives from the fun he has with style, as he selects a voice for a given character and then lovingly embellishes it. The elaborate rhetoric of the oriental potentate never wearies Pinto, and the jest lies in the very seriousness with which the most fulsome sentiments are expressed. The King of Aaru, for instance, cannot just ask the Portuguese for help in his protracted war with the King of Achin. Instead he moves to seize the high moral ground before slipping in his profoundly practical request:

I call upon the almighty God who reigns on high in majesty supreme, with sighs of anguish welling up from the very depths of my soul, to pass judgment in this matter on how proper and just is the petition that I address to both your lordships in the name of my king, loyal vassal of the powerful ruler of all the nations and peoples of India and the land of great Portugal, who has always honored the oath of fealty his ancestors swore to him long ago at the hands of Albuquerque, roaring lion of the ocean waves, who promised us then that as long as the kings of Aaru up-held their oath of loyalty, his king and his successors would assume the obligation to defend us against all our enemies, in keeping with the duty of a powerful liege lord, such as he was. And in view of the fact that we have never violated our oath, I ask your lordships, what reason can you possibly have for refusing to honor your obligation and the word of your king, when you know full well that it is on account of our loyalty to him that the Achinese enemy has set out to destroy us, giving as his reason that my king is as much a Portuguese and a Christian as though he had been born in Portugal? And now when my king turns to you as to true friends, to defend him against this outrage, you refuse him with flimsy excuses, when all it would take to satisfy us and protect our kingdom against these enemies is only about forty or fifty Portuguese soldiers with their muskets and arms to train us and lift our spirits in battle, and four kegs of powder, with a supply of two hundred cannonballs for the culverins.

The King of Achin, in a later negotiation, ends his letter to the King of Aaru (according to Pinto) with the altogether perfect sentence: “Written at my grandiose palace in prosperous Achin, on the same day of the arrival of thy ambassador, whom I promptly dismissed, refusing to see or hear any more of him, as he will inform you.”

One of Pinto’s Portuguese friends, who has been able to drink all opposition under the table, is hoisted aloft an elephant by an ecstatic Burmese mob, and saluted with the memorable chant:

O ye people, sing joyful praises to the rays that issue from the center of the sun, which is the god that brings forth our rice, for the time has come when you behold in your land a man so holy who, by drinking more than anyone ever born in the world, has brought down the twenty principal heads of our troop. May his fame be spread far and wide forever!

Pinto’s narrative voice also has an admirable concision at times, and Ms. Catz does a fine job of rendering it in English. Here, for instance, are the Portuguese, driven wild by greed, leaving China on a mission to a miraculous kingdom:

Driven by their hunger for profits, in only two weeks they readied nine junks that were in the harbor at the time, all of them so ill prepared and poorly equipped to sail that some of them were carrying as pilots only the ships’ owners, who knew absolutely nothing about the art of navigation. And that was how they departed, all together, on a Sunday morning, against the wind, against the monsoon, against the tide, and against all reason, without a moment’s thought for the perils of the sea, but so blind and obstinate in their determination to leave that none of these drawbacks were considered. And I too went along on one of them.

And one would be hard put to do better than this in setting the scene for the local history of Kedah, where a Malay tyrant held sway:

At the time we arrived in Kedah, the king was in the midst of conducting elaborate funeral services for his father, whom he had stabbed to death in order to marry his mother, who was pregnant with his child. As part of the ceremonies, which were performed with a great deal of pomp and splendor, there was music making, dancing, shouting, screaming, and free meals for the poor who flocked there in great numbers.

One of the many oddities of Pinto’s Travels is that he almost never speaks to us directly in the first person. Whichever of the four different personae discussed by Ms. Catz is doing the observing will relay the speeches of others at great length and with the pretense to absolute literalness and accuracy; but his own speeches and thoughts are summarized as asides, as elliptical exhortations to the reader, or as if being passed on by others. I found only two passages in this lengthy book where Pinto sheds this protection and speaks at us directly in a first-person voice in quotation marks. Since he seems always to have been so aware of what he was doing stylistically, we must assume that he was doing this out of deliberate choice.

The first time Pinto gives us his own words he is confronting the same tyrannical ruler of Kedah mentioned above. The ruler has just killed Pinto’s traveling companion, a Muslim merchant, by the Malay method Pinto calls the gregoge, which consists, he tells us, “of sawing a live man to death, starting with the feet, then the hands, the neck, and the chest, all the way down the back to the bottom of the spine.” The King, seated on an elephant, shows Pinto his friend’s dismembered corpse. Pinto, gibbering with fear, throws himself at the elephant’s feet:

“I beg you, sir,” I cried, unable to control the tears, “please take me for your slave instead of having me killed like them, for I swear by my faith as a Christian that I have done nothing to deserve it. And don’t forget that I am the nephew of the captain of Malacca, who will gladly pay any amount of money to ransom me. And then there’s the jurupango in the harbor with all its valuable cargo which is yours for the taking whenever you please.”

“Good God, man!” he exclaimed. “What are you saying? Do you think I’m as bad as all that? Now, now, calm yourself, you have nothing to fear. Just sit down and rest a while, for I can see that you are upset. Then after you have regained your composure, I will explain why I ordered the execution of that Moor you brought with you. And I swear by my own faith, I would never have done such a thing if he had been a Portuguese, or a Christian, even if he were guilty of murdering one of my sons.”

The humor of the grisly situation comes from the juxtaposition of the tyrant’s calm logic with Pinto’s abject terror, and a point is made about the cowardice that lies behind Portuguese bluster, as well as about the moral ambiguity of the foreign nations they are encountering, pillaging, and sometimes conquering.

The second time Pinto relays his own voice to us comes near the end of the Travels. This time the setting is utterly different. Pinto is on a ship with Father Francis Xavier; they have just been attempting to establish the first Christian mission in Japan, and are en route to Malacca. Their ship has been hit by a terrible storm, many men have been lost, and everyone is exhausted. In the midst of the dramatic action, Pinto gives us this vignette:

Then he [Xavier] called me over to the poop deck where he was at the time, looking quite sad as everyone thought, and asked me if I would have a little drinking water heated for him because his stomach was very upset, a request which, for my sins, I could not satisfy, since there was no stove on the nao, for it had been thrown overboard the day before when the deck had been jettisoned at the beginning of the storm. Then he complained to me that his head was reeling and that he was subject to occasional dizzy spells.

“Little wonder that Your Reverence feels that way,” I said to him, “since you have not slept for three nights and it is very likely that you haven’t tasted a bite of food either, as one of Duarte da Gama’s slaves told me.”

“I assure you,” he answered, “that I feel sorry for him when I see how disconsolate he is, for all last night, after the sloop was lost, he wept continuously for his nephew, Afonso Calvo, who is on it, along with our other companions.”

Then, because I saw the father yawning frequently, I said to him, “Your Reverence, go lie down for a while in my cabin, and perhaps you will get some rest.”

Here, Pinto is freed from his abject terror of the Malay tyrant, and attains, for a rare moment, something approaching a state of grace. I mulled over these two brief passages for many days, comparing their rhetoric, seeking their message, wondering why Pinto had shared his very own voice with us on these two occasions, and these alone. Perhaps there can be no definitive answer, but I can hazard my own guess. Pinto wanted, with all his heart, to let us know two things: That terror can be so overwhelming that we lose all our dignity despite ourselves, and become abject creatures groveling in the dust. Yet when confronted by great goodness we can, if we reach out sincerely, partake of it. Even Pinto, the rascal, loafer, merchant, coward, pirate, man-at-arms, could console with a few words the holiest man he had met in his life when that man had reached the end of his resources. In these two moments, Pinto has beautifully summarized for us the awfulness and the holiness that were so intertwined in the great historical drama of Portugal’s sixteenth-century global explorations.

This Issue

April 12, 1990