Fernão Mendes Pinto in Japan

Fernão Mendes Pinto (1509–1583) was a Portuguese sailor, trader and adventurer who wrote a sprawling 226-chapter epic on his travels to the Orient, the Peregrinaçam (“Pilgrimage”; modern spelling Peregrinação)—or, to cite the full title, “The Pilgrimage of Fernam Mendez Pinto where he accounts for many and very strange things he saw and heard in the kingdom of China, of Tartaria, of Sornau, which is vulgarly called Sião, of the Calaminhamn, of the Pegù, of the Martauão, & in many other realms & lordships of the Oriental parts, about which in these ours of the Occident there is very little or no news”. His tales were so tall that people were skeptical from the beginning, and the author quickly acquired the punny nickname Fernão, mentes? minto! (“Fernão, are you lying? I am!”). Much of the Peregrinaçam is clearly fantasy, but a surprising amount turned out to be plausible as we came to know better the peoples of Asia.

The journey includes a brief passage in Japan. Compared with the intellectual 16th-century Jesuit writers (João Rodrigues, Luís Fróis &c.), Fernão has a completely different aura; uncouth and blunt, he seems to even take a certain “New Yorker’s pride” in his own barbarism. In this post, I tried to cite some examples I found interesting. He can be unexpectedly sympatethic to the Orientals, and I’ve heard rumors that the original was even more critical of Europeans, but that the Church had a little hand in censorship. (Not that, in the version we have at least, he doesn’t denounce idolaters as strongly as any good Christian. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance is palpable, as when he express bewilderment and confusion at how could God have given so much wealth to the kingdom of the Chinas, and how could their civilization even govern itself so well, when they openly indulged and even praised the “unspeakable sin”—sodomy).

I wish I could translate the effect that the original text causes in a modern Portuguese speaker. Some of it comes from its sheer oldness: the irregular and antiquated spelling, the curious morphology, the familiar vocabulary used in unexpected ways. Some of it come from Fernão’s lack of grace, so removed from the impressively elegant Jesuit prose. Fernão writes nonstop, piling sentence upon sentence with nary but a comma between them (paragraphs? what’s a paragraph?)—it’s breathtaking. Having little acquaintance with Middle English or premodern English spelling, I can’t reproduce much of the Renaissance flavor. I tried to transmit at least some of the strangeness by adhering closely to the clumsiness of his syntax (which really challenges the reader’s parsing, often requiring going back and forth to reread), by employing some Latinate or unusual vocabulary, and by false-friending. The resulting “weird English” doesn’t come close to Fernão’s sailor’s charm, but oh well; the translator’s plight. I keep his, er, romanizations verbatim.

Of how Fernão found a wealthy city, ripe for taking

Arriving we to a very noble city called Quangeparuu, which would have fifteen or twenty thousand neighbors, the Naudelum, who was the one who by order of el Rey brought us, stayed there twelve days making his commerce with people from the land in exchange for silver & for pearls, by which he confessed to us that from one he made fourteen, but had he brought salt, he would not be content in doubling the money thirty times. In this city they told us that el Rey had of income every year just from the silver mines two thousand & fifteen hundred picos, which are four thousand quintais, & other than this wealth he has many others of many different things. This city has no more strength for her defense than only one weak brick wall of eight palms of mine of girth, & one moat five yards broad, & seven palms deep. Her dwellers are a weak & unarmed people, without even artillery, or anything that might harm whatever five hundred good soldiers should they take her […]


Of how Fernão & his friends gave a bad impression to the Chinas… twice

After there had been two months & a half that we had walked into this city of the Pequim, […] the Chaem […] wanted us to serve him in the guard of eighty alabardeyros [halberdsmen] who el Rey gave him, what we took for no small mercy from our Lord, by reason of being this employment of little effort, and also for the stipend being much advantageous & better paid, & for us having more freedom. And it being already almost a month that we were here peacefully, & satisfied with ourselves for amassing better treatment than we had hoped for, seeing the devil how harmoniously us nine lived, because everything of ours was common to all, & all brotherly divided between us this meagerness that each one had, ordered to be sowed between two of us a contention much harmful to us all, born of a certain vanity that our Portuguesa nation has of herself, of which I do not know other reason save we having by nature be [easily] hurt badly in matters of honour, & the dissension was this. Two of the nine that we were came to be in a tussle of words about what generation had better living in the house of el Rey our Lord, if the Madureyras if the Fonsecas, & from word to word came the business to so much that they came to use the lowly words of regateyras [street-vendors, harlots], saying one to the other who are ye? but who are ye? since by chance each one of them had little more than nothing. And with this they broke into such a rage, that one of them gave the other one huge slap, which had for reply a great cut on the face of he who gave it, made by knife, which fellled him half a face below, & the hurt man taking his halberd, cut off from the other one arm, & extending this brawl between all nine for this unfortunate question, the matter came to the state for after seven of us became very hurt, arrived the Chaem himself with all the Anchacys of justice, & taking us by the hands, prompty gave us thirty lashes, from which we became bloodier than from our wounds, & took us to a dungeon that was below the Ground, where they had us forty & six days with chains in the foots, cuffs in the hands, & collars in the necks […]

(From CXV)

[…] we went to another harbour seven leagues ahead named Lampacau, where we found two juncos from the Malayo coast, one from Patane, & the other from Lugor. And since the nature of this Portugueza nation of ours is to be much attached to our judgments, there was here between us eight in all so much difference, & disharmony of opinions about one thing about which it was most important for us to have much peace & concord, that we almost had to come to kill each other, so that, because it’s exceedingly shameful to tell what happened, I will not say anything other than the Necodá of the lorcha who there had brought us from Huzanguee, startled with this barbarism of ours, went away much irked, not wanting to take our letters or messages that any of us would give him, saying that he would rather have el Rey cut off his head for this, than to offend Deos in taking our things [with him] where he went. And in this way dissenting & unwelcome we stayed in this small island nine more days […]


Of how Fernão & friends lied to a Prince of the Japons

It was not even two good hours that we were anchored to this cove of Miaygimaa, when came to our junco the Nautoquim prince of this island of Tanixumaa accompanied by many merchants & nobles, with a great sum of large boxes filled with silver to be used as trading goods. […] seeing us three Portugueses, he asked what people were we, because in the difference of our faces & beards he understood we were not Chinas. The cossayro Captain told him that we were from a land named Malaca, to where many years ago we had come from another they called Portugal, whose Rey, according to what we told him a few times, lived in the head of the world’s greatness. From this the Nautaquim made great astonishment, & told his people who were present, kill me if those are not the Chenchicogis [Tenjikujin?] who are described in our volumes, who flying above the waters are conquering the inhabitants of the lands where God created the wealth of the world, so that it would be fortunate for us if they come to our own in name of good friendship.

[…] the Nautaquim came again to do with us, & asking us about many things very meticulously, to which we answered more according to the delight we saw in him, and not to what really was true, but this was in certain questions of which it was necessary for us to help each other to some faked things so that we would not unmake the merit he had of this coũtry of ours. The first was to ask us what the Chins & Lequios had told him, that Portugal was much bigger be in amount of lands be of wealth, than the entire empire of China, what we conceded him. The second, that they had also assured him that our Rey had subdued by sea conquest the larger part of the world, to what we also said was the truth. The third, that our Rey was so rich in gold & silver, that it was said he had more than two thousand houses filled to the ceiling, & to that we said, that of the number of two thousand houses we were not certain, since the land & the realm was itself so vast, & had so many treasures & peoples, that it was impossible to say this with certainty. And in such questions, & in others in this manner he stopped us more than two hours, & told his, surely no King of how many we now know to exist in the Earth should be taken as fortunate, except the one who is a vassal of such a great Monarch as is the Emperor of this people. […]


Of how Fernão’s companion Diogo single-handedly introduced firearms to Japão

We the three Portugueses since we had no commerce to busy ourselves, spent our time in fishing & hunting, & in seeing temples of their pagodes that were of great majesty & wealth, in which the bonzos, who are their priests, made us very welcome, because all these people of Japão are by nature very well disposed & talkeable. In the midst of this idleness of ours, one of the three that we were, by the name of Diogo Zeimoto, sometimes took as a pasttime shoot with an espingarda that he had as his, to which he was much inclined, & in which he was considerably dexterous.

[…] when he saw him come with the espingarda to his back, & two Chins loaded with game, he made of this such a big deal, that in everything it was apparent the pleasure of what he saw, because it so was that up until this time in that land never had they seen firearms shoot, and they didn’t know to explain what it was, nor did they understand the secret of gunpowder, & they all assented that it was sorcery. Zeimoto, seeing them so awed, & the Nautoquim so delighted, performed before them three shots in which he killed a kite & two doves, & to avoid spending words in extolling of this business, & to excuse me from telling everything that happened in it, because it is matter for disbelief, I will say no more than that the Nautoquim took Zeimoto in the rump of a quartao [quartão, smallish load-bearing horse] where he went, followed by many people, & four porteyros [“gatekeepers”; announcers?] with iron[-studded?] sticks in their hands, who yelled to the people, who by then were countless, and said, the Nautoquim prince of this island Tanixumaa, & lord of our heads orders & wants that all ye others, & in this way all others more who live between the two seas to honour & respect this Chenchicogim from the head of the world, because from today on he makes him his relative e’er as the facharoẽs [?] who sit themselves by his own person, under penalty of losing his head whoever fails to do this with good will, to which all the people in a great clamour of voices, replied, so it will be done forever. And arriving Zeimoto with this wordly pomp to the first courtyard, the Nautaquim unhorsed, & took him by his hand […]

Then Diogo Zeimoto, understanding that in no other thing could he best satisfy to the Nautaquim part of these honors he gave him, nor that would give him more pleasure than in giving him the espingarda, offered it one day when he came from the hunt with a great sum of pidgeons & of doves, which he accepted as a piece of great price, & assured him that estimated it much more than all the treasure of China, & ordered to be given for her a thousand taeis of silver, & bade him that he teach how to make gunpowder, for without it the espingarda would be an unused chunk of iron, about what Zeimoto promised him, & fulfilled it. And since from thereon all the pleasure & sport of the Nautaquim was in the use of this espingarda, seeing his own that in nothing else could they satisfy him than in that of which he showed so much joy, ordered they to be made from that one others in the same manner, & so they soon had it done. It was such that the fervor of this appetite & curiosity was from then on in such a large growth, that already by the time we departed, which was after five months & a half, there was in the land enough to exceed six hundred. And later the last time that sent me there the Viceroy dõ Afonso de Noronha with a present for the Rey of Bungo, which was in the year of 1556, the Japons told me that, in that city of Fucheo, which is the metropoly of this kingdom, there was more than thirty thousand. And making me from this a great surprise, for it looked to me that it was not possible that this thing would be in this much multiplication, I was told by some merchant men noble & respectable, & they assured me with many words, that in the entire island of Iapão there were more than three hundred thousand espingardas, & that they alone had brought as merchandise to the Lequios in six times that they had gone there, twenty & five thousand. So that from this single one that Zeimoto here gave to the Nautoquim with good intentions & for good friendship, & to return some of the honors & mercies that he had received from him, as it was told behind, the land was filled with them in such abundance that there is no more village or place however small where they do not go a hundred more, & in the cities & towns more of note, they do not talk but than of many thousands of them. And from here it will be known what people are this, & how inclined by nature to the military exercise, in which they take delight more than all other nations that are now known.


One can almost see him bragging over wine in a port town’s pub.

3 thoughts on “Fernão Mendes Pinto in Japan

  1. Well, I’m in no position to judge the translation (having not read the original), but I enjoyed reading it and found it quite acceptable as cod-Early Modern English.

    It doesn’t look like an affordable complete translation into English is on the market, alas. Another one to put on the “read in original after learning Galician-Portuguese properly” pile.

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