The Nau Chagas

By Paulo Monteiro

Four-deck Portuguese nau, in Manuel Fernandes' Livro de Traças de Carpintaria, 1616, BA

This brief resume is based on a good and very detailed eyewitness account of the fight with the English and the events that led into it, written by Melchior do Estacio do Amaral and printed in 1604.

The 32 gun nau Chagas departed from Goa heading for Portugal in 1593, under the command of Francisco de Mello, one of the "greatest naus that ever were in the Carreira, loaded with great wealthness and precious stones and all the best of India".

Portuguese crossThe rest of the fleet consisted of the naus Santo Alberto, and Nossa Senhora da Nazareth. Both the Santo Alberto and Nazareth sprung fatal leaks and were beached in the Penedo das Fontes and in Mozambique's Island.

The Chagas took all the cargo in diamonds and other precious gems from the two lost naus as well the 400 passengers and crewmembers, of which 230 were slaves. When they reached the Cape of Good Hope, the nau started to leak and they were forced to send overboard a lot of cargo. Not the diamonds, only the food and victuals.

Chagas may have looked like this scene from Theodore Bry's Voyage au Brésil (1592), Bibliothèque du Service Historique de la Marine, Château de Vincennes

It was this action that, in the end, caused the loss of the Chagas. Since they were not allowed to call either Santa Helena or Brazil, they called Luanda, in Angola, for supplies, where they took more slaves which were, in fact, more mouths to feed. In Angola they faced one of the great perils of the sea: the absence of wind, coupled with scurvy and malaria, from which half of the people were dead and the other half too much debilitated.

Anyhow, some nobles spread the gossip that the supplies would not last until Lisbon. The Captain then took the vote and the majority decided to call the Azores – an action which was also forbidden, because English pirates were bound to be there, waiting for the East Indiamen. The Captain then forced all crew to take an oath: "if finding the enemy, they would rather go down in flames than surrender the ship".

He then prepared the ship for battle. The stern was delivered to Don Rodrigo de Cordova, the bow to Antonio das Povoas and the deck to Braz Correia.

The final battle may have looked like this scene from Theodore Bry's Voyage au Brésil (1592), Bibliothèque du Service Historique de la Marine, Château de Vincennes

On the 22 of June 1594, near Faial Is., the nau sighted 3 English ships, of 400 tons each, with two artillery decks each. At noon all 4 ships exchanged broadsides and musket volleys in a battle that lasted 24 hours. Then, at around noon, the 23rd June, the 3 English ships tried to board the Chagas: "The sea was purple with blood dripping from the scuppers, the decks cluttered with the dead and the fire raging in some parts of the ships, and the air so filled with smoke that, not only we could sometimes not see each other but we could not recognize each other, all black and sooty from the fire and gunpowder."

The battle went on – there's an extensive description of it, a very vivid one – with the English trying to board the ship three times. In the end the fire spread to a tarpaulin and then it spread further to the rigging and the masts. The fire could not be put up because sharpshooters onboard the English ships were taking the Portuguese one by one as they tried to man the pumps.

So, the Portuguese jumped in the water grabbing any floating devices they could but "the English came on aboard some armed boats and the Portuguese were asking for mercy but they were enraged and they speared them cruelly and like butchers they killed all they could reach". Only 13 Portuguese were saved from the wreck that "when the fire reached the gunpowder, in an horrendous blast and raising an enormous smoky cloud" went into smithereens. More than 150 English were killed by the less than 70 feeble Portuguese.

Paulo Alexandre Monteiro

Centro de Nacional de Arqueologia Subaquática nos Açores
Caminho de Baixo, 68, São Pedro
9700 Angra do Heroísmo


Dec 1999, rev okt '04

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