Diogo Gomes

Diogo Gomes (c. 1420 – c. 1500), was a Portuguese navigator, explorer and writer. Diogo Gomes was a servant and explorer of Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator. His memoirs were dictated late in his life to Martin Behaim. They are an invaluable (if sometimes inconsistent) account of the Portuguese discoveries under Henry the Navigator, and one of the principal sources upon which historians of the era have drawn.

Probably a native of Lagos, Portugal, Diogo Gomes started out as page in the household of Prince Henry the Navigator, and subsequently rose to the rank of cavaleiro (knight) by 1440. Diogo Gomes participated in the 1445 slave raid led by Lançarote de Freitas of Lagos on the Arguin banks, and claims to have personally captured 22 Berber slaves singlehandedly. (Chronicler Zurara, who relates the raids in some detail, does not seem to make notice of Diogo Gomes, although he does mention a 'Picanço', which later João de Barros suggests was actually the ship and nickname of a "Gomes Pires", possibly a reference to Diogo Gomes).

He was named a royal clerk (escrivão da carreagem real) on 12 June 1451, and went on in the service of both Prince Henry and the Portuguese crown.

In 1456 (give or take a year - his account does not give a precise date), Diogo Gomes was sent out by Prince Henry in command of three vessels down the West African coast. Gomes claims he was accompanied by a certain Jacob, an "Indian" interpreter, which some early historians have taken as a rare indication that Henry envisaged reaching India at this early stage (but modern historians find this improbable; Russell notes that, at the time, 'Indian' was commonly used as a moniker for an Ethiopian, and the furthest hope that Henry nurtured was of reaching the lands of Prester John.)

Gomes is said to have reached as far as Rio Grande (now Geba River, in Guinea Bissau), a huge leap beyond the last point known to be reached by the Portuguese. But strong currents checked Gomes's course and his officers and men feared that they were approaching the extremity of the ocean, so he turned back. On his return, Gomes put in at the Gambia River, and ascended up the Gambia a considerable distance, some 50 leagues (250 miles), reaching as far as the major market town of Cantor, an entrepot of the Mali gold trade. Diogo Gomes credits himself as the first Portuguese captain to interact peacefully with the natives in this region (all prior expeditions had been fended off or fallen in hostilities on the Senegambian coast, although Alvise Cadamosto had also sailed successfully that same year). At Cantor, Gomes collected much information about the gold mines and trade patterns of the upper Senegal and upper Niger, of the cities of Kukia and Timbuktu and the Trans-Saharan trade routes that stretched to the Moroccan coast.

Although the region was primarily Muslim, Gomes seems to have won over at least one important chief, named Numimansa, with his court, to Christianity and Portuguese allegiance. Teixeira da Mota identifies 'Numinansa' as the chieftain of the Nomi Bato, and may have been the same chieftain responsible for the deaths of earlier explorers Nuno Tristão in 1446/47 and Vallarte in 1447/78. The Nomi Bato are probably ancestral to the current Niominka people of the Saloum River delta, and although currently classified as a Serer tribe, were probably originally Mandinka (or at least acculturated to Mandinka) at the time.

Some time after returning to Portugal, Diogo Gomes was appointed (or rewarded) with the lucrative office of almoxarife (receiver of royal customs) of the town of Sintra (he was certainly holding that office by October 1459). He would remain in that position until 1479/80 (and continued using the title as a courtesy thereafter until his death).

Diogo Gomes made another African voyage in 1462 (which some historians date as 1460). He sailed down to the Saloum River delta (Rio dos Barbacins) in Senegambia, to enter into trade with the Serer people of Sine and Saloum. There he stumbled upon the caravel of the Genoese captain António de Noli, and they charted a return journey together. On the return, Diogo Gomes stumbled upon the Cape Verde islands, and claims to have been the first to land on and name Santiago island (his priority is contested by Cadamosto). Diogo Gomes speaks, with some resentment, of how Antonio de Noli managed to reach Lisbon before him and secured the captaincy of Santiago island from the king before his arrival.

Prince Henry having died in 1460, Diogo Gomes, after his return, retired from active exploring and pursued a career with Henry's nephew and heir Ferdinand of Viseu and the royal court. In 1463, he was appointed royal squire (escudeiro) for King Afonso V of Portugal. In 1466, he secured a generous royal pension of 4,800 reals, to which were attached duties as a magistrate in Sintra (juiz das cousas e feitorias contadas de Sintra). At an uncertain date, he was also appointed magistrate in nearby Colares (juiz das sisas da Vila de Colares, for which we have confirmation by 5 March 1482).

His death date is uncertain. Some date it as early as 1485, although historian Peter Russell suggests he lived until at least 1499. We have confirmation he was certainly dead by 1502, from the record of an indulgence for his soul paid for by his widow.

Read more about Diogo Gomes:  Memoirs, Books

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