Digital Library

São João Baptista, 1622

Chase Oswald


On March 1st, 1622 the São João Baptista captained by Pedro de Morais Sarmento left Goa accompanying the Portuguese flagship Nossa Senhora do Paraiso, captained by Nuno Alvares Botelho. After sailing for approximately fifteen to twenty days the pumps of the São João Baptista were checked and it was discovered that the ship had retained fourteen to fifteen spans of water. Because the pumps of the ship were originally built for a smaller galleon all but one was too small to be of any use on the São João Baptista. Using buckets and barrels the crew was able to reduce the amount of water onboard to around four spans. Upon reaching a latitude of 25° South the weather went from an exhausting heat to an extreme cold, further exasperating the conditions on board. Unfortunately, on the night of July 17th the São João Baptista departed from the course of the flagship as the light from her poop-lantern was lost in the darkness, leaving the São João Baptista and her crew alone at sea. And as fate should have it, on the morning of Sunday July 19th at a latitude of 35 to 30° South, two Dutch ships were spotted off the prow.

Naval Battle

The Dutch ships consisted of the Mauritius and the Wapen van Rotterdam, both Indiamen, who left the Cape on June 13th and were bound for Batavia. Alone and outnumbered, the crew strained to ready the over encumbered São João Baptista for action. That afternoon the São João Baptista was able to give off two broadside shots on the Dutch ships, marking the beginning of an engagement that would prove fatal for the Portuguese vessel. For the next nineteen days the three ships clashed in an all-out conflict lasting as far as the southern 42nd latitude. For the first nine days of the engagement the ships fought from sunrise to sunset and by the end the São João Baptista was doomed to the sea. Among the damages the Portuguese incurred, the bowsprit had broken off near the gammoning, the main mast was shattered a yard and half above the mast partners, and the foresail was entirely demolished. Additionally, having already been reused and rotten, the rudder was destroyed by merely two shots. Without any means to steer the ship, the destruction of the rudder single handedly signaled the demise of the São João Baptista.

The Portuguese ship never stood a chance in this fight, as she had left Goa without carrying enough gunpowder or guns for any sort of unforeseen conflict. She held only eighteen guns of very small caliber, yet she still fought valiantly till there were only twenty-eight cartridges and two barrels of gunpowder remaining. In addition to being entirely dismasted the ship was completely floundering at this point as she had been peppered with shot beneath the waterline, her spars were completely splintered, and two of the gudgeons had torn away with the rudder leaving open bolt holes within the hull. The São João Baptista was sinking fast, as the crew worked tirelessly to stall the intake of water onboard, others acted went emissaries to the Dutch ship in hopes of obtaining a parley in order to buy more time. However, a storm intervened and sight of the Dutch ship in which the emissaries were dispatched to was lost in the ensuing chaos. The remaining Dutch ship continued to follow the Portuguese, eventually endeavoring to send their own emissaries to inquire into if the Portuguese had seen their companion ship, as they had also lost sight of her in the storm.


Soon the weather turned from raging storms to bitter snow, killing many of the slaves aboard the São João Baptista. Around a latitude of 42° South the Portuguese made a mast from the remains of the mizzen-mast on the prow and used the outrigger as a bowsprit. This gave the São João Baptista much needed propulsion while putting the Portuguese at the directional mercy of the wind, as the remaining Dutch ship continued to give chase. Eventually, one stormy night, the wind took the São João Baptista landward while the Dutch had lost her in the chaos and mistakenly went seaward after the Portuguese as far as a latitude of 46° South.

Now that the Portuguese had evaded the pursuing Dutch vessel the São João Baptista’s captain ventured to craft a makeshift rudder on the deck of the ship from expendable portions of the hull. This spare rudder was soon made and hung from the stern as the Portuguese awaited calmer weather to attach it to the ship. However, after fifteen days of suspension over the water the ropes which held the rudder were torn and it was lost to the sea, diminishing any remaining hope for the São João Baptista.  Following the loss of the makeshift rudder two sweeps were made from remaining portions of the masts, bowsprit, and any other available resource. However, due to the lack of proper resources the ship remained at the mercy of the waves and wind. At this point the São João Baptista was missing the majority of her castles leaving countless nails and splintered pieces of wood exposed. Which impaled and punctured the passengers as the ship pitched between the waves.


To the Portuguese’s salvation, on September 29th the wind had taken them two leagues from shore at latitude 33° 20’ South. By the next day the ship had drifted further down the coast and ever closer to shore. Fearing that the tide would take the ship back out to sea the Portuguese used two anchors in about seven fathoms of depth on a sandy beach to hold their position. A scouting team of sixteen men headed by Rodrigo Affonso de Mello went ashore to find a good position to land and bring back any supplies they could gather. The party went forth and returned carefully with sweet water and fragment herbs.

Not long after the ship had anchored trouble began to stir among the crew of São João Baptista. The recently appointed master boatswain, Manuel Domingues, known for his unruly demeanor, had approached the captain with a rather unsavory plan. He yearned to take thirty men with all the jewels aboard the São João Baptista and sail a smaller boat three leagues up the beach before traversing the coast as far as Cape Correntes, believing that they were more likely to find salvation unencumbered by the women and children. Disgusted at the thought of abandoning the women and children to perish, the captain told the master boatswain that he would not permit such an evil plan and that he forbid him from discussing such ideas. To which the master boatswain threatened to munity if the captain did not agree to his proposal. Two days after anchorage, under the fear of mutiny and the growing support of Manuel Domingues by the crew, the captain stabbed the master boatswain to death, regaining control of the situation on board in the process. After this onboard dispute had been settled the Portuguese reassumed the task of disembarking to shore.

The coast was so dangerous that in order to get provisions and weapons to land they needed to anchor by the stern of their rowboats with a grapnel and use the line to wade on to shore. In the instance that they did not carry out this extra precaution, eighteen people were drowned as they could not keep their heads above the waves. By the 3rd of October the Portuguese were already finalizing the landing of all the necessary equipment, building temporary shelter to protect themselves from the cold weather of the region, and made their first contact with native peoples. During this initial meeting with the native people the Portuguese were gifted with an ox and a leather bag of milk, which the Portuguese reciprocated with an offer of iron hoops and bertangils. In latter meetings the Portuguese would barter with the natives for cows to use as either food or pack animals to haul their equipment. The Portuguese remained on this beach for a month and six days, where they tried to make the best of their situation, even constructing a church from canvas, gold-embroidered Chinese coverlets, and other gaudy artifacts. Shortly before abandoning their camp the Portuguese decided that they would march across the land as it was much too dangerous to build and sail a boat up the coast. At which point the remains of the São João Baptista were set aflame so that the natives could not scavenge the wreckage and inflate their future bartering rates.


On November 6th the Portuguese set out from the beach at a latitude of 33° degrees South, in a marching column comprised of 279 people divided into four groups. The party headed toward the bay of Maputo (formerly Lourenço Marques) with plans to venture from there to the Portuguese fortress at Sofala. Eight torturous months later only a handful of survivors arrived at their intended destination. Overcome by the hazards and illnesses that plagued treks along this coast many of the Portuguese perished along the way, with a small group arriving at Sofala on July 28th, 1623. From Sofala, the survivors then sailed to Mozambique and from Mozambique they chartered passage safely back to Goa.


Frei Nuno da Conceição (1625), in Sérgio, António, Naufrágios e Combates no Mar, Textos Seleccionados, Anotados, Comentados e Acompanhados de um Estudo por António Sérgio, 2 Vols., Lisboa: Edições Livros Horizonte, 1959.