The Belém Rhino

In 1515  a rhinoceros arrived in Lisbon. It was the first rhino to have sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. The animal was a diplomatic gift from the Sultan of Cambay to King Manuel I of Portugal. Later that year, King Manuel sent the rhinoceros to the Pope, but the ship wrecked and the rhino drowned. It was the end of what must have been an exhilerating life for a rhino.


Rhino in Belém

The arrival of the animal coincided with the building of the Torres de Belém. It is portrayed as a gargoyle, as the photo above illustrates. Interestingly, the Torres de Belém was built in the middle of the river to defend Lisbon, but because of the earthquake of 1755, it is now situated on the banks of the Tagus.

In the kitchen of my hostel three people were loudly discussing how to overthrow the government. In an obvious effort to mislead me, they spoke Portuguese, but it seemed to me that the bearded one was the intellectual, seeking a theoretical approach, while the other just wanted to kill them all. The third was a girl. she must have been in love with the belligerent one.  Kill them all, I heard her say.

Lisbon trams

At breakfast I met Fernando, a Brazilian philosopher, and I decided to accompany him to the flea market in Alfama, where he hoped to find an antique camera for his collection. While we walked I remarked how Portugal to me seemed to have a non-European quality. Fernando nodded and said that when Portuguese go to France, they say they go to Europe. He waved at a domed building and told me it was the Portuguese pantheon. It was originally  a church. It took them over 400 years to build it, he said, but everytime there  was money, it was stolen. That’s why it took so long. Now, it’s the pantheon, but many famous people are not  buried there. The explorers, they died oversesas.

Next day I visited the Pantheon and Fernando was right. There were empty tombs of Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral and Alfonso de Albuquerque. Da Gama was the first to sail around the African continent to India. On his return he was made Admiral of the Seas of Arabia, Persia, India and all the Oriënt. The title didn’t leave much room for the other admirals at the time. When he returned to India, on his second voyage, he negotiated with the Zamorin of Calicut, but his brutal behaviour didn’t produce the desired results. Consequently, it was only many years later that he was apppointed Viceroy of India, though it must be said that most Indians were quite unaware of the fact.

Cabral was the first European to set eyes on Brasil. He stayed eight days and sent a ship back to Portugal with a message of his discovery. No Portuguese is spoken in these lands. Albuquerque was another famous explorer. There was a text to help remind people what he was famous for, just in case they had forgotten.

The text completely failed to mention that it was Albuquereque who sent the rhinoceros to King Manuel I of Portugal.


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