Fernão Mendes Pinto

Fernão Mendes Pinto (who often went by his middle name, Mendes) was born in the Portuguese town of Monte-mor Ovelho, sometime around 1510. Little is known of his family; they may have been minor Portuguese nobility or perhaps marranos, the Iberian term for Jews who converted to Christianity. Pinto himself claims that he was sort of adopted by one of his uncles, who took him to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon to raise him. Mysteriously, Pinto indicates that he was given a job as a servant to a “very honorable lady” in Lisbon, but an unnamed accident caused him to flee his job, and Portugal as well.

Boarding a caravel at the port of Alfama, young Pinto stowed away among a cargo of horses. The ship was attacked by French pirates, and Pinto (having been discovered as a stowaway) and the rest of the crew were sold into slavery in North Africa. He eventually made his way to Ethiopia, in East Africa, where he hoped to travel by sea to the Portuguese colonies in India. That was not to be, unfortunately for Pinto, as a series of unfortunate events stranded him in Malacca sometime around 1539.

Ever resourceful, Pinto found employment as a sort of diplomat for a Malaccan bigwig; the job took him all over Southeast Asia. By the 1542, Pinto had joined a band of Chinese pirates, looting and pillaging trading vessels all over the seas around China. It was with these pirates that Pinto sailed to the mysterious islands of Japan, the legendary Zipangu (the name Marco Polo had bestowed upon Japan; Europeans often continued that tradition) that Christopher Columbus had tried sailing to in 1492. Pinto became one of the first Europeans to set foot in Japan; a fact he would not let people forget.

In all, Pinto spent twenty years in the East, observing the ways of life in China, Japan and the East Indies. He settled down briefly to become a merchant, growing rich off the trade in luxury items of the Orient. In 1551, he met Francis Xavier, the stouthearted Jesuit missionary who arrived in Japan to teach Christianity to the people there. Pinto obviously enjoyed the company of another European; they were few and far between in 16th-century Japan. Pinto even lent Father Xavier money to build the first church in Japan. In 1554, Pinto joined the Jesuit Order and funded several missions around Asia. Two years as a Jesuit was enough for Pinto, however, and he left the order in 1556, finally returning to his native Portugal in 1558.

Years of acting as a pirate and trader in Asia had made Pinto rather rich. He approached Portugal’s Queen Catherine, hoping to win a position of some esteem with the Portuguese government. Despite years of experience with the kingdoms in Asia, the Portuguese Crown noted that Pinto had only enriched himself and had done little or nothing to further Portugal’s interests in the Orient. His request for a government position was denied. Pinto shrugged off this disappointment and retired to an estate he’d purchased near Lisbon.

In his retirement, Pinto began working on his memoirs, a book that he finally finished around 1578 or so. Peregrination (loosely translated as “pilgrimage” or “wanderings”) enjoyed nearly instant popularity among those who read it, despite the fact that it existed for some forty years as a manuscript (a hand-written document) before being formally published 1614. After its publication, it became one of the most popular books in Portugal and then in all of Europe, as translations began hitting the market.

The Peregrination, a rather unfocused, rambling narrative, is marked by Pinto’s dry humor and pointed observations. He describes public ceremonies, architecture, and the lifestyles common to the East Indies and Japan. In fact, it is one of the most complete and impressive sources modern readers can obtain on what life was like in feudal Japan before wide scale European intervention in Asian affairs. Some have said that Pinto’s book is little more than a pack of lies; he may have spent time in Asia, it is argued, but there is no way he could have lived or seen all the events he described. Even in his own time, some chided Pinto for even trying to peddle such tall tales. Pinto, however, stood by the stories he tells in Peregrination; and even if some of the events are embellished, historians have pointed out that his observations of Japanese society are all quite accurate.

For many years, Peregrination had the reputation for being just an entertaining sort of travel narrative, with little allure to people curious as to what life in the East was like. The story reads like an adventure novel; a type of book that was just becoming popular in European literary circles around Pinto’s time. Some have also argued that Peregrination was a satire; a work poking fun at Portugal’s short-sighted leadership and that Pinto was trying to make a statement about the folly of the cruelly-run and incompetent European empires being carved out of Asia at the time. Whatever Pinto’s goal, the Peregrination remains a very readable and informative book about life in 16th century Asia.