The origin of America
As all Portuguese know, the people from Alentejo (literally meaning ‘beyond Tagus’) have the strange habit of prolonging their words – with an extra syllable, it seems. The following is a true story of an eye-witness to the discovery of America by Cristóvão Colombo, which I found in an old, almost perished journal of a Portuguese sailor…
‘The admiral, who was born in the Cuba area near Beja to a Jewish family of street vendors, as a little boy already had come into contact with sea trade in the small river port of Pomarão, where he met the Arab sailor Zarak. Ever since the two were virtually inseparable. In that typical Alentejan dialect of his the admiral pronounced the name Zarak as “Za-RAK-i?” – with an extra syllable and the mere suggestion of a question mark.
‘On Christmas Day our flagship ran aground on a sandbank in the bay of an island we visited. We immediately started to take cargo ashore in an effort to save the ship. The natives helped…
One of them, not used to the behaviour of our sloops on the short waves, fell overboard. The admiral who was supervising the entire salvage operation got immediately into a panic: “Watch out, watch out!”
As I was closest to the drowning man, I turned my boat in order to help the poor soul. However, as soon as the admiral realised I had misunderstood his intentions, he pointed at the adrift sloop moving out to open sea: “A MERCA, pá, a MERCA, por amor de Deus!!!” (“The GOODS, man, the GOODS, for the love of God!!!”).
‘It is a well-known secret among the crew that the admiral has stipulated with his Spanish clients that he gets 10% of all profit obtained in new-found territories…
We already made a lot of fun about that clause as his first question to the natives on foreign coasts has invariably been: “Where’s the gold!?” And now, with the incident that afternoon, my friends seized the opportunity to make fun of me – how “that oafish cook” could have thought for one minute that “the old man” could be more worried about the life of a native than about his profits.
‘To make matters worse, I tripped when at dinner time I brought the soup, and the kettle came down on the table with a bang.
Everybody burst out laughing when Zarak yelled at the top of his voice: “The GOODS, man, the GOODS, for the love of God!”
‘The joke soon caught on in such a way that every once in a while one can hear someone yell “A MERca, pá, a MERca!” – not only among the crews that prepare themselves for the return trip to Spain, but especially among my crew of 39 that are going to stay behind (the Santa Maria has proven to be lost) in order to keep an eye on the salvaged cargo. If anyone drops anything, another one will at once yell “A MERCA, pá, a MERCA!”. And if anyone asks “Where have you been?”, the answer is invariably “À MERCA, à MERCA!”.
‘And, in doing so, literally everyone – Spanish or Portuguese, even the Italians from Genoa – try to hit the exact note of the admiral’s Alentejan dialect by yelling “A MÉÉÉR-i-ca, a MÉÉÉR-i-ca!” – with that extra syllable put in.