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The Grandiose and Mad Dream of a Twentieth-Century Don Quixote
In that spring of 1960, fifteen years after the collapse of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, two political tyrannies still held sway in Western Europe. Democratic nations seemed resigned to the dictatorships of General Francisco Franco in Spain and his colleague Professor Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal. But one February day of that year, their regimes were shaken by an unprecedented event. One of the immediate consequences of this event was to project the shy fledgling reporter that I was into the eye of a media cyclone. It was my first major assignment with the French news magazine Paris Match.
Five hundred journalists from all over the world had descended like a swarm of locusts upon the hotels of the Brazilian port of Recife. Even Red China had sent reporters and photographers. We were covering the hijacking on the high seas of the Portuguese cruise ship the Santa Maria, with its 630 passengers and crew of 390.
The man responsible for this feat, sixty-seven-year-old Captain Henrique Galvào, was a former officer and administrator in the Portuguese African colonies. Through this act of modern-day piracy, the captain and his small band of black-bereted Portuguese and Spanish revolutionaries wanted to attract world attention to the fascist regimes of Antonio Salazar and Francisco Franco. They had hoped to steer the ship to Angola and there foment an uprising to overthrow the dictatorships in Lisbon and Madrid.
Their attempt had failed.
Surrounded by a pack of American warships, the Santa Maria cruised off theBrazilian coast, hoping to unload its hostages. No one knew where and when the release would take place, nor how the captain and his companions' adventure would end. Every police officer in Brazil was on alert, and word was that a commando of the PIDE, the Portuguese secret police, had arrived from Lisbon to assassinate Galvào as soon as he set foot on land.
The assignment my editor in chief had given me was quite straightforward—and identical to that given to reporters from all the other papers. Get on board the ship, secure a photo scoop and an exclusive on the pirate captain's account of his extravagant adventure. A big, fair-haired fellow, armed with camera bags, was waiting for me at the airport. A veteran of the Indo-Chinese War and half a dozen other conflicts, a specialist in difficult missions, twenty-eight-year-old Charles Bonnay was one of our profession's top photographers. His presence alone was enough to suggest that I had not come to Brazil for a picnic.
"Do you know where this bloody captain and his boat are?" I asked rather ingenuously.
Charles guffawed. His teeth gleamed white against his tanned face. "Somewhere on the high seas, a hundred to a hundred and fifty miles from here. The American navy is refusing to give out any information. We'll have to find him ourselves!"
His rash suggestion took us to the port of Recife, where we hired a fishing boat. Aristotle Onassis's yacht would have cost us less than the old lobster trawler on board which we spent the day spewing up our guts in a twelve-foot swell, without seeing a trace of the pirated liner. The next morning Charles's patience had run out. He gripped my arm.
"Get me a parachute. We'll look for the ship by plane and I'll jump onto it."
"A parachute?" I repeated incredulously.
I knew that Bonnay had taken part in airborne operations in Tonkin and in Egypt during the Anglo-French Suez expedition of 1956, but the idea of dropping him out of the sky onto the deck of a passenger ship seemed completely crazy.
"What about the sharks?" I worried. "This area's infested with them."
Bonnay dismissed my objection disdainfully.
"They can't be any worse than the Vietcong."
Locating the Santa Maria by plane and boarding her on the open sea was obviously our best chance of beating our competitors. We made for the local air base. The base commander, a slightly built colonel with lots of braid, received us effusively. Our request seemed to amuse him enormously.
"I'll lend you my own parachute," he told Charles. "How much do you weigh?"
"A hundred and ninety-eight pounds," responded Charles, forgetting the few extra pounds he had put on in the Brazilian bistros since his arrival.
"A hundred and ninety-eight? That's a shame. I only weigh one forty-three, and the flying surface of my parachute is geared to that weight. You might come down a bit fast."
"Never mind," Charles replied, "the water will break my fall."
We took the little colonel's parachute away with us and set off in search of the Recife flying club to rent a plane. On the way I got Charles to stop outside a hardware store, where I bought a large kitchen knife.
"At least you'll be able to cut the parachute webbing if you fall in the water," I said, handing him the instrument.
"You think of everything," my colleague marveled.
"Wait," I continued, "I've got something else for you."
I handed him a large plastic bag containing a very fine pink powder.
"What's that?" asked Charles. "Cocaine?"
"No, it's shark repellent powder. You sprinkle it in the water around you and the little bastards clear off as fast as they can. The guy promised me it was effective for five or six minutes—just enough time for you to get out of the water, because afterward they come back, fiercer than ever."
The photographer responded with a slight, sardonic smile.
Reporters for Life, the New York Times, the London Times, the Tokyo Asahi and a few other major newspapers had already snapped up the flying club's best planes. We were left with an old battered Piper Cub. Its pilot, a muscular black man who looked like Muhammad Ali, assured us that it was capable of crossing the Atlantic with a single flap of its wings. He wanted five hundred dollars payable in advance, for two hours' offshore searching.
Charles put his parachute on his back, fastened the straps, then attached the watertight case containing his photographic equipment to his right leg. I looked anxiously at his luggage: the added weight would accelerate my friend's fall even more.
The sea was so blue it was almost black, iridescent in places with trails of white foam. Apart from a light-tonnage tanker and some cargo boats, there was not a ship to be seen on the horizon. Soon we were completely alone above the vastness, without any points of reference. The land had disappeared. I listened nervously to the throb of the engine. An hour went by. The pilot announced he was going to turn back. Immediately the plane began to veer around to the right. That was when Charles gave a shout.
There was the Santa Maria, as majestic and colossal as a cathedral, with its large yellow funnels with their green and red stripes. A few hundred yards to starboard a U.S. Navy destroyer was escorting her. Charles signaled to the pilot to lose altitude and bank around the liner. I could see passengers waving vigorously to us. From the air, I saw that the ship had been rechristened. Her new name was printed in enormous red letters on the upper quarterdeck. She was called the Santa Libertade.
Charles carefully examined the sea conditions. The water was as flat as a mill pond, indicating the almost total absence of any wind. If he were to jump from directly above the ship, he would have a good chance of landing on the upper deck. He made a sign to the pilot to pull slightly on the joystick to ensure that the plane was high enough to give the parachute time to open. My colleague's coolness amazed me. The idea of dropping into a shark-infested sea seemed not to perturb him at all.
The liner's decks and gangways were packed with people. Some were waving flags and banners. One of them said: "Free Spain and Portugal from the fascists." There seemed to be a certain agitation on the American destroyer also.
"Okay, old man, see you in Recife. Put the champagne in the fridge!" With these words Charles jumped into the void. I heaved a sigh of relief as I saw the white corolla open almost immediately, just over the ship. Yet his descent seemed terribly fast. What if he fell into the funnel? I saw Charles pulling on his webbing and thought his fall slowed down a little. But it might only have been an illusion. My nails dug into the palms of my hands. The last few feet seemed to flash past at lightning speed. Below, people were waving their arms ever more frenziedly. A few seconds to go and my colleague would crash on the deck. I was terrified. Suddenly the corolla disappeared from view. I scoured the outline of the boat, then the surrounding sea. Finally I found him again, floating in the waves between the Santa Maria and the American warship.
From high up in my battered little airplane, I saw then a sight that would be forever engraved upon my memory. The speed of his fall and the weight of his case had dragged Charles several feet below the water. He was an excellent swimmer and reappeared on the surface a few seconds later. But the weight of the damp parachute was in danger of sinking him. The passengers were yelling their encouragement. Captain Galvào had already lowered a lifeboat into the sea. The commander of the American destroyer had done the same, and the two embarkations sped toward the castaway. One of the American sailors was standing in the bow of his launch with a gun pointing at the sea, ready to fire at the first shark closing in. With a pounding heart I followed the progress of the two boats to Charles. They looked as if they were racing. The contest was unfair. The Portuguese seaman's biceps could not possibly compete with the U.S. Navy launch's powerful engine. I could imagine my colleague's anger and frustration at the sight of his rescuers coming to rob him of his international scoop. I even saw him shove their launch away with his foot. It was unheard-of. I learned afterward that he had actually shouted at the Americans to "Beat it!"
The destroyer had lowered a second launch into the water, this one equipped with grappling irons and boat hooks. Despite all his courage, Charles was going to be caught like a common swordfish. Dodging his punches and even his kitchen knife, four sailors managed to grab hold of him and hoist him aboard their boat. He was transferred to the warship, where he was given dry clothes. Then, after confiscating his cameras, the commander had my photographer locked up in the ship's prison.
* * *
The U.S. Navy released my unfortunate colleague three days later when the pirated liner arrived in the port of Recife. Determined to avenge him, I carried two thousand dollars in small banknotes which I intended to offer Captain Galvào in exchange for the exclusive story of his capture of the Santa Maria. Along the quay, however, the liner was even more difficult to reach than out at sea. As soon as the passengers and crew had disembarked, dozens of helmeted Brazilian police formed an impenetrable cordon around it. The pirate leader had remained on board with his men. There was a rumor saying that he intended to take the boat out to sea, sink it and go down with it. Hundreds of impatient journalists were pressed up against the security barriers, ready to do anything to get on board and interview and photograph the heroes of the extraordinary episode.
"We'll have to rustle up a disguise," Charles declared, always one step ahead with his ideas. No sooner had he uttered these words than a fire engine stopped alongside us. Two leather jackets and gleaming helmets were hanging at a window. We exchanged a look of complicity. It took us less than ten seconds to don the providentially provided clothing. Thereafter, getting through police controls and scaling the gangplank posed no problems. Who would stop two firemen doing their rounds? Even if their brigade boots were Gucci moccasins?
We found the "pirate captain" in the first-class bar, calmly sipping a whiskey with his chief of staff. The "corsairs" with him looked more like unshaven bunker hands than the heroes of a revolutionary crusade. By contrast Galvào impressed us with his presence. Tall and thin, his chiseled face lit up by steely blue eyes beneath bushy eyebrows, he had the bearing of a Renaissance condottiere. His hair was elegantly plastered back, scarcely gray; it made him look younger than his years. Most striking of all was the mixture of authority and distinction apparent in his unfurrowed brow, strong chin and thin lips. Velzquez or Philippe de Champaigne would have been happy to paint this altogether virile and romantic character. His life had been a succession of adventures inspired by his passions.
* * *
Born on the banks of the Tagus River that had given birth to so many explorers, at twenty Henrique Galvào had embraced a career in the army. Military life had soon seemed too restrictive to his impetuous character full of libertarian ideas. Ten years later, believing he was fighting for a just and good cause, he had taken part in a military putsch that swept away a decadent, corrupt republic and brought to power an obscure but honest economics professor at the University of Coimbra, a man by the name of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Galvào's reward had been a post as governor of a province in Angola, then the pearl of the Portuguese colonial empire in Africa. He spent six years with little to do, six years that had turned the young officer into a formidable hunter (it was said he had killed a hundred elephants and at least fifty lions) and one of the most prolific Portuguese writers. Taking advantage of the long evenings, he had devoured hundreds of literary works, learned French, Spanish, English and half a dozen other languages and committed thousands of verses from Virgil, Byron, Goethe and Hugo to memory. Wielding his pen with as much dexterity as his hunting rifle, he had tried his hand at every conceivable genre, producing novels, short stories, plays and even verse drama.
Above all else, however, his African experience had introduced a young officer enamored of justice and freedom to the corruption of an oppressive colonial system. Officially Portugal did not have an empire, only "provinces overseas." Twenty times the size of the parent country, these provinces were the most extensive territories owned by the white man in black Africa. The huge coffee and cotton plantations of Angola and Mozambique were in the clutches of a handful of colonists, as were their diamond, copper and manganese mines; and their ivory, animal skin and precious wood resources, which provided a privileged few in Portugal with riches no other colonial nation was extracting from its empire. In response to any criticism, the Portuguese retorted that in none of their overseas provinces was there segregation between black and white communities. Mixed-race marriages were not forbidden, and Africans were not turned away from hotel rooms because of the color of their skin. Provided an African spoke Portuguese, dressed in European clothes and paid taxes, he could even claim assimilado status and enjoy the same privileges as the white people from the home country. This, at least, was the theory. The reality, as Galvào was to find out, was very different. Less than one in a hundred blacks in Angola and Mozambique were officially regarded as assimilado. The ninety-nine others put up with living and work conditions that were close to slavery. Illiteracy afflicted nearly all of the indigenous population. There was not one secondary school in the whole of Portuguese Africa. Promoted to inspector of the colonial administration, Galvào never stopped denouncing its defects. But his accusatory reports were ignored by authorities not inclined to appreciate critics.
One day, in disgust, he had spoken directly to members of the Lisbon parliament. His revelations about the collusion between the colonial administration and drug traffickers caused an uproar. The authorities exacted harsh revenge. Forced out of office into retirement, Galvào had been obliged to leave Africa. Punishment made him all the more determined to do everything he could to combat the dictatorship of the man he had helped bring to power. His career as a revolutionary had begun. The PIDE, Salazar's secret police, kept a close watch on any opponents of the regime. During a raid on the former governor's home, its agents found in the bottom of a Chinese porcelain vase a paper giving a detailed outline of plans for a putsch to overthrow the head of state. The text was in Galvào's own handwriting. In vain he claimed it was a play he had written, set in an imaginary country. The document provided a good excuse to put its author out of action once and for all. Henrique Galvào was locked up in a dungeon in the prison-fortress of Caixas. Feigning madness, he managed to get himself transferred to a psychiatric hospital. Foiling the vigilance of his guards, there he received numerous friends and political sympathizers, not to mention elegant ladies from Lisbon's society, attracted to the distinguished revolutionary's charm.
Eighteen months later he escaped the mental hospital by borrowing a doctor's white smock. Then, disguised as a delivery boy, he had knocked on the door of the Argentinean embassy to ask for political asylum. Salazar, the dictator, allowed his irksome adversary to leave. "Let him go as far away as possible and be forgotten!" he declared.
Salazar underestimated his opponent. No sooner had Galvào arrived on the other side of the Atlantic than he wrote an open letter to Portugal's dictator, which was printed in numerous international newspapers.
"I have slipped from your clutches, my dear Salazar, from your fearsome hatred, from your all-powerful Gestapo, from your special judges and tribunals, from your petty newly rich tyrants, your idolatrous mercenaries, your army of occupation, your prisons and concentration camps, from your self-interested yes-men, your speeches that allow no answers and your pompous lies."
Galvào next called Salazar to account for a regime that, he claimed, had "reduced a simple and good-hearted people to the spiritual and material poverty of totalitarian countries." He condemned the policies of a regime that fostered the lowest standard of living in Europe, a corrupt administration, an army devoid of both moral courage and military spirit, a government made up of mediocrity and colonial politics that were feudal.
"We are under the illusion that we are living in peace," he concluded, "but this peace, like that of Soviet Russia and its satellite states, is the peace of sheep and cemeteries."
The author of this indictment harbored no illusions. It would take more than an open letter to break the silence surrounding the dictatorship and rally the Portuguese and the rest of the world to action. Tyranny could only be toppled by some spectacular event: the capture of the Santa Maria and its six hundred passengers was the means to this end.
|Author's Note to the Reader|
|1||The Grandiose and Mad Dream of a Twentieth-Century Don Quixote||1|
|2||A Small Piece of Paradise under a Parasol Pine||27|
|3||A Green Room on the Shores of the Pacific||39|
|4||Two Young Hounds on the Trail of History||100|
|5||A Dance of Death with the Black Bulls of Spain||133|
|6||The Modest Man Who Saved Israel||154|
|7||"They've Murdered Preferido!"||183|
|8||"Grandma, What's France Like?"||191|
|9||A Kamikaze in the Holy Land||202|
|10||"I Shall Pin You to the Spot"||241|
|11||"What Does It Matter, Beautiful African Elephant, If I Water Your Land with My Blood?"||265|
|12||A Thousand Dreams along the World's Great Highways||284|
|13||The Last Proconsuls of Victoria's Glorious Empire||351|
|14||The Crucifixion of a Great Soul||378|
|15||Men, Women and Children Who Are the Light of the World||408|