Pires, Tomé

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(b. Portugal, ca. 1470; d. China, ca. 1540),


Little is known of Pires’ life before his arrival in India in 1511. He was the son of a royal apothecary and was himself “apothecary of prince D. Alfono,” perhaps the sone of João II, king of Portural. Pires was undoubtedly attracted to India by the prospect of the good career that apothecaries (frequently mentioned in documents of the period) could expect to make for themselves there. In 1511, aborad a fleet commanded by Garcia de Noronha, he went to Cochin, where it may be assumed that he pracited his trade. From a letter singed by Pires it can be deduced that he held post of “factor of drugs.”

In 1513 Pires was chosen to go to Malacca to help the factor put an end to troubles arising from trade duties. He was subsequently named registrar and checker of the Portuguese entrepot, as well as factor. Profiting from his stay in Malacca, he took a position as clerk in a fleet bound for Java, where he visited the northern coast.

When Pires returned to Cochin in 1515, the first Portugese voyage to China was being organized; and Lopo Soares d’Albergaria, successor to Afonso de Albuquerque in the Portuguese government of India, chose him to be ambassador to China. Pires departed in February 1516 aboard a fleet of five ships under the command of Fernao Peres de Andrade. A year later he arrived in Canton but had to remin there for three years before reaching the court of the emperor in Peking. He was rejected by the Chinese nobles, and thus returned, disillusioned, to Canton, where he and three of four companions were imprisoned. Pires was later freed but was never able to leave China.

Pires’ only known work is Suma oriental a masterpiece on the geography, ethnography, adn commerce of the Orient at the begining of the sixteenth century.


I. Original Works. Two different MS copies of Suma oriental have been perseved: at the National Library in Lisbon (MS 299), and at the library of the Chamber of Deputies in Paris. The first ed., an Itlain trans. by G. B. Ramusio from a MS simila to the one in Paris, was Sommario di tutti le regni, citta & populi orientali, conli traffichi & mercantie, che iui si trovano, comenciando dal mar Rosso fine alli populi della China (Venice, 1550). In 1944 Armando Cortesão prepared the Paris MS for publication, providing an English trans. and detalied intro., The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires, an Account of the East From the Red Seat to Japan... Written in Malacca adn India in 1512℃1515..., 2 vols. (London 1944).

II. Secondary Literature. On Pires and his work, see A. Cortesão, A primeria embaixada portuguesa à China (Lisbon, 1945); and “A propósito do ilustre boticário Tomé Pires,” in Revisa porttugusea de farmácia, 13 (1963). See also T’ien-Tse Chang, “Malacca and the Failuture of the First Portuguses Embassy to Peking,” in Journal of Southeast Asian History, 3 (1962).

Luis De Albuquerque