Late January, 1504 – Arriving at Cochin from his sojourn in Quilon, Albuquerque made the final preparations. He placed Duarte Pacheco Pereira in charge of Fort Sant’Iago of Cochin, with a garrison of some 150 armed men and two caravels, (one of which was the Garrida of Pêro Rafael) and one nau, the Concepção.
January 30, 1504 – Noting that his cousin Francisco de Albuquerque was still delayed loading up with spices at Cannanore, Afonso de Albuqurque decided to divide the fleet into two return squadrons. Afonso de Albuquerque set out with the first squadron for Portugal, which included the ships of Fernão Martins de Almada (probably carrying Giovanni da Empoli), Pêro de Ataíde (bringing back Duarte Pacheco’s ship) and the ship of António do Campo (overhang from the 4th Armada). However Barros (p. 97) suggests António do Campo was sent out earlier, ahead of the others, to urgently report the situation to King Manuel (Campo would arrive in Lisbon in mid-July, 1504, too late to affect the outfitting of the 6th armada). Ataíde (in his February 1504 letter) mentions he set out together with Campo, and makes no mention of the other two. In light of this, it is probable that Campo and Ataíde set out together a few days or even weeks before Albuquerque and Almada.
On February 5, 1504, having finally finished loading up at Cannanore, the second return squadron of three ships departed India. This included the ships of Afonso’s cousin Francisco de Albuquerque and great captain Nicolau Coelho (the old veteran of Gama’s 1497 expedition and Cabral’s 1500 armada). The third captain is uncertain (possibly Fernão Rodrigues Bardaças, one of the patrol captains?). They would never be heard from again. It is presumed that F. de Albuquerque and Nicolau Coelho were caught by bad currents in the Mozambique Channeland shipwrecked or sunk off the coast of South Africa. A rescue expedition would be launched in late 1505 (under Cide Barbubo & Pedro Quaresma) to search for them.
In February 1504, Afonso de Albuquerque’s squadron made its first stop at Mozambique Island. But things had not gone well. On the Indian Ocean crossing, the ship of Pêro de Ataíde o Inferno seems to have sailed on ahead at too much speed and capsized on the East African coast, somewhere south of Kilwa. Leaving behind the greater part of his shipwrecked crew on a nearby shore, Ataíde and a handful of men managed to make it to Mozambique Island on longboats, hoping to procure help for the remainder. But by the time he arrived, either Albuquerque had already gone or it was determined that Ataíde, having fallen deathly ill, could not be taken back to Lisbon. In either case, Ataíde remained in Mozambique, where he would die soon after. On his deathbed, Ataíde wrote his final testament, giving a full and exact account of his time in India, including the travails of Vicente Sodré’s Indian coastal patrol in 1503 (placing much of the blame for that debacle on the shoulders of Brás Sodré) and condemning the behavior of António do Campo (for refusing to help him and his shipwrecked crew in Mozambique.)
Reduced to two ships, Afonso de Albuquerque and Fernão Martins de Almada (Campo having gone on ahead by himself), set sail out of Mozambique for Lisbon. They were unaware of the tragic fate of the squad of Francisco de Albuquerque and Nicolau Coelho (and possibly unaware of Ataíde too). Almada’s ship began to have trouble, and they were forced to make a stop at the watering hole of São Brás (Mossel Bay)(there, Albuquerque found a message from António de Saldanha, the captain of the third squadron, saying that he had been there the previous October). While at São Brás, they realized that the ship of Albuquerque had rotted through and they were forced into lengthy repairs.
On May 1, 1504, Afonso de Albuquerque and Fernão Martins de Almada finally set out from São Brás and rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed into the South Atlantic. The return passage through the equatorial doldrums, turned out to be a horrific experience. According to Empoli, they drifted at sea without wind for sixty four days, quickly running out of supplies. Thirst and scurvy decimated the crews – 130 died, leaving only nine on each ship. In the calm of the doldrums, barnacles had eaten away at the hulls, and the ships began to spring leaks. They were rescued from their dire straits by a passing Portuguese slaving ship bound for Guinea, which replenished their supplies and escorted them to Santiago, Cape Verde. After resupply and repairs on Cape Verde (and taking on slaves to help make up for the missing crew), the ships set sail again, taking the route through the Azores islands, towards Lisbon. They were battered by storms and another wave of crew deaths on their final approach to Portugal.
On September 16, 1504, the two remaining ships of the Fifth Armada, Afonso de Albuquerque’s Sant’Iago and Fernão Martins de Almada’s São Cristóvão, in a terrible shape, hobbled into Lisbon harbor, with their handful of crew and leaking hulls. They were well received. Albuquerque is said to have presented some splendid specimens of Persian horses acquired in the Indian markets to the king.
By and large, the 5th Armada was a disaster. Of the ten ships that set out, only two were known to have returned on time (Afonso de Albuquerque, Fernão Martins de Almada). Two were lost around the Cape on the outgoing voyage (Catharina Dias and the ship of Vaz da Veiga), two ships were lost on the return (F. Albuquerque, Coelho) and a third (the ship captained by Ataíde) was shipwrecked. A further three had been separated and gone wandering (Saldanha, Ravasco, Pereira), and would not return until the next year (although this may have been intentional, they seemed to be a navigational mess nonetheless). Human losses were staggering – four of the ships went down with all their hands, one (Ataíde’s return ship) lost most of its shipwrecked crew on an abandoned shore, and two ships (Albuquerque’s & Almada’s) lost the bulk of their crew during the doldrums crossing.
These heavy losses, as well as the generally poor navigation and command of the fleet — straying ships, lost ships, separated ships — could not have reflected well on Afonso de Albuquerque’s reputation as an admiral, particularly when contrasted with the follow-up 6th Armada, whose admiral Lopo Soares de Albergaria kept a very disciplined fleet and suffered minimal losses. This may have been a factor that prevented the appointment of Albuquerque to command another armada; he joined the 8th Armada of 1506, but only as the head of a squadron subordinate to the overall command of Tristão da Cunha. Yet, despite his apparent shortcomings as a fleet admiral, Albuquerque was appointed the second governor of Portuguese India, so his reputation as a commander on land did not seem to have suffered. How this conclusion was reached is uncertain. The saving of Cochin from the Zamorin’s first siege, the ruthless punishment of the Vembanad princelets and the erection of Fort Sant’Iago were due more to his cousin Francisco than him. Afonso de Albuquerque deserves credit for efforts to procure spices against complicated odds in India and the negotiation for a factory in Quilon, but the losses of so many ships (and so much cargo) couldn’t have made this a profitable run. Nonetheless, Albuquerque’s later overachieving heroics in Hormuz in 1507-08 and Malacca in 1511 have since overshadowed his shaky start.
The loss of Francisco de Albuquerque and Nicolau Coelho weighed heavily in court, and in late 1505, a small search-and-rescue mission led by Cide Barbudo was sent out to scour the South African coast for their traces. None were found.
Of the seven ships of the 4th Armada which had been left behind in the Indian Ocean by Vasco da Gama in early 1503, one returned (Campo), two were lost (Sodré brothers), two remained in India (Pires, Rafael) and the fate of two is uncertain (Bardaças, Ataide’s original caravel).
Albuquerque left India in a precarious situation. The peace he (or rather Francisco) had negotiated was broken before he even left. It was certain that the Zamorin of Calicut would come bearing down on Cochin again in the Spring of 1504. Cochin, and the Portuguese future in India, was to be defended by a minuscule garrison of 150 under Duarte Pacheco Pereira, a timber fort in Cochin and a slim patrol of three ships — one nau (under ‘Diogo Pereira’) and two caravels (Pires, Rafael). Predictably, as soon as the 5th Armada left, the Zamorin would come bearing down on Cochin with an army of some 57,000-84,000 men and 260 vessels, and force Duarte Pacheco and his tiny Portuguese garrison into the incredible heroics of the Battle of Cochin (1504).