On a dark night, late in 1592, a group of Englishmen was massacred on the island of São Sebastião, off the southeast coast of Brazil. Most had deserted the infamous English privateer Thomas Cavendish less than two weeks before in the hope they could find a living in Brazil. But this was not to be. A band of Portuguese and their allied Indians from Rio de Janeiro set upon them in the early hours: they were dragged to the shore, where their skulls were smashed with “fire brands”.
At the time, English subjects were considered enemies of Spain and Portugal, “heretic Lutherans” who were officially forbidden to set foot on the Iberian colonies in the New World. But Cavendish’s men were not innocent: only a couple of months earlier they had besieged towns, burned down mills and plundered villages along the Brazilian coast.
The massacre in São Sebastião would have remained unknown, had it not been for one who managed to survive and later write what would become the earliest extensive account of Brazil written by an Englishman. This man was Anthony Knivet, a young soldier from Norfolk with few scruples and a great desire for fortune.