Most famous for having been an Admiral of Alexander the Great, if Nearchus the Voyager had lived during a time when the great shadow of Alexander cast it’s light over all in the world, he would be remembered as one of the great explorers of history.
Nearchus was born on Crete sometime around 350 B.C., became a tutor of Alexander, and then later explored and charted all of the coast of Alexander’s Asia from the mouth of the Indus to the mouth of the Euphrates. The reason for the expedition was to open up communication between India and Egypt, but for Nearchus, the voyage was about traveling and obtaining knowledge of far off lands.
With 2000 men and scores of ships, Nearchus sailed down the Indus while exploring the delta and then set forth to explore unchartered seas. Before he was through he had explored unknown parts of the Arabian Coast, the Persian Gulf and had begun charting an expedition to the Red Sea.
He was the first Greek to visit Bahrain and one of the great captains of Maritime history. We know of him from the chronicles he wrote of his voyage. The book, Indikê is now lost, but its contents are well-known from several sources, especially the Indikê by Arrian of Nicomedia and the Geography by Strabo of Amasia.
There was a lagoon at the mouths of the river, and the depressions near the bank were inhabited by natives in stifling cabins. These seeing the convoy sailing up were astounded, and lining along the shore stood ready to repel any who should attempt a landing. They carried thick spears, about six cubits long; these had no iron tip, but the same result was obtained by hardening the point with fire. They were in number about six hundred.
Nearchus observed these evidently standing firm and drawn up in order, and ordered the ships to hold back within range, so that their missiles might reach the shore; for the natives’ spears, which looked stalwart, were good for close fighting, but had no terrors against a volley. Then Nearchus took the lightest and lightest armed troops, such as were also the best swimmers, and bade them swim off as soon as the word was given. Their orders were that, as soon as any swimmer found bottom, he should await his mate, and not attack the natives till they had their formation three deep; but then they were to raise their battle cry and charge at the double.
On the word, those detailed for this service dived from the ships into the sea, and swam smartly, and took up their formation in orderly manner, and having made a phalanx, charged, raising, for their part, their battle cry to the god of War, and those on shipboard raised the cry along with them; and arrows and missiles from the engines were hurled against the natives.
They, astounded at the flash of the armor, and the swiftness of the charge, and attacked by showers of arrows and missiles, half naked as they were, never stopped to resist but gave way. Some were killed in flight; others were captured; but some escaped into the hills.
Those captured were hairy, not only their heads but the rest of their bodies; their nails were rather like beasts’ claws; they used their nails (according to report) as if they were iron tools; with these they tore asunder their fishes, and even the less solid kinds of wood; everything else they cleft with sharp stones; for iron they did not possess. For clothing they wore skins of animals, some even the thick skins of the larger fishes.
Nearchus met his end in the the battle of Ipsu (at least according to some historians) and so was not one of those who picked up the pieces of Alexander’s empire once the great man had perished – although, there are alternate histories which say that he did outlive Alexander and threw his support behind Heracles, the illegitimate son of Alexander. There is no way to determine which account is true.
Oddly, Nearchus is often confused with St. Nearchus, an Armenian Christian who became a Christian saint, despite the fact that the Greek Nearchus lived well before Christ.
This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).