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Vasco da Gama, a great navigator but a flawed human being

The Da Gama era begun in 1497 brought great riches to Europe but the colonised people were never asked if they fancied being taken over, says Frank Gelli

Vasco da Gama was the Portuguese navigator who first set off on three ships from Lisbon to India on July 8, 1497. He sailed around the Cape of Good Hope before crossing the Indian Ocean and arriving in the great trading centre of Calicut, India, the following year. Da Gama thus became the symbol of a new era of seaborne European imperial ambition, based on trade but also on religion. It is important that he is also the hero of The Lusiads, the national poem of Portugal. It celebrates the epic story of a people but also that of an extraordinary, if flawed, character.
Curiously, King Manuel of Portugal had given the explorer letters of introduction to a Christian potentate called Prester John, a powerful mythical figure who was supposed to rule a vast empire somewhere in the Orient. The idea was to strike an alliance with Prester John in order to attack the Ottoman Turks from the rear, thus forcing them to fight on two fronts and so face defeat. In fact, Prester John never existed, unless the Mongols could be said to have been one of his elusive manifestations. Of course, the Mongols were no Christians.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to Sultan Mehmet II and the rising Turkish power in the Mediterranean had made it imperative for Europeans to find new commercial routes to the East. Spices like pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, aloes, mace, ginger and so on were amongst the most coveted commodities of Western man. They provided the seasoning and flavour vital to a rather boring diet. And spices were also used in medicine, being credited with many curative properties. Da Gama’s seafaring endeavours were to be richly rewarded because the spices he brought back from his travels sold for the highest prices.
The Lusiads is meant to be a Christian work. Indeed, the amazing scene of the opening verses is set in Heaven. Not quite a Christian Heaven, mind – it is the pagan Olympus in which the Greek gods are assembled in council: Zeus, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Bacchus. The poem will constantly show the god Bacchus as the ally of Muslims and as the sworn enemy of the Portuguese, while Venus, goddess of love, is on their side. A bit odd, because Bacchus of course is the deity of wine. How does that fit in with Islam? But it will not do to be too literalistic here. Although the poem contains plenty of history, it is chiefly a hagiographic work. Moreover, invoking the gods of the classical Pantheon was an accepted poetic licence.
After doubling the Cape, the Portuguese sailors found that the peoples they met followed Islam. Da Gama therefore thought it advisable to pretend being a Muslim but the Sultan of Mozambique was unconvinced. Above all, the paltry gifts the strangers brought included neither silver nor gold and the people reacted against the Portuguese. A similar negative reception followed in other places the ships touched. However in Malindi, da Gama secured the priceless services of an able pilot, essential to mastering the treacherous Monsoon winds. A tradition has it that the pilot was no less than the great Arab navigator Ibn Majid but that appears unlikely. Anyway, thanks partly to this clever pilot the Portuguese reached Calicut on 8 July.
The Hindu ruler of Calicut, the Zamorin, initially welcomed the strangers but, once again, the modest gifts offered caused disappointment and doubt. How could a Royal ambassador not bring any gold? Besides, rival Muslim merchants, obviously not enamoured of the competition, put it about that da Gama was not the official messenger from a king but a vulgar privateer. The Zamorin turned hostile and asked for money. Da Gama therefore seized a number of hostages and sailed off, loaded with spices, back to Portugal. By the time he reached Lisbon he had lost one of his ships and half of his men had succumbed to scurvy and other illnesses. Undeterred, King Manuel created him Count of Vidigueira and hailed him magnificently as ‘Lord of the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India’.
It should not be assumed that Muslims were the only ones antagonistic to the exploits of Vasco da Gama. Actually, the main victim of his success was a Chris¬tian nation, the Republic of Venice, whose wealth was largely founded on the spice trade. Proud of her enormous treasure, Venice officially called herself ‘the mistress of a fourth and a half of the Roman Empire’. So the Venetians were furious. They did not scruple to incite the Sultan of Egypt and the Turks against the Portuguese. But, never mind how much they plotted, the days of Venice’s commercial grandeur were over. The ancient, ‘most serene Republic’ was doomed.
Until the expedition, Portugal was an insignificant, peripheral country, small in population and territory. Da Gama made it the richest nation in Europe. He also showed how the strength of a modern empire need not lie chiefly in the territory it controls but instead in sea power and commerce. England of course learnt the lesson pretty well…
Famous navigator though he was, Vasco da Gama could not quite stand today as a champion of interfaith and religious dialogue. Having set forth in 1502 on a second journey to India, da Gama twice attacked Muslim ships loaded with Hajjis, pilgrims, from and to Makkah. He had all the passengers massacred. Other episodes describe actions committed by him of such brutality to be, if anything, indication of an unsound mind. Of course, deeds of cruelty were far from uncommon in warfare centuries back. Was he merely a man of his time then? Or maybe an unconscious effect of the ferocious spirit of the pagan gods? Either way, his actions were highly reprehensible indeed.
Does the key ethical problem reside with the very notion of an empire, by definition, an extensive group of states or countries brought by force under a single supreme authority or emperor? The two Iberian powers, Spain and Portugal, found themselves in dispute over the immense lands, the New World, which the voyage of Columbus in 1492 had opened up. A solution was sought with the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494. Pope Alexander VI had been asked to decide between claimants. Not an easy task without offending one side (Alexander himself was a Spaniard), His Holiness boldly drew a line along the globe, dividing it into two parts. All the lands beyond the meridian of longitude passing 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands were to be the prerogative of Spain, while all the territories to the east of the Pope’s line would belong to Portugal. The latter included all of Africa and the Indian Ocean, leaving out the Indian subcontinent. That did not please the Portuguese but there were other Royal malcontents. For example, Francis I, King of France, quipped that ‘I want to examine the clause in Adam’s Will which excludes me from my share of the world’. England and Holland followed suit. Anyway, in 1578 Portugal was gobbled up by Spain and the former’s colonies were incorporated into the latter.
Those with a stronger reason to protest of course were the native peoples themselves. They never asked to lose their independence and to be taken over by foreign masters. The sensitive reader can only conclude in melancholy with the words of St Augustine: ‘What are even the greatest empires but bands of robbers?’

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