Myths surrounding Vasco da Gama
By Claude Alvares
Publication: The Free Press Journal
Date: October 25, 1997
of us who did our schooling in the fifties and sixties may recall being taught
that we were discovered in 1498 by a Portuguese adventurer
named Vasco da Gama.
history book I recall was written by a Jesuit historian who had come to India as
a Christian missionary; it succeeded in conveying the idea that we here in our
part of the world began to exist only after (and perhaps because) Europe
discovered us and gave us significance. For this singular act off creation,
Vasco da Gama was made an Admiral by a grateful Portuguese crown.
as Sanjay Subrahmanyam points out in his new and scholarly book titled 'The
Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama' (Cambridge University Press, 1997) the
European "myth-building enterprise around Gama" has been so successful
that even a recent title by the National Council for Educational Research and
Training (NCERT) on the man - that too, in Hindi - actually accepts and
propagates many of the Eurocentric myths surrounding him.
histories were restricted in their reach and influence to specific cities like
Mumbai. But the NCERT text has helped disseminate these very
same myths across the entire subcontinent, with corresponding large scale damage
to children's minds. Such myths have helped fuel the present
controversy regarding whether or not we should participate in the celebrations
to mark the arrival of Vasco da Gama outside Kozhikode
(earlier Calicut) 500 years ago.
is no doubt a first-rate scholar who obviously finds a great deal of pleasure in
his work. But he concedes his book carries no new
radical interpretation, no new facts, no major revision on Vasco or his journey.
It is based instead on a "careful sifting of a mass of tangled
does not have the astonishing abilities or flair of Sardar K. N. Panikkar, for
instance, or even the latter's mature sense of history
which Asia and Western Dominance manifests. Though the latter book was written
more than forty years ago, there is not much to fault it. It
remains one of the classics of history.
tantalising questions that remained are however answered. For instance,
Subrahmanyam provides sufficient evidence to positively confirm
that Vasco da Gama did visit Goa - a controversy that continues to rage off and
on in Goa even today. He also does a fairly conclusive job of
demolishing the myth of the Muslim pilot Ibn Majid who is alleged to have shown
Vasco the route from the East coast of Africa to Calicut.
Subrahmanyam has not produced an hagiography. In fact, the fresh reporting of
gory details associated with the adventurer - he would
take captives, chop off their limbs and string them in pieces on the masts of
his ships to intimidate others - have considerably upset the Portuguese who wish
such descriptions are better interred with Vasco's bones and not brought up for
periodic airing, certainly not in the 500th year!
da Gama's first sea voyage round the Cape of Good Hope to India was not the
result of some grand human inventiveness or due to any inherent Portuguese
genius. On the contrary, our adventurer was unable to provide a demonstration of
even elementary civilisational endowments on his arrival at Kozhikode.
is not because he had left them behind in Portugal but because these were in
short supply within Portugal itself. The tawdry gifts he brought
with him in his caravela were those of a pauper civilisation and the Samudri
Raja of Camorin and his advisers looked at them in scorn. In these
circumstances, it was necessary to create a legend and invent a myth.
did this consistently over the past five centuries. As the myth expanded, not
only Vasco, but Portugal too improved its prospects. Today,
Portugal is all too keen to exploit the quincentennial for a glorious
reassertion of its place within the European Community which has kept it at
the margins for centuries. Subrahmanyam reconstructs this myth in great detail
and with considerable finesse.
Portuguese for themselves have never doubted they could have done with a better
hero. Even today - 500 years later - Vasco continues to give the Portuguese a
headache for they must explain how his arrogance, tactlessness and plain
barbarism were not also traits of the society that sent him. It is difficult
even in the best of circumstances to view his personality with any kind of
affection. Unlike heroes (or heroines) he evokes neither awe nor admiration, but
despite all this, he remains a Portuguese hero, probably the only real hero
modern Portugal ever had and through him her only claim to recognition of worth
in the European community.
NRI historian lodged in Europe dependent upon Western bosses and grants from
Portuguese foundations - would be anxious to respect such
sensitivities. The question left to ponder is whether, for these reasons,
Subrahmanyam has carried forward the myths associated with Vasco, or worse,
added some of his own.
has not hazarded an opinion of what he thinks of the subject of his study, the
bizarre chain of consequences he unleashed and the political context of these
the end we come across a view of Vasco da Gama that is embarrassingly close to
that acceptable to official European history.
version argues that it is not really necessary to adjudicate the past (which is
best forgotten). We should dwell instead on the more positive
outcomes, like the introduction of potatoes, tomatoes, cassava and chillies; as
if our adventurer set out from Portugal with the seeds of
these in his pocket and as if Europe had created them. They are actually the
contributions of the peasants of South America. The bone of contention is
whether an Indian should not feel ashamed to write history as Europeans wish to
see it today; to turn a blind eye to the brutal exercise of power and substitute
in its place an apolitical sequence of events, however elaborately detailed.
we read no discussion of the Treaty of Tordesilhas: the insouciant division by
the Pope of the globe into two parts, one for Spain,
the other for Portugal and the unilateral, overnight declaration of ownership
over unknown lands and peoples.
is there, any allusion to Europe's pathological drive to power, its demented
urge to intervene and impose itself on the lives of others.
Instead, we are introduced in minute detail to the petty preoccupations and
intrigues of the kings and courts of Portugal and Spain and to the titles of
Vasco or his newly acquired properties or the religious order to which he
mentality which Vasco carried with him then and which he continues to symbolise
even now has not been discarded: it is all too readily apparent in unrepentant
Portugal's refusal to apologise for the imposition of this arrogance,
arbitrariness and violence, the disruption of local cultures, and her
stubbornness in upholding his "heroism".
again a comparison of Subrahmanyam's work with Sardar Panikkar's is instructive:
Panikkar generated a new paradigm in historical writing,
inaugurating and placing history written with an Asian perspective on an exalted
plane as an equally valid - and rival - body of knowledge.
advised us that if we are to live by myths (since man does not live by facts
alone), then it is far better we used our own myths rather
than ones borrowed from others. Subrahmanyam's myth - Europe's as well- suggests
Vasco can be understood without engaging what he and the Europe he represented
stood for. Such a proposal is not only an affront to history;
I suspect it is self-serving as well. - TWN