Victories stained with blood

On this day in 1497, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set sail for India, a voyage that changed the politico-economic scenario of the subcontinent. A look at the life and times of the man whose discoveries are among the most important historical world events
Belu Maheshwari

Vasco da Gama’s legacy remains Portugal’s success as an early colonising power while for India, he opened the floodgates to colonising and commercialising

Vasco da Gama rose from a middling position in the Portuguese society in a span of a few years to acquire the image of an icon of Portugal’s national pride after his triumphant return from India.

According to political economist Adam Smith, the event was one of the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. His voyages also changed the politico-economic firmament of Indian subcontinent forever.

A map from Vasco da Gama Thinkstockphotos/ Getty Images

Around the late 14th century, John II, the Emperor of Portugal, needed to build up a royal treasury and saw royal commerce as the key to it. He was eager to break into the highly profitable spice trade between Europe and Asia, which was monopolised by the Republic of Venice through Red Sea across the spice markets of India. The sea gates of the Orient had long been found. It remained for some mariner of daring to force them open.

Vasco da Gama had been sent on a mission in 1492 to the port of Selutal and Algrave to seize French ships in retaliation for peace time depredations against Portuguese shipping, a task that Gama accomplished rapidly and effectively.

The Lisbon ship symbol on the tomb of Vasco da Gama

So when his father, who had been chosen to lead the expedition, died, his third son Vasco took his place. Aged 36 years, he was already an expert navigator. He was born in a small seaport called Sines, tenanted by fisherfolks, where land was unprofitable for agriculture. Born and bred in such an environment, Vasco was fated to follow the sea. Courage, ambition, pride, and unwavering steadfastness of purpose were the bedrock of his character.

Although on occasions, he might unbend so far as to join his sailors in a hornpipe, he allowed no relaxation of discipline. He was given four ships and about 170 men and they set sail on July 8, 1497. The distance travelled in the journey around Africa to India and back was greater than around the equator. No navigator, of whom there is authentic record, had completed so long a journey.

A map of the discoveries of Vasco da Gama (top) and his statue in Lisbon (above)

Da Gama’s journey brought him face to face with three different stages of civilisations. The first was the African tribes of Hottentots and Bantu, who had never been above the level of savagery. The second was the musalman culture, half-Arab, half-African and the third was the civilisation of India.

On May 21, 1498, the Captain-Major brought his ships to anchor off Calicut. He got into a spat with the king on paying the usual customs dues on merchandise they had landed, amounting to 223 pounds. Some men were held hostage till the duty was paid. Vasco retaliated by seizing 18 Hindus who had come to visit his ships. Ultimately Samundri, the king of Calicut bought peace and gave an indication of the enormity of trade opportunities between the two countries.

“My country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper and precious stones. That which I ask of you in exchange is gold, silver, corals and scarlet cloth.

Vasco’s expedition was successful, bringing a cargo which was worth 60 times the cost of the expedition. Though only 55 men and 2 ships returned but the quest for Christians and spices had been accomplished and Portugal was mistress of the sea route to India.

Dom, as he came to be called, started his second expedition with explicit aim of taking revenge for the unsights committed against Pedro Cabral, who had headed the second expedition and war had broken out between Portugal and Calicut. This time, it was a heavily armed fleet of 15 ships and 800 men, who sailed in Feb 1502.Gama started capturing any Arab vessel he came across in Indian ocean, most notoriously The Miri a pilgrim ship from Mecca whose passengers, including women he massacred in open waters. There was a mercantilist dynamic to anti-religious Muslim sentiment, they were the competitors to Indian trade and merchandise.

The eyewitness description to the horrors committed by Vasco are heart wrenching. His arrogance knew no bounds, he refused to take the overtures of peace and alliance. Hands and feet of helpless traders and fishermen were cut, Calicut was bombarded. He headed for home heavily laden with spices, leaving behind him the trail of blood and ashes. He also set up the first permanent naval force stationed by Europeans in the Orient by leaving five ships to guard and render effective his command of Indian and Arabian Seas.

After his second voyage to India, Vasco ceased for 21 years to take any prominent part in public affairs. His retirement has been ascribed to his pique at the meagerness of his rewards, while on the other hand, the Court also wanted to marginalise him for his acts of omission and commission.

Vasco had though become enormously rich and famous and had been given the title of Admiral, with a hefty pension and a hereditary interest in the royal commerce with India. He had married at a late age to Isabella and had 6 sons and a daughter.

He was recalled in 1524 to settle matters in India, he dropped anchor at Chaul which now had a Portuguese fortress. Here Dom declared himself as the Viceroy of the Portuguese India. His main agenda was to repair and reform the malfunctioning of the Portuguese officialdom and to humiliate his predecessor. As was his nature, he enforced discipline with ruthlessness. He had expansionist designs, he ordered construction of some fast-moving assault boats with which to mount attack on the ports and riverine routes on the western Indian coast. But soon, he contracted malaria and died at Cochin on Christmas eve.

Vasco Da Gama got both fame and in fame. He became infamous because of the Miri affair, his private trading fortune, his excessively violent behaviour, he was ruthless. He was nicknamed ‘Indignado’ for his unpredictable volatility of temper. He was very suspicious of Indian rulers, and took the natives as hostage before he set foot on Indian soil. But on the other end is his opening of the Indian trade and commerce, and building a Portuguese settlement in India.

The creation of a legend started in his own lifetime, Gama remained the key Portuguese national treasure to be trotted out on all occasions, generation after generation. His legacy is Portugal’s success as an early colonising power. For India, he opened the floodgates to colonising and commercialising.

He acquainted the Indians to modern cannons and guns and firmly established Christianity in the land, ultimately he is remembered as a great explorer and navigator. And as for, the verdict on him, a famous quote sums it up, “Concerning human actions, I have tried not to laugh, not to weep, not to detest them but to understand them.”

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