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Myths surrounding Vasco da Gama

Claude Alvares

Those 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.

The 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.

However, 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.

Earlier 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.

Subrahmanyam 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 materials......"

Subrahmanyam 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.

Some 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.

Decidedly, 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!

Vasco 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.

This 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.

Portugal 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.

The 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 pure consternation.

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.

An 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.

Subrahmanyam 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 new developments.

In the end we come across a view of Vasco da Gama that is embarrassingly close to that acceptable to official European history.

This 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.

Curiously, 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.

Neither 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 belonged.

The 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".

Here 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.

Panikkar 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.

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