Lusophile historian

The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama

by Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Foundation Books, New Delhi, 1997

If we are to live by myths, it is better to live by our own myths.

Those of us who did our school ing in the 1950s and 60s may recall being taught that we were discovered in 1498 by a Portuguese adventurer. The history book this reviewer recalls studying 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.

However, as Sanjay Subrah-manyam points out in The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama, the European "myth-building enterprise around Gama" has been so successful that even a recent title by India´s National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) – 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 Bombay. But the NCERT text has helped disseminate these very same myths across the entire country, with corresponding largescale 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 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 that his book carries no radical interpretation, no new facts, no major revision of Vasco da Gama 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 that book was written more than 40 years ago, there is not much to fault in it even today. It remains one of the classics of history.

Some tantalising questions that remained are, however, answered. For instance, Subrahmanyam provides sufficient evidence to confirm that Vasco da Gama did visit Goa – a controversy that continues to rage off and on even today in Goa. The author also does a fairly conclusive job of demolishing the myth of the Muslim pilot Ibn Majid, who is alleged to have shown the voyager the route from the African east coast 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 da Gama´s bones.

Myth and its making
Vasco da Gama´s first sea voyage to India around the Cape of Good Hope was not the result of some grand hu-, man inventiveness or due to any inherent or nurtured Portuguese genius. On the contrary, our adventurer was unable to provide a demonstration of even elementary civilisational endowments on his arrival at Calicut.

This was not because he had left them behind in Portugal but because these were in short supply in the home country itself. The tawdry gifts he brought with him in his caravel were those of a pauper civilisation, and the Samudri Raja of Samorin 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, the prospects of Portugal also improved. Even today, Portugal is keen to exploit the quincentennial for a glorious reassertion of its place within the European Community, a region which kept it at the margins for centuries. Subrahmanyam reconstructs the myth-making in great detail and with considerable finesse.

The Portuguese themselves have never doubted that they could have done with a better hero. Even today, Vasco da Gama continues to give them a headache for they must explain his arrogance, tactlessness and plain barbarism. It is difficult even in the best of circumstances to view his personality with any kind of affection. He only evokes consternation, never admiration or awe. But despite all this he remains a Portuguese hero, probably because they have no one else.

His patrons´ voice
A non-resident Indian lodged in Europe and dependent upon European bosses – and grants from Portuguese foundations – that Subrahmanyam is, would be anxious to respect such sensitivities. The question left to ponder, therefore, is whether he has carried forward the myths associated with Vasco da Gama, or worse, added some of his own.

Very interesting, in a study of this nature and scope, the author has not hazarded an opinion of what he personally thinks of his study. And in the end, we come away with a view of Vasco da Gama that is embarrassingly close 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 in his pocket. The plants are actually the contributions of South American peasantry.

Should an Indian historian not feel ashamed to write history as Europeans wish to read it; to turn a blind eye to the brutal exercise of power; and substitute in its place an apolitical sequence of events, howsoever elaborately detailed? Curiously, Subrahmanyam provides no discussion on the Treaty of Tordesillas: the insouciant division of the globe in 1494 by the Pope 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 garner power, its demented urge to intervene and impose itself on the lives of others. Instead, we are introduced by Subrahmanyam in minute detail to the petty preoccupations and intrigues of the kings and courts of Portugal and Spain, to the titles collected by Vasco da Gama, and descriptions of his newly acquired properties.

The mentality which Vasco da Gama carried with him then and which he continues to symbolise even today has not been discarded: it is all too readily apparent in an 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. The great scholar advised us that if we are to live by myths then it is far better that we use our own myths rather than ones borrowed from others.Subrahmanyam´s myths – Europe´s as well – suggests Vasco da Gama can be understood without engaging in what he and the Europe he represented stood for. Such a proposal is not only an affront to history; this reviewer suspects it is self-serving as well.

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