Remembering to forget

Vasco da Gama's 500th anniversary touches a raw nerve in Goa.

Suddenly, the Portuguese are big news in their former colony of Goa, now better known as a tourist destination and a one-time hippy hangout. But Lisbon is unlikely to be flattered. The very thought of commemorating the fifth centenary of Vasco da Gama's arrival on India's west coast has had people agitated. Swaths of newsprint have been consumed by the subject.

India's youngest ex-colony is looking over its shoulder at its long, and often uneasy, Portuguese past. In the process, Vasco da. Gama's 1998 quincentennial is taking on shades of the Columbus controversy which engulfed North and South America in 1992.

Like any historical figure, Vasco da Gama is understood (and misunderstood) in diverse ways. Lionised by his countrymen, he has his sceptics elsewhere. Did he undertake pioneering "discoveries", as Portugal would have it even today, or was Vasco da Gama merely the "first European to travel by sea to India", which is how he is described in the US-published Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, which goes on: "He established Portuguese power in India and Africa. His methods were harsh, and he was not a good administrator. He was sent back to India as a viceroy in 1524, but soon died."

Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam is rather severe in his evaluation of the Portuguese explorer in a timely book that is just out (see following review). This obscure nobleman from the Alentejo was transformed into the Great Argonaut mainly through the creation of legend, writes Subrahmanyam. Vasco da Gama, who today is known as part of the generation of great discoverers along with Magellan, Cabral and Columbus, was one thing in real life and quite another in the myth that survives.

Not that there are no mixed feelings in Goa. While some insist on his greatness, others point out that the sea trade in the Indian Ocean was there centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese navigator. While some Goans say Vasco da Gama is a "historical personage" who cannot be wished away, there are others who deride him as someone sent East to loot and extend the empire. Most displeased are the freedom-fighters who helped free Goa from the Portuguese (the territory joined India in 1962); the planned quincentennial celebration, they maintain, questions the very bona fide of their activism against colonialism.

While it is not hard to understand why the memory of Vasco da Gama evokes strong emotions in Goa (as in pockets of Portuguese-influenced Asia, including Kerala and Sri Lanka), the debate has got bogged down in clichés, sloganeering and polarisation. This has left little ground for a sober re-evaluation of the impact of the first European colony in Asia.

Past to present

Goa's leading English-language daily The Navhind Times kicked off the controversy a few months ago by offering its columns to those on both sides of the debate. It soon became clear that the two sides had simply studied different history texts. The Deshpremi Nagrik Samiti (Patriotic Citizens' Committee), with stalwarts of the anticolonial struggle in it, bring up one phalanx. Others, like the former MP Erasmo Sequeira, maintain that the celebration should be accepted "in the right perspective". The good that came from this meeting – sonic might call it clash – of cultures must be noted, is Sequeira's view. Says he, "The Taj Mahal was built by the Moghuls and today we take pride in it as a great Indian monument, instead of thinking of destroying it as a vestige of colonialism."

There were those who began to pronounce anything Portuguese as suspect, and even a seminar on Portuguese laws became the target for protest. It was seen as an insidious attempt to glorify "anything and everything Portuguese". The Fundacao Oriente, a private cultural foundation which has been running its Indian delegation from Panjim for the past couple of years, laced more questions than it cared to answer.

The you-versus-me tone of the controversy reflected the polarisation that has afflicted many aspects of Goan society in recent years. Those with sympathies for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh see Portugal bashing as a Catholic versus Hindu thing. The subtle insinuation is made that those who follow an imported religion are anti-national. The result of this has been that the minority Catholic community of Goa has had to go on the defensive.

"da Gama epoch"

There is no denying that Vasco da Gama's legacy touches all of Asia, including the Suhcontinent. Statesman scholar K.M. Pannikar argues that a clear epoch of Indian history began with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in 1498 and lasted till the British pullout in 1947. This "da Gama epoch" in his view, brought far-reaching changes which were overwhelmingly negative.

Among those who see a more benign, if not positive. legacy is microbiologist Nandkumar Kamat, who points out that the explorer "was an instrument of history" who catalysised "cataclysmic changes in India's agrarian economy". Without Vasco da Gama, there would have been no Portuguese trade pockets, no maritime trade, no import of foreign plants and hence no diverse resource base which presently is the mainstay of the Indian village economy.

American and African plants spread in India via Portuguese sea routes. Grafting techniques came to Goa first in the 16th century, and so did what are today among India's most useful plants. "The Portuguese imported about 300 species of useful plants to India, and Goa was their chief emporium," says Kamat. "Before Vasco da Gama, India did not cultivate sweet potatoes, tapioca, tomatoes or pumpkins. Think of it, the potato comes from the Andes mountains of South America. But India produces the largest potato crop in the world today, surpassing Europe." Cashew, chikoo, papaya, tobacco, guavas and pineapples entered India through Goa. Chillies – hard to think of Indian food without them – arrived on Portuguese galleons.

All this notwithstanding, the Portuguese legacy is probably even more crucial for a little outpost like Goa, which has had a unique experience even by the global standards of colonialism. It is often forgotten that Goa's colonial rulers were the first to come and virtually the last to leave. The toe-hold achieved in India in 1510 remained a toehold, but the Portuguese remained till 1961.

The impact of this long spell of alien rule left its mark in this state of a mere 3702 sq km area, and current population of 1.3 million. If Goa is considered 'different' today – and attracts so many tourists as a result – it is clearly due to its unusual past. The Portuguese touch is evident in the cuisine (including feni, the distinctive liquor), in the architecture, and the Goan identity itself.

Lisbon's rule opened the local population to international forces, which explains the adaptability of Goans worldwide, says noted Indo-Portuguese historian Teotonio R. de Souza, a Jesuit priest till recently. "They do not feel estranged anywhere." Adds de Souza, "Goa was the hub of Portugal's entire Estado da India. All their military, trade and missionary activities were routed via Goa, and this could not but leave a deep impress upon the local populations."

Peter Nazareth, a noted Goan writer based at Iowa University, also underlines this aspect. "Goans are cultural brokers, mediating between cultures. From the dawn of Portuguese colonialism, West met East in Goans; and after that, others could also meet this mix in Goans," he writes. At the same time, Nazareth believes that Goons have lost some of their creative energy due to the long stint with colonialism. As for the self perception of Goons, he believes that it is a weakness "when we don't know who we are and don't try to find out".

Colonial collaborators

Historians critical of Lisbon point out that anything the Portuguese want to disown is today ascribed to various "aberrations" in the country's past The scholar de Souza also decries what he sees as the tendency to perpetuate the myth about the Portuguese being "good colonialists".

In a study comparing British and Portuguese colonialism, anthropologist Paul Axelrod writes that Britain made a conscious effort to transform the village economy for colonial ends – with canals and plantations – and also believed in indirect rule. On the other hand, Portuguese colonialism was oriented towards mercantilism. This consisted of owning small chunks of land from Mozambique to Timor, controlling trade, and extracting resources from the interiors. Goa happened to be the hub of Portugal's colonial network, and was one of its largest landholdings east of Africa.

For his part, de Souza says that unlike the British the Portuguese placed excessive emphasis on missionary activity. Lisbon's failure to keep pace with the industrial revolution meant that they had to follow a different tack than the British in the colonies. Says de Souza "This was why Portuguese colonialism was more 'homely' and church- and kitchen-based, less machine-dominated."

Some hard facts have had to be faced, too. Delhi-based Jesuit priest Walter Fernandes points out that, in most cases, foreign domination was made possible by collaboration between local elites and the invaders. "Colonialism may be a thing of the past, but the collaboration continues; globalisation is an offshoot of the colonial age," he says.

"Some Goans, particularly from the upper strata, internalised (and accepted) colonial values. This has become so natural for them, that they don't even question it as something alien or out of place. It has become almost like a part of our own body," says Charles Camara, a Goan scholar doing research at Stockholm University.

But can the colonial ruler be blamed for everything going wrong today? One local paper suggested that instead of wasting their energy decrying the planned quincentennial celebrations, freedom fighters should bring "to the gallows" Indian politicians "whose corrupt practices are destroying India and Indians more than all the atrocities committed by the colonisers."

Clearly, blaming only the 'outsider' is not very helpful, and there is still scope for a critical re-evaluation of the region's past. "1 doubt Goans would have been better off under some local (rulers like) sultans or nayaks, if the Portuguese had not taken over the place in the 16th century," says de Souza.

That is a point of view, but one that would be vociferously denied by all those keen on burying the Portuguese legacy The debate is leading nowhere. East is east and west is west, said Kipling, and on taking stock of the legacy of a long-dead mariner, the twain do not seem about to meet.

– E Noronha is a journalist from Goa.

Tango or mango?

ALTHOUGH LISBON AND New Delhi set up a committee to decide on the quincentennial commemorations, the Indian government's response has been ambivalent. The question is how exactly to celebrate a Portuguese arrival even as India celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Britishers' departure. In Goa, India's Home Minister and communist leader Indrajit Gupta made it clear that he frowned on such celebrations.

A joint Indo-Portuguese meet meant to commemorate Vasco da Gama's landings, scheduled for early 1997, was postponed and has not yet happened. The Marxist-led Left Democratic Front in Kerala (where lies Calicut, da Gama's landing site in 1498) said it was resolutely against any celebration of an event which heralded the "advent of colonialism".

Lately, however, the Trivandrum government seems to have had a change of heart as economics crowded out ideology. Kerala is now planning a tourism-linked fete to cash in on the event. But plans are uncertain at present and protestors have decided to go by the hundreds to the site where Vasco da Gama landed to prevent any possible commemoration.

Some varsities and not-for-profit institutions – including, interestingly, the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute – are jointly sponsoring a global workshop in Delhi in February 1998. It will look at "Five Centuries alter Vasco da Gama: From Colonialism to Globalisation", connecting the past with our present. Some big names, South Asian and international, are to he invited, including Junius Nyerere, Ivan Illich, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gamini Correa, Mahasweta Devi, Wole Soyenka, Harlan Ashrawi and Tissa Balasuriya.

In Goa itself, obviously, many other functions are planned, including a seminar on the impact of the 'discovery' of the sea route to India. Meanwhile, Portugal has undertaken a public-relations exercise by sending a lot of cultural groups to put up performances in Goa, and earn badly-needed goodwill in its former colony.

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