Dilip D’Souza traces his mutated connection with Portugal.
On the windswept northern coast of Namibia, in a desolate spot reached after several hours along a desolate highway, one comes across a huge colony of seals. One afternoon some years ago, I stood there, looking in wonder, awed by the sheer number of animals, by the fleshy, quivering, noisy mass that stretched from my toes into the spray-misted distance. The place is called Cape Cross, a name about which I was only mildly curious then.
I have since regretted that lack of curiosity. The seals were interesting and photogenic, true, if smelly. But if I ever go back, I might spend less time gazing at them. I might instead stroll over to gaze at the object that gives their home its name: Cape Cross.
In 1485, Diego Cao, a Portuguese sea captain, came ashore and erected a cross here. The Portuguese had a tradition of erecting wood or limestone crosses wherever they landed. They were symbols of Christianity, visible proof of possession of a piece of land. But they were most useful as landmarks for passing ships. To his successors on those nearly virgin sea lanes hugging the African coast, Caos cross was a sign that the Portuguese had safely reached that far down the coast.
By the late 19th century, the original cross was crumbling. The Germans, colonial masters of South-West Africa as it was then known, removed it to a Berlin museum. In 1895, they brought a replica of the original from Germany and erected it at the spot. That replica is what stands at Cape Cross today.
Quest for India
When Diego Cao erected his cross, he was just the latest in a series of Portuguese adventurers who had been pushing further and further south. They had sailed beyond several points that had each, in turn, seemed like points of no return: Cape Bojador, the River Ouro, Guinea, Angola, Cape Cross. Sailing south, they had something very definite in mind. They were looking for the point where the African coast would turn decisively east, for what, such a turn would almost surely mean the sea route to the East. To India. Once they rounded Africa, these seafaring heroes were sure, only open sea would separate them from the riches of India.
Sure enough, Bartholomieu Dias sailed past Caos cross in 1487 and soon found the coast of Africa swinging east. He had rounded the huge continent, but his men had had enough of fierce storms and forced him to return to Portugal. “He had seen the land of India,” wrote a historian of the time, but “he did not enter it”.
In 1497, another Portuguese sailor struggled around Africas southern tip and set his sails to ride the winds north and east. From Malindi in present-day Kenya, an Arab pilot guided him across the Indian Ocean. And on 20 May 1498, after 12,000 miles and 316 days at sea, Vasco da Gama touched land near Calicut. That day changed an entire regions history. It is now also a subject of much controversy, but of that, more later.
Vasco da Gama might never have reached Calicut if not for the cross that stands firm on a lonely Namibian shore. As for me, I feel a very personal connection to Cape Cross. In an odd way, I would not be who I am if Cao had not erected his cross; in fact, millions of Indians would not be who they are. And thats why, on my next visit to Cape Cross, the cross might interest me more than the seals.
Old and new
The story of da Gamas great voyage is really the story of the Caos and the Diases before him: brave men who pushed the boundary of Portuguese discovery ever southward, outward, from that little country in the Iberian peninsula. It is amazing that this tiny slice of Europe produced such a stream of courageous explorers, as well as kings who believed in and backed their efforts.
Prince Henry the Navigator (d. 1460) is credited with being the catalyst behind Portugals exploration of the world. But it was really under John II (r. 1481-1495), that Portugals age of seafaring glory began. John dispatched Cao and Dias on their voyages and set the stage for da Gamas later success. Together, these men turned Portugal into the prime maritime power of the era.
With that kind of intoxicating history, one cannot help think that Portugal must have been an exciting place to live in 500 years ago. Its easy to imagine late 15th-century Lisbon as a roiling, thrilling city, flush with comings and goings and news of the latest expeditions. Surely few other cities could have matched the heady sense of adventure Lisbon must have been drenched in then.
Late 20th-century Lisbon carries few signs of those stirring times. It looks and feels like the other European capitals. There are plush Cartier and Gucci boutiques, upscale restaurants, even a tiny Metro with the obligatory schematic map. Frenetic construction is everywhere: spiffy new buildings, dramatic new Metro stations on an ever-expanding network and so on. To the jaundiced eye, it is missing a certain spirit, perhaps even an identity. Lisbon seems much less unique today than it once must have been although this criticism is unfair considering the changed times.
Still, one does get a feeling in Lisbon of yearning, a sense that Portugal wants back that heady feeling of world leadership that Vasco da Gama had brought. Tired of being known as Europes perennial poor cousin, Portugal seems to be saying, “Lets reclaim that place in the sun we once knew.” The sprucing up of Lisbon is a sign of that.
An even more visible sign attracted multitudes to its riverfront site through the summer of 1998. Lisbon deliberately bid to host Expo 98 this year, 500 years after da Gama reached India. Even its theme, “Oceans”, is a reminder of glories past. Grand words tumble over the event: “The Portuguese language, an ocean of cultures”, “The greatest ever Portuguese cultural event, at the turn of the millennium, in which Portugal seeks to discover a new face, highlighting its multicultural vocation” and on and on.
Expo 98 was a flashy, colourful, techno-dazzle affair. The architecture was end-of-millennium futuristic, the fountains innovative, the pavilions full of whiz-bang wizardry. The ticket-checking machines were so smart, they needed people to monitor how they performed. A gorgeous new bridge over the River Tagus put you right at the site. Its name? Naturally, the Vasco da Gama bridge.
All that jazz could not unfortunately make up for a definitely underwhelming experience. The crowds were staggering. Lines to enter popular pavilions snaked for hours. The hordes meant that outdoor seating was at a premium; seating in shade practically non-existent. Razzle-dazzle, Expo style, has no place for trivialities like trees or shelters to offer shade. With Lisbons blazing summer sun beating down, with the long distances to cover on foot, finding a pavilion with a tolerable wait to enter was itself a draining exercise.
Things improved very little once indoors. “Puerile” was the word that came to mind. The “Knowledge of the Seas” pavilion was plastered with quotes phrases simply lifted from the notebooks of Portuguese sea captains, no thought given to significance or relevance. In a similarly simple-minded way, displays showed that some things float, some things dont. The frame of a large wooden caravel dominated one hall. Inexplicably, it was upside-down. Nearby, a little visited pavilion had several poems from Portuguese-speaking countries, with English translations alongside. Astonishingly, the poems were translated word-for-word from the Portuguese. In English, they made no sense.
If that was how Lisbon planned to attract the worlds attention all over again, it was a shame the effort was so mediocre. Built this way, Diego Caos cross would have crumbled long before the late 1800s. Vasco da Gamas ships would have collapsed well before rounding Cape Bojador in present-day Morocco, once a major milestone in the trip along Africas coast. The sea route to India would never have been found.
And, almost certainly, my name would not be what it is.
Those the Portuguese converted in India were given Portuguese names: Sousa, da Cunha, Ferreira, da Gama and others; though over the years, some mutated into forms not seen in Portugal, like Dsouza. Personally, I have little use for religion; neither do I speak any Portuguese. But it was on my trip to Portugal that I realised and comprehended that, in a real sense, without Portugal, without Vasco da Gama, without that cross in Namibia, I would not be who I am.
Beginning with Afonso de Albuquerques conquest of Goa in 1510, Portuguese influence on the west coast of India waxed and waned for centuries. But Goa remained a Portuguese colony until 1961, a full 14 years after the British left India. Theres a significance to that presence that has been somewhat muddied in the Goa of 1998, the 500th year since Vasco da Gamas landing. An angry debate has raged in Goa over da Gamas legacy (see Himal January 1998). Should Goa celebrate, or even observe, the 500th anniversary? After all, Vasco da Gama brought the catastrophe of colonialism to India and the resentment is keenly felt.
Just before the Indian President K.R. Narayanan left on a recent trip that took him to Portugal, Goas Deshpremi Nagrik Samiti (Patriotic Citizens Committee) wrote to ask him not to “fall prey” to any moves by Portuguese authorities to get him to pay tributes to “their hero”, Vasco da Gama. Others urged him not to participate in the Vasco celebrations, not to visit the explorers grave in Lisbons Mosteiro dos Jeronimos.
The language the Samiti used certainly speaks of real enough sentiments. But consider what Dinar Camotim, Professor of Civil Engineering at the Technical University of Lisbon, himself of Goan Hindu descent, pointed out one evening in a Lisbon bar: Goa owes its very existence, its identity, to Vasco da Gama. If it had not been for him, those 3700 square kilometres would have formed just another stretch of Maharashtra or Karnataka. Nothing would distinguish it from those states.
Certainly, the colonialism that Vasco brought caused harm that still haunts us. But it happened. Colonialism was disastrous, but history is hardly good or bad: it happens. In this case, for better or worse, it also gave many of us in India a certain uniqueness, a certain something to set us apart from the crowd. It may not be much, it may not matter much, it may not even be worth a thought. But it is there.
I can’t speak for anyone else. For me, that’s enough to make a second trip to Cape Cross worth contemplating.