Busting some myths about Portugal’s greatest hero

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

I will be taking a trip to Portugal next month, and I plan to see all the major sites in Lisbon. A number of them are dedicated to Vasco da Gama, the navigator who “discovered” the sea route to India.

The most prominent reminder of this Portuguese hero is the Vasco da Gama Bridge, spanning the Tagus River and the longest in Europe at 11 miles. The structure was finished just in time for the 500th anniversary of da Gama’s landing on India’s Malabar Coast. It will be 520 years on May 20.

The Portuguese government mistakenly thought that the Indians would like to join in the celebration. Although the Indian government initially supported the idea, protests against da Gama were wide-spread and angry.

Da Gama was hanged in effigy and a protest leader declared: “We can’t forget the Portuguese came to India with a sword in one hand and Bible in the other.” Both Hindu and Muslim groups objected to the celebrations, and one spokesman said that da Gama’s arrival “unleashed an era of cruelty and exploitation.” The federal government was forced to cancel its participation.

One scholar has described da Gama as a “grim, cynical man, notoriously merciless, an expert at torturing prisoners.” He was known to dismember his opponents and hang their body parts from his yardarms. He was a member of the Moor (=Muslim) Slaying Society, and he was known to pour boiling pat fat on his Muslim prisoners.

When da Gama arrived in present-day Kerala, he was surprised to find Christians already there. They reported to a Syrian patriarch and they claimed to have been converted by the disciple Thomas in A. D. 52.

Finding the local Hindu authorities uncooperative, Da Gama was able form an anti-Muslim trading alliance with these “St. Thomas Christians.” These were “real” Christians as opposed to the legendary Prester John, whom da Gama thought he could join force with in East Africa.

Da Gama set sail again in 1502 with 20 ships and over 1,000 men. In East Africa he forced the Sultan of Kilwa to pay a huge tribute in gold, and on the way to India he captured a pilgrim ship returning from Mecca. After looting the cargo, he set fire to it, and the 300 people on board were either burned to death or drowned. When he arrived in India, the King of Calicut refused to sign a trading agreement, so da Gama shelled the city and then defeated the royal navy in Calicut’s harbor.

Recently, University of Idaho Professor Emeritus S. K. Ghazanfar published an article about da Gama and the Portuguese renewal of the crusade against Islam. Ghazanfar’s article contains major myth busting and some fascinating facts and ironies. For example, to commemorate the start of their sea voyages, the Portuguese minted a coin engraved with the word cruzado (crusade).

With regard to the claim of discovering a sea route to India, Ghazanfar points out that both Arab and Chinese navigators had already rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed up the west coast of Africa.

As early as 2,500 B.C., Indian traders were shipping goods to the Arabian Peninsula, and long before the Portuguese, British, and Dutch came, they were sailing to Southeast Asia spreading Indian culture and religion as far north as Vietnam.

The Portuguese could not have succeeded without Arabic maps and instruments. The astralobe—a precursor to the sextant used to measure latitude—was perfected by Muslim scientists and found its way to Muslim Spain. The Portuguese had also read The Advantages of Knowing the Sciences of the Sea by Ahmad ibn Majid, Islam’s most famous navigator.

Those who say that the Portuguese had a good grasp of astronomy have been misled by European sources. As Ghazanfar states: “It was Islamic astronomy that provided knowledge of the lunar cycles, enabled calculations of the size of the earth, and by using degrees, enabled recording of the distances travelled.”

In order to cross the Indian Ocean, Da Gama relied on a Muslim pilot from the Indian state of Gujarat. Coming back from India without Muslim aid, the acclaimed navigator sailed into monsoon winds, taking 132 days, 105 days longer than the trip eastward. He lost 32 men on the way, and the rest of his crew was saved from disease and starvation by the Sultan of Malindi in present-day Kenya.

It is a great irony that in their attempt to break the Muslim monopoly on the spice trade, the Portuguese used Islamic science and received Muslim aid in establishing their own routes to the East.

Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. He can be reached at [email protected].

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