Magazine article History Today

Times & Tides

Magazine article History Today

Times & Tides

Article excerpt

Five hundred years after Vasco da Gama's fist departure for India, I joined a commemorative conference, which began rolling at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and ended on the shores of the Indian Ocean at Fremantle. Vasco specialists will reconvene at intervals over the next two years, in Calicut, Lisbon, Kuala Lumpur, San Marino and I don't know where else. Does da Gama deserve this attention? To set his achievement in context, it is worth recalling other quincentenaries, forgotten or neglected over the past year.

In 1497, for instance, King Hans of Denmark made his triumphal entry into Stockholm. No interest in the anniversary has been reported; yet when one thinks of what Denmark and Sweden achieved separately in the early modern world, it is tempting to speculate about what might have happened had they remained united.

1497 was also the year in which Ivan the Great of Muscovy issued his great law code, which historians of Russia claim as a decisive step in the formation of a state of enduring importance in world history; but it attracted no conspicuous commemoration.

Few now recall the Polish-Moldavian conflict which was in progress at the time, even though it can be said to have contributed vitally to fixing the frontier between Latin Christendom and what might loosely be called the Ottoman commonwealth of south-east Europe.

In 1497 Leonardo was painting the `Last Supper' in Milan -- but the fact could easily be forgotten in the excitement of the Vasco da Gama quincentennial. In the same year, Rustum Shah died in Persia -- a demise which historians of Persia commonly treat as the nadir of the medieval empire and the prelude to the rise of the Safavids: yet the five hundredth anniversary went virtually unremarked.

Ali Ghadjiden, king of Bornu, was another victim of 1497 -- but his death is hardly remembered today, let alone commemorated, though to many people at the time it must have seemed the greatest event in the world. Meanwhile the emperor of Songhay, Muhammad Touray Askia was making a journey which might rival Vasco's for the title of the most important of the time: he was on his pilgrimage to Mecca, with nearly 300,000 gold diners in his chests and 800 guards in his entourage, to be invested with the insignia of power. After his victory over the race of pagan `magician kings' that had formerly occupied the throne, his pilgrimage helped ensure that Islam would be the dominant religion of Sahelian Africa. No great international conferences, however -- as far as I know -- have been convened on the strength of it.

If Vasco da Gama's voyage has been singled out for celebration in preference to these potential competitors, it is not because of Vasco's prowess as an explorer. He made his famous detour, deep into the South Atlantic -- to find winds that would carry him beyond the Cape of Good Hope. Instead, he mistook his latitude, made his easting too early and fetched up on the wrong coast of Africa. He had then to confront adverse currents, which drove him back and almost defeated him, to reach the Indian Ocean.

Though he arrived by a route never sailed before, he had to rely on a local guide to cross the ocean along a shipping lane known for centuries. When he got to India he prejudiced the future of European missions and commerce in the region by mistaking Hindus for Christians and offending his hosts so severely that, by report, `the entire land wished him ill'. On his way back, he recklessly defied local knowledge and risked the outcome of the adventure by trying to depart for the West in August, against prevailing storms. Over half his men were lost; at one point the ships were reduced to active crews of only seven or eight men and one ship had to be abandoned.

Nor is the voyage celebrated today for the impressive commercial and imperial effects formerly attributed to it. On the contrary, the irreversible trend of scholarship since the Second World War has been to diminish confidence in Vasco's responsibility for events traditionally supposed to have flowed from it. …

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