The Asian Age

The hands that change history’s course are bloody


trip to Kappad beach where the Portuguese navigator and explorer Vasco da Gama had landed in 1498. We saw the area, a very pristine beach and a plaque, now weatherbea­ten, which marked the approximat­e site of Gama’s landing.

Vasco da Gama was to make three voyages to India between the years 1498-1524, the year in which he died. He died in Kochi and initially was buried there too before his remains were excavated and interred in Portugal. But as Keki Daruwalla has wonderfull­y recorded in his book For Pepper and Christ, a work of fiction on the voyages of Vasco, da Gama’s hands were no less bloody. Daruwalla’s book is a record of Portugal’s attempt to find a sea route to India, sailing around the African coast and braving the treacherou­s monsoon winds and storms. The route to India was known to the Arabs and to the Venetians too who had been trading with India for years. The route to India was also known to another great power, the Chinese and we shall come to the role of China a little later.

What was the purpose of da Gama’s voyages? As Daruwalla has recorded, it was to find the lucrative spices, pepper and cinnamon initially. Pepper was considered to be “black gold”. It was also to find Christian settlement­s and spread the word of god. Gama’s ships carried priests to hear the confession­s of the soldiers and to proselytiz­e the unbeliever­s. The voyages were also meant to acquire land, for Gama knew that the might of the Portuguese king would only be acknowledg­ed if Portugal retained a visble presence of its power.

Daruwalla’s book is equally an important record of the Arab contributi­on to da Gama’s voyages and of life in Cairo under the Sultan’s rule and the dreaded Muhtasib. The Muhtasib was the Sultan’s representa­tive and the controller of weights and measures in the souks of Cairo, but he maintained an absolute power over his people. To ensure his rule, the Muhtasib had a network of informers and spies to report any wrongs and “alleged” misdemeano­urs. Caught up in the tumultous events of the time, are three friends, Ehtesham, Murad and Taufiq who try their best to keep out of the clutches of the Muhtasib. Ehtesham, an engraver

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Almeda Central Park and painter, has to leave Cairo by way of Alexandria for he had committed the blasphemy of glass painting in a coptic church at the request of the abbott. Murad accompanie­d Ehtesham in his escape out of Cairo but the central figure in Daruwalla’s narrative is Taufiq who had trained as a seaman under his father’s guidance. While he had initially travelled to Calicut as a young boy on one of his father’s ships, it’s his recruitmen­t as a pilot and navigator under the great Ibn Majid that trains him for a life at sea. His voyage with Ibn Majid is not to India but to Africa and it is at Mombasa that Ibn Majid and Taufiq meet up with da Gama. At da Gama’s or the Captain-Major’s request for a pilot, Taufiq is left behind on da Gama’s ship to guide the Portuguese to India. They arrive at Kappad near Calicut on 20 May 1498 but find that the Zamorin or the Samudri Raja is away at his second capital of Ponnani. The Zamorin and da Gama finally meet and the Zamorin is already prejudiced against the Portuguese by the Arabs who describe da Gama as a pirate.

He is also singularly unimpresse­d by da Gama’s gifts ostensibly from the Portuguese king. It is during da Gama’s second and third voyages to India that the might of Poruguese naval power is unleashed against the Zamorin and the people of Calicut. In the interim, da Gama’s arch-rival, Pedro Cabral had undertaken a voyage to Calicut and clashes had broken out between the Portuguese and the Arab merchants. About 70 Portuguese were killed in the city and Cabral blamed the Zamorin and attacked the city.

Word of this reached Lisbon and da Gama set out for India to assert Portuguese power with Taufiq who had been kept in Portugal as his pilot. On his way, da Gama looted and burned a ship on pilgrimage from Mecca to Calicut with 400 people including 50 women on board. On reaching Calicut, he cuts off the Zamorin envoy’s nose and ears and sends him back with a pair of donkey’s ears sews on. Da Gama bombards the city and opens fire on ships parked in the Calicut harbour. Those who jump into the sea are individual­ly hunted down by the Portuguese in boats armed with spears.

Mortified and deeply anguished by all this, Taufiq escapes and reaches the town. Though he has his love waiting to marry him in spite of all the conflict, Taufiq decides on atonement. He has his left hand cut off by a local butcher for his complicity in bringing the Portuguese to India.

Our story does not end here. At the Kerala Lit Fest, a Chinese poet (and this was before the COVID-19 scare) came up to me possibly knowing of my interest in local history. He asked me if I knew about the great Chinese explorer, Admiral Zheng He who had come to Calicut and Cochin well before Vasco da Gama. He added his local and more popular name Sanbao. I had indeed for Zheng He had made his voyages between the years 1405-33 and had travelled to South Asia, India, Ceylon, Java, Sumatra, Malacca, Indonesia and Africa. Some believe, Zheng’s fleet circumnavi­gated the globe. He had the means to do so.

Oufitted under orders of the Yongle Emperor, Zheng’s fleet consisted of 317 ships of about 28,000 men, with 60 treasure ships over 400 feet long. Zheng’s ships could carry 2,500 tons of cargo and had staterooms and balconies. They were accompanie­d by hundreds of supply ships. The purpose of Zheng’s voyages was to spread the Ming influence over the world and to accept tribute for the Middle Kingdom.

My friend’s interest was to locate Zheng’s grave in Calicut. Though some thought that Zheng had died in Calicut in 1433 during his last voyage, it is believed he died at sea and his body confined to the deep. His tomb at Nanjing in China is believed to be empty. I told my disappoint­ed friend at dinner that one reason not many people remember Zheng was because China went into isolation after the Middle Kingdom. The entire Chinese fleet was destroyed.

Moreover, to be remembered, conquerors and explorers need to leave some visible reminders of their presence. The Chinese fishing nets in Kochi are perhaps the only example of Zheng He’s presence.

Vasco da Gama, on the other hand, managed to establish a colony in Goa, which the Portuguese ruled till 1961.

The writer is a senior publishing industry profession­al who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books

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