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Protests take wind out of explorer's sails


21 June 1997

by CHRISTOPHER KREMMER, Sydney Morning Herald correspondent in New Delhi

As Britain prepares to give up its last Asian colony, the 500th anniversary of the sea voyage which first linked Europe and Asia is causing heated controversy.

Social organisations in southern India have vowed to continue their protests against celebrations marking the voyage of the Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama, who sailed out of Lisbon on July 8, 1497, in his ship, the Sao Gabriel.

The voyage to and from India took more than two years and claimed the lives of 115 of the 170 sailors, most dying of scurvy.

Residents of the former Portuguese colonies on the Indian subcontinent insist da Gama was little more than a pirate, who plundered the East for spices and murdered those who opposed his colonial ventures.

But in Perth, da Gama's voyage will be honoured next Saturday by the unveiling of a brass plaque partly funded by the Portuguese Government.

The Indian Government had earlier agreed to host similar celebrations but its participation was in doubt following the protests, informed sources said.

Portugal is also a co-sponsor of an international conference marking the Vasco da Gama quincentenary and "500 years of European-Asian encounter" which opens at La Trobe University in Melbourne today and continues in Perth, at Curtin University from Thursday.

A leading Indian historian, Dr Sanjay Subrahmanyam, will address both sessions of the conference. His book, The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama, claims that far from "discovering" the sea route to Asia, da Gama relied on the expertise of local seamen, including Indians, to sail an already well-known ocean.

The Paris-based academic claims Portugal's naval excursions were a form of organised violence by a nation which could not understand the cultures of the nations it invaded.

Senior lecturer in history at La Trobe, Professor Anthony Disney, said da Gama's reputation for brutality was "not entirely exaggerated".

"In the coastal waters off India, his behaviour was that of a ruthless pirate," Professor Disney said.

Historians agree that on da Gama's orders, the town of Calicut - now known as Kozhikode in southern Kerala State - was bombarded, and many thousands of indigenous people were sold into slavery.

Da Gama's forays led to the Portuguese colonisation of Goa, an occupation which continued until well after India's independence, ending 450 years later when Indian troops took possession of the territory in 1961.

Advocates of da Gama's contribution say that by opening the first permanent, safe sea passage from Europe to Asia, he unleashed a golden age of economic and cultural contacts between the two continents.

Professor Ken McPherson, of the Centre for Indian Ocean Studies at Curtin University, described da Gama as "a great explorer" who had been misrepresented by his British and Dutch rivals, none of whom had clean hands.

"He was violent and crude, but no more than anyone else in a position of authority at the time. For the politically correct, he's an easy victim," Professor McPherson said, adding that the settlement of Perth in 1829 was the "last product of what da Gama started". To many Indians, however, da Gama remains an exploiter of the worst kind.

"We Goans ... cannot tolerate any attempt to glorify our slavery, within Goa or any part of the country," said Mr V.N Lawande, who fought for Goa's integration with India.

Similar sentiments have been expressed in Kerala, with the State government opposed to any celebrations. But some Goans, such as Mr Erasdo de Sequeria, a former MP, have supported the occasion.

"The Portuguese explorer was a historical personage and we should take the whole thing in the right spirit and look at it from the proper perspective," Mr de Sequeria said.

In Portugal, da Gama is a hero, with the government sparing no expense to honour him in the anniversary year. The ceremony in Perth to honour da Gama's voyages will also mark the 45th anniversary of the arrival of the first Portuguese migrants in Western Australia.

Da Gama died in 1524 in Cochin, India, within a few months of arriving as the Portuguese-appointed governor.

His three expeditions ensured his place in history but, with Portugal honouring him, Indians condemning him and Australians merely noting his achievements, the value of his contribution seems very much in the eye of the beholder.


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