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<nettime> East Jeers West Over Explorer

[More food for thought from a roving nettime correspondent]

Headline: East Jeers West Over Explorer
By Miguel Almeida  
The Christian Science Monitor 
2 April 1998 
page 1

A 15th-century mariner who sailed trium-phantly to the
Indies is being vilified by some these days as an
imperialist brute who butchered Indian natives and despoiled
their advanced culture.

Christopher Columbus?

Think again. The Genoan explorer has had his day in the hot

The navigator in question this time is Vasco da Gama, the
Portuguese nobleman whose 1498 arrival in India opened a sea
route around Africa and, some critics claim, the door to
European domination of the East.

The revisionist siege on da Gama erupted here last year when
several Indian groups began objecting to Portugal's plans to
celebrate the 500th anniversary of the journey.

In strong and pointed language, the groups have accused
Portugal of trying to glorify a voyage that led to countless
deaths and five centuries of European colonial rule. They
see this as particularly insensitive at a time when India is
marking its 50th anniversary of independence from Britain.

"Da Gama set fire to ships, tortured and killed countless
numbers of women and children," says Indian immigrant Joao
Noronha. "If we have to salute this figure, then we might as
well celebrate every other act of aggression committed by
foreign countries against India."

The anti-da Gama protests, which have raged for some time in
India, are a novel phenomenon in this country of
discoverers, where students still recite 15th-century poems
recounting the legends of Portuguese exploration.

Portugal has long regarded da Gama as a symbol of a golden
era when intrepid seamanship made the southwest European
nation about the size of Maine a world power. It is a
reflection, many here say, of newfound political maturity
after years of isolation, and the changing character of its

Little more than a month before the quincentenary's official
kickoff on May 22 - the date of da Gama's arrival in India -
protests are coming from a broad variety of sources, from
Indian immigrant associations, to the University Student
Council, to the Communist Party.

Reminders of a dark past

Some oppose the festivities on the grounds that they would
dredge up painful reminders of the voyage's darker legacies.
Others, on the grounds that they would reawaken memories of
Portugal's more recent authoritarian past under longtime
dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled from 1932 to

The symbol of da Gama was employed by Salazar to buttress
costly and highly unpopular efforts to prolong a bitter,
unwinnable colonial war in Africa.

For members of the Commission for Commemorating the
Discoveries, the group charged with staging the da Gama
quincentenary, the anniversary was simply the excuse for
what was billed as Portugal's "big year." The planned
celebrations are to include a world's fair, Expo '98, a
tall-ships parade retracing his voyage, and museum exhibits.

"We are certainly finding out much to our chagrin that our
da Gama is not that of others," says Antonio Hespanha, the
commission's director.  "This is all quite unfortunate and
is not really our stated intention."

Determined to blunt the criticism, Portugal is now making
efforts to accommodate the critics. It has agreed to tone
down the Eurocentric emphasis on Portugal's discovery of the
sea route to India in favor of the "encounter of two

To underscore this point, Portugal recently opened an
exhibit on Indian culture in Lisbon and invested
significantly in several cultural programs in the Indian
state of Goa, the focus of Portuguese power in India until

In addition, Portugal has acknowledged that 1498 was a
difficult turning point for the native Indian peoples.
"History is very complex and cannot be rewritten," says Mr.
Hespanha. "We hope that even the critics of the Portuguese
legacy in India could understand all our efforts to close
ancient grievances."

The conciliatory gestures - and anti-da Gama barrages - have
ignited an indignant reaction from da Gama loyalists. One of
the most vocal is Vasco Antonio Velez, director of the
Foundation for the Discoveries.

In a recent essay in the O Publico newspaper, Mr. Velez
claimed Portugal doesn't need to make any apologies for da
Gama. "Da Gama was a hero, he changed the fate of the world
forever, and he changed it for the better.

"It's a shame that he's being raked over the coals, forced
to take a bad rap for something he may or may not have done.
Let's get on with it," Velez wrote.

A positive sign

But some observers here see the attacks as a sign of how far
the country has come.

"It's a positive sign. Years ago, opinion was uniform and
lock step and any dissenting voices would have been
muffled," says sociologist Maria de Mello, who has conducted
studies on Portugal's social changes.

The backlash also says a lot about the country's changing
demographics. As recently as 15 years ago, Portugal was
predominantly white and European.  Today, it is home to
growing numbers of African and Indian immigrants, who speak
with greater political power.

At the most basic level, da Gama's reputation has also been
the victim of the way history itself is being reexamined,
with the views of non- European societies taken into

"There is a tendency these days to attack historical figures
in simplistic ways," says Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a historian
who recently completed a biography of da Gama.

"But it is problematic to judge him by 20th-century
standards, to draw a straight line between da Gama and the
misfortunes that followed his arrival," he says. "He had the
attitude of many people of his time."

Like Columbus, historians say da Gama was a complicated
character, deeply religious and hot-tempered, brutal to the
Indians and to the Portuguese under his command. Motivated
by greed and personal aggrandizement, he also contributed
positive achievements, among them the establishment of new
forms of farming and maritime trade.

Explorer 'not a good neighbor'

"You might not have wanted him for your next-door neighbor,
but I have my doubts about whether you would have liked to
have the reigning Indian rulers of the time as your
neighbors either," says Mr. Subrahmanyam.

But context isn't everything. Indians did die in large
numbers, local life was forever changed. "He stands for the
worst of his time," says Erasmo Martins, a student at the
University of Lisbon. "And we do not want our faces rubbed
in his atrocities."

In the end, the arguments about da Gama, like those about
Columbus, may have a positive pedagogical benefit, enhancing
appreciation of Eastern and Western cultures and respect for
their differing interpretations of history.

"The commemorations of Vasco da Gama's voyage will have been
a failure if they fail to make people aware of their own
history, with all its shades and complexities," says
Hespanha. "History deprived of either its negative or
positive aspects is not history."

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