Make your own free website on Tripod.com
VASCO DA GAMA - the maritime explorer 1469 - 1524
 

José Colaço

May 22, 1998 marked the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in the South Indian port of Calicut. Da Gama was the first person to have traveled via the sea route directly from Europe to India. In terms of courage, determination and sheer endurance, da Gama's journey ranks amongst the greatest historic events of this millennium. For better or for worse, it is the event which catalyzed a series of events which forever changed the history and geography of the world.

Celebrations are underway in many countries - especially Portugal. As expected with the celebration of any event such as this, there has been controversy.

The following is a personal look at Goa, it's recent history, the historic Vasco da Gama voyage and the controversy the 500th anniversary celebrations have generated.

Preface:

I believe that Goa as it is today, is distinct from any other part of India or the world. It has and exudes an intriguing blend of Konkani, Hindu, Kunbi, Maratha, Portuguese, Catholic, Islamic, Arab and Kannad influences; a blend shared by no other part of India or the world. It is also a state of India whose populace is largely honest, peaceful, content, hardworking, gracious, fun loving and hospitable while at the same time being mindful of the various sensitivities and influences that are omnipresent. Most Goans are quite conscious of their uniqueness.

Introduction:

The original inhabitants of Goa were most likely the Kunbis and other tribals. Thereafter Goa and its people were subjected to a plethora of influences. By the time the Portuguese arrived, Goa had already been settled into by the Konkanis and the Saraswats. The once powerful hindu kingdom of Vijaynagar which had control of Goa had just lost it to their arch rivals, the Turkish muslims of Bijapur.

Goa became the second most important city for the Bijapur Turkish Empire and a major transshipment port for pilgrims to Mecca and for horses from Arabia. But life in Goa was far from being peaceful. There was a constant tug of war between Maharajas of Vijaynagar and the Sultans of Bijapur for the control of Goa.

The Muslims were quite intolerant of the Hindus in Goa, a compliment the Vijaynagar Hindus returned to the Muslims a few miles farther south. It is this intolerance, distrust and infighting which allowed the Portuguese to get a foothold in Goa, Cannanore and Cochin. A foothold which the Portuguese had probably not initially planned and one which they hardly had the manpower to retain. At the outset, main interest of the Portuguese was financial : the ability to buy spices directly from India and sell them in Europe for a substantial profit.

Upon arrival, the Portuguese almost wiped out the substantial Islamic presence and influence from the Bijapur Turks in Goa. The Portuguese were initially a welcome relief to the Hindus' long suffering persecution by the Muslims who were tyrannical. But eventually the Portuguese themselves became quite intolerant. This intolerance was most evident during the 16th and in the mid 20th century during the dictatorial rule of Antonio Oliveira Salazar. While this intolerance was for only a minor portion of their stay in Goa, it led to significant resentment among the Goans, the desire among them to be Independent from Portugal and the eventual eviction of the Portuguese from Goa.

After 1961 when Goa became a part of the Indian Union, some realignment of the dominant influences took place. The prevailing Portuguese and Catholic linked influences began to wane and a strong Maharashtra based pro-Marathi anti-Konkani force began to assert itself. But the Konkani base which is the foundation of Goa and Goan-ness prevailed. This was unequivocally demonstrated in the Opinion Poll of 1967 when Goans en masse rejected the attempt by the Marathi-lobby to have Goa absorbed into the neighbouring State of Maharashtra.

With the advent of tourism, a new attempt is being made to create a renewal of the Lusitanian flavour in Goa. It is a good marketing tool. And while this has produced a half-hearted 'look alike' version of the very culture which was being heavily suppressed in the 1962-1982 period, the remnants of the Lusitanian culture found new spirit and ground to exist; and it does - though, just barely. In the 1962-1982 period the anti-Konkani Goa Government often appeared to discriminate against the Konkani, Lusitanian and Goan Catholic elements and influences in society. This discrimination was quite overt. To escape this Catholic Goans emigrated in droves to countries as far flung as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Portugal, the United States and Brazil. To many, their clean, serene, safe and beautiful Goa was being systematically dismantled in the name of progress. An event they could no longer bear to see unfold right in front of their eyes. They joined the hundreds of thousands of Goans who for decades had been leaving Goa in search of better opportunities. In the 1980s another massive emigration of Goans began. This time it was the highly trained and educated set who proceeded to the Middle East, Australia, the UK and North America in search of better prospects.

The Konkani language, suppressed during the Portuguese era in Goa, ironically came under a second period of effective suppression, this time by the anti-Konkani lobby during the 1962-1982 period. The irony of this of course was that a good number of the neo Konkani-suppressors were actually on very cozy terms with the repressive Salazar regime. However, for several reasons the Konkani taught in the schools and preached from the pulpit is significantly different from the Konkani spoken in the homes. This disparity is most obvious when one studies the Konkani spoken by the Goan Catholics. With time however the Catholic dialect of Konkani can be expected to be effectively suppressed and eliminated by the Konkani which is now being taught in the schools.

The tiny resurgence of the Portuguese culture in Goa and the prominence of Konkani appears to have caused some concern for the anti-Konkani lobby which is in the forefront of the attacks and protestations against the commemorations of the Vasco da Gama voyage. The extreme right Hindu fundamentalist groups are likely to be joined by Muslim extremist groups ! The Muslim groups have an understandable reason to be cross with Vasco da Gama. It was the Portuguese who ended their dominance and subjugation of the people of South India. If not for them the Arabs or perhaps the Turks would perhaps still be the masters of the land. The right wing Hindus have demonstrated an open and aggressive opposition towards the Catholic community in India. Attacks on Catholic clergy, churches and educational establishments have occurred in recent years. Even so, it is good to see the extremist Muslim and Hindu groups get together - if only for this reason. Strange bedfellows for the sake of convenience. Of course there are a few 'Tio Tomases' " Kaama purta Maama ".

It is important to note however that they are not the only protesters.

There are intellectual Goans and many freedom fighters who have valid and genuine reasons to object. They fervently believe that there is nothing to celebrate or even commemorate about the Vasco da Gama voyage. However tunnel-visioned this view might appear to be, it is a strong view.
 

There are of course a number of individuals with an agenda, a number of pseudo-freedom fighters and 'political opportunists'. One expects to find them wherever political capital can be generated.

True to form, the vast majority of Goans in Goa today, would be just as happy if there was no celebration, commemoration, whatever, as they would be if there was one. They are so caught up with the struggles of their own day to day existence that they could hardly be bothered one way or another. In this equation perhaps we will remember that the vast majority of Goans no longer live in Goa ! The vast majority of them are likely to support the commemoration.

I realize that no one can change the fact that my being a Goan and regarded as one ( quite separate and apart from what one is regarded as a person from Karwar , Vengurla or Ratnagiri! ) is based significantly on that historic Voyage of Vasco da Gama 500 years ago !!

Nothing anyone says or does is ever going to change that !

So, I prefer to accept the past of my forebears in Goa, good and bad - for what it was and move ahead. I suggest that every Goan does the same. The other available choice is to 'put blinkers on', ' bury heads in the sand ', pretend, read history selectively and proceed to carry our personal prejudices or agenda ad infinitum !. If there are those who do not understand this position of mine, there is nothing I can or wish to do anything about it.

No excuse for intolerance - past, present or future !

It is true that the history of the Indian subcontinent is rife with the most horrendous of crimes against men, women and children, right from the times of the Aryan invasion of land which belonged to the various tribes of the Indian subcontinent. There was that tragic battle of Kalinga, the Arab and Turk subjugation of South India, the tyranny unleashed by the Mongols, the harsh Moghal rule of India, the bitter inter and intra royal family feuds, the unfortunate attempt by the power hungry Marathas to overwhelm Bengal, the horrible Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of peaceful Indian worshippers by the British, the shameful Black Hole of Calcutta, and the most horrendous Hindu - Muslim genocide during the days of the Partition.

Yet, there will never be any justification for the manner in which innocent Goans of all faiths were tortured and put to death during the Horrible Inquisition. There is no excuse for the religious and cultural intolerance displayed by the Portuguese albeit during a small percentage of their 450 year stay in Goa. None whatsoever !

It is true too, that we are discussing about an era long gone; and that too with the advantage of hindsight. But that is no excuse either !

Having said that, I realize that ALL the different people who contributed to the tragic history of the Indian subcontinent have also contributed immensely to the rich architecture, language, literature, music, cuisine, art, ecology and culture of the subcontinent, all of which we now enjoy, celebrate so much and call 'our own'.

It is in this light that I look at that historic 1497-1499 Voyage of Vasco da Gama !

Today, 500 years after that voyage there are an estimated three million Goans scattered throughout every continent on this earth. Two-thirds of them live overseas. The vast majority of these overseas Goans are Catholics the vast majority of whom retain some degree of the Lusitanian affect !
 

The Spice politick :

In the 15th century, Portugal was evolving into a powerful country with some of the best marine navigators assisting them to establish trading bases in many parts of the world. It was fortunate to have the technical services of the Portuguese, Arabs and Jews especially in the field of astronomy and maritime science.

The primary reason for attempting to reach India via the sea route was the search for an unfettered access to spices.

Spice, of course, was known to man from prehistoric times when meats were most likely flavoured with aromatic leaves and fruits. Different spices were used in ancient Chinese medicine; and a variety of spices and herbs were grown and used by the Babylonians. Europeans are thought to have first come into contact with spices during the medieval years when there were fierce inter-religious conflicts.

During the 15th Century the demand for spices soared.

The price of pepper rose astronomically on its way from Calicut to Venice via Cairo and Alexandria. It was the era when refrigeration had not yet been discovered and hence, tons of meat were being wasted. They needed the spices to preserve the meat. Spices were available in the east.......in Zanzibar and India among other places. The spice trade itself, was controlled by the powerful and well oiled but monopolistic and vicious Arab-Turk-Venitian cartel.

The land-route to and from these spices was under the control of the various Muslim rulers or their strongmen. Toll booths along the way meant that the cost of these spices was forbidding. Besides, the lives of those who traveled in search of these spices was forever at risk. Thugs of all sorts preyed upon travelers and traders. It was not the easiest of times !

So, Portugal, with its then-powerful navy felt that the treacherous sea route to India was probably safer than the land route through hostile Muslim-controlled territory. This way they would be able to import spices directly from the Indian subcontinent bypassing the Arabs and their middlemen. The problem was to find someone determined enough to chart it. Many an expedition had ended up in disaster.

Another facet in this equation was the intensely hostile relationship between the Iberians and the Muslims ever since the Muslim Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711. Portugal as we know it now was founded in 1140. And even though there remains Moorish influence on Portuguese life, music, food, genetics and names (e.g. Fatima), there was no love lost between the Portuguese and the Muslims. Striking Arab features are to be found in a significant number of Portuguese people.

The port of Calicut was already known to the Portuguese. The land explorer Pero de Covilhã had visited it in 1487. The task was now to find the sea-route to it. A year later, in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa in an attempt to get to India. It is only a mutiny on board that forced Dias to turn around.

A corollary to this is a query regarding the Christopher Columbus trip to '' reach India via the West'' in 1492. The various land travelers including Marco Polo had described the land extending from India to the east. The Portuguese already knew in 1488, at least that the West Coast of India was on the other side of the Arabian Sea from East Africa. So, why then would Columbus try to reach India via the West ? This would take him to the East Coast of India ! Unless of course, Columbus (Colon) was not really intent on reaching India !

VASCO da GAMA and the historic Voyage !

Vasco da Gama was born in 1469 in Sines, Alemtejo, Portugal. His father Estevao da Gama was the Alcaide of Sines who also held a post in the court of King Afonso V. Little is known of the early childhood or adolescence of Vasco da Gama, except that he grew up in a maritime environment learning very early in life to fish, swim and sail. At age 15 he became a sailor, studied astronomy and navigation at Evora, and became a naval officer in 1492 at the age of 23. Vasco da Gama played a role in the defence of the Portuguese-held territories on the West African coast as well as in the Algarve and Setubal coastal area against the French incursions.

It is Bartolomeu Dias who was first chosen to chart the sea-route to India. But with the rigors of the journey and scurvy at the time a fatal mystery illness, Bartolomeu faced a mutiny from his sailors. His fleet had already rounded the Cape and had a short distance ahead, but the mutiny forced him to return.

After this aborted attempt by Bartolomeu Dias, the mantle to lead the expedition to India would fall on Estevao da Gama ( Vasco's father ). But as fate would have it, Estevao died before the project details could be finalized. A replacement was sought. It would have to be a leader more capable in controlling any future mutinies on the high seas. The grim and cynical bachelor Vasco da Gama was the forceful individual the King was looking for. He was of medium height, extremely hardworking and full of the spirit of challenge. Vasco da Gama had the reputation of being firm with little tolerance of revolt. He was known to be inflexible in his decision to punish the delinquent. He was also a minor 'nobleman' in the Royal Court and hence known to the King.

After an interview, King Manuel of Portugal commissioned Vasco da Gama to reach India by sea. Vasco was the person in whom the King '' could have confidence to serve the fleet in matters of the sea ''.

The King also commissioned the experienced Bartolomeu Dias to oversee the planning of the trip. Two new ships were built and two previously used ones refitted for the journey. All four ships were fitted with the best cannons available at the time in Europe. The ships were loaded with rations of food and wine to last for three years. Also stocked were items thought to be useful for purposes of trading like olive oil, cotton cloth, bacalhao, tin bells and the sort. No gold, silver or luxury goods, ideal for trading in India were carried on board. The Portuguese were perhaps quite oblivious to the level of luxury that the Indian princes and Arab traders were accustomed to.

Vasco da Gama personally recruited the crew to accompany him on this maiden voyage. It was not very easy to find recruits for this journey. Many promised to join the mission but few actually dared to show up. The voyage to India was seen as being fraught with immense dangers. Many were keen but few were willing. Eventually an assortment of individuals was put together for this voyage. Among the crew were 10 convicted killers whose sentences had been specially commuted. They were to be used for the suicidally dangerous missions anticipated en route.

Four ships were readied for this voyage. The 'Sao Gabriel' under the command of Vasco da Gama, The 'Sao Rafael' with Paulo da Gama ( Vasco's brother ) in command, The 'Berrio' under Nicolao Coelho and a supply ship under Gonçalo Nunes. In all there were 160 soldiers and sailors.

The Vasco da Gama fleet set sail from Lisbon on July 8, 1497. Voyages along the West African coast were both treacherous and long. The ships had to often sail against the winds and faced the almost inevitable danger of being shipwrecked. Vasco da Gama calculated that it would be a safer and quicker route to the South African tip if he stayed off the West African Coast.

Accordingly after the stops at the Açores and the Cabo Verde Islands, he veered south-west into the mid-Atlantic and reached the Cape of Good Hope on November 22, 1497. After rounding the Cape, the supply ship was set afire and the men and supplies were redistributed to the other three ships.

The east African coast was governed by various Sultanates. There were Sultanates at Querimbo, Quiloa, Sofala, Melindi and Mombassa. As expected, there were inter-Sultanate rivalries. This turned out to be fortuitous for Vasco da Gama fleet. They were forced out of Moçambique but welcomed in rival Melindi. The Sultan of Melindi saw the advantage of aligning himself with the Portuguese.

At Melindi, Vasco da Gama was able to observe the intricacies of the ongoing trade which had made the East African Sultans wealthy. A flourishing trade existed in gold, ivory and slaves which were being exported from East Africa to the Red Sea Towns, cities around the Arabian Gulf and to the various kingdoms on the Indian subcontinent. Vasco da Gama was no businessman and for him this was an excellent opportunity to learn the ropes of trade and commerce.

Melindi and Portugal signed the first ever treaty of peace and friendship between an East African territory and an European nation. The Sultan of Melindi assisted Vasco da Gama by providing him with an Arab pilot for the onward journey to India. The Arabs were well versed with the route from Africa to India as well as the monsoons.

On May 18, 1498, after a month at sea Vasco da Gama and his fleet, now under the guidance of the Arab pilot from Melindi, sighted the Malabar coast. There were quite a few Arab trading vessels in the coastal area, some more hostile than others. The owners of these boats were quite disturbed by the new presence in their midst. But even so, the better armed Vasco da Gama fleet was able to drop anchor at Calicut on May 22, 1498.

The Portuguese were interested in setting up a trading post in Calicut. Their primary intent was to buy spices which they could ship back to Portugal and resell to Europe. Also in Calicut at that time were Chinese and the Arabs traders who appeared to have a comfortable relationship. It may have been more than just a trading relationship. The famed Chinese explorer Admiral Zheng He who had helped set up the Chinese trading interests in South India was himself a Muslim. The hindu ruler of Calicut was Samudra-Raja ( Samudrin, Zamorin, Samorim). He had two major problems to contend with. The first problem was that he was the puppet of the rich and powerful Arab muslim traders. The Arab administrators were the effective bosses of the port of Calicut. The second was that he faced strong opposition from his mortal enemy, the Raja of Cochin.

This unexpected presence of the Portuguese fleet disturbed the status quo and added a further dimension to his problems. It was impossible for the Zamorin to allow Vasco da Gama to set up a trading post in Calicut without upsetting the Arab traders. The Arabs were not going to give up their spice trade monopoly that easily. Besides they had other trading partners in East Africa, Egypt, the Gulf and in Venice. They all had a lot to lose if the existing arrangements were interfered with. Enormous pressure was exerted on the Zamorin to force him to deny the Portuguese any trading privileges in Calicut.

The Portuguese too did not provide him with any incentive to help the Zamorin to support them. Vasco da Gama's gifts to the ruler were infinitely poorer in quality and were even seen as offensive to be offered to a ruler who was accustomed to much more luxurious riches. The Arabs capitalized on this gross 'diplomatic' blunder by Vasco da Gama. The letter from King Manuel that Vasco da Gama brought along was just not effective in counteracting the stiff Arab opposition. It was an opposition Vasco da Gama had not really anticipated. He may have had the military means to fight off any pirates he encountered during the journey but he did not have the mustard to enforce an agreement with the Zamorin. However, he was 'allowed' to set up a small depot in Calicut and nothing more. This tiny depot would only be allowed to make token purchases.

Unable to do any better Vasco da Gama left Aires Correia and a few merchants in charge of this depot and decided to head back home. He  left Calicut on August 29, 1498. On their way back to Portugal, the fleet stopped over at Melindi. A fine reception was accorded to them by the Sultan. But the ordeal of the journey had taken its toll on the crew. There were many casualties. On January 13, 1499 the Sao Rafael was ordered burnt as there were insufficient crew members to man it. The flotilla then began the long journey back to Portugal. En route Paulo da Gama, Vasco's brother fell ill. Vasco da Gama allowed the others to proceed while he stopped over on the island of Terceira. This is where he laid Paulo to rest. He then proceed to Lisbon where he arrived on July 29, 1499, having spent over two years overseas .

The Portuguese saw this circumnavigation of Africa en route to India as a major achievement. And so it was. They also realized the commercial potential of this achievement. Now, Lisbon and not Venice would be the new spice capital of Europe. This would mean more wealth for the Portuguese and a significant shift in the balance of power and influence towards the Iberian peninsula. Accordingly, King Manuel notified as many European capitals as possible. The Vatican too was very interested in this new development. There was also this ' possibility ' that the Portuguese had finally located the Christians converted in the first century by the Apostle St. Thomas and even greater prospects of more conversions now.

It appears that in all this euphoria, the trials and tribulations of the exhausting journey were forgotten by those in power. There were few left to tell the story and fewer still with the time or inclination to listen. These were after all - exciting times ! That two-thirds of the crew which left Lisbon for this trip succumbed to scurvy and the various skirmishes sea. The fact that they did not return, somehow seemed unimportant. Emphasis was placed on the success of this mission and little thought given to the loss of life or the perils faced to achieve the goal .

Upon Vasco da Gama's return to Lisbon he was accorded high praise and honour.

In 1500 King Manuel sent Pedro Alvares Cabral to complete the job in India that Vasco da Gama had set out to do - to set up a trading post at Calicut. King Manuel was by now aware of the difficulties Vasco da Gama experienced in his mission in Calicut. Cabral set out with with an fleet of 13 appropriately armed ships. However, while in the mid Atlantic, he strayed a few hundred miles west of the Vasco da Gama course and landed in Brasil. Several ships were sent back to Lisbon with a message to the King of this new landing in Brasil. And Cabral proceeded to India with only 6 ships. Upon arrival in Calicut, Cabral learnt that Aires Correia and the other Portuguese merchants left behind by Vasco da Gama were massacred by agents of the Arab traders.

Cabral proceeded to to friendly Cochin where he was welcomed by the Raja. and set up a trading post there. He also set up a depot at Cannanore. The cordial relationship with the Portuguese was eventually beneficial to the Raja of Cochin. The Portuguese helped Cochin repel many an attack from Calicut.

Cabral returned to Portugal with the grim news of the Calicut massacre. The news disturbed the Royal Court and was most upsetting to Vasco da Gama. In 1502 he returned to to Calicut with the intention of avenging the cold blooded murders of Aires Correia and his men. Vasco da Gama ordered his heavily armed flotilla of 16 ships to unleash a massive and fierce bombing raid on Calicut. The damage inflicted by this bombardment was significant. The Zamorin realized very quickly that neither he nor the Arabs had the firepower to match that of the Vasco da Gama armada. The 2000 yard range guns of the Portuguese easily outclassed the Zamorin guns which had a range of only 500 yards. Beaten into submission and with his Arab masters overawed by the Portuguese strength, the Zamorin quickly signed a trade agreement with Vasco da Gama.

This was the beginning of the end of the Arab trade monopoly on the west coast of India. Soon thereafter, the hindu Raja of Vijaynagar, himself under threat from the muslim Sultan of Bijapur, would seek to forge an alliance with the Portuguese. Meanwhile Vasco da Gama began his return journey to Lisbon having accomplished his primary objective - to set up a trading post in Calicut. He had also avenged the cold-blooded massacre of his colleagues !

Vasco da Gama returned to Lisbon with a shipload of spices - this time to even greater riches, honours and accolades. But very little is known or heard of him for over two decades thereafter. This indicates that Vasco da Gama was not a very public person nor was he someone who aspired for public office. In 1524 his services were called upon by the King once again. This time to bring some semblance of order among the Portuguese administrators in India. News had travelled back to Lisbon that there was rampant corruption among the Portuguese officials in India. The Governor Eduardo de Menezes had lost all control of the administration. Vasco da Gama was appointed the second Portuguese Viceroy of India.

On April 9, 1524 Vasco da Gama sailed from Lisbon with a flotilla of 14 ships and 3000 men. His cousin Estevao da Gama followed a few days later with 15 ship. Estevao da Gama was particularly ruthless in his dealings with Arab ships and their crew which he encountered. He also exhibited an inordinate display of firepower at Calicut. Vasco da Gama meanwhile had anchored in Chaul having lost a couple of ships en route to his headquarters - Goa. It is in Goa that he took over charge of the Portuguese administration from Governor Menezes. At the end of September 1524 Vasco da Gama made a triumphant entry into Cochin, a kingdom friendly to the Portuguese. The reception is described as jubilant. However, Vasco da Gama was unable to truly complete the task at hand - bringing the delinquent Portuguese officials into line. With the cumulative effects of the arduous journeys and what is perhaps consistent with anthrax bacillary infection, Vasco da Gama died in Cochin on December 25, 1524.

Vasco da Gama served as Viceroy of India for only three months before his untimely death. He was 55 years old. His body lay buried in Cochin until 1539 when his remains were moved to be reburied in Vidigueira, Portugal. In 1880 the remains of Vasco da Gama were transferred once again, this time along with those of the poet Luis de Camões to the Monastery of Jeronimus.

What Vasco da Gama would find in India if he were to return today:

Many a change would strike Vasco da Gama were he to return to India today. The famous port city and trading capital of the east, Calicut has now been renamed Kozhikode. The Zamorin is no longer the ruler. The reigns of the Rajas of India are over and India is now one country. I have no idea where the descendants of your friend the Maharaja of Vijaynagar are. Their capital Hampi is in ruins. The Maharajas were all stripped of their special privileges a couple of decades ago, their princely possessions having been annexed some time before. Oh yes, even the 'Pearl of the Portuguese empire' i.e. Goa is part of the Indian Union.

India has the second largest population in the world. The advances in education and technology have rocketed in leaps and bounds. Besides spices, India is now also exporting scientists, engineers, doctors, computer personnel and software, teachers, accountants and skilled artisans to many countries round the world. Many of these individuals are helping other nations in their quest for a better infrastructure.

You ask Why are they traveling the world over ? Well dear VdG - it is surprising that of all the people you should ask that question ! For the same primary reasons you VdG embarked on your historic voyage ! Money and the spirit of adventure !

There are other social changes too! The horrendous and discriminatory Caste System is slowly running out of steam. It is true that it was originally practised only by the Hindus. But in Goa, even Catholic converts from Hinduism continued to use the Caste System to discriminate against others. Only a tiny minority of  Goan Catholics have reverted back to Hinduism. Almost all of them live in the area around Old Goa. They are probably the only Hindus with Portuguese surnames. A sprinkling of Catholics have however changed their surnames to their ancestral Hindu family names. No, there are no examples as yet of any Catholics who have reverted back to Islam. Hindu and Catholic Goans get along fine with each other except perhaps at the times of elections. The politicians have perfected the art of 'divide and rule' quite effectively.

A woman is no longer expected to become a 'Sati' by jumping into the funeral pyre of her husband. You remember Sati of course don't you ?. It was Afonso da Albuquerque who banned it in 1510 by decree! In recent decades Indian women have done very well. It is to India's credit that no significant gender based discrimination occurs at the work place or even in political life. Sure ! within the home it just might be another story !

The other problems experienced during your stay in India half a millennium ago, continue. The intense inter-religious distrust between Hindus and Muslim continues unabated. The age old conflicts and rivalry appear destined to continue ad infinitum. There also is rampant corruption among government officials. No ! No ! you are not being asked to set the house in order ! The country as a whole is much richer but the poor are having a rough time. Prostitution continues to increase along with the woes of the poor ! This time around it is the unfortunate children who are being trapped into the network of paedophiles, many from Northern Europe.

Yes ! the snooty Brits have left ! they did so just over 50 years ago. And it appears that they took a lot of Indians with them to the UK !

Goa ! Ah ! what can I say ?! Well let me put it this way ! There have been some positives . There have been significant strides in education, rural electrification (but not necessarily electricity), transportation, roads and health care facilities (but not necessarily health care!). The Catholic Church, especially the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), has played a major role in providing the very high level of primary, secondary and tertiary education all over India. Credit is also due to the Congress Government of India for its vision in investing so heavily on education and technology in India. At this moment India has become a powerhouse of highly trained and skilled scientific minds.

But the Goa you knew when you took over as Viceroy is slowly disintegrating ! Not that everybody is really upset about it. The magnificent city of Old Goa which was described by Goemcho Saib Francisco Xavier, as a COISA PARA VER is mostly in ruins but for a couple of churches. Goa has become dirty, disorganized and depressingly corrupt over the past 30 years. Gone are the days when Goa was safe and its cafés stylish and exquisitely clean. The beautiful and artistic buildings in the cities have been torn down and replaced by some grotesque monstrosities. The classy evening functions like the Medical Ball, the Milagres feast dance, the Carnavalo,  the Festa de Leques or the Harvest dance you may have heard of or read about, have been replaced by 'plastic' variations. In contrast however, many of the lovely family homes in the villages continue to remain lovely even if some have fallen to neglect and desertion. The food is just as good as ever and the famous 'vindalho' is now an international delicacy. The music remains as delightful and lilting as ever even though one hears less of the viola and the famous Goan violin. Many Goans have left Goa - some in bitter disillusionment and some for better opportunities. Many return - some as often as annually. Almost invariably they all have a great time especially with their family and friends. And after their holiday in Goa, with a couple of tears in their eyes and a heavy heart, they go back to the place they had come from. For many Goans, there was no option but to stay on in Goa and for countless others, Goa was the only place they were willing to be in. The affluent among the latter are quite happy. They live comfortably at home and travel as, when and where they please ! There are many Goans who yearn to go back and resettle in Goa. They have worked long and hard in strange and often inhospitable places; and the red mud, rice fields, coconut palms,  raindrops and the prawn curry and rice  beckon them home. Yet almost without exception they get caught in the mire of corruption and red tape. Most learn to side-step it or live with the problems. Some become totally disillusioned and return from whence they came. A growing number try to make the best of both worlds, spending the winters in Goa and the rest abroad.

Christmas is the best time for you Vasco da Gama to meet many of them in Goa.

There is one enemy of yours who has returned recently ! perhaps to protest against the celebrations of your voyage ! It is that dreaded malaria causing Plasmodium falciparum. Unfortunately, this parasite has plans to stay on long after these 500th anniversary celebrations are over ! Malaria and AIDS, a disease you may have been told about, are set to create havoc on the West Coast of India.

And where are the social commentators, activists and others ? and why are the intellectuals not doing something about this or the other problems afflicting Goa ? I don't know whether you noticed, but they are out there protesting your arrival in India and busy burning effigies of you !

To be fair to many of the activists, journalists and like ... they have tried but failed in their effort to effectively mobilize the social consciousness of the people against the frank incompetence of the political operators and the ongoing unfairness that the populace has to continue bearing. The politicians have become intolerant of dissent and have effectively suppressed or marginalized the objectors. What else can they do now ....but protest against you ?! You will agree that they need something to justify their very existence...will you not ?! I wonder what they will do next year ! perhaps they will start the run up to the 500th anniversary of the Conquest of Goa from the Bijapur Turks ... in 1510 ! Ah! we shall probably have just to wait up and see.

What would India be like but for this Vasco da Gama voyage ?

It is really difficult to speculate what would have happened if ! but one can only  try ... !

If not for Vasco da Gama it may have been some other Portuguese navigator. It was Portugal after all which had the best maritime information at the time. So one can consider Magalhaes or as he is widely known Magellan would have found the route to India but via South America and the east. It is difficult to imagine that the British, French or Dutch would have attempted that route though the Spaniards may have ! and we may have had a Spanish settlement on the East Coast of India.

This would leave the West Coast and the Arabian Sea in the hands of the powerful Arab sealords. The Hindu rajas of South India would either have remained as their puppets or be replaced by the various Turkish and Moghal empires. It was after all the Portuguese who trounced the vast and strong Arab and Turkish naval forces in the sea battles and skirmishes off Calicut and Diu. It was also the Portuguese who defeated the mercenaries of the Arabs in the decisive 1539 Battle of Vedalai. This marked the end of the Arab domination of the Fishery Coast. These defeats effectively stretched, diluted and ultimately weakened the Arab, Turk and Moghal forces in India; a situation which helped the Hindu rulers to recapture their possessions and the mighty Peshwas to establish their regime. This in turn helped the formation of an united, independent, secular and largely peaceful India ( the British tour of duty having been noted ).

There would have been one major advantage for the region if Vasco da Gama were NOT to make that historic voyage. There would be no threat of nuclear war between Pakistan and India !  For  there would be no Pakistan and no India ! We would all  have been  part of an Arabian, Moghal or a Turkish kingdom ! There might have been inter Kingdom battles but at least NO India - Pakistan wars !!!

In effect, Vasco da Gama's historic voyage paved the way for the peaceful majority Hindu society in India . So, Vasco da Gama  if a nuclear war breaks out between India and Pakistan Remember that You will have been primarily responsible for it !

Post Script :

Goa is an unique position of being a place where East meets West...and has a lot to gain from it. Goans surely are a happy and tolerant people. We should learn to accept our multi-ethnic, multi-racial background and be proud of it. We also have to move forward, irrespective of religion, caste or political preferences... so that we can have a clean, peaceful and prosperous State for ourselves and for our children. The Portuguese were part of our lives for over 400 years and Portuguese genes run through many Goans. The Portuguese have also contributed significantly to our country and society. Not all of their contributions were good but many are.! We cannot change our past nor correct its misdeeds not selectively at least. Let us look to the future !

 June 1, 1998

comments to Dr. José Colaço at jcolaco@bahamas.net.bs