'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Prime Minister of Ethiopia

Note: My Mallu readers may think the title is comparable to 'The Prime Minister of Angamali'.

"In Lisbon, there is this huge statue; from one side, it is the figure of Christ; on the other, it is Vasco da Gama. A lift runs within and the structure is so tall you can see the entire city from the top. And there are restaurants and shops all within the heads of Christ and Vasco!"

The above were (approximately) the words of a Catholic priest who visited our school some time in early 1980's. He was just back from a long sojourn in Europe; in those pre-TV days, his stories were a lot more than enough to make us gape. Vasco getting clubbed with Jesus was not much of a surprise; for we all knew he was a great man - every primary schooler in Kerala would readily say: "Vasco da Gama discovered India!". He had succeeded where Columbus had tried and failed spectacularly, smart guy(*)!

But things were not so simple. Sometime near the end of my school days, I read the following remarks by Velayudhan Panikkasseri, a Keralan historian (my summary, not from memory, for I still have that book; it is named 'Sancharikalum Charitrakaranmarum'):

"Vasco da Gama was a very mediocre fellow. First of all, he was not much of an explorer. Barthalomeo Dias had already rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The route from the east coast of Africa to India was well-known to the Arabs - so all Vasco did was to put two and two together. Even there, he was only carrying out instructions from above... Vasco was not the first European to reach India. He was not even the first Portuguese to reach Kerala - a certain Piero de Coelho, another Portuguese explorer visited Kerala (although not entirely by sea) and wrote about it several years before Vasco's voyage (and the latter was guided by those notes). Had Piero not decided to settle down in Ethiopia(!) and abandoned further traveling, he rather than Vasco would have led the fleet. So much for Vasco's eminence as an explorer - it was just thrust upon him. And, as a person, Vasco was an uncouth barbarian; there could not have been a starker contrast from the erudite and cultured Piero(**)."

Over the years, the image of Vasco as an enterprising but disgusting fellow got set in my mind. And such an impression is shared by a good number of educated adult Mallus although there seem to be many here who think he was a great man without many strings attached - I understand, some time in the 1990's, there was a proposal to set up a 'Vasco Da Gama Chair' in the History department of Calicut University; it was shot down (or shouted down) by the public.

Note: from a recent rereading of Panikkasseri, I learned about 'Tuhfatul Mujahidin', a very interesting Arab tract written by a 16th century Keralite, Sheikh Zainuddin Makhdoom. The work can be classified under 'Jihadi Patriotism' and exhorts the Muslim Mappilas and the Arabs to join hands with the Hindu population led by the Zamorin and throw the Portuguese pirates out of Malabar!

And then, a couple of weeks back, I encountered the surname 'Camoens', while searching for remnants of Dutch influence in Kerala. Wiki revealed that Camoens was also the surname of a poet who lived in the 16th century and wrote the great national epic of Portugal - the Lusiads. And the man he chose as the principal hero of this grand epic was none other than Vasco da Gama! So the lion's share of the credit (or blame) for turning Vasco into *the* great Portuguese Hero must rest with this Camoens guy.

I quote a bit from the Wiki synopsis of the Lusiads (a most surprising fact: in this staunchly Catholic work, Pagan gods play vital roles - and not all of them are malevolent spirits!) :

"After condemning some of the other nations of Europe (who in his opinion fail to live up to Christian ideals), the poet tells of the Portuguese fleet reaching the Indian city of Calicut(****). A Muslim named Monsayeed greets the fleet and tells the explorers about the lands they have reached. The king, Samorin, hears of the newcomers and summons them. A governor and official of the king, called the Catual, leads the Portuguese to the king, who receives them well. The Catual speaks with Monsayeed to learn more about the new arrivals. The Catual then goes to the Portuguese ships himself to confirm what Monsayeed has told him and is treated well.

The Catual sees a number of paintings that depict significant figures and events from Portuguese history, all of which are detailed by the author. Bacchus appears in a vision to a Muslim priest in Samorin's court and convinces him that the explorers are a threat. The priest spreads the warnings among the Catuals and the court, prompting Samorin to confront da Gama on his intentions. Da Gama insists that the Portuguese are traders instead of buccaneers. The king then demands proof from da Gama's ships, but when he tries to return to the fleet, da Gama finds that the Catual, who has been corrupted by the Muslim leaders, refuses to lend him a boat at the harbor and holds him prisoner. Da Gama manages to get free only after agreeing to have all of the goods on the ships brought to shore to be sold.

The Muslims plot to detain the Portuguese until the annual trading fleet from Mecca can arrive to attack them, but Monsayeed tells da Gama of the conspiracy, and the ships escape from Calicut... "

And that takes us to last year's hit Malayalam movie: 'Urumi'. This lavishly visual film obviously owes plenty to the Lusiad. Of course, it turns the story on its head -Vasco becomes the imperialistic villain and the shady Catual fellow is now the brave and patriotic 'Kothaval' of Chirakkal!

Doubts remain: The word 'kothaval' sounds Persian rather than Arabic; how did it get to the highly Arab-influenced Malabar of those days? And have the makers of Urumi mentioned Camoens in their credits (guess if they did, they would appear very cool indeed)? I also have some doubts about those conjoined colossi in Lisbon. But right now, I am too tired to search further!


(*) Since primary school days, I have known a song that begins:
"Vasco da Gama
Went to the drama..."
There are two versions of it (both have been popular in Kerala for a very long time) that diverge after those opening lines - one retains the tone of the jolly limerick and the other develops into a smart dirty joke.

(**) I was surprised that there was not even a mention in Britannica of this Piero de Coelho - although Gama gets two full pages. After some serious searching, wiki revealed that the mysterious Piero de Coelho was actually named 'Pero da Covilha' (Panikasseri's transliteration of his name was misleading). Pero visited Cannanore and Calicut a decade before Gama came here and went down the Indian ocean all the way to Madagascar. He did not *choose* to settle down in Ethiopia; he was barred from leaving that country by the 'natives', who treated him very well otherwise - Panikasseri states he even rose to be the Prime Minister of that country!

(***) The Reader's Digest volume 'Discovery' gives a much brighter picture of Gama the explorer. For instance, his decision not to hug the west coast of Africa all the way to the Cape (as Dias and co had done) was a very bold one; from the western tip of Africa, Gama's fleet struck south deep into the Atlantic and then from somewhere near the eastern tip of Brazil, turned east to touch Africa at point near the cape (one can see his path in Wiki maps). This route is said to be much more navigable and is still used by ships going to Cape from Europe; but, in those days, the maneuver involved three months of continuous sailing in uncharted high seas - a terrific feat of endurance and will. And past the cape, Gama had to cover a couple of thousand miles of largely unknown coastline before touching Malindi in Kenya. There on, he had the Arab know-how.
Let me note here that 'Discovery' (published in the mid 1970's) is very much a Colonial White Man's Book. It omits all of Gama's vandalism in Malabar - the only negative act of his is an ill-informed attempt to impress the Zamorin with cheap trinkets.

(****)"The Malindian Guide happily spake
That;s Calicut or I mistake!" - spake Camoens.


  • At 10:39 AM, Blogger ~*FireCrystals*~ said…

    Hey! This was precisely the question asked today on the Malayalam Who Wants to be a Millionaire show for the One Crore question - the first Portuguese explorer to reach India.

  • At 6:52 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks firecrystal
    wish the contestant had got it.

  • At 7:34 AM, Blogger Rama Chandran said…

    Very nice.I just wrote a blog on Lusiad & then found you.


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