Spice roots

A recently unearthed journal paints Vasco da Gama as a peevish, paranoid trader who failed to impress the Zamorin of Calicut.

July 20, 2013 05:24 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 12:24 pm IST

A sketch of the explorer.

A sketch of the explorer.

The hero of the first Portugese contact on Indian shores is a degradado , or Portugese convict and exile, not Vasco da Gama.

One of the greatest navigators from the Age of Discoveries, da Gama, appointed by Dom Manuel, King of Portugal, for his “energy and high spirits” refused to take the initiative to go ashore on the morning of May 21, 1498. Instead, da Gama chose to wait in the depths of his ship, Sao Gabriel, while the convict Joao Nunes stepped out into the monsoon showers off the western coast of Kozhikode to meet, much to his amazement, a pair of multi-lingual Tunisian merchants.

What is known about the celebrated scene, engraved in Portuguese national mythology, is what Nunes told an unknown chronicler and author of the 15th century manuscript Journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama to India, 1497-1499.

“The Devil take you! What brought you here?” ask the merchants in both Castilian and Genoese tongues. The sprightly Nunes quickly shrugs off his surprise to reply, “We came to seek Christians and spices.”

Professor Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a scholar on Portuguese history and author of The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama, explains the import of Nunes’ answer thus: “Christians here meant lost Christians from the ancient past whom the Portuguese hoped to find in order to build an alliance against the Muslims. As for spices, they would take the Portuguese beyond Kerala as far as eastern Indonesia, which they reached by 1511.”

The handwritten journal by an anonymous person who accompanied Vasco da Gama in his pioneering voyage to India is one of the latest entries to UNESCO’s International Memory of World Register of the world’s most precious documents. The logbook offers a real-time account of the journey in unadorned prose and leaves nothing to the chance of human memory.

The journal portrays Calicut as a melting pot full of the multi-cultural complexities of a trade-oriented society. It also lays bare the web of half-truths and falsehoods the Portuguese, starting with Nunes, spun on the Indian coast to gain acceptance.

The manuscript remained a mystery for over three centuries until Portuguese historian Alexandre Herculano stumbled upon a 16th century copy, rudely bound up in a sheet of parchment torn out of some book of ecclesiastical offices, in the dust-laden shelves of the monastery of Santa Cruz de Coimbra in 1834. The 79 folios in faded ink, the writing still legible, contain an irreverent chronicle of the voyage until they abruptly end with the arrival of the fleet on Rio Grande.

The journal sheds light into the frequent fits of “melancholy” that da Gama suffered from, of the antics of the captain’s brother Paulo da Gama, who almost capsized his own boat trying to harpoon a whale, and anecdotes of the Portuguese party blundering its way through Calicut.

It tells of how da Gama preferred to remain holed up in his ship for almost a week after Nunes returned. Finally a letter of invitation from the Zamorin, the ruler of Calicut, prompted da Gama to leave his vessel. On the way, the party stops at the house of a “man of rank” to have a meal. All but da Gama relish the meal of boiled fish, rice and butter. He, it seems, refused to eat, fearing for his life.

“The writer makes it clear that Vasco da Gama was often extremely distrustful of those whom he met. He rarely went ashore until he had verified that no one had laid a trap for him. He also notes that da Gama would become ‘melancholic’, which means surly and annoyed in this context,” says Prof. Subrahmanyam.

Once inside the Zamorin’s court, the party is met with silence. The king hardly acknowledges them. Unlike the paintings of The Lusiad, the epic Portuguese poem singing paeans of da Gama’s maiden voyage to the East, the gallant explorer does not get a chance to grandly awe the Zamorin with his speech.

If at all anyone was in awe, it was the Portuguese, of the sheer wealth and opulence surrounding them. The journal brings to fore a king who toys with the Portuguese. When asked to speak, da Gama introduces himself as an ambassador of Portugal and seeks a private audience with the Zamorin, who ignores him till sunset, when he calls da Gama into an inner chamber.

Vasco da Gama suffers the indignity of having his presents for the king laughed at. The dozen coats, six hats, a bale of sugar, two barrels of butter and one of honey draw a sharp rebuff that even the “poorest pilgrim from Mecca has more to offer.” This incident leaves Gama in a fit, used as he is to the chiefs along the African coast who receive with glee his trinkets of “small bells and red caps.”

In the coming days, the relationship between the two steadily soured. Matters reach a head when hostages are taken on either side. The Portuguese finally retreat to their ships, piling blame on the native Moplahs for poisoning the mind of a good “Christian king.”

But a letter from the Zamorin reveals that the king was simply not impressed with the Portuguese. “Vasco da Gama, fidalgo (son) of your household, came to my land, and I rejoiced at that. In my land, there is much cinnamon, and much cloves and ginger and pepper and many precious stones. And what I want from your land is gold and silver and coral and scarlet,” the manuscript records of the Zamorin’s candid missive to King Dom Manuel.

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