My dimly remembered history of learning world history paints the age of discovery as some sort of pure pursuit of mapping the world, with captains mumbling something akin to the opening to Star Trek. Columbus knew the world was not flat! (so did the ancient Greeks). Magellan rounded South America! da Gama rounded Africa!
These are my own musings and interpretations from reading the book, certainly not based on a careful study of history. But ut completely underscores how little we know when history gets simplified into digestible bites.
I plucked Nigel Cliff’s Last Crusade last summer at a used book sale, and spent almost a month in November December working through it. I had to read almost 150 pages of background and context before da Gama even entered the scene. That’s because Cliff lays down a foundation going back to 600 of the ebb and flow of Muslim and Christian empires, none of which seemed to remain stably in power for more that 100 years. The influence of Islam in Spain. The Turks. The Mongols. The Crusades. The west believed for centuries in a powerful African ally named Prester John (total myth). A line of royalty with names like Phillip the Handsome, Suzy the Deranged, Fred the Left Handed (Okay I made those up, but all the kings and queens had these ______ the _________ monikers)
There was a lot of greed, vanity, but mostly, religious zealotry that drove everything in this long span. And that is the irony of da Gama’s epic voyage, there was a financial goal, to undercut the Middle East traders and their Venetian partners in the spice trade (itself driven by a complete lack of knowledge of health care), but completely, da Gama was on a Blues Brothers “Mission From God”, except a god that justified them killing, mutilating, destroying, and stealing from non Christians all because of it being a holy mission (the ultimate goal being taking Jerusalem). Everything something went right for them, escaping storms, attackers, finding what they sough, was a Sign.
And Cliff draws a line to today, where there a people committed to destruction and killing of others in the name of god.
The Portuguese arrived in what they assumed was a uncivilized land of India only to find a people who had been living more sophisticated than Europe for eons. They mistook Hindu temples for Christian ones. They misjudged what the Indians might value in terms of what they offered. The real miracle is that da Gama was able to return to Europe at all.
Bu this is not to underscore what da Gama accomplished in terms of the voyage, his feat of navigating the trade winds– and truly going where no “Western” Man had gone before– the prior maps of the world simply had Africa extending off the edge of the map. We can only imagine the horrid conditions that sailors suffered, the few that survived.
Reading this for me, a slow reader, was my own voyage, and well worth it only for opening eyes to how much I did not know (nor was taught) about world history. And how that history is happening now.