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'Vasco da Gama needs to be tried for crimes against humanity'

Last updated on: August 13, 2013 10:31 IST

'Vasco da Gama needs to be tried for crimes against humanity'

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'V'asco da Gama indulged in some of the most heinous crimes.'

'On October 1, 1502, he mercilessly ordered the killing of 700 innocent Malabar pilgrims. Half the pilgrims were women and children,' says Paris-based Historian J B P More.

Vasco da Gama's arrival in India was not a great exploit from the navigational point of view, feels historian J B P More, who is currently working on a book on the Dravidian movement as well as the Marakkars of Kerala in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"He simply followed the route traced by Diogo d' Azambuja, Diogo Cao and Bartholomeu Diaz up to the Eastern Cape Province, where the Indian Ocean lay wide open to him. This is definitely not an exploit," Dr More told Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier in an e-mail interview.

The historian, who has just completed a biography of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, says da Gama was acting under the orders and blessings of the Portuguese royalty and the Church, which should be held accountable for these crimes and for colonialism.

Part I of the interview: 'India is dominated by the West'

You have stated elsewhere that Darwin's theory of evolution is a highly controversial speculative theory and that Darwin even thought that the Europeans were the fittest to survive; that this theory justified slavery and colonialism.

Did it change colonial history after 1859 when The Origin of Species was published?

Slavery, colonialism and the new era of Clash of Civilisations had started long before Darwin enunciated his theories of struggle for existence and survival of the fittest.

If we follow Darwin's logic, European or Western civilisation has to triumph ultimately at the expense of all other civilisations.

Coming to the question of whether Darwin's speculative theories change colonial history after 1859, I would rather say that they were used to justify colonialism, slavery, competition, violence and inequalities in society, more and more thenceforth.

Colonialism was increasingly considered by many Western intellectuals as a service to humanity.

It was also thought to be an inevitable step towards the progress of humanity, according to a particular strait-jacket economic pattern and political belief system, idea or ideology, which are inherently violent, intolerant and aggressive.

All ideas and ideologies, however global or universal or progressive they may appear to be, are inherently violent and aggressive. They were conceived by some power-hungry megalomaniacs, stricken by the pathology of the urge to dominate.

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Image: Vasco da Gama.
Photographs: Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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'The discovery of the Malacca Straits was a greater discovery'

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You say Vasco da Gama's voyage round the Cape of Good Hope to Calicut was no achievement at all as Barthlomeu Diaz had documented the route to Cape of Good Hope along the West coast of Africa and Indians, Arabs and Persians have been criss-crossing the Arabian Sea all the time.

Was it not an achievement to connect the two routes, when no European had ever rounded the Cape till then in the then level of knowledge of the earth and oceans?

Is it an achievement when you follow the route traced by another?

Vasco da Gama simply followed the route traced by Diogo d' Azambuja, Diogo Cao and Bartholomeu Diaz up to the Eastern Cape Province, where the Indian Ocean lay wide open to him. This is definitely not an exploit.

The Portuguese and Vasco da Gama knew that the Arab traders and others were criss-crossing the Arabian Sea to India from the East African coast. So he sailed still further up the coast to the sultanates of Mozambique and Melindi.

Here he began to scout for some Muslim pilot who would guide him across the Arabian Sea to India. It is with such help that Vasco da Gama was able to cross the Arabian Sea.

This cannot be deemed as an exploit of the first order as he did not venture out alone without guidance into the ocean.

Of course, Vasco da Gama was the first to connect the two routes. But this cannot mean that Vasco da Gama had connected East and West first and was the pioneer of globalisation.

This is not historically and factually correct.

The discovery of the Malacca Straits -- whoever discovered it -- was a greater discovery that connected East and West and permitted the transportation of goods from the Far East to the Far West (Western Europe), which was only in the outer fringes of the then known world.

Nevertheless, this had laid the foundation for the globalisation of the economy long before Vasco da Gama.

Necessity is the mother of invention. The Arabs, Persians, Indians and Chinese never felt the necessity to find an oceanic route to Western Europe around Africa, because the sea route up to the East African coast and then the land route to the lands that lay beyond as far as Western Europe were more practicable, safe and economical.

Besides, Western Europe was not a big market for their goods in those days. As a result they were content with the sea-land route. But this was not the case with the Europeans.

They were literally blocked by the Turks and the Arabs from reaching India by the land route. So they were literally pushed into the ocean to find a sea route to India.

The question inevitably arises: Why did the West Europeans wait till the 15th century to take to the oceanic route?

What was the first clue that pointed you in the direction?

The facts related to Vasco Da Gama's first voyage have always been obvious. A closer and more attentive look into history had revealed to me these facts.

What made me sit up and think was when I realised that Vasco da Gama was on the lookout for a pilot in East Africa to take him across the Arabian Sea to Malabar.

Historians have failed to look at such facts impartially without bias or prejudice due to their nationalist, cultural and racial conditioning.

That is why Vasco da Gama became greater in their eyes than a Zheng Ho who led vast fleets consisting of several ships and men several times to the Indian Ocean and East Africa through the Malacca Straits.

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Image: Members of Malaysia's indigenous Mah Meri tribe perform prayers on the seabed of the Malacca Straits at low tide.
Photographs: Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters

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'Vasco Da Gama had all the makings of a ruthless pirate'

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You said the first man to set foot upon the Malabar Coast was not Vasco da Gama, but a 'deadly convict' by the name of Joao Nunes who was sent by Vasco da Gama on a reconnaissance mission.

Is that not a matter of detail of sending forth a scout, and how does it detract him from being the first man from Europe to figuratively set foot in India?

It is unfortunate that a deadly convict had set foot on the Malabar soil first.

One cannot expect civilised dealings from a deadly convict.

Vasco Da Gama had all the makings of a ruthless pirate. He had orders from the Portuguese king to wrest wealth and fame by the force of arms from the hands of the 'barbarians, Moors, pagans and other races.'

What happened to Malabar, the Zamorin and his Nair and Marakkar warriors stand testimony to this fact.

India entered the unfortunate phase of colonialism from the time the deadly convict stepped into Malabar. It was sponsored by the Portuguese king and the Church.

Colonialism is an improved version of slavery where the coloniser remains the master while the colonised becomes the 'petted slave.'

Why do you ask, what was actually so great about Vasco da Gama that many historians highlight in their numerous books?

I have told you on the basis of evidence that the arrival of Vasco da Gama was not a great exploit from the navigational point of view. Vasco da Gama came to India definitely with the idea of proclaiming Jesus Christ.

Christianity had reached Malabar several centuries before Vasco da Gama. So bringing Christianity to India cannot also account for the greatness of Vasco da Gama.

Vasco da Gama had orders to capture the wealth and land of the barbarians, Moors and pagans. He and his successors implemented these orders to the best of their ability on the Malabar Coast and the Indian Ocean region.

They acquired and captured land on the Malabar Coast, built formidable forts at vantage points, indulged in proselytisation and forcible conversions, mixed with the local populations to create a hybrid race that would be loyal to them and their values, imposed passes on Indian ships and monopolised trade.

Vasco da Gama himself indulged in some of the most heinous crimes. He was the inaugurator of gun-boat trade and politics in the Indian Ocean region.

On October 1, 1502, he mercilessly ordered the killing of 700 innocent Malabar pilgrims, returning from Mecca. Half the pilgrims were women and children.

Vasco da Gama issued orders for the ship to be set on fire by gunpowder, after looting it. Not one pilgrim escaped. He remained insensitive to even the wailing women holding their babies in their hands on the deck, imploring for pity.

On October 27, 1502, he seized 50 Malabaris at sea, got their heads, legs and hands cut off and sent ashore in a boat with a message in Arabic, asking the Zamorin to make curry out of the severed limbs.

Not satisfied with this, he bombarded Calicut from the sea for three consecutive days and razed it to the ground, killing several hundred people in the process.

All these crimes have been recorded by Portuguese chroniclers and have gone unpunished.

For these heinous killings Vasco da Gama needs to be tried for crimes against humanity.

The Portuguese royalty and the Church must also be held accountable for these crimes and also colonialism, for Vasco da Gama was acting under their orders and blessings.

It was this domination and power by the force of superior arms, capable of exterminating hundreds of people in one blow, which accounts largely for the greatness of Vasco da Gama and his successors and not because of their values or intentions to trade or their navigational exploits, as it is made out to be generally by many modern historians.


Image: Fort Kochi beach as clouds hover over the Arabian Sea.
Photographs: Sivaram V/Reuters

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