Feb 7, 2007

Book Review: Vasco da Gama and the Linking of Europe and Asia

Disney, Anthony and Booth, Emily (eds.)

Publisher: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 504 pages

Disney and Booth edited this collection of thirty-one essays and papers presented at a conference held in 1997 to denote the quincentenary of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India, and the volume contains contributions from some of the most prominent historians in the field of imperial Portugal. Given the vast differences in approaches and subject matter of the authors, there is no unifying theme throughout the book beyond that of the Portuguese seaborne empire, although the editors organized the articles under a set of broad subheadings. In addition to articles on da Gama, there are also contributions related to the Portuguese seaborne empire extending as far as the twentieth century. While some of the inclusions require a good deal of prior familiarity with the history of the Estado da India, most of the material is accessible by undergraduates and the learned general public.

In the section marked “Plenary Lectures,” Felipe Fernández-Armesto argued that the Indian Ocean was “the world’s most influential ocean,” and that Vasco da Gama’s voyage was far from “the most important in the history of the Indian Ocean.” Maurice Kriegel and Sanjay Subrahmanyam examined Lendas da India("Legends of India"), the oft-discredited account of Gaspar Correia on da Gama. The authors argued that Correia should not be read as a less factual account of the da Gama voyage than chroniclers such as João de Barros or Fernão Lopes Castanheda, but rather as a text that “sought nevertheless to observe and report on the other cultures in an ‘ethnographic logic.’”

Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, in a seventeenth-century woodcutPortuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, in a seventeenth-century woodcut

“Trade and Economic Relations” begins with John Everaert’s study of the sixteenth-century entry of Low Country soldiers and merchants into the service of the Estado da India. The author maintained that this influx was of a “more qualitative than quantitative importance,” and that these foreigners both shaped the Estado and provided the Dutch with valuable intelligence about the Indian Ocean trade networks. M.N. Pearson contributed a fascinating study of the Swahili coast of eastern Africa at the time of the da Gama voyage, which he described as a “rich and variegated society” with flourishing trade networks that had “much closer ties with their immediate hinterlands” than with other powers in the Indian Ocean.

The editors created a section entitled “Religious and Cultural Interactions” that covers a wide range of topics and periods. Maria de Jesus Mártires dos Lopes argued that, despite the large numbers of reported converts by Padroado missionaries in the Goa region, the Novos Convertidos ("Newly Converted") retained many cultural and religious traditions, or “an interpenetration of cultures that even the Inquisition could not eradicate.” A.J.R. Russell-Wood, in “For God, King, and Mammon,” noted that the use of the word “empire” to describe the Estado da India was “more conceptual than physical in nature,” since the ability of the Portuguese to administer their holdings was in large part a function of natural forces such as trade winds and ocean currents.

Map of the Estado da IndiaMap of the Estado da India

In the section “Sources, Texts, and Representations,” Maria Alzira Seixo examined The Lusiads of Luís de Camões and Alvaro Velho’s Roteiro da Primera Viagem de Vasco da Gama, arguing that these more poetic works should be read not for the exact details of discovery, but rather as narratives of adventure. John E. Wills, Jr. offered an intriguing examination on the historiography of the debate surrounding K.M. Pannikar’s traditionalist “Vasco da Gama Epoch” thesis, noting the pedulum shift from Eurocentrism to subaltern approaches, and suggesting that the field is entering a period of balance between the two extremes.

The collection ends with “Empire, Politics, and Diplomacy,” a grouping of eight articles with quite an assortment of approaches and perspectives on the political legacy of the Estado da India. Teotonio R. de Souza examined the nature of relations between the Portuguese and the indigenous peoples they met in the lands of the Indian Ocean, arguing that interrelations between the groups were much more complicated than simplistic models of invaders/resistors sometimes posited by historians. George Winius, in “Few Thanks to the King: The Building of Portuguese India,” argued that the ability of the Portuguese to create a “lasting presence on such distant lands seems almost a miracle in light of the bungling leadership supplied from Lisbon.” Winius maintained that only the good fortune of Manuel I to appoint talented administrators - such as Duarte Pacheco Pereira, Francisco de Almeida, and Afonso de Albuquerque – prevented the Estado da India from becoming a disaster.

The articles in Vasco da Gama and the Linking of Europe and Asia have individual footnotes, and quite a few contain valuable appendices. While there is a certain disjointedness in the assemblage of this diverse collection of works – which might benefit from transitional essays by the editors – one leaves the text with greater awareness of the breadth of historiographical discourse and research possibilities in the history of the Estado da India.

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