Jun 20, 2008

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

Book Review: Vasco da Gama and the Linking of Europe and Asia - Disney, Anthony and Booth, Emily (eds.)Disney, Anthony and Booth, Emily (eds.)

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 504 pages

The 1497-99 journey of Vasco da Gama to India - while eclipsed in the eyes of the American public by its obsession with the first transatlantic voyage of a certain Genovese mariner - nonetheless remains a source of speculation and debate among historians of European expansion. Disney and Booth edited this particular collection of essays and papers presented at a 1997 conference to denote the quincentenary of 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 useful division of broad subheadings. In addition to articles on Gama, there are also contributions related to the Portuguese seaborne empire extending as far as the twentieth century. While some of the inclusions require 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 named “Plenary Lectures,” Felipe Fernández-Armesto contributed an essay in which he 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.” Fernández-Armesto, however, noted that Gama’s “real importance might be thought to lie outside the Indian Ocean,” especially in shaping European attitudes and by increasing European awareness of global trade. Maurice Kriegel and Sanjay Subrahmanyam examined the Lendas da India ("Legends of India"), the oft-discredited account of Gaspar Correia on Gama. The authors argued that Correia should not be read as a less factual account of the 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.’” Moreover, noted the authors, as a person who spent many decades in the service of the Crown in India, Correia remained largely isolated from the intellectual turmoil of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and his writings reflect the pre-1500 obsessions of the Portuguese court with Christian and Jewish apocalyptic traditions, astrology, and other mystical philosophies.

Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, in a seventeenth-century woodcutLeft: Seventeenth-century woodcut of Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama

“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. Roderich Ptak contributed an intriguing essay that examined the Asian trade in camphor, a product that initially did not have a significant European market, and by which the Portuguese puzzlingly failed to profit from camphor’s high demand in East and Southeast Asia. Ptak posited that the Portuguese did not have the manpower to control the various sites of D. aromatica production, that there existed other less expensive varieties of camphor, and that other routes existed for indigenous merchants to bypass Portuguese-dominated routes, such as the Strait of Malacca.

The editors created a section entitled “Religious and Cultural Interactions” that covers a wide range of topics and periods. Dejanirah Silva Couto contributed an essay that examined the lives of Portuguese renegades and their relationships with the Estado da India during the 16th century. Couto argued that Portuguese exiles, rebels, and mercenaries often functioned simultaneously under two cultural milieux, and that this biculturality allowed these renegades to improve their social and economic standing. 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 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.

Left: Sixteenth-century illustration of Vasco da Gama

In the section “Sources, Texts, and Representations,” Maria Alzira Seixo examined Os Lusiads de 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 essay 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. Douglas Wheeler added an essay that examined the legacy of postcolonial Goa, beginning with the 14-year crisis with newly independent India and scrutinizing the effects of the loss of Goa on the Salazar regime. Wheeler argued that Salazar’s “personal obsession with Goa” diverted the aging dictator’s energies away from more pressing domestic and international problems, and the author also called for more research into the Goan diaspora.

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 an element of 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. More importantly, scholars gain an appreciation of the wide variety of historical debates surrounding the voyages undertaken by the first Count of Vidigueira.


Randy said...

Mike--Can you recommend a good introductory text on the Portugese empire for the general reader?

historymike said...

The best books on the Portuguese empire for general readers would be the following:

1. CR Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825, 1970, AA Knopf. It's a shame that this book is out of print, but many good libraries still have it. In fact, I'm re-reading this one as we speak for my major field exam.

2. Russell-Wood, AJR, The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move, 1998, Johns Hopkins University Press. An excellent introduction that uses a thematic approach.

3. Bailey W. Diffie and George D. Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415-1580. Focuses on the early years before the 1580-1640 so-called "Spanish Captivity," and follows a chronological approach in its efforts to explain how the small nation of Portugal pulled off this global enterprise.

These are the best off the top of my head; most other works, like The Renascent Empire by Glenn J. Ames, are more specialized.

randy said...

Perhaps one of these will even teach me to spell "Portuguese."