East Jeers West Over Explorer

A 15th-century mariner who sailed trium-phantly to the Indies is being vilified by some these days as an imperialist brute who butchered Indian natives and despoiled their advanced culture.

Christopher Columbus?

Think again. The Genoan explorer has had his day in the hot seat.

The navigator in question this time is Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese nobleman whose 1498 arrival in India opened a sea route around Africa and, some critics claim, the door to European domination of the East.

The revisionist siege on da Gama erupted here last year when several Indian groups began objecting to Portugal's plans to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the journey.

In strong and pointed language, the groups have accused Portugal of trying to glorify a voyage that led to countless deaths and five centuries of European colonial rule. They see this as particularly insensitive at a time when India is marking its 50th anniversary of independence from Britain.

"Da Gama set fire to ships, tortured and killed countless numbers of women and children," says Indian immigrant Joao Noronha. "If we have to salute this figure, then we might as well celebrate every other act of aggression committed by foreign countries against India."

The anti-da Gama protests, which have raged for some time in India, are a novel phenomenon in this country of discoverers, where students still recite 15th-century poems recounting the legends of Portuguese exploration.

Portugal has long regarded da Gama as a symbol of a golden era when intrepid seamanship made the southwest European nation about the size of Maine a world power. It is a reflection, many here say, of newfound political maturity after years of isolation, and the changing character of its population.

Little more than a month before the quincentenary's official kickoff on May 22 - the date of da Gama's arrival in India - protests are coming from a broad variety of sources, from Indian immigrant associations, to the University Student Council, to the Communist Party.

Reminders of a dark past

Some oppose the festivities on the grounds that they would dredge up painful reminders of the voyage's darker legacies. Others, on the grounds that they would reawaken memories of Portugal's more recent authoritarian past under longtime dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled from 1932 to 1968.

The symbol of da Gama was employed by Salazar to buttress costly and highly unpopular efforts to prolong a bitter, unwinnable colonial war in Africa.

For members of the Commission for Commemorating the Discoveries, the group charged with staging the da Gama quincentenary, the anniversary was simply the excuse for what was billed as Portugal's "big year." The planned celebrations are to include a world's fair, Expo '98, a tall-ships parade retracing his voyage, and museum exhibits.

"We are certainly finding out much to our chagrin that our da Gama is not that of others," says Antonio Hespanha, the commission's director. "This is all quite unfortunate and is not really our stated intention."

Determined to blunt the criticism, Portugal is now making efforts to accommodate the critics. It has agreed to tone down the Eurocentric emphasis on Portugal's discovery of the sea route to India in favor of the "encounter of two cultures."

To underscore this point, Portugal recently opened an exhibit on Indian culture in Lisbon and invested significantly in several cultural programs in the Indian state of Goa, the focus of Portuguese power in India until 1961.

In addition, Portugal has acknowledged that 1498 was a difficult turning point for the native Indian peoples. "History is very complex and cannot be rewritten," says Mr. Hespanha. "We hope that even the critics of the Portuguese legacy in India could understand all our efforts to close ancient grievances."

The conciliatory gestures - and anti-da Gama barrages - have ignited an indignant reaction from da Gama loyalists. One of the most vocal is Vasco Antonio Velez, director of the Foundation for the Discoveries.

In a recent essay in the O Publico newspaper, Mr. Velez claimed Portugal doesn't need to make any apologies for da Gama. "Da Gama was a hero, he changed the fate of the world forever, and he changed it for the better.

"It's a shame that he's being raked over the coals, forced to take a bad rap for something he may or may not have done. Let's get on with it," Velez wrote.

A positive sign

But some observers here see the attacks as a sign of how far the country has come.

"It's a positive sign. Years ago, opinion was uniform and lock step and any dissenting voices would have been muffled," says sociologist Maria de Mello, who has conducted studies on Portugal's social changes.

The backlash also says a lot about the country's changing demographics. As recently as 15 years ago, Portugal was predominantly white and European. Today, it is home to growing numbers of African and Indian immigrants, who speak with greater political power.

At the most basic level, da Gama's reputation has also been the victim of the way history itself is being reexamined, with the views of non-European societies taken into perspective.

"There is a tendency these days to attack historical figures in simplistic ways," says Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a historian who recently completed a biography of da Gama.

"But it is problematic to judge him by 20th-century standards, to draw a straight line between da Gama and the misfortunes that followed his arrival," he says. "He had the attitude of many people of his time."

Like Columbus, historians say da Gama was a complicated character, deeply religious and hot-tempered, brutal to the Indians and to the Portuguese under his command. Motivated by greed and personal aggrandizement, he also contributed positive achievements, among them the establishment of new forms of farming and maritime trade.

Explorer 'not a good neighbor'

"You might not have wanted him for your next-door neighbor, but I have my doubts about whether you would have liked to have the reigning Indian rulers of the time as your neighbors either," says Mr. Subrahmanyam.

But context isn't everything. Indians did die in large numbers, local life was forever changed. "He stands for the worst of his time," says Erasmo Martins, a student at the University of Lisbon. "And we do not want our faces rubbed in his atrocities."

In the end, the arguments about da Gama, like those about Columbus, may have a positive pedagogical benefit, enhancing appreciation of Eastern and Western cultures and respect for their differing interpretations of history.

"The commemorations of Vasco da Gama's voyage will have been a failure if they fail to make people aware of their own history, with all its shades and complexities," says Hespanha. "History deprived of either its negative or positive aspects is not history."

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