The tiny resurgence of the Portuguese culture in Goa and the prominence of Konkani appears to have caused some concern for the anti-Konkani lobby which is in the forefront of the attacks and protestations against the commemorations of the Vasco da Gama voyage. The extreme right Hindu fundamentalist groups are likely to be joined by Muslim extremist groups ! The Muslim groups have an understandable reason to be cross with Vasco da Gama. It was the Portuguese who ended their dominance and subjugation of the people of South India. If not for them the Arabs or perhaps the Turks would perhaps still be the masters of the land. The right wing Hindus have demonstrated an open and aggressive opposition towards the Catholic community in India. Attacks on Catholic clergy, churches and educational establishments have occurred in recent years. Even so, it is good to see the extremist Muslim and Hindu groups get together - if only for this reason. Strange bedfellows for the sake of convenience. Of course there are a few 'Tio Tomases' " Kaama purta Maama ".

It is important to note however that they are not the only protesters.
There are intellectual Goans and many freedom fighters who have valid and genuine reasons to object. They fervently believe that there is nothing to celebrate or even commemorate about the Vasco da Gama voyage. However tunnel-visioned this view might appear to be, it is a strong view.

There are of course a number of individuals with an agenda, a number of pseudo-freedom fighters and 'political opportunists'. One expects to find them wherever political capital can be generated.

True to form, the vast majority of Goans in Goa today, would be just as happy if there was no celebration, commemoration, whatever, as they would be if there was one. They are so caught up with the struggles of their own day to day existence that they could hardly be bothered one way or another. In this equation perhaps we will remember that the vast majority of Goans no longer live in Goa ! The vast majority of them are likely to support the commemoration.

I realize that no one can change the fact that my being a Goan and regarded as one ( quite separate and apart from what one is regarded as a person from Karwar , Vengurla or Ratnagiri! ) is based significantly on that historic Voyage of Vasco da Gama 500 years ago !!

Nothing anyone says or does is ever going to change that !
So, I prefer to accept the past of my forebears in Goa, good and bad - for what it was and move ahead. I suggest that every Goan does the same. The other available choice is to 'put blinkers on', ' bury heads in the sand ', pretend, read history selectively and proceed to carry our personal prejudices or agenda ad infinitum !. If there are those who do not understand this position of mine, there is nothing I can or wish to do anything about it.

No excuse for intolerance - past, present or future !
It is true that the history of the Indian subcontinent is rife with the most horrendous of crimes against men, women and children, right from the times of the Aryan invasion of land which belonged to the various tribes of the Indian subcontinent. There was that tragic battle of Kalinga, the Arab and Turk subjugation of South India, the tyranny unleashed by the Mongols, the harsh Moghal rule of India, the bitter inter and intra royal family feuds, the unfortunate attempt by the power hungry Marathas to overwhelm Bengal, the horrible Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of peaceful Indian worshippers by the British, the shameful Black Hole of Calcutta, and the most horrendous Hindu - Muslim genocide during the days of the Partition.

Yet, there will never be any justification for the manner in which innocent Goans of all faiths were tortured and put to death during the Horrible Inquisition. There is no excuse for the religious and cultural intolerance displayed by the Portuguese albeit during a small percentage of their 450 year stay in Goa. None whatsoever !

It is true too, that we are discussing about an era long gone; and that too with the advantage of hindsight. But that is no excuse either !

Having said that, I realize that ALL the different people who contributed to the tragic history of the Indian subcontinent have also contributed immensely to the rich architecture, language, literature, music, cuisine, art, ecology and culture of the subcontinent, all of which we now enjoy, celebrate so much and call 'our own'.

It is in this light that I look at that historic 1497-1499 Voyage of Vasco da Gama !

Today, 500 years after that voyage there are an estimated three million Goans scattered throughout every continent on this earth. Two-thirds of them live overseas. The vast majority of these overseas Goans are Catholics the vast majority of whom retain some degree of the Lusitanian affect !  

The Spice politick :
In the 15th century, Portugal was evolving into a powerful country with some of the best marine navigators assisting them to establish trading bases in many parts of the world. It was fortunate to have the technical services of the Portuguese, Arabs and Jews especially in the field of astronomy and maritime science.

The primary reason for attempting to reach India via the sea route was the search for an unfettered access to spices.

Spice, of course, was known to man from prehistoric times when meats were most likely flavoured with aromatic leaves and fruits. Different spices were used in ancient Chinese medicine; and a variety of spices and herbs were grown and used by the Babylonians. Europeans are thought to have first come into contact with spices during the medieval years when there were fierce inter-religious conflicts.

During the 15th Century the demand for spices soared.

The price of pepper rose astronomically on its way from Calicut to Venice via Cairo and Alexandria. It was the era when refrigeration had not yet been discovered and hence, tons of meat were being wasted. They needed the spices to preserve the meat. Spices were available in the Zanzibar and India among other places. The spice trade itself, was controlled by the powerful and well oiled but monopolistic and vicious Arab-Turk-Venitian cartel.

The land-route to and from these spices was under the control of the various Muslim rulers or their strongmen. Toll booths along the way meant that the cost of these spices was forbidding. Besides, the lives of those who traveled in search of these spices was forever at risk. Thugs of all sorts preyed upon travelers and traders. It was not the easiest of times !

So, Portugal, with its then-powerful navy felt that the treacherous sea route to India was probably safer than the land route through hostile Muslim-controlled territory. This way they would be able to import spices directly from the Indian subcontinent bypassing the Arabs and their middlemen. The problem was to find someone determined enough to chart it. Many an expedition had ended up in disaster.

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  • Updated:
    November 18, 2011