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When Vasco Found Indian ‘Christians’

An English translation of Vasco da Gama’s voyage diary offers everything that dry textbook history lacks

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | August 5, 2012 3:36:08 am

An English translation of Vasco da Gama’s voyage diary offers everything that dry textbook history lacks

“May the Devil take thee! What brought you hither?” Such was the abusive welcome accorded to the first Portuguese to step on Indian soil,near Calicut,in May 1498. It was not Vasco da Gama,as is usually claimed,but one of the convicts serving on his ship,whom he used as human canaries to test the air in foreign climes. And the convict was met not by the Zamorin,or by any Indian at all,as we have been led to ­believe,but by two Moors speaking Genoese and Castilian.

Vasco maintained a diary of the voyage,written in the third person after the manner of Julius Caesar,which provides amazing details that textbook history glosses over. Paul Halsall hosts a good translation,Round Africa to India,at Fordham University’s website,a must-read for those interested in early colonial history.

The angst of the Moors was legitimate. Vasco had connected the last dots on a direct sea route between Europe and India,cutting out the Arabs,Levantines and Italians who had controlled the intercontinental trade since Roman times. After this,the rise of mercantile Western Europe at the expense of the rest of the world was inevitable. But the Moors tempered their abuse with Asian hospitality. They fed the convict roti and honey and escorted him back to Vasco’s ship,the Sao Gabriel. And they startled the Captain-Major — as Vasco calls himself in the diary — by changing their tune to sing: “A lucky venture,a lucky venture! Plenty of rubies,plenty of emeralds! You owe great thanks to God,for having brought you to a country holding such riches!”

But Vasco’s charter famously commissioned him to sail “for pepper and Christ” — incidentally,the title of the English poet Keki Daruwalla’s recent novel on the Portuguese landing. The pepper the Portuguese took back paid for the voyage 60 times over,a fabulous rate of return not seen again until the rise of Silicon Valley. And they found Christians,too. The true seeker finds all things — even non-existent things.

“The city of Calicut is inhabited by Christians,” wrote Vasco. “…They go naked down to the waist,covering their lower extremities with very fine cotton stuffs. But it is only the most respectable who do this,for the others manage as best they are able. The women of this country,as a rule,are ugly and of small stature.” Quite the opposite of the European conception of the Magi of the East,but Vasco manfully resisted reason.

Later,the Portuguese were taken to what they declared was a rock-hewn church. In the “chapel” stood “a small image which… represented Our Lady. In this church the Captain-Major said his prayers,and we with him… Many other saints were painted on the walls of the church,wearing crowns. They were painted variously,with teeth protruding an inch from the mouth,and four or five arms.”

The Captain-Major bore this demon-worship with Christian faith but drew the line at painting himself with the “white earth (vibhuti),which the Christians of this country are in the habit of putting on their foreheads,breasts,around the neck,and on the forearms.”

The diary peters out during the voyage home,so how Lisbon received Vasco’s fantastical account of India’s “Christians” is not known. In the colonial discourse,the diary was obscured by the growing saga of mercantile exploration which culminated in the 1572 Lusiads of Luis Vaz de Camoes,now regarded as the national epic of Portugal.

Unfortunately,there seems to be no corresponding Indian account of this crucial first encounter,but the “church” that the Portuguese crew visited was obviously a temple,complete with priests wearing sacred threads. It is surmised that “Mother Mary”,whom Vasco venerated,was Mariamma,a goddess of death who offers protection against epidemics,especially smallpox. Her name derives from the Sanskrit root mri — death. The phonetic similarity with Mother Mary may have helped the Portuguese to ­believe the unbelievable.

Ironically,Vasco missed the real Indian Christians — the Syriac Nestorians associated with the tradition of St Thomas,which had been established on the Malabar coast since the eighth century as the Ecclesiastical Province of India. The Portuguese engaged with them a century later,tried to convert them to Catholicism but that only sparked off a series of splits,which resulted in the many forms of Syrian Christianity we see today. Christ eluded the Portuguese. All they could achieve was,er… to change the course of world history.

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