Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Last Crusade - The epic voyages of Vasco Da Gama' by Nigel Cliff - Book Review

Journey from the end of the world!

Medieval Europe considered Lisbon in Portugal to be the end of the world. Vasco Da Gama's discovery in 1498 of the a direct sea route from Portugal to South India and his epic voyages from Lisbon to Calicut in Kerala, India marked a turning point not only in global commerce but also signaled the start of European colonialism which would convulse the world for the next many centuries. These facts are well known. However Nigel Cliff in this book clearly explains how christian religious fundamentalism also played a major role in motivating this small country of around 1 million people to undertake this fantastic endeavor in the face of high odds, as the final crusade of their centuries old war against Islam. Now it is hard to imagine that it took the English and the Dutch another 200 years to overcome the lead the Portugal established in commerce with the East through this sea route.

Vasco Da Gama is a well known figure in Kerala as well as the rest of India. Growing up in Kerala, the impression I had of Gama was that of a brave but cruel explorer out for adventure, glory and financial gain. A few books and a couple of movies on him that are available in India do not portray anything different. The local christians in Kerala maintain that the Portuguese were 'surprised' to see Christians in India and since the Kerala Christians were following the Persian (Syrian) rituals, the Portuguese fought them and burnt their churches (this did happen, but that was over a 100 years later). But Nigel Cliff paints a much different story. One of the major hopes of the Western World was to find Christian strongholds in the East and use their help in continuing their fight against Islam. Further their world view was so limited at that time (maybe even now to a large extent when you see the Christian right in mid-west US) that they imagined the all non muslims were christians! It is really funny to see Gama and his crew visiting Hindu temples in Calicut and seeing them as crude versions of Christian worship!!

The 'Last Crusade' provides a clear explanation of Gama's motives and actions, and the hatred of Muslims and Islam that led to his antagonistic behavior with the local kingdoms of Kerala who were having centuries of good relationship with Muslims. Not only Muslims, but Christians and Jews as well were enjoying a safe sanctuary in Kerala where complete religious tolerance was practiced. It will need another book to understand how in a place that supported the horrible 'caste' system of Hinduism where a large segment of the population was mentally and physically subjugated, could at the same time welcome all religious faiths from across the word and live with them in perfect harmony. One reason might have been the fact that being a small strip of land in the coastal peninsula, protected by a mountain range on one side and the mighty ocean on the other sides, only refugees or traders could come to Kerala - till the time larger ships and canons starting with Gama could venture in.

Well researched and well narrated, the Last Crusade is a good read. Definitely written from a Western point of view, it hardly covers the Indian (or Kerala) perspective. However that is understandable. But I was disappointed at the lack of maps which should have been rather easy to include. Since a significant part of the book covers the various voyages a few maps (both current and the old) would have given the reader much more enjoyment. Fortunately with wikipedia access it is not a serious problem.

Religion has played a major role in all human civilizations and unfortunately continue to do so today. In spite of generating continuous conflict and inflicting tremendous harm, it is not difficult to imagine it having helped humanity many times in the past in battling and surviving unimaginable odds where maybe only 'faith' was the final weapon. But now with a much better understanding of what we are and how we became us and our place in the Universe, it is high time that we as a species find better solutions. Books like these are good steps in the right direction for understanding our past mistakes.

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