Tuesday, July 27

Vasco de Gama, the maritime procession

Arrival of Vasco da Gama to Calicut, by Alfredo Gameiro.

Arrival of Vasco da Gama to Calicut, by Alfredo Gameiro.

When everyone looks to the west, to the lands that the Castilians have just discovered, Vasco da Gama is still determined to reach the Indies from the east. His medium is the ocean and he will only find the lands he longed for through it. Portugal is a kingdom that breathes the sea. In European courts they often speak about Pisa, Livorno, Genoa, and Venice as maritime republics. But the feats of its ships can hardly be compared to what the Portuguese country has managed to do. They have tamed the ocean sea before anyone else. Isn’t the Mediterranean an oil basin compared to the vastness of the Atlantic?

Vasco da Gama route. Source: Wikipedia

Many before him have died before achieving it. At the Sagres school, Vasco da Gama has carefully studied the maps and knows where to find the error that made all previous expeditions fail. It is about the ‘volta do mar’, the use of the trade winds to drive navigation, turning towards the west but descending at an exact point towards the south. In a few weeks you will reach the Cape of Storms, the tip of the African continent. The Vivaldi brothers, Ugolino and Vadino had only managed to reach Cape Nun, before their ships were lost forever without knowing any more trace of their crew. It happened in the 13th century, too long for the memory of the Genoese to be kept on earth. But the sea has a wider memory and Vasco da Gama will not repeat the failure of the merchants or that of so many compatriots.

He has studied them all. Portugal, during the 15th century, has been advancing like a procession of water ants along the entire African coast. In 1441 he reached the Rio de Oro and four years later to Cape Verde, on expeditions commanded by Enrique the Navigator. In 1471 they descended even further, until they reached the Gold Coast, where the Niger River empties. Little more than a decade later, Portuguese caravels crossed Ecuador and reached the delta of the Congo River. Everything had been written in such a way that Bartolomé Díaz only had to follow the intuition of a trained navigator to arrive one morning in 1487 to an inhospitable place, where the two oceans met. It was the finis Africae of which the Latin chronicles spoke. The end of the unknown continent. That day a hell of a blizzard arose, making the sails and wooden planks of the hull creak. He baptized the place as the Cape of Storms and after praying an Our Father, he folded candles. He was returning to Portugal.

But this time, Vasco da Gama finds nothing to hold him back. It crosses the union of the waters, the seven-meter waves, and faces northward, bordering the African coast on its hidden side. It has passed the critical point, the place where expeditions are lost forever and become fuel for shipwrecks. Now, glued to the coast, he knows the beaches of Mozambique, disembarks his crew and talks to the local people. They are Muslim and shy around Christians. He fears a riot. He has come to do business, to discover the world, and he cares little if the crescent moon shines at the highest point of the temple at sunset. Collect supplies and return to the sea. You feel safer in the waves than surrounded by men.

Vasco da Gama has heard talk in the squares of Mozambique about a trade route that is very rich in spices and metals. There are not enough maps to clarify the necessary miles. Now you only navigate guided by a hunch. The tension of his arms, dominating the rudder, maintains the fixed course towards where the sun rises. Sail against Marco Polo, who wrote for Europeans the silk road, the dusty road to spices. But he also sails against Columbus and his new route, circling the globe towards a mysterious Indies. His path will be the shortest and the safest, he thinks. He does not know that his route is already born ancient. Beautiful wound that history causes to those who are late.

Within a few weeks, Vasco da Gama glimpsed the coast of Calicut. He is one of the first Portuguese to arrive in India. He will call that village of wooden houses ‘the city of spices’, the first in all Kerala to acquire Portuguese as a language. From its humble peasant markets, the spices that flavor the dishes of the European kings will be exported. From one side to the other, across two oceans, Vasco da Gama has just joined a commercial thread that Portugal will feed on for centuries. From every grain of cinnamon in Calicut, a Lisbon palace will be built. From each kilo of pepper a bridge that crosses the Tagus. From a vanilla flower to a castle in Sintra. The West will spend a gold it does not have on the spices of the Calicut market. The world has suddenly become small. Vasco da Gama will undertake two new trips to India. Your name will be imprinted on the foam of the waves. The Good Hope of your destiny will name a cape. He will make his country an immense empire without touching a sword.

Cinnamon, pepper and cloves, the fuel of the Portuguese sea.


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