Reviewed by:
The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama. By Sanjay Subrahmanyam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xxiii + 400. $59.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Vasco da Gama is best known as commander of the Portuguese fleet that pioneered the exclusively sea route from Portugal to the west coast of India and, by doing so, undermined what has been portrayed as a Venetian monopoly on the supply of spices to Europe. In the pantheon of national heroes, Gama is unique in that, within half a century of his death (1524), this voyage was central to a major epic poem of western literature, Os Lusiadas, where he was mythified and the voyage divinized. No less than Columbus, Magellan, or Cook, Gama has been seen as emblematic of imperial aspirations and, as such, an object of reverence or opprobrium. But, other than in the context of the voyage, Gama has been elusive. Subrahmanyam, author of studies on the political economy of southern India and on Portuguese trade and settlement in the Bay of Bengal, a political and economic history of the Portuguese in Asia, and a host of provocative essays, provides in The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama a revisionist assessment of Gama based predominantly on published sources.

Subrahmanyam’s objectives are to reinterpret the career of Gama, reexamine the historical contexts of the first voyage, to place him in the broader historical environments of Portugal and Asia, and to “make an implicit plea for a rather more nuanced, indeed ironical, look at the history of European expansion, both of the inflation (thus, expansion) of European claims and pretensions, and the outward-looking processes by which Europeans sought to redefine the commercial and political networks of the early sixteenth century” (p. 368, parenthetical remark in original). Beginning with why an obscure nobleman was chosen to [End Page 452] command the 1497–99 expedition, Subrahmanyam traces the trajectory of Gama’s life and career: membership of the Order of Santiago; the voyage that opened the Cape route from Lisbon to India; royal recognition in the form of titles, admission to the Royal Council, and selection to command the 1502 fleet; two decades of waiting in the wings (“the wilderness years”); and the triumphal climax of appointment as viceroy, captain-major, and governor of Portuguese India.

The bulk of the documentation on Gama was known in the late nineteenth century. Subrahmanyam provides new interpretations and critically evaluates the official chroniclers. He assiduously seeks evidence other than from these—Barros, Góis, Correia—and the account of Castanheda. For the 1497 voyage Subrahmanyam follows the anonymous account found in 1834 by Herculano; for that of 1502, he draws on accounts by participants—an anonymous Fleming, the Italian Matteo Bergamo, and the Portuguese scrivener Tomé Lopes. Use of non-Portuguese sources provides parallax: for insight into the political situation in Lisbon in 1502, divided opinion on the viability of further Asian enterprises in the aftermath of the return of Cabral’s fleet, and potential dilemma facing Dom Manuel that led to the appointment of Vasco da Gama to head the 1502 fleet, Subrahmanyam turns to letters of two Venetian ambassadors to Dom Manuel; for the political scenario in 1506, he turns to a Venetian resident in Lisbon; letters of a Cremonese merchant provide the context for the third voyage. Subrahmanyam draws on non-European sources, but not as much as this reviewer would have expected: a letter in Arabic from the alguazil of the Kolattri provides a different perspective on a change in the command of the fortress of Cannanur, and correspondence from Bishop Mar Jacob throws light on Christian communities of Kerala, relations with the Portuguese crown, and the ramifications for the pepper trade.

Subrahmanyam’s modus operandi is to “oscillate freely from the man to his context, and from history to the historical formation of legend” (p. 23). Let us examine these three planes. Subrahmanyam tries to resolve the paradox that so little is known about Gama. Letters by his own hand are few and formulaic. Subrahmanyam portrays him as a shrewd navigator through the shoals of Portuguese domestic politics and court pressure groups, with well-honed political instincts, sensitivity to changing power relationships, acumen of when and how to obtain comparative advantage, and the ability to recognize vulnerability, even in a king. Many of Gama’s actions are explicable in the context of immediate blood family, extended kinship relations, and interplay between powerful family groups and individuals. That Cabral was not chosen to command the 1502 fleet to India may have been [End Page 453] attributable to his inability to get along with Vicente Sodré, Gama’s maternal uncle. Subrahmanyam shows how Gama’s experiences in East Africa in 1498 contributed to his actions and to his different approach to rulers in Kerala. The 1502 voyage revealed the dark side of his character: arrogance and pleasure in humiliating the ruler of Kilwa; cruelty in setting fire to a vessel en route to Calicut with men, women, and children, pilgrims to Mecca; furious and intransigent response to the Samudri concerning compensation, and subsequent bombardment of Calicut. Subrahmanyam casts light on the years 1504–23, which he characterizes as a period when Gama used his legendary status to further his own career: changes of residence, failure to establish a base at Sines, falling out with the master of the Order of Santiago, and the turnaround when his threats to leave Portugal forced the king’s hand, securing for Gama the landed base he needed for his title of count, and—the apex—appointment as viceroy of India and command of a large fleet. Letters of the Habsburg ambassador to Portugal show Gama as consummate negotiator and political player. The third voyage revealed a Gama more cautious in his actions, a sterner disciplinarian over his crew, and having almost tunnel vision in his campaign for fiscal rectitude, downsizing the royal payroll, and taking actions against Mappila merchant vessels.

Dearth of biographical data gives unusual importance to “the environment of Vasco da Gama” (p. 22) which Subrahmanyam uses heavily to explicate some of Gama’s actions. He situates Gama in fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Portugal, and in the political and economic context of peoples and states bordering the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. He retraces the importance of Gama’s affiliation with the Order of Santiago and recapitulates much of what is already known concerning factionalism; rivalries and centralizing efforts by the crown reflected selection of princes as masters of the orders. Subrahmanyam posits that the selection of Gama to command the 1497 voyage stemmed from a shrewd political calculation by Dom Manuel, who was fully cognizant of his membership in a group opposing the king. By reconstructing the complexities of shifting court politics, the relationship between the crown and nobility, and different attitudes toward trade, and by unravelling kinship ties that explain allegiances or antagonisms, Subrahmanyam reveals Gama as more complex than the Argonaut beloved of hagiographers. His survey of the western Indian Ocean makes the point that trading practices and religious identities shaped fault lines no less in the Indian Ocean than in the Mediterranean. Subrahmanyam’s emphasis on the polycentric organizational quality of political and commercial networks implicitly rejects the notion of an “Islamic world economy” in the Indian Ocean at that [End Page 454] time. This and his discussion of violence at sea provide a context for Gama’s subsequent actions in his search for allies and practice of “hostile trade.”

Scholars who attempt such tours d’horizon are to be commended for their temerity, notably when they step out of the gardens of their own primary research interests. It will be interesting to see the reactions of specialists to Subrahmanyam’s “take” on the European context, on late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Portugal, on inner workings of the Manueline court, and on military orders, which are critical to his reconstruction. Subrahmanyam’s acceptance (pp. 60–61) of 1481 as the probable date of the General Chapter of the knights and commanders of the Order of Santiago convoked by Dom João at Santarém, and his belief that Vasco da Gama was admitted to the order in that year, must be revised in view of the work of Francis A. Dutra, who dates the General Chapter as late as 1487 and Gama’s entrance into the order as 1488. Nor was it as uncommon in the first half of the sixteenth century, as Subrahmanyam apparently believes, for knights to transfer from one order to another (Francis A. Dutra, “As Ordens Militares,” in O Tempo de Vasco da Gama, ed. Dioga Ramada Curto [Lisbon: Difel, 1998], pp. 229–241). This reviewer felt that sometimes the author over extends himself and that the prism through which he sees Portuguese history is that of overseas expansion, without due weight being given to Portugal’s pursuit of domestic and international policies other than in the context of expansion. Subrahmanyam opines (p. 246) that claims of “direct divine inspiration” by Dom Manuel were a “tactic that had to be used sparingly”; however, within the context of the age such claims were not preposterous and would not have inspired the skepticism Subrahmanyam suggests. Some hypotheses are not adequately substantiated. A case in point is the claim (pp. 268–75) that the years 1514–18 saw Dom Manuel’s political position hitting its low point within the court. Subrahmanyam presents the fiasco of the expedition to Mamora, opposition to Manueline attempts at centralization, and replacement of Albuquerque as governor of India against the royal wishes as evidence of royal “fragility,” but these scarcely justify the statement that the sinking of the ship carrying the gift of a rhinoceros from Dom Manuel to the pope were “rather accurately reflect[ed] D. Manuel’s own situation at the time.” Subrahmanyam admits that “we can discern this fact [D. Manuel’s political low] from a number of indices, but to explain it in fact proves more difficult” (p. 268). Quite so. This reinforces the point made by the distinguished Portuguese historian Luis Filipe Barreto (“Historiadores e linguas,” Jornal de Letras, 29 July 1998, p. 35) that understanding of an age as rich as Quinhentos demands more sophisticated tools than mere [End Page 455] “indices” and “facts”; it requires a specialized knowledge of nuanced semantics of contemporaneous language and the cultural legacies the age embodies. Subrahmanyam too readily dismisses as “myth” (p. 62) the notion that Gama had a “good grasp of astronomy.” Given the prevalence of astrology in Western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it would have been surprising if Vasco da Gama were not familiar with this system of knowledge. As regards the Portuguese empire, Subrahmanyam reiterates points made by other scholars: that the Portuguese empire was not monolithic; that differing notions of empire were entertained by Dom João II, Manuel, and João III; and that overseas expansion was controversial and divisive. The degree of opposition and indeed the vicissitudes of the reign of Dom Manuel reflected volatility, with propaganda triumphs—Gama’s return in 1499, the commercial success of his cargo in 1503, or Albuquerque’s acts of derring-do—being offset by lows attributable to financial pressures and rivalries with Spain.

The “historical formation of legend” is the third plane on which Subrahmanyam examines Gama. His first chapter treats the transformation of historical personages into legendary figures, and the final chapter (“Finale: The Judgments of Posterity”) makes the valid points that iconography can be integral to the creation of legend and that national heroes for some are objects of derision for others, and refers to the “European myth-building enterprise around Gama” (p. 360). This raises the question: does seeing Gama as an emblematic figure and part of imperial and postimperial historiography and iconography detract from or enhance what for five chapters is an exercise in historical reconstruction of his life and times? Is it overly cynical on the part of this reviewer to see Gama’s advancement in part as recognition of accomplishment and in part as a result of royal political manipulation, which served the royal person and national ends, but without his becoming a legend in his lifetime? In an elegant essay Francisco Bethencourt has suggested that the “messianism” attributed to Dom Manuel was manufactured by the king for consumption by his fellow monarchs in Europe and especially by the pope. How plausible is the notion of the existence of a continuum between Gama as “Portuguese national treasure to be trotted out on all occasions” (p. 361) during his lifetime, his subsequent elevation to legendary status as the Great Argonaut starting with Camões, his celebration in a nineteenth-century opera, and his use in nationalist propaganda in the twentieth century? This shows an almost cavalier disregard for how each age creates its heroes in its own image and for the fact that such an image is not easily transferable from century to century. Subrahmanyam is probably right in seeing Gama as an instrument crafted by the king as a Portuguese [End Page 456] response to Columbus, but he is silent concerning the infante Dom Henrique who—as it would appear from the work of Sir Peter Russell —was highly conscious of how he wished to be seen by posterity. Subrahmanyam’s treatment of Gama as nationalist hero is not unrelated to historiographical debate concerning “Portuguese nationalist historians” (p. 123), which surfaces sporadically. This reviewer would have welcomed a systematic synchronic and diachronic treatment of this historiography and an in-depth analysis of the treatment of such legendary figures in nineteenth-century Europe, based on more examples than an opera, Portuguese celebrations of the four-hundredth anniversary, and transferral of the bones of Gama from Vidigueira to Lisbon.

There is much useful material and insights in this book. Not only has Subrahmanyam perused all data directly relevant to a biography of Vasco da Gama but also, by placing him in the historical context, he has crafted a more intriguing and complex personality than has hitherto been achieved. Interestingly, final assessment of Gama the man is not made by Subrahmanyam but left to the authors of a bundle of letters sent from India to Portugal in 1525 and of which a summary survives. This reader yearned for a conclusion, in which the author would bring together the numerous threads and provide an assessment of this historical figure. Some readers will be angered by what they perceive to be Subrahmanyam’s iconoclasm and even flippancy, and by his unsubstantiated statements and inadequately documented hypotheses, and some will find this a difficult book to read because of the shifting of planes from background to foreground, interpolations, digressions, and meanderings. Others will be excited by the boldness of interpretation and will marvel at how Subrahmanyam has discharged the role of historian as detective. Reader indifference is not an option.

A.j.r. Russell-Wood
The Johns Hopkins University

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.