Me and Vasco Da Gama Down by the Schoolyard
by johnnie b. baker

As far back as I can remember history has been my thing. The only books we had around the house growing up were encyclopedias. I didn't have very many friends, so I would sit at home and read the encyclopedia. My mom noticed the interest I had in history when I was very young, so my bedroom had maps on the walls and she bought every Time-Life young people's history series she could find. I read them all.

The books I read at home were teaching me the same history that I was learning in school. George Washington chopping down cherry trees, George Custer the war hero, and Columbus discovering America were but three images etched into my brain. History was full of great men who had overcome some type of adversity to attain great heights. (e.g. Abe and his log cabin.) The figures I liked the most were the explorers, Camarillo, LaSalle, Magellen, Da Gama. They had blazed new trails, explored new worlds, and saw things I could only imagine.

When I would go to Catalina, I would pretend I was a Spaniard searching for food. In the mountains I was a trapper trying to avoid the Indians. I would climb the hills near my home and imagine myself De Anza, looking over the valley that is now Riverside, but without the suburban sprawl, seeing only the hills, the mountains, the river. My family drove around the country a lot, but while everybody else would sleep in the car, I never would. I had to explore, from the back seat of a Toyota, each town or state we drove through something I couldn't miss. When I was at home, I would study any map I had, and between National Geographic and mom working at he AAA I had plenty to choose from. I would look at these maps and imagine what all these places were like. I would memorize the streets, the cities, the capitols. Each new map was a new place to explore. Soon I was drawing up maps for fictional countries that I had created.


The explorers I was interested in the most were the Portuguese, because that is my nationality. Men like Cabeza De Vaca, Bartholemew Diaz, and especially Vasco Da Gama weren't just explorers, they were "Navigator/Conquers." In the age of exploration, Da Gama's feat stands unequaled, even compared to Columbus. The distance from Portugal to India by the most direct route around the Cape of Good Hope was 10,000 miles by sea under severe conditions typical of the age of sail.

Born July 8, 1497, Da Gama left Portugal with four small ships. The fleet sailed via the Cape Verde Islands down the African coast, subsequently making a landfall some eighty miles past the Cape of Good Hope, in present day South Africa. This was the first land slighted after ninety-six, days, and this section of the voyage formed the longest passage out of sight of land yet made by a European ship.

After rounding the Cape, he visited various Arab and Swahili ports on the East African coast, stopping at Melinde. There the famous Arab pilot, Ahmed ibn Majid, climbed aboard, and with his help they reached Calicut, India on May 18, 1498. The mission was to discover a route to India, tap into the spice markets of Asia, and contact and make treaties with Christian rulers there. Indeed, when asked what brought them to India, "Christians and Spices" was the alleged reply. Da Gama accomplished these missions, though liaison with already existing Christians proved illusory, and Portugal began the process of prying open Asia to Western trade, conquest, and empire. This first voyage inaugurated what one historian called the "Vasco Da Gama epoch of Asian history - an age of authority based on the control of the seas by European nations alone".

That's what the history books say about Da Gama. He certainly was everything that I grew up thinking an explorer was. He chartered new territory, visited strange lands. I thought of him and his ships pulling into the East African ports and India, and the stir it must have created. One could imagine his sense of accomplishment.

vasco da gama

But while Da Gama returned home to a celebratory welcome, the Portuguese didn't leave with him. Within seven years of his landing, the Estadio de India was established and a governor was sent in. During these seven years the Portuguese had become permanently established in India and had created a military organization in support of their commercial and diplomatic dealings. Apart from some minor limitations, the governors' powers were extensive and most of the time he could act as an independent sovereign. Although hesitant at first, Portugal eventually became a colonial power. Conquest and complete subjugation of the native peoples to the service of the crown inevitably followed. Soon, the slave trade replaced the spice trade as the most profitable business venture. Vasco Da Gama's voyage was the starting point for a Portuguese colonial empire that would last well into the twentieth century.

That is something that I didn't learn when I was growing up. All the books talked of the greatness of the explorers, but not what they left behind in these foreign lands. The exploitation of people and resources was brushed over. And once the Portuguese (as well as the other European imperial powers) left their imperial holdings, they had completely destroyed the lifestyles of the indigenous peoples and the way they had governed themselves for hundreds of years. One needs to only look at Mozambique, Angola, and East Timor to see the brutal warfare and civil strife caused when the Portuguese left. The colonial possessions of the Europeans in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, are still feeling the effects of colonialism to this day, regardless of their so-called independence.

With the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage a few years ago, there was much debate over whether it was something to be celebrated or despised. Sure, he opened a new land that had before been unheard of in the west, but in doing so the native population was almost completely annihilated. As we enter the 21st century, there are heated debates over how to deal with this new way of seeing the explorers and how to teach children about them. I would hope that the whole story will be told, so that the kids will not have to come to the realizations that I did. My heroes were jerks.

I still fashion myself an explorer, though. I still can't sleep in the car. Each new place I go to, even though I'm not the first white man to see it, is still a new discovery. My map collection now numbers in the hundreds. I still climb the local hills and try to see why De Anza called Riverside "Paradise Valley". Even though now I know what Da Gama and his like brought with them to unknowing peoples, I still can't get out of my head the sense of righteous accomplishment that they must have felt, to see something for the first time. This I hope I never lose.