VASCO DA GAMA - the maritime explorer 1469 - 1524  - José Colaço


Vasco da Gama [painter ?]May 22, 1998 marked the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in the South Indian port of Calicut. Da Gama was the first person to have traveled via the sea route directly from Europe to India. In terms of courage, determination and sheer endurance, da Gama's journey ranks amongst the greatest historic events of this millennium. For better or for worse, it is the event which catalyzed a series of events which forever changed the history and geography of the world.

Celebrations are underway in many countries - especially Portugal. As expected with the celebration of any event such as this, there has been controversy.

The following is a personal look at Goa, it's recent history, the historic Vasco da Gama voyage and the controversy the 500th anniversary celebrations have generated.


I believe that Goa as it is today, is distinct from any other part of India or the world. It has and exudes an intriguing blend of Konkani, Hindu, Kunbi, Maratha, Portuguese, Catholic, Islamic, Arab and Kannad influences; a blend shared by no other part of India or the world. It is also a state of India whose populace is largely honest, peaceful, content, hardworking, gracious, fun loving and hospitable while at the same time being mindful of the various sensitivities and influences that are omnipresent. Most Goans are quite conscious of their uniqueness.


The original inhabitants of Goa were most likely the Kunbis and other tribals. Thereafter Goa and its people were subjected to a plethora of influences. By the time the Portuguese arrived, Goa had already been settled into by the Konkanis and the Saraswats. The once powerful hindu kingdom of Vijaynagar which had control of Goa had just lost it to their arch rivals, the Turkish muslims of Bijapur.

Goa became the second most important city for the Bijapur Turkish Empire and a major transshipment port for pilgrims to Mecca and for horses from Arabia. But life in Goa was far from being peaceful. There was a constant tug of war between Maharajas of Vijaynagar and the Sultans of Bijapur for the control of Goa.

The Muslims were quite intolerant of the Hindus in Goa, a compliment the Vijaynagar Hindus returned to the Muslims a few miles farther south. It is this intolerance, distrust and infighting which allowed the Portuguese to get a foothold in Goa, Cannanore and Cochin. A foothold which the Portuguese had probably not initially planned and one which they hardly had the manpower to retain. At the outset, main interest of the Portuguese was financial : the ability to buy spices directly from India and sell them in Europe for a substantial profit.

Upon arrival, the Portuguese almost wiped out the substantial Islamic presence and influence from the Bijapur Turks in Goa. The Portuguese were initially a welcome relief to the Hindus' long suffering persecution by the Muslims who were tyrannical. But eventually the Portuguese themselves became quite intolerant. This intolerance was most evident during the 16th and in the mid 20th century during the dictatorial rule of Antonio Oliveira Salazar. While this intolerance was for only a minor portion of their stay in Goa, it led to significant resentment among the Goans, the desire among them to be Independent from Portugal and the eventual eviction of the Portuguese from Goa.

After 1961 when Goa became a part of the Indian Union, some realignment of the dominant influences took place. The prevailing Portuguese and Catholic linked influences began to wane and a strong Maharashtra based pro-Marathi anti-Konkani force began to assert itself. But the Konkani base which is the foundation of Goa and Goan-ness prevailed. This was unequivocally demonstrated in the Opinion Poll of 1967 when Goans en masse rejected the attempt by the Marathi-lobby to have Goa absorbed into the neighbouring State of Maharashtra.

With the advent of tourism, a new attempt is being made to create a renewal of the Lusitanian flavour in Goa. It is a good marketing tool. And while this has produced a half-hearted 'look alike' version of the very culture which was being heavily suppressed in the 1962-1982 period, the remnants of the Lusitanian culture found new spirit and ground to exist; and it does - though, just barely. In the 1962-1982 period the anti-Konkani Goa Government often appeared to discriminate against the Konkani, Lusitanian and Goan Catholic elements and influences in society. This discrimination was quite overt. To escape this Catholic Goans emigrated in droves to countries as far flung as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Portugal, the United States and Brazil. To many, their clean, serene, safe and beautiful Goa was being systematically dismantled in the name of progress. An event they could no longer bear to see unfold right in front of their eyes. They joined the hundreds of thousands of Goans who for decades had been leaving Goa in search of better opportunities. In the 1980s another massive emigration of Goans began. This time it was the highly trained and educated set who proceeded to the Middle East, Australia, the UK and North America in search of better prospects.

The Konkani language, suppressed during the Portuguese era in Goa, ironically came under a second period of effective suppression, this time by the anti-Konkani lobby during the 1962-1982 period. The irony of this of course was that a good number of the neo Konkani-suppressors were actually on very cozy terms with the repressive Salazar regime. However, for several reasons the Konkani taught in the schools and preached from the pulpit is significantly different from the Konkani spoken in the homes. This disparity is most obvious when one studies the Konkani spoken by the Goan Catholics. With time however the Catholic dialect of Konkani can be expected to be effectively suppressed and eliminated by the Konkani which is now being taught in the schools.

The tiny resurgence of the Portuguese culture in Goa and the prominence of Konkani appears to have caused some concern for the anti-Konkani lobby which is in the forefront of the attacks and protestations against the commemorations of the Vasco da Gama voyage. The extreme right Hindu fundamentalist groups are likely to be joined by Muslim extremist groups ! The Muslim groups have an understandable reason to be cross with Vasco da Gama. It was the Portuguese who ended their dominance and subjugation of the people of South India. If not for them the Arabs or perhaps the Turks would perhaps still be the masters of the land. The right wing Hindus have demonstrated an open and aggressive opposition towards the Catholic community in India. Attacks on Catholic clergy, churches and educational establishments have occurred in recent years. Even so, it is good to see the extremist Muslim and Hindu groups get together - if only for this reason. Strange bedfellows for the sake of convenience. Of course there are a few 'Tio Tomases' " Kaama purta Maama ".

It is important to note however that they are not the only protesters.

There are intellectual Goans and many freedom fighters who have valid and genuine reasons to object. They fervently believe that there is nothing to celebrate or even commemorate about the Vasco da Gama voyage. However tunnel-visioned this view might appear to be, it is a strong view.

There are of course a number of individuals with an agenda, a number of pseudo-freedom fighters and 'political opportunists'. One expects to find them wherever political capital can be generated.

True to form, the vast majority of Goans in Goa today, would be just as happy if there was no celebration, commemoration, whatever, as they would be if there was one. They are so caught up with the struggles of their own day to day existence that they could hardly be bothered one way or another. In this equation perhaps we will remember that the vast majority of Goans no longer live in Goa ! The vast majority of them are likely to support the commemoration.

I realize that no one can change the fact that my being a Goan and regarded as one ( quite separate and apart from what one is regarded as a person from Karwar , Vengurla or Ratnagiri! ) is based significantly on that historic Voyage of Vasco da Gama 500 years ago !!

Nothing anyone says or does is ever going to change that !

So, I prefer to accept the past of my forebears in Goa, good and bad - for what it was and move ahead. I suggest that every Goan does the same. The other available choice is to 'put blinkers on', ' bury heads in the sand ', pretend, read history selectively and proceed to carry our personal prejudices or agenda ad infinitum !. If there are those who do not understand this position of mine, there is nothing I can or wish to do anything about it.

No excuse for intolerance - past, present or future !

It is true that the history of the Indian subcontinent is rife with the most horrendous of crimes against men, women and children, right from the times of the Aryan invasion of land which belonged to the various tribes of the Indian subcontinent. There was that tragic battle of Kalinga, the Arab and Turk subjugation of South India, the tyranny unleashed by the Mongols, the harsh Moghal rule of India, the bitter inter and intra royal family feuds, the unfortunate attempt by the power hungry Marathas to overwhelm Bengal, the horrible Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of peaceful Indian worshippers by the British, the shameful Black Hole of Calcutta, and the most horrendous Hindu - Muslim genocide during the days of the Partition.

Yet, there will never be any justification for the manner in which innocent Goans of all faiths were tortured and put to death during the Horrible Inquisition. There is no excuse for the religious and cultural intolerance displayed by the Portuguese albeit during a small percentage of their 450 year stay in Goa. None whatsoever !

It is true too, that we are discussing about an era long gone; and that too with the advantage of hindsight. But that is no excuse either !

Having said that, I realize that ALL the different people who contributed to the tragic history of the Indian subcontinent have also contributed immensely to the rich architecture, language, literature, music, cuisine, art, ecology and culture of the subcontinent, all of which we now enjoy, celebrate so much and call 'our own'.

It is in this light that I look at that historic 1497-1499 Voyage of Vasco da Gama !

Today, 500 years after that voyage there are an estimated three million Goans scattered throughout every continent on this earth. Two-thirds of them live overseas. The vast majority of these overseas Goans are Catholics the vast majority of whom retain some degree of the Lusitanian affect !

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