Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama had the same goal: a sea route to “the Indies.” Despite our October holiday, it’s abundantly clear who succeeded. The Portuguese da Gama decisively won the contest by rounding Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and finding his way to the wealthy spice port of Calicut in India in 1498. Columbus’ voyages had the greater long-term impact by opening the Americas to European colonization. But historian Nigel Cliff argues in his sweeping Holy War that da Gama’s deeds had a huge influence on the economic and cultural competition between East and West that continues today.

Da Gama’s sea journeys provide the framework for Cliff’s epic, but he is only a symbol of the larger Portuguese imperial effort in the 15th and 16th centuries. Portugal’s royal house had two interwoven objectives: the worldwide spread of Christianity and the acquisition of wealth. Spurred on by their mistaken belief in a nonexistent Eastern Christian king called “Prester John,” they set out to break the Muslim Arab monopoly on the spice trade from India to Europe. Da Gama was the perfect spearhead.

Da Gama’s encounters with Africa and India make a compelling adventure tale, told by Cliff with the right mix of sweep and detail. Cliff portrays da Gama as tough, smart, ruthless and consumed with the hatred of Islam typical of his Iberian crusader background. He was a far better leader than Columbus, and although he certainly made mistakes—for example, he was long under the strange misapprehension that the Hindus were Christians—he got results.

Christianity didn’t triumph throughout the globe, but Cliff argues that the maritime empire created by da Gama and his successors through bloodshed and guile did tip the economic balance of power from the Middle East to Europe. That empire was mismanaged and short-lived, but the Dutch and English followed where the Portuguese led. The consequences linger.

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