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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book for the historian, 8 Nov 2012
This review is from: The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama (Paperback)
Sanjay Subrahmanyam is a highly qualified professional historian. He consults the sources, he reviews the work of other writers, he considers the view of history down the ages on his subject, and lastly, he writes well. In this book we have precisely what the title promises us, a review of the career of Vasco da Gama together with a review of the legends built around his life's work. The author at every turn exposes the sources upon which he bases his arguments and consequently this book is well argued and thoroughly convincing.

It is a masterly book, the epitome of a work of scholarship. We find out what makes Gama tick (probably his overbearing and nasty temper) and we can begin to judge the success or otherwise of his career. How did he serve his royal master D Manuel I? He was the first commander to reach India in a Portuguese ship (1497-1498); he followed by commanding the outward bound India fleet in 1502. But he then fell from royal favour, and only when D Joćo III ascended the throne was he again entrusted with the India fleet. Setting out again from Lisbon in March 1524 at the age of about 55, he determines to carry out royal policy in his normal brusque and autocratic manner, but dies suddenly on Christmas Eve 1524. He has spent 22 years in the wilderness; he was repeatedly denied the honours and rewards promised him by his royal master, D Manuel I. He was on the wrong side of D Jorge, Master of the Order of Santiago, he belonged to a minority on the royal council and lived most of these years away from Lisbon, the centre of power. What went wrong, and how does history remember him?

First, history remembers only the voyage of 1497, and ignores the rest of his life. Portuguese historians especially, but not alone, have served his historical memory from a Eurocentric viewpoint, and have ignored or disregarded Gama's contribution to the history of southeast Asia. In their legend, Gama was the man who broke into the Indian Ocean and transformed the history of the world. But while there are elements of truth in this view, there is much more to the story. The unexplained gap in the history of the discoveries between the voyage of Bartolomeu Dias (1489) and that of Vasco da Gama (1497) troubles historians, and this book supplies a credible reason for the delay. Following the death of D Joćo II, the new regime of D Manuel struggled to impose a united policy to support further exploration, and in this aim he was not completely successful. We may have visions of absolute monarchs who are able to command on a whim, but D Manuel I was not one of them. Not for him L'état c'est moi; on his royal council he had many powerful opponents, and wherever he is now if D Manuel knows of his soubriquet O venturoso (the lucky) he might venture to himself a wry smile. And the story of Gama the hero is diametrically opposed to that of another Portuguese superhero, Afonso d'Albuquerque, because their views on how Portugal should exploit its new empire were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Two heroes of quite a different stamp, living at the same time in Portuguese history. Perhaps for Portuguese historians it was better just to forget that they had differences, and to portray Portuguese exploits as a continuing story of success. History seems to have done just that. In this magnificent biography of Vasco da Gama, Subrahmanyam picks at the details and exposes the differences in the political views of those two heavyweights in Portuguese imperial history.

I have recently been chided for a review on Nigel Cliff's Holy War Holy War: How Vasco Da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations which seems to occupy the easy read section of history, the sort of book which you could take to the beach. In it the author apparently makes a number of mistakes. Admittedly I did not read Cliff's book, but I did read the review (published only in the US) of someone who had (Fernando Armesto-Fernandez, Professor of History at Notre Dame University, and formerly of Oxford); having read this devastating review, nor shall I read Cliff's book. What is the purpose of reviews such as these if not to guide fellow readers?

Armesto-Fernandez on the other hand rates Subrahmanyam's book highly, and I agree with him. This book cries out for the sixth star, it is that good. Sanjay Subrahmanyam has written a tremendous book, but it is not the sort of book you would take to the beach for an easily digestible read, because this book requires your whole active attention and thought. If you like real history, then The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama is your sort of book; if not, then go for the Nigel Cliff version.
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