Now that the cover for my next YA Fantasy book Flower and Thorn has been revealed, and we have a firm date for publication (17 October 2023), I wanted to talk a little bit about the historical background of the book. It is set in an alternate sixteenth century India near the beginning of European colonization of the Indian subcontinent. While it is a fantasy, and all characters and settings are used fictitiously, it is the most ‘historical’ book I’ve written and I wanted to give some background to interested readers. Buckle up, this is a long ride.
When I was a kid growing up in India, we learned all about colonial British atrocities in our history books. We didn’t really learn about the other colonial powers, perhaps because the British were the most successful in the Indian subcontinent. After all, they didn’t leave until 1947. And that too, after looting it systematically of its wealth over the centuries, presiding over famines, brutally suppressing freedom movements, and indenturing hundreds of thousands of Indians to work in British colonies following the abolition of the slave trade.
But the story of European colonization doesn’t begin with the British. It begins with the Portuguese. My eighth grade General Knowledge book informed me that India was ‘discovered’ by Vasco da Gama, famous and intrepid Portuguese explorer, in 1498. Leaving aside the fact that there was nothing to ‘discover’, India already being occupied by millions of people, thank you very much, let me tell you what Vasco da Gama actually did and what kind of man he actually was. Prepare to feel sickened. I know I was.
Content Warning: Graphic descriptions of colonial violence.
The Indian Ocean Trade flourished between city states in Africa and Asia between 800 CE and the early 1500s when the Portuguese invaded and basically destroyed it. This is how it happened.
The king of Portugal wanted to build up his royal treasury by breaking into the profitable spice trade between Europe and Asia. This trade, mostly conducted via land routes, was dominated by Venice. The solution? Find a sea route to Asia by sailing around the African continent. In 1488, one of the captains of King John II returned after rounding the Cape of Good Hope. John II needed an explorer who would go beyond it all the way to India.
Enter Vasco de Gama. He set sail from Lisbon in July 1497 with four ships. In November, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and in March, they arrived in the Island of Mozambique. There, da Gama impersonated a Muslim to gain an audience with the Sultan of Mozambique. But no one was interested in his paltry trade goods, and the Sultan was unimpressed with what he had to offer. Local people became suspicious (rightly so, haha) and da Gama was forced to flee, the ships firing canons at the city as they fled the harbor. They had a similar hostile reception in Mombasa.
In May 1498, they finally arrived in Calicut, India and were hospitably received. But the Zamorin (ruler) of Calicut was similarly unimpressed with the trivial gifts da Gama had to offer as well as his rude behavior and asked him to pay customs duty like any other trader. In response, da Gama kidnapped several fishermen and soldiers to take back to Portugal. (FYI, the return journey was hellish because da Gama ignored local knowledge of the monsoon winds; lots of men died).
However, it was not until his second voyage to India in 1502 that da Gama showed his true, violent colors. This time, he led a fleet of ten ships from Lisbon, supported by two flotillas of five ships each, bent on revenge against the Zamorin for a riot in the city that had destroyed a Portuguese trading post in 1500. In October, they intercepted a ship carrying 400 Muslim pilgrims on their way from Calicut to Mecca. Vasco da Gama looted the ship, locked all the men, women, and children in the hold, and burned them to death.
It is interesting to me that Britannica.com describes the horrific pilgrim ship incident as “related only by late and unreliable sources and may be legendary or at least exaggerated.” What lies, Britannica. Your history-denying racism is showing.
The account of the pilgrim ship massacre was related in great detail by the eyewitness Thomé Lopes who was present at the time. He was employed as a captain’s clerk on one of the ships in the flotilla. There are multiple other eyewitness accounts and chroniclers of the terrible event, but he was the only one to openly condemn it. He says da Gama behaved “with great cruelty and without any mercy whatsoever”. Thank you, Thomé. No one else had the guts to say it. Portuguese historians and poets have glibly ignored this incident as well, otherwise how could they make Vasco da Gama into a national hero?
Nor was this the only such incident where Vasco da Gama displayed his cruelty. Do you want to read on?
In October 1502, da Gama’s heavily armed fleet of ships arrived in Kannur (Kerala) and through a series of bribes, threats and feints imposed a treaty with the king that granted the Portuguese fixed prices to buy spices and introduced the cartaz system, whereby every trading ship along the Malabar coast had to present a certificate signed by a Portuguese administrator. Otherwise, the ship would be subject to attack and seizure by the Portuguese. This is the licensing system that the Portuguese used with such success to take over ocean trade along all the coasts they controlled, right until the eighteenth century.
Back to da Gama’s inhumanity. After Kannur, his armada headed to Calicut where the Zamorin tried to appease him by sending various messages promising compensation for the loss of the trading post. Vasco da Gama responded by demanding that all Muslims be expelled from Calicut before any talks were possible. He took fifty fishermen captive to put pressure on the Zamorin. The Zamorin asked him to release the hostages and said he would not expel Muslims from Calicut, which was a free port. In response, da Gama slaughtered the fishermen and bombed Calicut. The fishermen were strung up by their necks from the masts of the ships to instill terror into the crowds watching from the shore. Later, their hands and feet were cut off and sent to the Zamorin along with a message demanding he recompense the Portuguese for the gunpowder wasted in destroying the city.
This violence sent shockwaves along the Malabar coast and trade came to a halt. One by one, the Portuguese captured the port cities of Eastern Africa, and wrecked, looted, and burned them to the ground. Vasco da Gama was rewarded by the king of Portugal for all his efforts. Nor was he the only cruel, inhumane one. Francisco de Almeida, the so-called Viceroy of Portuguese India, led the massacre of Dabul in 1508, slaughtering all living inhabitants, human and animal, before burning the city to the ground. He was Vasco da Gama’s brother-in-law, by the way. Birds of a feather…
In 1509, the Battle of Diu cemented Portuguese power in India. The Portuguese routed the combined forces of the Sultan of Gujarat, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, and the Zamorin of Calicut even though the Muslim Alliance had support from the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire. After this, the Portuguese quickly captured key ports like Goa, Ceylon, and Malacca. It is around this time period that my book is based. I asked the question: what if? What if we had magic? And I imagined a different ending from what really happened. It was extremely cathartic.
The Portuguese colonizers are off-page for the most part in my book. But their actions are the source of much of the tension. The story follows a young flower hunter who must retrieve a priceless magical flower before it falls into enemy hands. There is magic, war, intrigue, betrayal, ambition, loyalty, friendship, and romance. Interested? You can add it to goodreads and you can pre-order. Pre-orders are super-helpful to authors; they let publishers gauge interest in a title and determine how much stock booksellers will carry!
Fast forward to the 20th century
Not only were the Portuguese the first to colonize the Indian subcontinent, they were also the last to leave. They clung on to Goa until 1961 when India finally took military action and kicked them out. Portuguese soldiers were given the order to defeat the ‘invaders’ (I am laughing hysterically) or die in the attempt. Operation Vijay lasted 36 hours and was a decisive victory for India when the so-called Governor of Portuguese India signed an instrument of surrender – despite orders from Lisbon that Goa be destroyed before it was given up. The governor disobeyed direct orders to prevent further loss of life – sensible man. Portugal did not recognize Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli as part of India until the dictatorial Salazar regime fell in 1974.
It’s interesting to note that Portugal appealed to the UN Security Council for a debate on the Goa conflict. Among the countries that called for India to cease hostilities and retreat from Goa and other Indian territories occupied for 450 years by the Portuguese were the UK, USA, and France. I understand UK and France – they were rapacious colonial powers themselves after all and must have felt deep empathy and understanding for the long-time Portuguese occupiers.
But why the USA? Politics, man. Everything the USA does in the security council has always been about power. Nothing remotely ethical about it. They played Pakistan off against India for at least fifty years. Cold war tactics; it’s a long story. Anyway, the resolution was defeated by a veto from the Soviet Union and India finally got back Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
Things are different today. India and her neighbors have normal diplomatic relations with all the erstwhile colonizing powers. But I wonder how much of this bloody history is taught to European school kids. Not much, I suspect. A 2016 study found that 43% of British people thought the British Empire was a good thing. Surely they don’t know about the Bengal famine, the Amritsar massacre, the Boer war concentration camps, the post-partition violence in India. If they knew, they would think differently, right? Maybe they wouldn’t lionize Churchill if they knew the 1943 Bengal famine that killed millions of Indians was a direct result of his policies? That he said “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” That when British officials wrote to him pointing out that his policies were causing huge loss of life, he responded asking why Mahatma Gandhi was still alive.
Uh huh. People have a way of twisting history to suit their own beliefs. Everyone wants their heroes to remain heroic, facts be damned. The British aren’t going to stop lionizing Churchill, just the way the Portuguese will never stop lionizing Vasco da Gama. The two men are separated by centuries, and are quite different, but one thing remains the same: the belief that others are lesser than they are. When you can successfully dehumanize those of a different religion and/or skin color, then you can successfully commit and get away with mass murder.
I could go on for ages, but I’ll stop now. I had to do all this reading as background research for my book and it would have been remiss of me not to inflict some of it on you. To anyone who read this whole thing, thank you.
What a lovely read Rati. I didn’t know we had to win a vote for our own land that too as recent as ’74. I am starting to feel how much our people, even previous governments had to do ti be able to be here where we are and becoming.
Also I feel your book is coming at a time when the wave is turning towards India and her resilience, which shows and is present throughout her history and even civilisation per say.
My deep gratitude and congrats for making history interesting. I can sense that. Looking forward.
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