Vasco Da Gama's holy adventure

Nigel Cliff, Holy War: How Vasco da Gama’s epic voyages turned the tide in a centuries-old clash of civilisations, Harper Collins

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 Nigel Cliff, a journalist and historian, writes essentially of the voyage of Vasco da Gama, who sailed from Portugal in 1497, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and crossed the Indian Ocean to open Asia once again to Christianity and European commerce.

But Cliff sets his story in a larger context of the rivalry of Christianity and Islam, which began in 714 and persisted through centuries of crusades launched by popes and fought by European kings and nobles against Saracens, Mongols, Turks and other Muslim powers.

Ferocious as they were, those battles failed almost totally to win Christian access to Jerusalem and/or the fabled riches of India and China.

“It could have been different,” Cliff argues, offering as a contrast to holy war the story of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who lived in Sicily and secured Christian access to Jerusalem in 1229 by simply leasing it from the reigning Muslim sultan. The papacy was unimpressed of course; it had already excommunicated Frederick for not volunteering to crusade.

However, the tide turned for Europe after the Black Death in the 1300s reduced populations everywhere. Then Moorish rule retreated before new monarchies in Spain and Portugal, which were commissioned by the papacy to seek sea routes to Asia in order to spread the faith, destroy Muslims and gain access for trade.

Da Gama returned to Portugal a hero in 1499 and subsequently became admiral of India, where he died at age 55 in 1524. His voyages had opened a new era of European economic and military supremacy.

Nonetheless, faith should not be underestimated. Without it, would Portugal’s doughty seamen have risked lives and endured suffering? It might be a question with relevance today as China and India’s economies rise again.


Bringing firepower, commerce and the faith to Asia (National Catholic Reporter)


Vasco da Gama (Wikipedia)

European Voyages of Exploration: Portugal (University of Calgary)


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