Follow the The Last Crusade with Nigel Cliff
In 1498 a young captain sailed from Portugal, circumnavigated Africa, crossed the Indian Ocean, and discovered the sea route to the Indies, opening up access to the fabled wealth of the East.
It was the longest voyage known to history; the ships were pushed to their limits, their crews were racked by storms and devastated by disease. However, the greatest enemy was neither nature nor the fear of venturing into unknown world
With blood-red Crusader crosses emblazoned on their sails, the explorers arrived in the heart of the Muslim East at a time when the old hostilities between Christianity and Islam had intensified. In two voyages that spanned six years, Vasco da Gama would fight a running sea battle that would ultimately change the fate of three continents.
Alongside Columbus and Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama is one of the towering figures of the age of discovery; however, his story is surprisingly little known. In the pages of The Last Crusade, Nigel Cliff gifts us the first accessible, authoritative and complete account of Vasco da Gama’s historic and audacious attempt to seize the spice routes and re-conquer the Holy Land.
An author with a wonderful eye for narrative, Cliff puts the reader on da Gama’s in an epic tale of spies, intrigue, and treachery; of bravado, brinkmanship, and confused – often comical collisions – between cultures encountering one another for the first time. With the world once again tipping back East, The Last Crusade offers a key to understanding age-old religious and cultural rivalries resurgent today.
editor, James Roxburgh
Why is it important to learn about Vasco da Gama and the Age of Discovery?
The easy answer is because it’s one of the great human epics. A quest pursued at high human cost for the better part of a century is put in the hands of one young man and his ill-matched crew; together they sail for 24,000 miles into the unknown, tested by every imaginable challenge from storms to disease to hostile cultures, until somehow, on their last legs, they make it home again. As so often when people are thrown into alien cultures far from home, we find out a great deal about the character of those involved and the society they come from. But then the question arises: why tell it now? What does it have to say to us today? As I delved deeper into Gama’s voyages, I increasingly began to see them as a turning point between what we call the medieval and modern worlds – which is to say, between the era in which Islam was the dominant global power and the era of Western global ascendancy. Now that the world is turning back east and the old contest between Christianity and Islam is once again to the fore, I felt it was time to bring this momentous story to a wider audience.
Why “The Last Crusade”?
Is there a link between the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries and the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries?
In the book I suggest that the Portuguese voyages were in many ways the product of four centuries of attempts by Western Europe – most of which went under the name of Crusades – to push back against the encroaching Islamic world. The Crusades are generally held to have ended with the expulsion of the Crusaders from the Holy Land at the end of the 13th century; in fact Crusades were called throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, with increasing urgency as the Ottomans advanced and conquered Constantinople in 1453, but with little or no success. Not every European nation was keen on Crusading, and I certainly don’t suggest that there was a permanent state of conflict between Islam and Christianity in the centuries before Vasco da Gama’s voyage; I describe many places – al-Andalus, Toledo, Sicily, Venice – where civilization was elevated by a spirit of co-operation across religious lines. But Portugal, which like Spain was bloodily carved out of an Islamic state, was certainly part of that movement from the time of Henry the Navigator onwards. What earned them their place in history was that they dared to dream of sailing round Africa to achieve their aims, and spent the better part of a century preparing the way. I think it makes sense to call the Portuguese mission “the last Crusade” because, by opening the oceans to European trade and conquest, it tipped the balance of world power from Islam to Christendom and ushered in five centuries of Western global ascendancy.
What was, in your opinion, the respective weight of religion and economics in Portugal’s decision to search for new lands?
Of course religion wasn’t the only factor; economic and political motives clearly played a large part, as did personal ambition. The same was true of the earlier Crusaders; has there ever been a holy war that was purely about religion? That said, I wanted to highlight the role of faith because I suspect in our sceptical age we’re too ready to ascribe purely secular motives to our forebears. From King Manuel I of Portugal silencing doubters by declaring he was acting as the hand of God on earth, to sailors thanking God for sending them a lifesaving breeze or current, the record shows that the explorers were men of faith as much as men of trade. Most astonishing of all, the ultimate objective of the voyages of both Vasco da Gama and his great rival Christopher Columbus was openly stated to be the reconquest of Jerusalem and the hastening of the Second Coming. Was all this Crusading talk merely a cover for mercenary motives, a PR exercise, so to speak, to satisfy the ultimate lawgiver in Rome? No doubt there was something of that, but to my mind, it’s too easy to dismiss all talk of faith as rank hypocrisy. It runs the risk of loading modern assumptions onto a world in which the health of the state, its people, and its religion amounted almost to one and the same thing. Yet by focusing on faith – or rather, the Crusading mentality – as a vital ingredient of the Discoveries, I certainly don’t intend to return to the old, uncritical idea that they amounted to some kind of high-minded missionary endeavour. On the second voyage, the conflicting aims come into tragicomic focus when an Italian businessman fumes that Gama’s increasingly fanatical violence against Muslims is making it impossible for him to do business. As this suggests, the mindset born of the Crusades – a mindset that divided the world into true believers and infidels and justified almost any act of aggression in the name of an expansionist religion – spelt disaster for the Portuguese from the start.
What role did legends and myths about distant and fantastic lands – like the stories about Prester John – play in the Age of Discovery?
It’s true that ignorance and wishful thinking were at least as important as actual knowledge in driving the Discoveries. To Western Christendom, cut off by Islam from any knowledge of what lay over its borders, Asia was a place of mysteries and miracles; the Garden of Eden was still thought to be flowering there, and countless Christians were believed to be awaiting a reunion with their Western coreligionists. Prester John was the greatest piece of wishful thinking of all: a lost Christian king who ruled over a magical Eastern realm complete with a fountain that maintained him at Jesus’ age at the crucifixion and an emerald table at which he entertained thousands of kings, archbishops and nobles. His people, it was said, outnumbered Europeans three to one, and he could put a million men in the field – stark naked, and wielding solid gold weapons. Here was an ally with whose help Europe could wipe Islam off the face of the earth, and as the Portuguese made their way around Africa and into the Indian Ocean they constantly asked after Prester John. Rather underwhemingly, it was eventually decided that he was the less than all-powerful emperor of Ethiopia. Without the hope of finding a powerful ally to advance their cause, we might well wonder whether the Portuguese would have dared go it alone to India.
Do you consider the voyages of Vasco da Gama to be as important as those of Christopher Columbus? If so, why?
Yes, because Gama succeeded in doing what Columbus tried and failed to do – to find the sea route to Asia. The spices, gems, silks, and porcelain of India and China were the source of much of the Islamic world’s wealth, and much of that wealth now flowed into Europe. Equally, since Europe had been as much psychologically as physically constrained by the Islamic world, its newfound sense of freedom vastly expanded its horizons. Let’s remember that at the time America was seen as little more than an obstacle on the way to the East; several decades after Columbus, the Spanish conquistadores were still trying to find a way across the continent to the Spice Islands. Europe had no need of land; it needed wealth, and the confidence that it could break its bonds and assert itself on a world stage. For that reason, I think Gama’s voyages were equal in importance to Columbus’s; they were, we might say, the counterparts of one another.
What kind of dangers did Vasco and his crews face?
It takes a leap of the imagination today to imagine what it must have been like to sail into the complete unknown. No maps, no charts, no contact with home or certainty of finding allies. The crews were packed onto three small ships; privacy was unknown, and comforts were so few that there was a constant battle over the only flat sleeping place on deck, the hatch that led down to the hold. On the outbound journey they went without sight of land for an unprecedented three months, then ploughed through terrible storms into tropical heatwaves and freezing chills. On the way home they were caught in a dead calm for weeks and nearly succumbed to a hallucinatory fever. Amid all that, they had to deal with traps, ambushes, sea battles, strange diseases and a succession of very different and utterly alien cultures. Vasco da Gama was just 28 when he was entrusted with the great mission and he had to learn on the job: what saved him, along with his innate caution and intelligence, was his complete loyalty to his men, which in return earned him their unblinking trust.
Perhaps the most dismaying discovery of all was that the ruler of Calicut, the rich Indian spice port where they were headed, turned out to be deeply unfriendly; the explorers were still convinced he was a fellow Christian, and they couldn’t understand why he didn’t favour them over his longstanding Muslim allies. When they finally realized that India was not in fact full of Christians waiting to welcome them with open arms, they were cast adrift in a world that made no sense to them. It was an astonishing feat for a tiny nation to forge the first colonial empire, but because they arrived laden down with an essentially medieval world-view they failed fully to capitalize on their pioneering efforts. As their hopes turned out to be fantasies, they found themselves dragged into a series of messy local scrambles for wealth and power – opening the way for rival nations to reap the rewards.
What is the significance of Vasco’s voyages today?
The success of the Portuguese-led voyages of exploration allowed the Christian West to sail into global dominance, and Gama’s voyages marked the beginning of the long, fraught centuries of Western colonialism in Africa and Asia. The aftershocks of this unexpected revolution are still being felt today, and I think it has something valuable to tell us. First, if we want to understand the mindset of modern-day Islamists, we might want to reflect that an apocalyptic agenda accompanied by acts of mass terrorism was official Western policy when we were the underdog. Second, and conversely, the Portuguese experience is surely one of the clearest warnings from history that approaching another culture with the belief that the world can all be one way – your way – amounts to asking for a rude awakening. This is how I put it at the end of my book: “In the end, the religious certainty that drove Vasco da Gama and his fellow explorers halfway around the world was also their undoing. For all their astonishing achievements, the idea of a Last Crusade—a holy war to end all holy wars—was always a crazy dream.”
‘Cliff has a novelist's gift for depicting character... He brings sixteenth-century Portugal in all its splendor and squalor pungently to life’ New York Times, ‘Notable Books of 2011’
‘A stirringly epic book...Gama’s incident-rich voyage is a thrilling narrative’ Sunday Times