I just finished this book on Vasco de Gama the Portuguese explorer, I know, I’m in Italy, I should be reading about Michelangelo and Da Vinci, but I wanted to read about men on the high seas. I’m going to be sailing soon across the Aegean , leaving behind all this marble and plaster, oil paintings and tapestries and well…it got me thinking of people who escape the worlds and times in which they were born.
Over five hundred years ago, King Manuel of Portugal (think… dude with big crown always complaining about castle drafts and wife Isabella with a face like a Hostess powder cake) sent four ships, commanded by Vasco de Gama (insert sweet goatee and plumed hat into memory bank) to find a sea route to luscious India, to bring back… you know, basically the Big Mac of the Middle Ages: Curry.
You ever notice how they don’t say what spices these guys were after? Are we talking cumin and paprika? Yuck! How bad was gruel in western Europe that kings had to send explorers to the Orient for take out?
“My son says Daddy I don’t want to go to school cause the teachers a jerk, he must think I’m a fool and all the kids smoke reefer, I think it’d be cheaper, if I just got a job learn to be a street sweeper.” -Grandmaster Flash, the Message
So… Vasco sets sail and it’s a disaster. His men die of dehydration and creepy illnesses like scurvy and rickets ( I totally loved studying about rickets when I was a kid… Hartenstein side note). They get hijacked by Muslims (Not the most congenial set of fellows). They run out of food (what a surprise. Probably had buckets of that gruel but nobody wanted to eat it). And eventually made it to India where they were almost beheaded.
“I dance to the beat, shuffle my feet, wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps
Cause it’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny, you got to have a car in this land of milk and honey.” -Grandmaster Flash, the Message
But… it’s a happy ending! Vasco makes it back to Lisbon in 1499, after two years of voyaging, and despite bringing back only two ships, one-third the men, and a couple sacks of parsley garnishes, King Manuel (you remember, the ‘do you feel a draft up your robe, darling?’ guy) decides not to throw him in the dungeon, but instead promotes him to Admiral of the Indian Ocean (makes you wonder if King Manuel is some long distant descendent to the Bush family, doesn’t it?)
"You’ll grow in the ghetto living second rate, and your eyes will sing a song of deep hate.
The places you play in and where you stay look like one great big alleyway.
You’ll admire all the big note takers: thugs, pimps, and pushers and the big money makers,
Driving big cars spending twenties and tens, and you’ll want to grow up to be just like them.”
-Grandmaster Flash, the Message
There is this 16th century epic poem, The Lusiads, which sings of de Gama’s miraculous voyage: “The people considered us already lost on so long and uncertain a journey. The women with piteous wailing, the men with agonizing sighs…”
Yeah, right? Columbus who? So Vasco de Gama was the first to sail from Europe around the vast continent of Africa, across the treacherous (still totally treacherous) Indian Ocean (which I’ve swam in many times) to India and the riches (almost beheaded) of the Orient (don’t call them Orientals). His journey lasted 27,000 miles (that’s a lot of ‘are we there yet dad?’ comments from the peanut gallery), nearly four times the distance pathetic Columbus sailed in 1492, and was the culmination (love that word) of seventy years and hundreds of Portuguese voyages of exploration (Portugal who?) Because of Vasco de Gama, it no longer mattered that Portugal was a poor sliver of land with few natural resources, she could now reach out and claim half of the globe as her own (that lasted a long time, huh?)
Well, it was a good read, THREE CHEERS for journeys of complete and utter folly. (I can appreciate those mightily) Kudos Vasco de Gama for being an awesome reminder of what the human spirit is capable of and being a total inspiration. Maybe someday I will accomplish something immensely worthy of poking fun at too. Then again, who says I haven’t already.