Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Vasco da Gama trades Christianity for spice

Vasco da Gama (1460–1524), a peevish, paranoid trader who refused to go ashore for the first Portuguese contact at an Indian port, shores thus missed hearing a pair of multi-lingual Tunisian merchants ask in both Castilian and Genoese, “The Devil take you! What brought you here?” Replied his chosen representative, a convict, “We came to seek Christians and spices.”
The vicious commander of the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India, he tried to do business in India from a small 50 ton caravel and even smaller supply ship, with a crew of about 160 (including gunners, musicians and three Arabic interpreters), using trade goods common to West Africa but of virtually no interest in Asia—coarse cloth, bells, beads . . . “Business” is a fairly euphemistic term for what he did, though; he pretended to offer protection. His guns, for the time, were state-of-the-art and more powerful than anything those encountered on his voyages had experienced before. Through force, he opened the way to Portugal’s success in appropriating, or more politely, colonizing. He, or anyway his crew, introduced syphilis to Asia. Inflicting casual violence almost everywhere he went, he abused and slaughtered people he meant to glean advantage through, setting a tone for distrust that has remained.
The Portuguese saw excursions to Asia as more than business: they were a continuation of six centuries of war (with an average of a battle or two a day) between Christians and Islamic Moors, mainly in the Iberian Peninsula. The Republic of Venice, by trading with Muslims who’d had a trade monopoly with India and the Far East, had controled most trade between Europe and Asia. Da Gama out-flanked Venice by going around Africa (this was 5 years after Columbus “discovered” the Americas, and the route went far across the Atlantic, almost to Brazil, yet unknown).
Muslims invaded Portugal in 711 and again in 1191; they gained control of almost the whole Iberian Peninsula. Total re-conquest wasn’t made until the 1270s. In 1340 a Portuguese army joined Alfonso XI of Castile won victory over Muslims in Andalusia. Portuguese attacked Morocco in 1458, 1463, and 1471. Turks took Constantinople in 1453, while other Muslims were being pushed from Iberia. In 1578, when at the height of their power in Asia (power gained through da Gama’s efforts), Portuguese knights fought a spirited, essentially chauvinistic campaign at Alcazar, Morocco, and were soundly defeated; at least one member of nearly every noble Portuguese family died there, for abstract reasons almost purely cultural and religious.
Da Gama may have learned astronomy under renowned Abraham Zacuto; Genoese sailors, jealous of Venice’s monopoly on Arabic (Persian) trade, were willing to share secrets with the Portuguese. Da Gama’s decisive expedition sailed from Lisbon on July 8, 1497, with three interpreters: two Arabic speakers and one with several Bantu dialects, as Arab-controlled territory on the East African coast was an integral part of the Indian Ocean trade network. Upon reaching Mozambique, March 2, 1498, da Gama and crew impersonated Muslims to gain audience with the Sultan. They offered unsuitable trade goods and gifts, and were told that Prester John, the long-sought Christian ruler from whom a Pope once received a missive, lived to the interior (but controlled many coastal cities). The Sultan supplied the unconvinced da Gama with two pilots, but hostile crowds threatened. On discovering the Portuguese to be Christian, a pilot deserted. Upon departure, they fired cannons into the city.
Moving up Africa’s east coast, to Mombasa and Malindi (in present-day Kenya), da Gama found much more sophisticated economic life than in West Africa. Coastal towns had merchants—Arabs, Indians from Gujarat and Malabar and Persians—who imported silk and cotton textiles, spices and Chinese porcelain, while exporting cotton, timber and gold. Looting Arab (or more likely, Persian) merchant ships, which lacked the heavy cannon da Gama carried, he took gold, silver, jewels and spices, but was somehow able to get a competent Gujarati pilot from the ruler of Malindi, and so on to Calicut (in Kerala). Da Gama was welcomed by the Hindu ruler (Zamorin) of Calicut, but failed to achieve a treaty, partly due to hostility from Muslim merchants, but more due to the low quality of his trade goods.
The Portuguese remained in Calicut for three months, discovering much about prices and conditions in the spice market, but failed to establish amicable relations with the local ruler (or sell anything). Muslim merchants made allegations against da Gama and he was arrested; the mayor told him to leave without cargo, and detained seven men as hostages. So, upon setting sail, da Gama seized 20 fishermen. A hostage-trade was arranged, but only superior gunnery saved da Gama from Islamic wrath. He destroyed a Calicut fleet of 29 ships, and so finally got favorable trading concessions from the Zamorin. He reached Lisbon in 1499, after two years in which he’d lost half his crew and ships. Nevertheless Manuel I granted Vasco the title of dom (equivalent to the English “sir”), estates and an annual pension. Made admiral January 1502, da Gama sailed again in February, now with 20 ships. He stopped briefly at Mozambique, then sailed to Kilwa (Tanzania), and threatened the Islamic ruler with destruction if he didn’t submit and swear loyalty. He did, and also agreed to an annual tribute of pearls and gold.
After coasting southern Arabia, da Gama went to Goa, then on to Cannanore, north of Calicut, to lay in wait for Arab and Persian shipping. After several days an Arab ship returning from Mecca with valuable merchandise and hundreds of passengers, including many women and children, arrived; da Gama seized the cargo, locked passengers aboard and then set all ablaze. Headed to Cochin, he stopped opposite Calicut and demanded that the ruler expel the whole Muslim merchant community (4000 households). The Samudri, the local Hindu ruler, refused, so da Gama bombarded the city. At Cochin, he bought spices with silver, copper and textiles he’d taken from the ship he burned. After setting up a permanent factory (warehouse) in Cochin, he left five ships there to protect Portuguese interests.
Da Gama returned to Lisbon again October 1503, with 13 of his ships and nearly 1700 tons of spices, i.e. about the same as annual Venetian imports of the time. Portuguese King Manuel I “the Fortunate” (ruled 1495 to 1521), then assumed the title of “lord of the conquest, navigation, and commerce of India, Ethiopia, Arabia, and Persia”! Defeat of an Islamic navy in 1509 gave him control of sea trade, which became the chief source of Portuguese wealth. From Portuguese dominion, the British East Indian Company was able to grow; and then a century and a half of Protestant-led world domination by Europeans – a misled supremacy we can only hope we’re on the verge of recovering from, now.
Alexander of Greece had invaded the Punjab in 327 BCE; before that, Indian teak and cedar was used in Babylon (in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, as mentioned in Buddhist Jataka texts). Arab merchants brought Indian goods to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, and in the 2nd century BCE, Greeks from Bactria founded kingdoms, which lasted over a century, in the Punjab and bordering Afghan hills. Then European commercial involvement with India died with the decline of the Roman Empire in the 4th century CE. Trade passed completely into Arab hands. In the 1400s, land routes to India—via Egypt and the Red Sea, across Turkey and Persia, or through Syria and Iraq to the Persian Gulf—were blocked, mainly by Ottoman action. An Egyptian route was subject to increasing exploitation by a line of middlemen ending with the Venetian monopoly; in 1517 that too passed to Ottoman control. The motive for finding a new route was strong.
For Europe in 1498, India was a land of spices and wonderful marvels; for Muslims, Europe was the land of Rūm and Greek Constantinople (Turkish after 1453). For Hindus, Europe was the home of warlike Yavanas (from the Greek word Ionian). The Portuguese were the first to renew direct contact, being among the few nations to possess both the navigational know-how (including navigational techniques learned from disgruntled Genoese, as mentioned earlier) and the necessary motivation (both revenge on Islam, and supplementing the sparse economy of home).
Portuguese first tried to get a port in northwest India in 1507; by 1534 they had other important trading centers on the western coast (Panjim, Daman, and Diu), but seized from Muslims the port which became Bombay and now Mumbai, India’s principal Arabian Sea port, financial and commercial centre and one of the world’s largest and most densely populated cities. The name Bombay is an Anglicization from “Bom Baia” – Portuguese for good port. In 1661 it came under British control from King Charles II marrying Catherine of Braganza, sister of Portugal’s king; in 1668 it was ceded to the East India Company. In the early 1700s the Portuguese started exporting opium from India to sell in China (at a considerable profit), and by 1773 the British were also involved in that trade – psycho-actives replacing spice, as tea gained popularity in Europe and especially England – tea that there was little other way to pay for.
Da Gama had hoped to find Christians separated from the West by Muslims, and to be able to deal a blow at Muslim power from their maritime rear. He found some in the Syrians of Cochin and Travancore, but mostly only further alienated Muslims. His successors established a Portuguese empire in the East – Goa, Timor and Macao were Portuguese until late in the 20th century. For over 100 years, Portugal had strategic command over the Indian Ocean, and controlled the maritime spice trade, much to the detriment of trade by the Ottoman-controlled Middle Eastern Muslim world. The Portuguese relied on naval power and fortified posts backed by settlements; their ships, sturdy enough to survive Atlantic gales and mounted with cannon, easily disrupted Arab and Malay shipping. But Portugal had fewer than a million people and was involved in Africa and South America as well. It was desperately short of manpower. Fortresses had to become settlements and provide a resident population for defense; intermarriage was encouraged and a new mixed population provided stubborn resistance to attacks.
Despite their small numbers, Portuguese mercenaries operated through much of Asia. Vijayanagar, the first South Indian state to encompass the three major linguistic and cultural traditions of India—Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit), Dravidian (Tamil), and Sunni Muslim Arabs and Turks (mostly of Bahmani state) briefly retook Goa from Muslims, just before the Portuguese made it their first territorial possession in Asia, in 1510. Krishna Deva Raya (reigned 1509–29), the greatest Vijayanagar king, garrisoned forts with Portuguese and Muslim mercenary gunners (and foot soldiers from local forest tribes). Using Portuguese gunners in successful campaigns made for vivid impressions on Muslim rulers, of danger posed by Vijayanagar, resulting in more concerted action against that kingdom. Krishna Deva mostly maintained a mutually advantageous relationship with the increasingly powerful Portuguese, retaining access to trade goods, especially superior horses. In 1546 Portugal made a treaty to expand settlements, but, due to harm to locals, the treaty was broken in 1558; tribute was exacted in compensation for Portuguese damage to temples.
Portugal’s control of the Indian Ocean lasted through the 16th century. Three marks of Portuguese empire were trade, Roman Catholic Christianity, and anti-Islamism. The Portuguese felt that no faith need be kept with infidels, and were happily cruel to Muslims—well beyond the normal limits in a very rough age. This, missionary fervor and intolerance deprived them of potential Indian sympathy.
In 1580 Spain annexed Portugal; until 1640, Portuguese interests were made secondary to those of Spain. The Spanish failed to quell a Dutch uprising, and after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, sea-ways opened to the English and Dutch. Portuguese ascendancy crumbled.
The English East India Company gained monopoly rights to trade as of 1600, with an initial capital of under a tenth of the similar Dutch company’s. Its object was also to trade in spice, primarily from the East Indies (Indonesia); it used India for a secondary purpose—securing cotton for sale to spice growers. The British East Indian venture was troubled by determined Dutch opposition, and by Portuguese who enjoyed Mugal recognition (especially at the western Indian port of Surat). A 1612 English victory over the Portuguese, whose control of the sea route to Mecca was resented by the Mughals, especially pilgrims, provided the English with the right to trade and establish “factories”—in return for becoming naval auxiliaries for the Mughal Empire. Merchants lived in the “factories” or in collegiate-type settlements where life was confined, colorful, and often short, but a century of peaceful trading through factories operating under Mughal grants followed. An exception to this arrangement was the long independent island port of Bombay. Its inhabitants, the Maratha, Hindus often of the Kshatriya warrior class, whose antecedents may have been founders of the 7th to 13th century Srivijaya maritime empire, were locked in vicious combat with the Mughals. The Marathi-speaking region extends from Bombay to Goa, and inland about 100 miles.
In the long run, English trade, in bulk instead of highly priced luxury goods preferred by the Dutch, became the more profitable—as smaller areas to cover and less need for armed forces reduced overhead. But India would take little other than silver in exchange for goods, and loss of too much bullion wasn’t acceptable in England’s mercantilist political economy. So the English developed a system similar to that of the Dutch, with Madras and Gujarat supplying cotton goods (Gujarat also supplied indigo); and Bengal silk, sugar, and saltpeter (for gunpowder). There was spice trade along the Malabar coast, in competition with the Portuguese and Dutch. But it was opium shipped to China that laid a basis for continued English trade; English tea imports increased from 54,000 pounds in 1706 to over 2,300,000 pounds in 1750, paid for mostly through sale to China of Indian opium.
Goa, with a coastline of 65 miles, was finally annexed by India in 1962, after Indian troops supported by naval and air forces invaded and occupied Goa, Daman, and Diu. Portuguese India was then incorporated into the Indian Union, and what da Vaca had wrought was brought to naught. Increased trade he had facilitated reduced no cultural divides.

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