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Asia and the World in the Age of Empire. Essay

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Updated: Sep 26th, 2021

It was the year 1497, King Dom Manuel dispatched four vessels in an unknown destination across the seas in search of spices, and, Vasco Da Gama was the Captain of one of these vessels. Paulo Da Gama, his brother was commanding one of the ships and Nicolau Coelho was commanding another. (Vehlo, Gama, Sá, & Ravenstein, 1) The discoveries they made not only opened the doors for Portuguese traders into the soils of Asia but vivid accounts of officers on Da Gama’s ship gives us lucid accounts of Asian history and culture as well.

The accounts of the journey of Gama to India while became a source of awe in the eyes of Americans and their obsessions yet descriptions of voyage were also source of much speculations and debates. The two writers Disney and Booth gave edited version of the collection of essays and papers presented during 1997 conference to celebrate the quincentenary of Gama’s first voyage to India where there was not any dearth of uniformity in papers of these two. In the section named “Plenary Lectures” Felipe Fernández-Armesto wrote an essay where he described that the Indian Ocean was the world’s most influential ocean and the voyage of Vaso do Gama was the most important part of history. Maurice Kriegel and Sanjay Subrahmanyam explored the “Lendas da India” (Legends of India), which was not so credited account of Gasper Correia on Gama. They posited the view that Correia’s book should not be read merely as an account of the Gama voyage and like chroniclers such as Joao de Barros or Fernao Lopes Castanhed, but should be read as a book that “sought nevertheless to observe and report on the other cultures in an ‘ethnographic logic.’” (Brooks, Online) Correia had spent many decades in the service of the Crown in India, but remained mostly aloof from the turmoil that was the part of the Reformation process of the period. His writings merely give the picture of the pre-1500 era of the interests of the Portuguese court towards the Christian and Jewish traditions, astrology, and other mystical philosophies.

M.N. Pearson was another writer to develop deeper study on the Swahili coast of Eastern Africa during da Gama’s visit that he maintained a place characterized by “rich and variegated society”, (Brooks, Online) the place that embarked as a major trading zone. Gama forged a much close tie with this land than with any other land of the Indian Ocean.

Maria de JesusMártires dos Lopes proved that despite the fact that there was large number of converts by Padroado missionaries in the Goa region; the Novos Convertidos was able to retain their own culture and religious traditions. These were all the part of contributions made in the book Vasco Da Gama and linking of Europe and Asia. (Brooks, Online).

Ethel M. Pope in “India in Portuguese literature” mentioned how Alvaro Velho traversed their journey to the lands of Asia. He along-with his men when landed towards the Eastern coast of Africa at Melinda took a pilot from the king, who accompanied them toward their journey for Calicut where they arrived on May 20, 1498. Their journey of 10 days and 11 months on the land of India was full of astonishments. They found India as the land of their golden dreams and wealth and spices. They were more astonished when they saw people worshiping idol of goddess that they wrongly thought to be Virgin Mary.

From this place, they went to large Church where they noted architect of the Church similar to that of monastery carved with stone and tiles and its principal door was in a shape of a bronze, a monument a height of the ship. (Pope, 20) While back to their own kingdom, Gama gave the description of India to his kingship, “The king considers himself Christian as well as the greater part of the people…One finds there all the year round cucumbers, oranges, lemons and citorns…..there are great fleets….the island of Taprobana, which they call Ceilam, is 150 leagues from Quolicut.” (Pope, 26).

As and as Gama visited in sub continents, the vivid picture of men and women they witnessed was put into own words; houses were built of straw, the weapons of the people included long sized bows and arrows and spears with iron blades. For them the copper was found in plenty as people wore ornaments of coppers. People were in possession of the draggers with sheaths made of ivory. They found another mineral, Tin as they saw it on the hilts of their daggers. People loved the piece of linen clothes. It was also found “they had large calabashes in which they carried sea -water inland where they poured into pits to form salt.” (Vehlo, Gama, Sá, & Ravenstein, 18) And these lands began to be known as “Terra da Boa Gente” meaning “Land of Good people” and river “Rio Da Cobre” meaning copper river. (Vehlo, Gama, Sá, & Ravenstein, 18).

The most exciting example of a travel text by the single author is of Fernao Mendes Peregrinacao. The book first came into print at Lisbon in 1614. As the title of the text itself suggests inside pages recounting many and diverse strange things and happenings in China (Alam & Subrahmanyam, 334) and that of Tartary and Sornau [Shahr-i Nau] commonly called by the name Siam, and many accounts of Calaminhan, Pegu, Martaban and many other kingdoms. (Alam & Subrahmanyam, 335) Many of the events referred by Pinto dates back to 1530’s and 1540; it is said that his works do not reflect much toward the treatment to the Indian Ocean politics especially the rise of the Mughal rules and their importance but captures certain crucial aspects as a free adventurer within Portuguese empire. He could understand Malay and tried to make his text lively with it. As it is said, he claimed to have full authenticity of whatever he wrote on his experiences yet the arguments are still going on regarding the main aim of his text. (Alam & Subrahmanyam, 335).

Next were the two major Portuguese publications, Da Asia and Castanheda’s Historia, both are the chronicles of not only voyages but also of the lives of this part of the world traveled, explored, discovered and taken advantage of. (Alam & Subrahmanyam, 336) In 1550, Galvao’s not only understood the world in his work “Discovery of the World”, but his obsession with China also made his work a great treatise.

Besides accounts of the travelers, we can have a glimpse of Asia through the writings of Julia Corner and Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff. Julia’s book, “China Pictorial, Descriptive, and Historical”, is a display of Chinese social life in its different vicissitudes. She gave vivid account of Chinese living style, their civilization, their religious practices, eating habits and political overtures. About people of China, she said, “In the many allusions that have already been made in the preceding pages to the manners and customs of this singular people, it must have appeared that it is not the difference between civilization and barbarism that distinguishes the Chinese of the present age from their contemporaries, but it is the more remarkable dissimilarity between ancient and modern, and eastern and western civilization, which marks them as a nation belonging to other times and other climes.” (Corner, 176-177) She also wrote the history of China and India to capture the vivid accounts of the historical events of both the nations.

Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff (1803-1851), was a missionary from Germany and reached China to spread his missionary activities. He was born on July 8, 1803 at Pyritz in Pomerania. When he was still undergoing apprenticeship under the leadership of a saddler in Stettin, he had already told about his mission to the King of Prussia and around 1831, he set his sails towards China and landed at Hong Kong where he translated Bible to Chinese, printed a magazine in Chinese language, and wrote several subjects in Chinese language. He brought out “A Journal of Three Voyages along the Coast of China in 1831, 1832, and 1833” and was appointed as a Joint Secretary to the English commission in 1835. When Chinese Government refused to allow the foreigners to enter into the interior areas of China, Gutzlaff founded an institute for giving training to native missionaries in 1844. The school was so successful that he sent forty-eight Chinese to carry forward his missionary work. He eventually died at Hong Kong on the August 9 1851. Among his works included “A Sketch of Chinese History: Ancient and Modern” (London, 1834), “China Opened” (1838); and the “Life of TaowKwang” in 1851 etc. His experiences in China naturally charted out the description of the life of Chinese from all sides in his books. (Classic Encyclopedia, Online).

“Journal of three voyages along the coast of China” captures every moment of China through the eyes of East India Company. They gave a record of the statement of Dr Morrison, “The Chinese rank in the scale by which they estimate several classes of society, the cultivators of the mind in the first class; cultivators of the land next; in the third place are ranked the operators on the earth’s produce, or the artizens and mechanics.; and finally, the trader and merchant” (Gutzlaff, Gützlaff & Ellis, 5).

Where-ever travelers went, they recorded the social, political, economic lives of Asian civilizations and through their works, we get the glimpse of the heritage past, about their daily overtures and how they set a pattern of commercialized trade and forged partnerships and friendships with the alien intruders arriving in large numbers from across the seas.

Works Cited

Alam, Muzaffar & Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. “Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400-1800”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Brooks, Michael. “Book Review: Vasco da Gama and the Linking of Europe and Asia.” (2008). Web.

Classic Encyclopedia. “Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff” Internet (2006). Web.

Corner, Julia. “China Pictorial, Descriptive, and Historical: With Some Account of Ava and the Burmese, Siam and Anam” (H. G. Bohn, 1853) Harvard University, 2007.

Gutzlaff, Charles, Gützlaff, Karl Friedrich August & Ellis, William. “Journal of Three Voyages Along the Coast of China, in 1831, 1832, & 1833: With Notices of Siam, Corea, and the Loo-Choo Islands” (F. Westley and A.H. Davis, 1834) Harvard University, 2005.

Pope, Ethel M. “India in Portuguese Literature”. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1989.

Vehlo, Alvaro, Gama, Vasco Da, Sá, João de & Ravenstein, E.G. “Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco Da Gama, 1497-1499”. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1996.

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