It was John Henrik Clarke who once theorised that, “History is not everything, but it is a starting point.”
History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.
Last week, we started our discourse into the first voyage of Vasco da Gama, a minor provincial nobleman who was commander of the fortress of Sines on the coast of Alentejo Province in south-western Portugal. Today, we shall conclude same. Thereafter, we shall consider two other historical icons, Bishop (Dr.) Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Haile Selassie I.
The first voyage (continues)
The expedition reached Mombasa (now in Kenya) on April 7, and dropped anchor at Malindi (also now in Kenya) on April 14, where a Gujarati pilot who knew the route to Calicut, on the southwest coast of India, was taken aboard. After a 23-day run across the Indian Ocean, the Ghats Mountains of India were sighted, and Calicut was reached on May 20. There, Da Gama erected a padrão to prove he had reached India. The welcome of the Zamorin, the Hindu ruler, of Calicut (then the most important trading centre of southern India), was dispelled by da Gama’s insignificant gifts and rude behaviour. Da Gama failed to conclude a treaty — partly because of the hostility of Muslim merchants and partly because the trumpery presents and cheap trade goods that he had brought, while suited to the West African trade, were hardly in demand in India. The Portuguese had mistakenly believed the Hindus to be Christians.
After tension increased, da Gama left at the end of August, taking with him five or six Hindus so that King Manuel might learn about their customs. Ignorance and indifference to local knowledge had led da Gama to choose the worst possible time of year for his departure, and he had to sail against the monsoon. He visited Anjidiv Island (near Goa) before sailing for Malindi, which he reached on January 8, 1499, after nearly three months crossing the Arabian Sea. Many of the crew died of scurvy. At Malindi, because of greatly reduced numbers, da Gama ordered the “São Rafael” to be burned; there he also erected a padrão. Mozambique, where he set up his last padrão, was reached on February 1. On March 20, the “São Gabriel” and “Berrio” rounded the Cape together but a month later were parted by a storm; the “Berrio” reached the Tagus River in Portugal on July 10. Da Gama, in the “São Gabriel,” continued to Terceira Island in the Azores, whence he is said to have dispatched his flagship to Lisbon.
The second voyage
To exploit da Gama’s achievement, Manuel I dispatched the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral to Calicut with a fleet of 13 ships. The profits of this expedition were such that a third fleet was soon fitted out in Lisbon. The command of this fleet was given to da Gama, who in January 1502 received the title of admiral. Da Gama commanded 10 ships, which were in turn supported by two flotillas of five ships each, each flotilla being under the command of one of his relations. Sailing in February 1502, the fleet called at the Cape Verdes, reaching the port of Sofala in East Africa on June 14. After calling briefly at Mozambique, the Portuguese expedition sailed to Kilwa, in what is now Tanzania. The ruler of Kilwa, the Amr Ibrhm, had been unfriendly to Cabral; da Gama threatened to burn Kilwa if the Amr did not submit to the Portuguese and swear loyalty to King Manuel, which he then did.
Coasting southern Arabia, da Gama then called at Goa (later the focus of Portuguese power in India) before proceeding to Cannanore, a port in southwestern India to the north of Calicut, where he lay in wait for Arab shipping. After several days an Arab ship arrived with merchandise and between 200 and 400 passengers, including women and children. After seizing the cargo, da Gama is said to have shut up the passengers aboard the captured ship and set it afire, killing all on board. As a consequence, da Gama has been vilified, and Portuguese trading methods have been associated with terror. However, the episode is related only by late and unreliable sources and may be legendary or at least exaggerated.
The third voyage
Obscurity surrounds the reception of da Gama on his return by King Manuel. Da Gama seemingly felt himself inadequately recompensed for his pains. Controversy broke out between the admiral and the Order of São Tiago over the ownership of the town of Sines, which the admiral had been promised but which the order refused to yield. Da Gama had married a lady of good family, Caterina de Ataíde, perhaps in 1500 after his return from his first voyage, and he then appears to have retired to the town of Évora. He was later granted additional privileges and revenues, and his wife bore him six sons. Until 1505, he continued to advise the king on Indian matters, and he was created count of Vidigueira in 1519. Not until after King Manuel died was he again sent overseas; King John III nominated him in 1524 as Portuguese viceroy in India.
Arriving in Goa in September 1524, da Gama immediately set himself to correct the many administrative abuses that had crept in under his predecessors. Whether from overwork or other causes, he soon fell ill and died in Cochin in December. In 1538 his body was taken back to Portugal.
Bishop (Dr.) Samuel Ajayi Crowther
(1809 – 31 DECEMBER, 1891)
Crowther was born with the name Ajayi in Osogun, in the Egba section of the Yoruba people, in what is now western Nigeria. When he was 13 years old, he was taken as a slave by Fulani and Yoruba Muslim raiders and sold several times before being purchased by Portuguese traders for the transatlantic market. His ship was intercepted by the British Navy’s anti-slave trade patrol, and the slaves were liberated in Sierra Leone. There, he became a Christian, taking at baptism the name of an eminent clergyman in England, Samuel Crowther. Excelling at school, he became a mission teacher and one of the first students of the Fourah Bay Institution, founded by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1827 to train able Sierra Leoneans for Christian service. He assisted John Raban and (probably) Hannah Kilham in their studies of African languages, and in 1841 he joined J.F. Schön as a CMS representative on T.F. Buxton‘s Niger Expedition, contributing signally to it. He studied at the CMS College in London preparatory to ordination in 1843, a landmark for the Anglican ministry. With Henry Townsend and C.A. Gollmer, he then opened a new mission in Yorubaland, centred in Abeokuta, by now the homeland of Crowther’s Egba people. (He discovered some close relatives there and was the means of conversion of his mother and sister.) His role in producing the Yoruba bible, which set new standards for later African translations, was crucial. Crowther’s visit to Britain in 1851 influenced government, church, and public opinion about Africa. The CMS secretary, Henry Venn, saw Crowther as a potential demonstration of the feasibility of self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating African churches and in 1857 sent him to open a new mission on the Niger. The entire staff was African, mainly from Sierra Leone, and Venn moved toward an Anglican version of the “three-self” formula by securing Crowther’s appointment in 1864 as “Bishop of the countries of Western Africa beyond the Queen’s dominions.” In the upper and middle Niger territories, Crowther pioneered an early form of Christian-Muslim dialogue for Africa. He oversaw J.C. Taylor’s ground-breaking work in Igboland and directed the evangelisation of the Niger Delta, with notable results at such centres as Bonny.
In the 1880s, clouds gathered over the Niger Mission. Crowther was old, Venn dead. The morality or efficiency of members of Crowther’s staff was increasingly questioned by British missionaries. Mission policy, racial attitudes, and evangelical spirituality had taken new directions, and new sources of European missionaries were now available. By degrees, Crowther’s mission was dismantled: by financial controls, by young Europeans taking over, by dismissing, suspending, or transferring the African staff. Crowther, desolate, died of a stroke. A European bishop succeeded him.
Part of the Niger Mission retained its autonomy as the Niger Delta Pastorate Church under Crowther’s son, Archdeacon D.C. Crowther, and at least one of the European missionaries, H.H. Dobinson, repented of earlier hasty judegments. Everyone recognised Crowther’s personal stature and godliness; his place in the history of translation and evangelisation has often been undervalued.
Haile Selassie I
(23 JULY, 1892 – 27 AUGUST 1975)
Born Lij Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, but given the name Haile Selassie (trans. “Power of the Trinity”) at his infant baptism – a name that was adopted as part of his regal name in 1930.
Selassie I was an Ethiopian regent from 1916 to 1930 and Emperor from 1930 to 1974 who remains very visible in Ethiopian history till this day. Following the catastrophic 1973 famine in Ethiopia, Selassie I was eventually removed from the throne. In 1975, after a coup d’état, he died at the age of 83 as a result of strangulation.
He was famous for his multilateral and internationalist views and policies, which led to Ethiopia becoming a charter member of the United Nations. His passionate speech at the League of Nations in 1936, condemning Italy’s use of chemical weapons against his people during the second Italo-Ethiopian War, still resonates through time.
Even today, followers of the Rastafari movement still revere the late Selassie as the returned biblical messiah or God incarnate destined to usher in a golden age of eternal peace, righteousness and prosperity – a claim that Selassie himself publicly refuted on at least one occasion during his lifetime.
(To be continued)
Thought for the week
“History teaches us that unity is strength, and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity.”