When Vasco da Gama’s three battered little ships dropped anchor off Calicut on May 20, 1498, after a voyage of over ten months, they had finally found the sea route between Europe and India so long sought by Portugal’s kings and explorers. Apart from the desire for knowledge, Da Gama’s tatterdemalion mini-armada had come for two reasons—one mystical, one practical—summed up in the famous exchange between surprised locals and Lusitanians: “What the Devil? What brought you hither?”
“We came in search of Christians and spices.”
The Christians Da Gama found were not the Prester John types the Portuguese had envisioned but Nestorians who had never even heard of the pope. Da Gama chose to overlook this awkward fact. He also long believed that the local Hindus were Christians, too, albeit with un- orthodox practices and curiously multilimbed idols.
The main reason for Da Gama’s voyage was more prosaic. The Portuguese had long wanted to be able to obtain Indian spices without having to go through Arab and Venetian intermediaries. Not only did they want to save money, but they hoped to remove this highly profitable trade from the hands of Arab merchants and so weaken their erstwhile cruel occupier. (The Moors were expelled from Portugal in 1253.)
Da Gama’s gifts to the zamorin, the Hindu ruler of Calicut—which included striped...