Forgot your password?

We just sent you an email, containing instructions for how to reset your password.

Sign in

  • As far back as I can remember history has been my thing. The only books we had around the house growing up were encyclopedias. I didn't have very many friends, so I would sit at home and read the encyclopedia. My mom noticed the interest I had in history when I was very young, so my bedroom had maps on the walls and she bought every Time-Life young people's history series she could find. I read them all.

    The books I read at home were teaching me the same history that I was learning in school. George Washington chopping down cherry trees, George Custer the war hero, and Columbus discovering America were but three images etched into my brain. History was full of great men who had overcome some type of adversity to attain great heights. (e.g. Abe and his log cabin.) The figures I liked the most were the explorers, Camarillo, LaSalle, Magellan, Da Gama. They had blazed new trails, explored new worlds, and saw things I could only imagine.

    When I would go to Catalina, I would pretend I was a Spaniard searching for food. In the mountains I was a trapper trying to avoid the Indians. I would climb the hills near my home and imagine myself the Spanish explorer De Anza, looking over the valley that is now Riverside, but without the suburban sprawl, seeing only the hills, the mountains, the river. My family drove around the country a lot, but while everybody else would sleep in the car, I never would. I had to explore, from the back seat of a Toyota, each town or state we drove through something I couldn't miss. When I was at home, I would study any map I had, and between National Geographic and mom working at the AAA I had plenty to choose from. I would look at these maps and imagine what all these places were like. I would memorize the streets, the cities, the capitols. Each new map was a new place to explore. Soon I was drawing up maps for fictional countries that I created.

    The explorers I was interested in the most were the Portuguese, because that is my nationality. Men like Pedro Cabral, Bartholomew Diaz, and especially Vasco Da Gama weren't just explorers, they were "Navigator/Conquerors." In the age of exploration, Da Gama's feat stands unequaled, even compared to Columbus. The distance he travelled from Portugal to India by the most direct route around the Cape of Good Hope was 10,000 miles by sea under severe conditions typical of the age of sail, and he was the first to do it, opening up the Indan Ocean to the Europeans.

    Born July 8, 1497, Da Gama left Portugal with four small ships. The fleet sailed via the Cape Verde Islands down the African coast, subsequently making a landfall some eighty miles past the Cape of Good Hope, in present day South Africa. This was the first land slighted after ninety-six, days, and this section of the voyage formed the longest passage out of sight of land yet made by a European ship.

    After rounding the Cape, he visited various Arab and Swahili ports on the East African coast, stopping at Melinde. There the famous Arab pilot, Ahmed ibn Majid, climbed aboard, and with his help they reached Calicut, India on May 18, 1498. The mission was to discover a route to India, tap into the spice markets of Asia, and contact and make treaties with Christian rulers there. Indeed, when asked what brought them to India, "Christians and Spices" was the alleged reply. Da Gama accomplished these missions, though liaison with already existing Christians proved illusory, and Portugal began the process of prying open Asia to Western trade, conquest, and empire.

    That's what the history books I read growing up say about Da Gama. He certainly was everything that I grew up thinking an explorer was. He chartered new territory, visited strange lands. I thought of him and his ships pulling into the East African ports and India, and the stir it must have created. One could imagine his sense of accomplishment.

    But while Da Gama returned home to a celebratory welcome, the Portuguese didn't leave with him. Within seven years of his landing, the Estadio de India was established and a governor was sent in. During these seven years the Portuguese had become permanently established in India and had created a military organization in support of their commercial and diplomatic dealings. Apart from some minor limitations, the governors' powers were extensive and most of the time he could act as an independent sovereign. Portugal eventually became a colonial power, conquest and complete subjugation of the native peoples to the service of the crown inevitably followed. Soon, the slave trade replaced the spice trade as the most profitable business venture. Vasco Da Gama's voyage was the starting point for a Portuguese colonial empire that would last well into the twentieth century.

    That is something that I didn't learn when I was growing up. All the books talked of the greatness of the explorers, but not what they left behind in these foreign lands. The exploitation of people and resources was brushed over. And once the Portuguese (as well as the other European imperial powers) left their imperial holdings, they had completely destroyed the ways of life of the local peoples and the way they had governed themselves for hundreds of years. One needs to only look at Mozambique, Angola, and East Timor to see the brutal warfare and civil strife caused when the Portuguese left. The colonial possessions of the Europeans in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are still feeling the effects of colonialism to this day, regardless of their so-called independence.

    There has been much debate over Columbus's voyages, whether they were something to be celebrated or despised. Sure, he opened a new land that had before been unheard of in the west, but in doing so the native population was almost completely annihilated. Today there are heated debates over how to deal with this new way of seeing the explorers and how to teach about them. I hope that the whole story will be told, so that the kids will not have to come to the same realizations later in life that I did. My heroes were assholes.

    I still fashion myself an explorer, though. Each new place I go is still a new discovery. I still climb the local hills and try to see what the first Spaniards who arrived in San Diego saw. Even though now I know what Da Gama and his like brought with them to unknowing peoples, I still can't get out of my head the sense of righteous accomplishment that they must have felt, to visit new places for the first time. This I hope I never lose.
    • Share

    Connected stories:


Collections let you gather your favorite stories into shareable groups.

To collect stories, please become a Citizen.

    Copy and paste this embed code into your web page:

    px wide
    px tall
    Send this story to a friend:
    Would you like to send another?

      To retell stories, please .

        Sprouting stories lets you respond with a story of your own — like telling stories ’round a campfire.

        To sprout stories, please .

            Better browser, please.

            To view Cowbird, please use the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer.