Vasco’s death

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Vasco Da Gama made three trips to Malabar. The value of his discovery was immense to Europe, but it also created immense turbulence in Malabar. The tight grip of the Zamorins of Calicut on Malabar was weakened, the importance of Cochin increased, and a wedge was slowly inserted in the balanced relationship between the Nairs and the Moplahs of Malabar and many other social economic changes were initiated. Malabar came to know about new things and new practices, but they were also to see a new enemy in cavalcades after the arrival of the feared Parangi. Yes, the people who followed from the west like the Dutch and the Englishmen capitalized on the turmoil created by the Portuguese, but the people of Malabar eventually benefitted over time from the sale of the produce of the land namely the famed spices of Malabar that grew and ripened in the Malabar sun and rain, prophetically attributed to the famous saying of a Zamorin – you can take away our pepper but not our sun and rain (surely a legend as I answered a readers question earlier). Many died in the battle for pepper control and the Zamorins lost their control after hanging on to them for some six centuries.

Vasco was always a hunted man after his arrival in Malabar. One of the first attempts on his life was after his landing at Kappad/Pantalayani, by the moors. He did not really have to fear then, for he had some experienced convicts in his entourage. This was not clear to me until I read an article by Jose Calico. He explains ‘Vasco da Gama personally recruited the crew (that was) to accompany him on this maiden voyage. It was not very easy to find recruits for this journey. Many promised to join the mission but few actually dared to show up. The voyage to India was seen as being fraught with immense dangers. Many were keen but few were willing. Eventually an assortment of individuals was put together for this voyage. Among the crew were 10 convicted killers whose sentences had been specially commuted. They were to be used for the suicidal dangerous missions anticipated en route’.

When a threat was uncovered against the Gama's life it upset the Portuguese, for they had believed that the Zamorin was a Christian of some kind. The antagonistic atmosphere in Calicut left little sense in their remaining at Calicut, and on top of that disease and accidents had taken a heavy toll of his men by now. There were more rumors of plots against his life, and so Gama sailed away from Calicut at the end of August 1498. These stories were covered in earlier posts.

Anyway this is not an attempt to trace all of his life but only to cover the final days of his life. Time had moved on and the final voyage was on the charts. The 64 year old man thus started out on his last voyage to Goa, by then the headquarters of the Portuguese colony in India. The weary old man, who had finally became a fidalgo after intense negotiations, was now titled Count or Earl Vasco Da Gama, travelled to Goa in 1524. Eduardo Duarte Menezes in Cochin was a disaster in the eyes of the Portuguese superiors and had to be replaced. Vasco arrived in Goa, in stately fashion, to take care of that mission.

Vasco was destined for Cochin, some eight weeks later, and was by then very sick. It became clear that he was dreadfully ill, and rumors swirled around the Portuguese bureaucracy. Questions like who would take over and what their responsibilities were going to be, bounced back and forth. The interesting question was what his ailment was all about. Some said it was malaria and some said nothing. But later studies point out that he had contracted anthrax.

Trade was one of the fastest carriers for intercontinental diseases. Many diseases moved from one place to another, from places where people had immunity to places where they did not, thereby creating havoc. The Bubonic plague was one of them; influenza was another as microbes piggybacked carriers over the oceans. There was one more and that was Anthrax, something that afflicted meat eaters or those who drank milk from these afflicted animals.

Gama moved to Cochin for two purposes, one to check the continuous attacks by the paros of Kunjali and secondly to arrest Duarte De Menzes. By then the Portuguese establishment had become very corrupt and people were happily enriching themselves. Duarte had amassed wealth and fearing the arrival of Gama went onto bury it (that is an interesting story for Duarte sailed to Lisbon with it but lost it again at the beaches of Farao and I am not sure if it has been found as yet).

St Francis church Cochin Photo byThoufeek Zakriya
Back to Gama’s sickness- Da Gama began to suffer "great pains in the neck," wrote Correa, and large boils prevented him from turning his head in any direction. Duarte who was not allowed to disembark from his ship decided to wait and see if he could outlive Vasco.

Correa explains - The boils were very hard, and they would not ripen for all the remedies that were applied, for nothing availed, and they gave him such great torment that they did not allow him to turn his face in any direction. At this the Viceroy was subject to great fits of irritation, with the heavy cares which he felt on account of the many things which he had got to do, so that his illness was doubled, and went on getting worse until he altogether took to his bed, and from thence gave all the necessary orders, with great travail of spirit, which caused him to be overtaken by mortal illness, with such pains as deprived him of speech.

The Viceroy, feeling that he was ill, spoke secretly at night to the guardian of St. Antony, who was his confessor, with whom he consulted; and at this conjuncture there arrived at Cochym the ships and vessel from Ceylon with the cinnamon, which was transferred from them into the ships bound for the kingdom, which were now almost laden, and the Viceroy hurried this on. He dispatched at once the vessel to the kingdom with his letters; Francisco de Mendonca went as captain of it, and he sailed on the first of December.

Gama was first buried here - Photo by JK - Varnam

Vasco continued with the responsibilities until the last moments, did his confessions and one of his last acts was to compensate the women he had ordered flogged, some years ago and breathed his last on the shores of Cochin shortly before Christmas eve 1524. His last wish was that his bones be conveyed to Lisbon for burial. 26 years had passed since he touched the Malabar shores and he was cursed to die there, a painful death for all the atrocities he had committed. The body was buried in the St Antony’s chapel (others mention the Franciscan monastery of Cochin) a building that was later destroyed in 1806.

His body was first buried at St. Francis Church, which was located at Fort Kochi, but his remains were returned to Portugal in 1539. Even his dead body had an adventurous trip. The body of Vasco da Gama was re-interred in Vidigueira in a casket decorated with gold and jewels in 1539. In 1838 or thereabouts, Jose Sylvester Riberio opened the casket to discover that the casket had a skeleton and two craniums. It appears that the marauding French had desecrated many graves, searching for gold. Here the body remained until 1880 after which the body was transferred to the monastery of Jeronimos at Belem. But then it was discovered that the wrong body was moved. Finally in 1898, the right body was moved to Belem (or so it seems – for nobody is sure) and there it remains for you to visit & see….

How did the Gama die? Did he die of Malaria as it was said or Anthrax? Was he poisoned? It is now believed that due to the cumulative effects of the arduous journeys and what is perhaps consistent with anthrax bacillary infection, Vasco da Gama died in Cochin on December 25, 1524, a sad and painful death. Possibly he regretted his violent actions in those final days, probably he did not, for he and he alone was his judge.

Three voyages – Gaspar Correa
Vasco Da Gama – Career & legend – Sanjay Subrahmanyam