Tuesday, August 28, 2007

August 28

As the Portugese set down roots for the first European empires in Africa and Asia, the importance of the da Gama family was unrivaled. Vasco da Gama, the family patriarch, first navigated his way around the coast of Africa in 1497, bringing such enduring fame to Portugal that -- among other honorifics -- a crater on the Moon would one day bear his name. The next year, he reached India, setting into motion four and a half centuries of European colonialism in the Asian subcontinent; India would avenge itself in 1524 by transmitting to the great explorer a fatal case of malaria.

Christovao da Gama, Vasco’s lesser-known son, came to an even more gruesome end on the continent of Africa two decades later. During an expedition to East Africa in 1542, da Gama set out against Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghaza, the Muslim conqueror of Ethiopia. After a series of battles in which the Portugese prevailed, the captain and his men were defeated at the Battle of Wofla. Weary and staggering with pain from a bullet that had shattered his right arm, da Gama escaped with fourteen of his men. After dressing their leader’s wounds with the fat from his own slaughtered mule, the Portugese hid in a thicket, where they were soon captured. Miguel de Castanhoso, the official chronicler of da Gama’s expedition, described the subsequent ordeal. Al-Ghaza ordered him to be stripped,
with his hands tied behind him, and then cruelly scourged, and his face buffeted with his negro’s shoes; of his beard he made wicks, and covering them with wax lighted them . . . . After this, he sent [da Gama] to all his tents and his Captains for his refreshment, where many insults were heaped on him, all of which he bore with much patience: giving many thanks to God for bringing him to this, after allowing him to reconquer one hundred leagues of Christian country. After they had diverted themselves with him they returned to the King’s tend, who with his own hand cut off his head, it not satisfying him to order it to be cut off. After it had been cut off, in that very place where his blood was spilt, there started a spring of water which gave health to the sick, who bathed in it . . . .
As for Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghaza, he lived another six months until the Portugese tracked him down and killed him.

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