The volcanic island of Terceira has a daunting, life-size statue of Vasco da Gama, the first European to sail safely to the shores of South India all the way from Portugal. A crew of 170 men set off from Lisbon on four boats, two of which were massive carracks baptised São Gabriel and São Rafael, the third was a smaller boat baptised São Miguel, and the fourth was a storage boat. São Gabriel was commanded by Vasco da Gama while his brother, Paolo da Gama, captained São Rafael; but the entire fleet of archangels was led by Vasco da Gama. They left Lisbon in July 1497 and journeyed through Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi, all of which were under the control of Arab traders, and finally in April 1498 they reached Kerala or more specifically the coast of Kozhikode (now Calicut). Part of the larger region of the Malabar coast, Kozhikode was a thriving port and the centre of the spice trade.The Portuguese stayed for three months and shopped around, but failed to secure a treaty. Vasco da Gama was a trailblazer and had made the arduous journey connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, but he was forced to leave with a sense of dissatisfaction and defeat. The following year, da Gama returned to India with a fleet big enough to set up a Portuguese presence that would change the landscape of the Malabar Coast. Despite opposition from the Malabar forces, the year 1501 saw the first spiced up boats leave the coast of Kerala for Portugal.
When Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and Pedro Álvares Cabral set out on their adventures, their aim was to bypass the Islamic sphere and directly meet the source or better yet, take it over. When the Portuguese landed on the South American coast, it was not without the grand ambition of chartering new trade routes. In fact, South America was a megamix of Portugal and Spain, and it was ‘Portuñol’ or ‘Portunhol’ for centuries before it was exposed to the Anglo-Saxons. Today, we know ‘Portuñol’ or ‘Portunhol’ as a melange of Portuguese and Spanish that is scoffed at by language puritans, but one ought to think of it as a cultural sphere. Beyond the language, it was the values and the finances of two powers that prevailed in vast territories of the world. Of course, trade helped keep their geopolitical order.
In the race for resources, the superpowers have moved from pepper to pipelines for oil. Today China wants to weave new silk roads in order to trade with the world. China’s ambition of linking the world with its own connections – a project now known as The Belt and Road Initiative is bound the change the balance of power.
In the Chinese world order, the ‘roads’ will be sea routes, and the lands will be a connection through ‘belts’. The ambitious project to link the resources of the world is to be completed in phases over decades. But what does it mean for the values for the world? And can the balance of powers tilt in favour of China?