Who says democracy is the only way forward? The seeds of rabid Christian terrorism still lie dominant in the fields of Europe. 'Dark Continent': that is the title of Mark Mazower's history of modern Europe, published later this month. In his book, already much discussed, Mazower poses a shocking question which should have been put years ago. He asks whether democracy really is the `natural' political systems of Europeans. Or can it be that totalitarian politics and dictatorship have also at times been genuinely popular, appealing to deep-rooted European traditions ? It is Mazower's title which specially appeals to me. Pious Eurocrap apart, the truth is that our continent is dark and barbarous as well as brilliant. Europe and the United States together invented representative democracy and human rights.
But Europe invented fascism and communism all by itself. Our democratic credentials are not ancient, but new and shaky. I thought again about Mazower's book when I read the press reports about the huge `Expo `98' trade fair in Lisbon. The theme is the fate of the oceans. But there are always national sub-texts in shows like this. Portugal, a country with an attractive deficit of self-esteem, wants Expo `98' to shows that things actually do work in Portugal and that the new technologies are at home there. Another sub-text, however, is to remind foreigners that Portugal once ruled those oceans. The emphasis today is on Europeans as `discoverers' rather than colonialists (the liberation wars in Portuguese Africa are still a relatively recent trauma). And this, inevitably, has led the Portuguese to promote the memory of Vasco da Gama.
The Expo is his anniversary. After the longest recorded sea voyage in history, he landed at Calicut in India in May 1498 - just 500 years ago. Columbus had already made his first American voyage; in 1498, the Pope had partitioned the world's oceans between Spain and Portugal, allotting Portugal the eastern Atlantic, Africa and the Indian Ocean. Vasco da Gama and his little fleet headed for India. There is his shabby little ships and his tacky gifts (baubles suitable for the West African trade) were regarded with amused contempt by the great Rajah Zamorin of Calicut.
For some, Vasco da Gama remains the mighty Christian voyager who discovered India and opened up its pagan shores to trade and the Church. Others have come to see him as a franzied destroyer, a wrecker of higher cultures to be compared to Genghis Khan or Attila. The late Richard Hall, for many years on The Observer, described the world of the Indian Ocean in his 1996 masterpiece `Empires of the Monsoon'. For the coast of Natal round to the tip of India and Sri Lanka, this sea had for many centuries been surrounded by prosperous cities and states, traversed by Roman, Arab, Indian and Chinese merchants ships. Its standards of living and lilteracy were more advanced those of western Europe. Its war were minor, and the different faiths of those who lived and traded on the shores of this vast region were tolerated. Into this world burst, in 1498, a gang of fundamentalist terrorists.
Vasco da Gama belonged to the Order of Christ, established in Portugal in 1319 as a religious-military society for attacking Islam in its own territories. He went to India not for geography or comerce or philanthropy, but to conquer the enemies of Jesus Christ. His only strength was his bronze cannon, unknown in the Indian Ocean, and his suicidal courage. Later voyages, by da Gama and his succesors, showed their true nature. `The Moors and the Gentiles are outside the law of Jesus Christ,' wrote one of their ideologists. This justified a policy of sustained atrocity and plunder. Da Gama bombarded the defenceless city of Calicut for three days, cutting off ears, noses and hands of prisoners before burning them alive. Off Arabia, he intercepted a large ship carrying cargo and pilgrims: it was fired and sunk, with its 700 passengers, and da Gama sent our his crew in longboats to spear survivors in the water.
One of his specialities was hanging Muslims from his masts and using them for crossbrow practice. But these horrors were not done on perverted impulse. They were deliberate, even political. Vasco da Gama wanted local inhabitants and their rulers to watch the flames and hear the shrieks. He relied on terror to compel surrender. The commanders who followed da Gama were no different. `The Great Afonso de Albuquerque' carried out massacre after massacre with the same carefully spectacular sadism used by Vasco da Gama. Reporting to the King after the sack of Goa, he wrote: `I burnt the city and put everyone to the sword and for four days your men shed blood continuously. No matter where we found them, we did not spare the life of a single Muslim; we filled the mosques with them and set them on fire...'. The peoples of the Indian Ocean had never encountered calculated savagry of this order, and were broken by it.
To recall these things is not to criticise contemporary Portugal, child of the most beautiful and merciful of modern revolutions. Neither do I want to deny Expo's claim that Vasco da Gama enlarged Europe's awareness of the world, a sort of ancestor of globalisation. But Europe's awareness of its own nature also matters, and that means confronting Vasco da Gama for what he was. He, like the other Portuguese and Spanish conquerors, stood at the end of five centuries of Christian fundamentalist terrorism which began with the Crusades.
The fanatical onslaught against rival cultures, the orgy of cruely and destruction that the barbarian 'Franks' of western Europe brought to the Holy Land and even Byzantium (centre of Orthodox Christianity and rival to the Trinitarian Church in Rome), reached its culmination in sixteenth-century India and Mexico. But its consequences live on, even in the post-imperial world. Saddam Hussein aiming missiles at the `New Crusaders' is one such consequence. Israeli civilians mutilated by Hamas bombs are another. And the seeds left in Europe itself by those centuries are not dead yet. Given a hidden place to lie, they can still germinate every so often. And this Dark Continent is full of crevices.