Different takes on history, war heroes

In case you are wondering where to go this summer, try Portugal. I went there last summer because it is a country I have always wanted to visit. It was home to Prince Henry the Navigator, the man who started Portuguese explorations between 1425 and 1450 down the Atlantic along the West African coast. You can read about it in many books, none better than Simon Winchester’s book called Atlantic. Portugal exceeded all expectations. It is a truly wonderful country but, strangely, it is not on the Indian tourists’ radar screen at all. This despite the fact it is very cheap to travel around in that country. Just 100 euros a day is enough for two people, including the Airbnb rent in the centre of town.

We started in the north from a city called Porto and travelled down gradually by train to Lisbon, stopping at a hill town called Pinoir in the Duro Valley. Henry the Navigator had lived about 250 miles away in a tiny settlement with a huge castle and church on a small hill called Tomar. The ruins of his home are still there. We took three trains to get there. It’s a lovely place with a population of just about 20,000. A large whiskey cost just €2 and a meal €6. And mind, this was in July which is peak tourist season in Europe.

In Portugal you do not see battle standards in churches. In England they are the first things things you see.

But this article is not about tourism. It is about how countries treat their histories and their heroes. The two countries of interest to Indians are Portugal and England. The contrast is stark. The Portuguese ruled a part of India — albeit a tiny one — for far longer than the English, 450 years against 190. Goa was under Portuguese rule from 1510 to 1962. The man who made this possible — Vasco da Gama — is all but forgotten in Portugal. Indeed, so are the others like Bartolomeu Dias and Pedro Cabral, who charted the seas in the face of the most daunting odds. Most ships never returned. Death by drowning was the only outcome.

Vasco da Gama’s remains, relocated from Kochi to Lisbon, are interred in a magnificent church about half a kilometre from the spot from which he sailed for India. But today the place, Belem, is better known for its delicious pastries than Vasco da Gama. This forgetfulness is amazing, considering the fact that but for him and Ferdinand Magellan, Portugal may never have become a wealthy maritime and colonial power.

England provides a sharp contrast. The biggest difference is in the way the two countries treat their heroes and their churches. In Portugal, they do not use places of worship to glorify their wars and war heroes. In England they do just that, never mind how insignificant the battle or how tiny the contribution of the “hero” was. In Portugal you do not see battle standards in churches. In England they are the first things you see. Portugal does not glorify war. England does. Even in the huge church in which Vasco da Gama is interred, there are no reminders of war. In England, every little church has at least one, if not more.

So even if the British have stopped teaching their shameful colonial history in schools, English churches constantly remind the faithful that — despite its several and extraordinary artistic, political, philosophical and scientific attainments — England was, and remains, an aggressive country at heart. English football fans stand noisy and uncouth testimony to this. We saw some of them in a small town called Cascais in Portugal, just outside Lisbon.

In Portugal, which from 1500 to about 1650 was the only maritime power with colonies, including Brazil and Angola, you don’t see statues of their heroes scattered all over. In England, that’s routine, even of animals. Perhaps this striking difference is because whereas Portugal did the colonising in the name of God, England did it for commerce. God only followed later. That’s what makes Portugal so special.

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