THE LIGHT WAS fading when the three strange ships appeared off the coast of India, but the fishermen on the shore could still make out their shapes. The two biggest were fat-bellied as whales, with bulging sides that swept up to support sturdy wooden towers in the bows and stern. The wooden hulls were weathered a streaky gray, and long iron guns poked over the sides, like the barbels on a monstrous catfish. Huge square sails billowed toward the darkening sky, each vaster than the last and each surmounted by a bonnet-shaped topsail that made the whole rig resemble a family of ghostly giants. There was something at once thrillingly modern and hulkingly primeval about these alien arrivals, but for sure nothing like them had been seen before.
The alarm was raised on the beach, and groups of men dragged four long, narrow boats into the water. As they rowed closer they could see that great crimson crosses were emblazoned on every stretch of canvas.
“What nation are you from?” the Indians’ leader shouted when they were under the side of the nearest ship.
“We are from Portugal,” one of the sailors called back.
Both spoke in Arabic, the language of international trade. The visitors, though, had the advantage over their hosts. The Indians had never heard of Portugal, a sliver of a country on the far western fringe of Europe. The Portuguese certainly knew about India, and to reach it they had embarked on the longest and most dangerous voyage known to history.
The year was 1498. Ten months earlier, the little fleet had set sail from Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, on a mission to change the world. The 170 men on board carried instructions to open a sea route from Europe to Asia, to unlock the age-old secrets of the spice trade, and to locate a long-lost Christian king who ruled over a magical Eastern realm. Behind that catalog of improbability lay a truly apocalyptic agenda: to link up with the Eastern Christians, deal a crushing blow to the power of Islam, and prepare the way for the conquest of Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world. Even that was not the ultimate end—but if they succeeded it would be the beginning of the end, the clarion call for the Second Coming and the Last Judgment that would surely follow.
Time would tell whether this quest for the Promised Land would end at anything more than a castle in the air. For now, bare survival was uppermost in the crews’ minds. The men who had signed up to sail off the edge of the known world were an odd assortment. Among them were hardened adventurers, chivalric knights, African slaves, bookish scribes, and convicts working off their sentences. Already they had rubbed uncomfortably close against each other for 317 days. As they swept in a great arc around the Atlantic, they had seen nothing but the bounding main for months on end. When they finally reached the southern tip of Africa they had been shot at, ambushed, and boarded in the dead of night. They had run out of food and water, and they had been ravaged by mystifying diseases. They had wrestled with heavy currents and storms that battered their ships and tattered their sails. They were assured they were doing God’s work and that, in return, their sins would be wiped clean. Yet even the most seasoned mariner’s skin crawled with morbid superstitions and forebodings of doom. Death, they knew, was just a swollen gum or an unseen reef away, and death was not the worst conceivable fate. As they slept under unknown stars and plunged into uncharted waters that mapmakers enlivened with toothy sea monsters, it was not their lives they feared to lose but their very souls.
To the watching Indians, the newcomers, with their long, filthy hair and their bronzed, unwashed faces, looked like the rougher species of sea dog. Their scruples were soon overcome when they found they could sell the strangers cucumbers and coconuts at handsome prices, and the next day the four boats returned to lead the fleet into port.
It was a moment to make the most stoic seaman stand and gape.
For Christians, the East was the wellspring of the world. The Bible was its history book, Jerusalem its capital of faith suspended between heaven and earth, and the Garden of Eden—which was firmly believed to be flowering somewhere in Asia—its fount of marvels. Its palaces were reportedly roofed with gold, while fireproof salamanders, self-immolating phoenixes, and solitary unicorns roamed its forests. Precious stones floated down its rivers, and rare spices that cured any ailment dropped from its trees. People with dog’s heads ambled by, while others hopped past on their single leg or sat down and used their single giant foot as a sunshade. Diamonds littered its gorges, where they were guarded by snakes and could be retrieved only by vultures. Mortal dangers lurked everywhere, which put the glittering treasures all the more tantalizingly out of reach.
At least so they said: no one knew for sure. For centuries Islam had all but blocked Europe’s access to the East; for centuries a heady mix of rumor and fable had swirled in place of sober fact. Many had died to discover the truth, and now the moment was suddenly at hand. The mighty port of Calicut, an international emporium bursting with oriental riches, the hub of the busiest trade network in the world, sprawled in front of the sailors’ eyes.
There was no rush to be the first ashore. The anticipation—or the apprehension—was too much. In the end, the task was given to one of the men who had been taken on board to do the dangerous work.
The first European to sail all the way to India and step on its shores was a convicted criminal.
The men in the boats took him straight to the house of two Muslim merchants from North Africa, the westernmost place they knew. The merchants came from the ancient port city of Tunis, and to the visitor’s surprise they were fluent in both Spanish and Italian.
“The devil take you! What brought you here?” one of the two exclaimed in Spanish.
The convict drew himself up.
“We have come,” he grandly replied, “in search of Christians and spices.”
On board his flagship Vasco da Gama waited impatiently for news. The Portuguese commander was of medium height, with a strong, stocky build and a florid, angular face that looked as if it were welded from plates of copper. By birth he was a gentleman of the court, though his beetling brow, beak nose, cruelly sensuous mouth, and bushy beard made him look more like a pirate leader. He was just twenty-eight when he was entrusted with his nation’s hopes and dreams, and though he had been a surprise choice, his men had already learned to respect his boldness and mettle and to fear his flaring temper.
As he surveyed his floating realm, his large, sharp eyes missed nothing. Keen ambition matched by an iron will had brought him through dangers and across distances that no one had conquered before, but he was well aware that his great gamble had just begun.
THE QUESTION THAT motivated this book tugged at me several years before the story began to take shape. Like most of us I was bewildered by the eruption of religious war into our everyday lives, and as I found out more, I realized we were being drawn back into an ancient conflict about which we had developed collective amnesia. Reason, we believed, ruled the world in place of religion. War was about ideology and economics and ego, not about faith.
We were caught taking a nap from history. The march of progress is a tale victors tell themselves; the vanquished have a longer memory. In the words of modern-day Islamists who see their struggle not as one to come to terms with the West but to defeat the West, the rot set in half a millennium ago. That was when the last Muslim emirate was expunged from western Europe, when Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas—and when Vasco da Gama arrived in the East. Those three events unfolded in one dramatic decade, and their intimately entwined roots reach deep into our common past.
Seven centuries before that pivotal decade, Muslim conquerors had marched deep into Europe. In its far west, on the Iberian Peninsula, they had founded an advanced Islamic state, and that state had played a vital role in lighting Europe out of the Dark Ages. Yet as Christians and Muslims alike began to forget that the God they worshipped in their different ways was one and the same deity, the fires of holy war were lit in Iberia. They burned fiercely as the Portuguese and Spanish carved their nations out of Islam’s lands, and they were still burning when the Portuguese embarked on a century-long mission to pursue their former masters halfway around the globe—a mission that launched Europe’s Age of Discovery.
The timing was no coincidence. For hundreds of years history had marched from east to west, and on the eve of the Age of Discovery its drumbeat was getting faster. In the middle years of the fifteenth century Europe’s greatest city had fallen to Islam, and Muslim soldiers were once again preparing to advance into the heart of the continent. At a time when no one suspected that new continents lay waiting to be found, Christendom’s hopes of salvation were pinned on reaching the East; in Europeans’ frustrated fantasies, Asia had become a magical realm where an alliance against the enemy could be forged and the dream of a universal church could finally be fulfilled.
Tiny Portugal had set itself a truly audacious task: to outflank Islam by making itself the master of the oceans. As the collective effort of generations built toward Vasco da Gama’s first voyage, the Spanish scrambled to join the race. Since they had a deal of ground to make up, they decided to take a chance on an Italian maverick named Christopher Columbus. In 1498, as Vasco da Gama sailed east into the Indian Ocean, Columbus sailed west for the third time and finally reached the mainland of the Americas.
Both explorers were searching for the same prize—a sea route to Asia—yet Vasco da Gama’s achievement has long been overshadowed by Columbus’s magnificent mistake. Now that we are returning to the world as it was in their time—a world where all roads lead east—we can finally reset the balance. Vasco da Gama’s voyages were the breakthrough in a centuries-old Christian campaign to upend Islam’s dominance of the world. They dramatically changed relations between East and West, and they drew a dividing line between the eras of Muslim and Christian ascendancy—what we in the West call the medieval and the modern ages. They were not, of course, the whole story, but they were a much bigger part of it than we choose to remember.
The Age of Discovery used to be glorified as a quixotic quest to push the boundaries of human knowledge. These days, it tends to be explained as a drive to reverse the global balance of trade. It was both; it transformed Europe’s sense of its place in the world, and it set in motion a global shift of power that is still unraveling today. Yet it was not just a new departure; it was a deliberate attempt to settle an ancient score. Vasco da Gama and his men were born in a world polarized by faith, where fighting the Infidel was the highest calling of a man of honor. As the bloodred crosses on their sails broadcast far and wide, they were embarked on a new holy war. They were told they were the direct successors to four centuries of Crusaders, knightly pilgrims who had swung their swords in the name of Christ. They were charged with launching a sweeping counteroffensive against Islam and inaugurating a new era—an era in which the faith and values of Europe would be exported far across the earth. That, above all, was why a few dozen men in a few wooden tubs sailed off the edge of the known world and into the modern age.
To understand the passions that drove Europeans into distant seas—and that shaped our world—we need to go back to the beginning. The story starts among the wind-carved sand dunes and scorched mountain ranges of Arabia, with the birth of a new religion that swept with breathtaking speed into the heart of Europe itself.