Into Africa

For various reasons, this week has turned somewhat African for me. Portugal’s love affair with Africa has been going on for almost 600 years, which by the standards of modern relationships is certainly enduring. In the US, the average first marriage lasts eight years. And a marriage is pretty different from a love affair. In looking for those numbers, I discovered there’s even a divorce magazine. But I digress.

Somewhere along this interracial relationship, the couple went through a serious spate of domestic violence: fifteen years of colonial war. The Portuguese revolution in 1974 put an end to the strife by giving power to the left-wing independence movements in Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. These became political parties, and with the help of Russia, Cuba and others proceeded to do far worse in three decades than the Portuguese had done in three centuries.

The relationship with Portugal is now platonic, but don’t get me wrong. All over Africa, many of these countries are getting seriously screwed, there’s just been a change of partners. One of the reasons that the Portuguese are seen in a better light is because of the capacity to integrate. I was shown some slides yesterday of Malacca, Malasia, with a host of Portuguese landmarks, family names and culture.

In Mozambique, I have witnessed how the local people look down on the “cooperantes” from eastern Europe with revulsion, but are truly fond of the Portuguese. I’ve heard identical stories from Angola and every other country which was an ex-colony of Portugal. Aside from Macau. The best example of all is Brazil. Unlike the U.S., the Brazilians didn’t have to fight a war of independence.

The India Road deals with many technical aspects of ocean currents and winds, and I was told this week that those sections are accurate, in the judgement of someone who is perhaps the greatest living expert on the voyage of Vasco da Gama. My hope is that when you read the book, that part of the story will help you understand the true scope of the Portuguese discoveries in the fifteenth century and beyond, but told in a way that you won’t find boring.

Your reading life will be more enriched by reading good books twice than by reading twice the books. I don’t lay claim to a good book, but I can assure you there’s plenty in a second read that you won’t get from the first.

I’ll be returning to Africa next year, probably first to South Africa. Some friends from the Cape I saw earlier in the week told me that the universities there presently have a quota system, 2/3 of places for non-whites. Given that the white population of South Africa is at most about 10%, that’s food for thought.

Gold coins from the Bom Jesus - Courtesy J.M. Malhão Pereira

Gold coins from the Bom Jesus - Courtesy J.M. Malhão Pereira

I was also privileged to see some pictures yesterday of the wreck of the Bom Jesus, which occurred in Namibia in 1533, in what is now “De Beers” country. The story has been written up in the October issue of National Geographic, and it’s worth a read. I was sitting in a house high up on the hills, overlooking the mouth of the Tagus, staring at a photo of a marine archeologist. holding a hatful of Portuguese and Spanish gold coins. You become a small child again when you see that shine of gold, and your mind fires up for the treasure hunt.

The Portuguese coins had the shield and escutcheons, the Spanish bore the profiles of the Catholic Kings, looking at each other. Isabella still looks as if she wears the pants.

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