The J. B. P. More Interview – Shobha Warrier

Shoba WarrierNothing much has changed since Vasco da Gama’s time, says historian J B. P. More.

That is why he holds the view that the Clash of Civilisations, between the West and the rest of the world which started in the 15th century with Vasco da Gama traveling to India and Christopher Columbus stumbling upon America, has continued till today and will continue for many more decades to come.

“I am sure Samuel Huntington [who proposed the clash of civilisations theory in a memorable 1993 Foreign Affairs essay] will agree with me,” he said in an interview conducted over e-mail.

Born and brought up in Pondicherry, More, moved to Paris to pursue a BA degree. He later did his PhD in history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (the School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences) where his thesis was on the Muslims of Tamil Nadu.

He has published more than a dozen books with quite a few on the Muslims of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In his interview to Rediff.com, he provides insights into the Muslims of Kerala and the consequences of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India. – Shobha Warrier

J.P.B. More• Do you feel Indian (and Third World) history is seen always from the Western perspective?

Yes. Indian history is seen most of the time from the Western perspective. It is a colonial legacy.

Even after the colonial period, many Indian historians continue to work within the Western ideological frameworks and methodologies. They have not evolved anything worthwhile of their own, which is not Western. Therefore, they are bound to look at history from a Western perspective.

Besides, even after decolonisation, Western scholars continue to work on Indian history and society in greater numbers. They produce innumerable books from the Western perspective.

They have even resorted to collaboration and cooperation with like-minded Indian scholars and institutions after Independence in 1947, (which is part of the globalisation agenda of the West), thus ensuring their hegemony in the Indian intellectual and historical world even after decolonisation.

This has contributed largely to look at history greatly from the Western perspective, which is thought to be universal.

Most Western scholars never adopt a completely neutral attitude towards history and society and the Indians largely follow it.

A historian has to view history as an outsider, standing above all group interests. He needs to be uncommitted.

• You have written a book on the origin and early history of Muslims in Kerala. How did you get interested in the subject?

My PhD thesis was about the Muslims of Tamil Nadu. I had worked and published extensively on them and the Dravidians.

I was also interested in French colonial history in India, particularly Mahe on the Malabar Coast.

I went to Mahe. This led me to write a book on the history and freedom movement in Mahe.

From Mahe I got the idea to write a book on the Muslims of Kerala, their origin and early history. I worked on it for several years before it was published in 2011.

• What revelations came to light when you started your study on the origin of Muslims in Kerala?

The Muslims of Kerala owe their origin to peaceful Arab traders, unlike North Indian/Pakistani Muslims who are the result of invasions by Arab, Turkish, Afghan and Mongol armies.

They were a peaceful community, subjects of the Zamorin of Calicut and other Kerala kings until the arrival of Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese, followed by other Europeans.

The policies and values of the Portuguese and later the English transformed this peaceful community into a largely militant community during the colonial period.

They were probably the first among the Indians to realise the colonial implications of European arrival in Malabar and resisted it ferociously tooth and nail.

Sheikh Zainuddin’s work Tohfut ul Mujahdeen of the 16th century, which is the first historical work of South India, is a standing testimony of that.

It is a rare and pioneering, foundation document of resistance to colonialism and slavery, though written from the Islamic standpoint.

It must be included in the list of UNESCO heritage documents, rather than the recent inclusion in that list of the travel account of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India, replete with factual errors, which remains nevertheless the foundation document of colonialism.

• Did Arabs travel to the Malabar Coast and spread Islam as early as the 7th century?

There is no evidence in Arab, Persian and Chinese travel accounts and other literature, not to speak of Sanskrit or Tamil literature that the Arabs frequented the Malabar Coast in the 7th century.

But there is evidence of their presence in Malabar from the 9th century.

In my book on the origin of Muslims of Kerala, I have proved convincingly on the origin of Muslims that there was no conversion of the Chera king, Cheraman Perumal, to Islam in the 7th century or in the 9th century as claimed by some scholars or in the 12th century as claimed by M G S Narayanan.

• You say Samuel Huntington got it wrong to say that the Clash of Civilisations, essentially Western and Muslim, started after the Cold War ended.

You say it began with Vasco da Gama setting foot in India and Christopher Columbus in the Americas.

Are the conflicts in the world from the 15th century onwards a continuation of this theme?

For Huntington, the ideological clash is over with the fall of the Soviet Union. This has brought about a clash of civilisations on the basis of culture and ethnicity.

Huntington attributes a very restricted meaning and time-frame to the notion of the clash of civilisations.

I think the Clash of Civilisations, which involves all aspects of the life and existence of people, started way back in the late 15th century with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in the Indian Ocean region and Malabar and Columbus in the Americas.

We know about the tragic atrocities that fell upon the Red Indian civilisations due to Columbus’ intrusion into America.

Whole peoples and civilisations, which were a legacy of humanity, were wiped out by the European colonisers in favour of their own civilisation.

In the East, with the arrival of Vasco da Gama, we know that the largely peaceful Indian Ocean region was turned overnight into an arena of conflict and tension, which led to the colonisation of India and much of the Eastern world.

Eventually, the European colonisers had an upper hand in this tussle due to the sophisticated and superior arms and ammunition and the better developed navigation vessels that they possessed, with which they could impose their will on the high seas or bombard or raze to the ground any coastal town, as it was the case with Calicut in 1502.

They did not win India or the Red Indian continent with their values or way of life. Samuel Huntington himself accepted this and had held that the West won the world not with their values, but due to their superiority in applying organised violence.

Thus, the Clash of Civilisations where the Europeans held the upper hand due to superior arms at their disposal started in the 15th century.

This clash continued during the colonial period when the civilisation of the coloniser in the political, economic and cultural fields was imposed upon the colonised.

India became part of the globalised capitalist economy and power structure, dominated by the West.

Nothing much has changed even after decolonisation. India may be independent politically and it may even become an economic power like Japan, but it still remains and will still remain part of the global capitalist economy and system, dominated and controlled by the West.

India still revolves around the economic, political and ideological structures put in place by the colonisers, where power is concentrated in the hands of a few.

Naturally Western culture has become more and more pervasive in every field.

One might think that the dominance of the Western powers ended with decolonisation. Nothing is more erroneous than this thought.

The Western powers still dominate the oceans by the force of their arms and ammunition, their nuclear bombs, fighter jets and navigation vessels.

This, more than their values and ideas, assures their dominance in the world and the continued predominance and existence of the globalised capitalist economy, dominated and controlled by them and their ideological allies.

In this respect, nothing much has changed since Vasco da Gama’s time.

That is why I hold that a new era of Clash of Civilisations, between the West and the rest of the world started in the 15th century with Vasco da Gama coming to India and Columbus stumbling upon America, and has continued till today and will continue for many more decades to come.

I am sure Samuel Huntington will agree with me.

Coming to Western values, ideas and ideologies, I would say that many of them are fundamentally irrational and unfounded. If they had been truly rational and just, there would not be so much confusion and conflict, killings and massacres, injustices and inequalities, not just in India, but all over the world. – Rediff.com, 6 August 2013

• You have stated elsewhere that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a highly controversial speculative theory and that Darwin even thought that the Europeans were the fittest to survive; that this theory justified slavery and colonialism.

• Did it change colonial history after 1859 when The Origin of Species was published?

Slavery, colonialism and the new era of clash of civilisations had started long before Darwin enunciated his theories of struggle for existence and survival of the fittest.

If we follow Darwin’s logic, European or Western civilisation has to triumph ultimately at the expense of all other civilisations.

Coming to the question of whether Darwin’s speculative theories change colonial history after 1859, I would rather say that they were used to justify colonialism, slavery, competition, violence and inequalities in society, more and more thenceforth.

Colonialism was increasingly considered by many Western intellectuals as a service to humanity.

It was also thought to be an inevitable step towards the progress of humanity, according to a particular strait-jacket economic pattern and political belief system, idea or ideology, which are inherently violent, intolerant and aggressive.

All ideas and ideologies, however global or universal or progressive they may appear to be, are inherently violent and aggressive. They were conceived by some power-hungry megalomaniacs, stricken by the pathology of the urge to dominate.

• You say Vasco da Gama’s voyage round the Cape of Good Hope to Calicut was no achievement at all as Barthlomeu Diaz had documented the route to Cape of Good Hope along the West coast of Africa and Indians, Arabs and Persians have been criss-crossing the Arabian Sea all the time.

• Was it not an achievement to connect the two routes, when no European had ever rounded the Cape till then in the then level of knowledge of the earth and oceans?

Portuguese missionary pirate Vasco da GamaIs it an achievement when you follow the route traced by another?

Vasco da Gama simply followed the route traced by Diogo d’ Azambuja, Diogo Cao and Bartholomeu Diaz up to the Eastern Cape Province, where the Indian Ocean lay wide open to him. This is definitely not an exploit.

The Portuguese and Vasco da Gama knew that the Arab traders and others were criss-crossing the Arabian Sea to India from the East African coast. So he sailed still further up the coast to the sultanates of Mozambique and Melindi.

Here he began to scout for some Muslim pilot who would guide him across the Arabian Sea to India. It is with such help that Vasco da Gama was able to cross the Arabian Sea.

This cannot be deemed as an exploit of the first order as he did not venture out alone without guidance into the ocean.

Of course, Vasco da Gama was the first to connect the two routes. But this cannot mean that Vasco da Gama had connected East and West first and was the pioneer of globalisation.

This is not historically and factually correct.

The discovery of the Malacca Straits — whoever discovered it — was a greater discovery that connected East and West and permitted the transportation of goods from the Far East to the Far West (Western Europe), which was only in the outer fringes of the then known world.

Nevertheless, this had laid the foundation for the globalisation of the economy long before Vasco da Gama.

Necessity is the mother of invention. The Arabs, Persians, Indians and Chinese never felt the necessity to find an oceanic route to Western Europe around Africa, because the sea route up to the East African coast and then the land route to the lands that lay beyond as far as Western Europe were more practicable, safe and economical.

Besides, Western Europe was not a big market for their goods in those days. As a result they were content with the sea-land route. But this was not the case with the Europeans.

They were literally blocked by the Turks and the Arabs from reaching India by the land route. So they were literally pushed into the ocean to find a sea route to India.

The question inevitably arises: Why did the West Europeans wait till the 15th century to take to the oceanic route?

• What was the first clue that pointed you in the direction?

The facts related to Vasco Da Gama’s first voyage have always been obvious. A closer and more attentive look into history had revealed to me these facts.

What made me sit up and think was when I realised that Vasco da Gama was on the lookout for a pilot in East Africa to take him across the Arabian Sea to Malabar.

Historians have failed to look at such facts impartially without bias or prejudice due to their nationalist, cultural and racial conditioning.

That is why Vasco da Gama became greater in their eyes than a Zheng Ho who led vast fleets consisting of several ships and men several times to the Indian Ocean and East Africa through the Malacca Straits.

• You said the first man to set foot upon the Malabar Coast was not Vasco da Gama, but a ‘deadly convict’ by the name of Joao Nunes who was sent by Vasco da Gama on a reconnaissance mission.

• Is that not a matter of detail of sending forth a scout, and how does it detract him from being the first man from Europe to figuratively set foot in India?

It is unfortunate that a deadly convict had set foot on the Malabar soil first.

One cannot expect civilised dealings from a deadly convict.

Vasco Da Gama had all the makings of a ruthless pirate. He had orders from the Portuguese king to wrest wealth and fame by the force of arms from the hands of the ‘barbarians, Moors, pagans and other races.’

What happened to Malabar, the Zamorin and his Nair and Marakkar warriors stand testimony to this fact.

India entered the unfortunate phase of colonialism from the time the deadly convict stepped into Malabar. It was sponsored by the Portuguese king and the Church.

Colonialism is an improved version of slavery where the coloniser remains the master while the colonised becomes the ‘petted slave.’

• Why do you ask, what was actually so great about Vasco da Gama that many historians highlight in their numerous books?

I have told you on the basis of evidence that the arrival of Vasco da Gama was not a great exploit from the navigational point of view. Vasco da Gama came to India definitely with the idea of proclaiming Jesus Christ.

Christianity had reached Malabar several centuries before Vasco da Gama. So bringing Christianity to India cannot also account for the greatness of Vasco da Gama.

Vasco da Gama had orders to capture the wealth and land of the barbarians, Moors and pagans. He and his successors implemented these orders to the best of their ability on the Malabar Coast and the Indian Ocean region.

They acquired and captured land on the Malabar Coast, built formidable forts at vantage points, indulged in proselytisation and forcible conversions, mixed with the local populations to create a hybrid race that would be loyal to them and their values, imposed passes on Indian ships and monopolised trade.

Vasco da Gama himself indulged in some of the most heinous crimes. He was the inaugurates of gun-boat trade and politics in the Indian Ocean region.

On October 1, 1502, he mercilessly ordered the killing of 700 innocent Malabar pilgrims, returning from Mecca. Half the pilgrims were women and children.

Vasco da Gama issued orders for the ship to be set on fire by gunpowder, after looting it. Not one pilgrim escaped. He remained insensitive to even the wailing women holding their babies in their hands on the deck, imploring for pity.

On October 27, 1502, he seized 50 Malabaris at sea, got their heads, legs and hands cut off and sent ashore in a boat with a message in Arabic, asking the Zamorin to make curry out of the severed limbs.

Not satisfied with this, he bombarded Calicut from the sea for three consecutive days and razed it to the ground, killing several hundred people in the process.

All these crimes have been recorded by Portuguese chroniclers and have gone unpunished.

For these heinous killings Vasco da Gama needs to be tried for crimes against humanity.

The Portuguese royalty and the Church must also be held accountable for these crimes and also colonialism, for Vasco da Gama was acting under their orders and blessings.

It was this domination and power by the force of superior arms, capable of exterminating hundreds of people in one blow, which accounts largely for the greatness of Vasco da Gama and his successors and not because of their values or intentions to trade or their navigational exploits, as it is made out to be generally by many modern historians. – Rediff.com, 14 August 2013. This is the complete two-part interview.

» Shobha Warrier is a journalist with Rediff.com based in Chennai. She tweets at https://twitter.com/shobhawarrier.

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