The Fourth of the Three
Story by Indrajit Hazra | Art by Mad Paule
Vasco da Gama
The first European to reach India via the Cape of Good Hope was the Portuguese sea captain, Vasco da Gama (c. 1460 – 1524). Much of the real man – the violence and taking of hostages in the lands he set foot on, including India’s Malabar coast – set the template for future colonial enterprises, including that of the British more than a century after his ships landed near Calicut on May 20, 1498. After this first trip, he returned to India, was appointed as the ‘Viceroy of India’ in 1524 by King John III of Portugal (the first viceroy was Francisco de Almeida in 1505 when da Gama was overlooked).
On his journey from Lisbon on July 8, 1497 around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa, he followed the route first traversed by fellow Portuguese Bartolomeu Dias in 1487. But it was da Gama who ‘completed’ the last leg from eastern Africa to India – thereby destroying the near monopoly that Arab merchants had in the spice trade connecting Europe and India through overland routes.
Ahmad ibn Majid
Ahmad ibn Majid (c. 1432 – c. 1500) was a legendary navigator from Oman, whose contributions in seafaring contributed not only to the supremacy of Arab trade in the West Asian and Indian Ocean region of the 15th century, but also subsequently to exploration by European seafaring powers. His monumental work, Kitab al-Fawa’id fi Usul ‘Ilm al-Bahr wa ’l-Qawa’id meaning ‘Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation’ (1490) is a compendium of technological knowledge of the time. Even though the West identifies him as the person who guided Vasco da Gama to the Malabar coast in India from the east African coast in 1498, scholars believe this is highly unlikely, as ibn Majid, at about 66 years of age, would have been too old to make the strenuous journey. No records even exist that he actually met da Gama. Ibn Majid described himself as a successor to the ‘Three Lions of the Sea’ of Arab navigation. Thus, his title for himself: ‘The Fourth of the Three’.
Volta do mar
Volta do mar – literally meaning ‘turn/return from the sea’ in Portuguese – was a navigational procedure first implemented by the Portuguese on long sailing voyages in the Atlantic Ocean. In this revolutionary technique, ships would take a longer route perpendicular to Portuguese ports so as to avoid being tossed around – and sunk – by the powerful circular winds in the region. The Italian navigator of the Spanish fleet, Christopher Columbus, used the volta do mar to return from the Americas in 1493 by steering his ships northwards from the Caribbean to catch the westerlies, the winds from the west towards the east. In their journey to India, Vasco da Gama and his crew actually used the volta do mar while crossing the equator to pass the western coast of Africa by steering west, almost as far as near the coast of Brazil.
In Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 science fiction novel Dune and its sequels, Arrakis is a desert planet, and the only source of spice mélange, the most powerful drug in the Known Universe. Mélange is created by the secretion from the larvae of the giant sandworms that live deep under the desert surface of Arrakis. It is highly valuable not only for its narcotic properties but also for its life-extending properties. The Imperium – which rules the Known Universe – mines Arrakis, and monopolises the trade of this precious commodity.
The Dune novels have been notoriously difficult to put on film, with several great filmmakers having tried and failed. There has been yet another effort recently, by the Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. Watch the trailer for this 2021 movie here: