While travelling through Western Europe this year, my wife and I visited Seville, Spain, and Lisbon, Portugal, among other destinations. These two cities are strongly associated with the first maritime expeditions taking place at the end of the 15th century that had a crucial impact on the course of world history. Expeditions and explorations brought international fame to brave, fearless seamen, made their sponsors incredibly rich, and heaped immeasurable violence, terror and despair upon the inhabitants of the newly discovered lands.
I obviously didn’t set out to estimate the reasons why discovering new worlds unfolded the way it did. Grasping only too well their passion for exploring the unknown, I wanted to pay my respects to audacious sailors by trying to understand their way of thinking, yearning and longing that was probably further encouraged by the totally realistic possibility of not only succeeding but also becoming rich beyond measure.
Even today, the story of Christopher Columbus, the most famous among these explorers, is oh-so inspiring, enlightening and also tragic. Born in 1451 in what is today Genoa, Italy, he became obsessed with sea and sailing at a young age. Even though he was not a learned man, his ambitions more than made up for it. Exploring the new worlds he sensed beneath distant horizons required massive amounts of resources that could only be provided by the richest people of the time. While King John II of Portugal refused to bankroll his voyage, the Spanish rulers Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile provided the funds needed to carry out the expedition. In 1492, Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean, reaching land on 12 October. He named the island in front of the American continent after his patron saint, Santa Maria de la Antigua: the stage was set for an enrichment the Spanish could not have imagined in their wildest dreams, and an even more unimaginable pogrom of local inhabitants.
Columbus led three additional expeditions into the newly discovered world. As the governor of newly discovered territories, he was accused of tyranny and incompetence on several occasions and died in Spain at the age of 55 years. His impressive tomb in the Seville cathedral shows just how important he was for Spain at that time. The sarcophagus carrying his body sits on the shoulders of four Spanish kings.
An extremely similar life of dreams, yearnings, passion and, therefore, wealth for the Portuguese people and cruelty for the inhabitants of the “discovered” worlds was led by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama who was the first to discover the maritime route leading to India. In 1497, he left the port of Lisbon with three ships carrying 180 men. They sailed around Africa and established a colony in modern Mozambique in order to be able to continue their voyage towards India. Unfavourable winds, storms, scurvy and thousands of other perils accompanied them along the way. Two years later, only one ship carrying 60 men came back to Lisbon; however, a direct maritime route to Asia has been discovered.
The Monument of the Discoveries erected in Lisbon in 1958 in memory of Vasco da Gama and other famous Portuguese sailors, leaving the very same coast the monument is now standing on to embark on their expeditions and come back from them, is one of the most exciting and heart-breaking things I have ever seen. The sculpture rising a couple of tens of metres into the air depicts a ship, on the bow of which is positioned the leader of the expedition, followed by statues of soldiers, priests, merchants and other key figures in the act of conquering new territories. The back side of the monument is dominated by a huge sword symbolising the manner in which these newcomers were operating: unfortunately, they did not come bearing olive branches of peace in the spirit of cooperation. Despite its mightiness and beauty, the monument acts as the modus operandi of conquering, looting, and oppressing the natives, carved in stone, while also standing for the inciting of boundless greed and enrichment of the conquerors.
However, it would be unfair of me to only judge the Spanish and the Portuguese way of treating the newly discovered and conquered territories; other conquering nations were unfortunately no better. The English colonisation of Australia, for example, brought about one of the worst genocides against the indigenous inhabitants, the Aborigines, in the history of mankind; furthermore, this abhorrent incident took place two hundred and fifty years later, when the universal values of civilisation such as peace, respect for diversity, fairness, and cooperation were already much more widespread. What is even more tragic, however, is that even today, if we think about Tibet and its inhabitants living under Chinese rule, the conquerors have hardly changed their operating mode.
All that I’ve saw during this trip touched me deeply and is still making me think. Even though I admire the courage, boldness, and yearning leading these men to discover the unexplored parts of the world, I also feel a deep sense of compassion when I think of the tragic fate of their indigenous inhabitants.
Born 3.6.1952. Sports educator by trade, with 40 years of working in primary schools, but also a top mountain climber, Himalayan, mountain rescuer and mountain guide.
Besides countless expeditions to Slovenian and foreign mountains, I also took part on more than 30 expeditions to non-European mountain passes. In the Himalayas, I conquered 11 ascends to 10 out of the 14. mountain tops, ranging over 8000m.