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The Scotsman
November 22, 2003
Books in brief

Unknown Seas, by Ronald Watkins (John Murray, 20)

ECLIPSED for us by Columbus's westward voyages on the one hand and post-colonial proprietary feelings toward Africa and India on the other, the explorations of 15th-century Portuguese navigators have not had the recognition they've deserved in Britain. But the opening up of the ocean route round the Cape by Dias, Vasco Da Gama and others redrew the map every bit as radically as the discovery of the New World. A gripping adventure narrative, this book makes a persuasive case for the reassessment of a crucial episode in history

Naval Review
Unknown Seas - How Vasco da Gama Opened the East
By Ronald Watkins
335 pp, ISBN 0 7195 6416 6
Published by John Murray, price 20

I think we all know that Vasco da Gama was the first European to sail from Europe, via the Cape of Good Hope, to India. This book gives a well-organised account of Portuguese preparations for the expedition, and his exploits during his 2-year voyage 1497 - 99 (he did the voyage twice more, but obviously the first was by far the most important). It initially struck me as curious that in this book of 335 pages, he does not set off from Lisbon until page 163, but the author quite rightly covers first the lengthy preparations and many efforts to establish a sea-route southwards on the African west coast, and to the East, including Bartholomew Dias's rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in the late 1480s - the first European so to do. This achievement was crucial for the amount of knowledge gained, and the discovery that, yes, Africa did have a south coast. Up until then, in the midst of widespread ignorance, there had been quite a body of informed opinion maintaining that there was uninterrupted land i.e. that it was totally impossible to reach India by sea. (Columbus had returned from his first voyage in 1494, but there was already doubt over his assertion to have found the "Indies" by sailing westward.)

Is the author exaggerating when he claims that "The first passage to India by sea was the equivalent in its time not of a moon shot but of a mission to Mars" and "Gama's three-month sweep through the Central and south Atlantic to make landfall within 100 miles of his destination, lacking so much as a sextant, was the greatest feat of sailing the world had ever seen, and is still ranked as one of the most extraordinary sailing accomplishments of all time."? It is difficult to argue otherwise, frankly. The achievement was indeed extraordinary, and his decision to stay well out to sea between West and South Africa, was totally unprecedented (I wish more detail of how he actually navigated were included; alas, no). Gama may have been as young as 28 when he set out; Encyclopaedia Britannica gives 1460 as the year of his birth, but the author says that the latest, most credible, calculation suggests 1469 or 1470.

It was never the case, of course, that Gama was sent to discover a sea-route to India for purely academic reasons, or from the wish merely to expand Portugal's geographical knowledge; it was a hard-headed business decision. Portugal well knew that India was the source of many very valuable goods (pepper, silk, gold etc), but there was no way of getting to India overland without having to deal with strong and generally hostile Arab/Muslim communities between Europe and India. There is more than a whiff of the benefits of slavery too - far better, it was thought, for African natives to be owned as commodities by Christian families than to be left to live and die not knowing Christianity. Indeed, the whole effort was at least partly a crusade.

The text flows well, and the accounts of Gama's dealings with various groups who were none too co-operative are stirring stuff; he seems to have had a happy knack of being very amenable when it was advantageous to do so, but always fully prepared to back up his opinions with force if necessary. It is a fine read.

The author frequently uses the verb "to double" meaning to sail round a headland, and I confess I had never heard of that usage; I am told (and my dictionary agrees!) that it is perfectly correct....

Last point. I wonder if the author is aware of the book "1421 - the Year China Discovered the World" (reviewed in the NR in May 2003). If everything in this latter book is proved correct - and I think opinion is moving in that direction - then most historians of early European exploration will need to have a serious re-think. But da Gama's great achievement will surely stand.

H L Foxworthy
Commander RN

The Guardian
Saturday October 16, 2004
Unknown Seas: How Vasco da Gama Opened the East, by Ronald Watkins (John Murray, 8.99)

The Portuguese sea captain Vasco da Gama was the first to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to India - a feat equivalent in its time, says Watkins, to a mission to Mars. Watkins's account of the volatile cultural melange of India in the 15th century is fascinating and he is also good on the limitations of the Christian mindset: Gama mistook Hindus for corrupted Christians (mishearing "Khrishna" as "Christ"), and most Europeans assumed it was far better for black Africans (those "sons of Cain") to live in Christian bondage than to remain in Africa and burn in hell eternally. Gama left India in something of a hurry, but returned in triumph to Lisbon with spices and precious gems, and eventually became a wealthy man. Watkins takes us on every step of Da Gama's voyage, but his real mission is to talk up Portugal's massive contribution to world exploration. IP

Publishers Weekly
High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Terms and Trials of Former Governor Evan Mecham, by Ronald Watkins (William Morrow, 1990)

Mecham, an auto dealer who had unsuccessfully sought public office many times, was elected governor of Arizona in 1986. His first act in office was to rescind the state holiday commemorating the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. According to freelance writer Watkins, Mecham gave evidence that he was racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic. The author also charges that the governor's sole criterion for naming appointments to state office, even high office, was loyalty, rather than competence; further, that he included the press in a perceived conspiracy of those who were "out to get him." A recall movement, begun shortly after Mecham took office, collected more signatures than votes received in the election. In 1988 the impeached governor was removed from office, although the recall election was cancelled and he was acquitted in a criminal trial for accepting illegal campaign contributions. The story of Mecham's administration is dramatically told by Watkins in an even-handed, well-documented account.

Library Journal
High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Terms and Trials of Former Governor Evan Mecham, by Ronald Watkins (William Morrow, 1990)

United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once referred to states as laboratories of democracy. Sometimes the experiment goes wrong, as Watkins details in his fascinating account of the troubled administration of Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona. Mecham's tenure in office is a tale of deceit, distrust, and disaster, culminating in his impeachment and removal from office in 1989. Although the book is at times disjointed, and lacks a needed and insightful evaluation of the effect of Mecham's administration on Arizona politics, it nonetheless lays to rest the notion that politicians are like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Watkins's work effectively takes the reader into the vortex of Mecham's political Twilight Zone, where the slogan is "I have a scheme." Highly recommended, for undergraduate and public libraries in particular. - Stephen K. Shaw, Northwest Nazarene Coll., Nampa, Id.

Publishers Weekly
Birthright: Murder, Greed and Power in the U-Haul Family Dynasty, by Ronald Watkins (William Morrow, 1993

This is the sordid story of the family of L. S. Schoen, the one-time migrant worker who, having founded the $4-billion U-Haul trailer and truck rental empire, saw his dynastic dreams shattered by feuding among the 13 offspring of his four marriages, culminating in the sensational, unsolved 1990 murder of a daughter-in-law in Telluride, Colo. Using access to Schoen pere , other relatives and their personal documents, Watkins ( Evil Intentions ), dramatically recounts how the family, dominated by Schoen's driving personality, was evidently riven by maniacal greed, leading to a succession of boardroom fights, lawsuits and financial crises that diminished the company's profits and ruined lives. Of his entanglement with sons Joe and Mark, who fought with their brothers and ousted him as chairman, Schoen came to say "I created a monster." The family of the slain sister- in-law, Eva Berg Schoen, have offered a $250,000 reward for information concerning the murder. Photos not seen by PW.

Library Journal
Birthright: Murder, Greed and Power in the U-Haul Family Dynasty, by Ronald Watkins (William Morrow, 1993
Watkins ( High Crimes and Misdemeanors , LJ 4/1/90; Evil Intentions , LJ 2/1/92) here chronicles the lives of the L.S. Shoen family and the growth of the U-Haul empire. Shoen founded U-Haul with a single trailer in 1945 and directed the company's growth until he was ousted from leadership by a rival faction, led by two of his sons, in the mid-1980s. The battle for control of the company is still being fought, and the unsolved murder of Eva Shoen (wife of one of Schoen's sons) has added to the intrigue of this bitter family feud. Watkins used interviews, family letters, and legal documents in preparing this book, and some of these materials are included. Although Watkins addresses the restrictions that prevented him from revealing certain sources, some readers will undoubtedly wish that better documentation had been provided. Recommended for libraries with true crime collections; less appropriate for business collections. - Mark McCullough, Heterick Lib. , Ohio Northern Univ. , Ada

[partial list of reviews]
  • The New York Times Book Review
  • The Los Angeles Times Book Review
  • The Scotsman [U.K.]
  • The Washington Post
  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • The Denver Post
  • Kirkus Review
  • Publishers Weekly
  • Naval Review [U.K.]
  • Library Journal
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