When Portugal led the way A look at the explorers who turned their nation into a world power.

August 23, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Christopher Columbus may get all the ink nowadays, but in those heady final years of the 15th century, when all sorts of explorers were making all sorts of perilous journeys, Vasco da Gama was just as important a figure.

"Into the Rising Sun" - a four-part series from writer-director Luc Cuyvers debuting at 10 p.m. Wednesday on MPT, channels 22 and 67 - is the story of da Gama and his Portuguese compatriots, men determined to chart a sea route from Europe to India and the West Indies.

By seeking a cheaper way of getting Indian spices and other goods into Europe, they turned Portugal into a world power and began an era of colonization that would stretch into the 20th century and leave scars that are still visible today.

Episode one, "The Barrier of Fear," opens in 1415, with Prince Henry the Navigator's call to map the African coast - the beginning of an 80-year campaign. During that time, the Portuguese also established colonies and initiated a slave trade that would decimate much of the continent.

Episode two, "Beyond the Cape of Storms" (Sept. 2), follows the Portuguese as they make it around Africa's southernmost point, now called the Cape of Good Hope.

Episode three, "The Passage to India" (Sept. 9), follows da Gama on a 10-month voyage that ended with the first landing on the Indian coast.

Episode four, "A Liar's Tale" (Sept. 16), uses the diary of a young fortune hunter to trace Portugal's Asian trading empire, which would eventually stretch from India through Malaysia to China and Japan.

Cuyvers visits little-seen places during his four-hour tour of Africa and southern Asia (thankfully, the series is as much about the region today as in the 1490s), and his insights into the long-term effects of European colonization and the slave trade are examples of historical interpretation at its best. We all know the effect slavery had on the United States, but what about the effect on a continent that had huge numbers of its population forcibly removed?

The series drags a bit at first, as Cuyvers struggles to cram decades of history into a single hour. But once he's able to focus on a single voyage - particularly da Gama's - the series turns into a compelling travelogue and a fascinating social history.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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