No feud like an old feud at Expo98

The Lisbon fair could have been a dull, Disneyesque affair, but squabbles from the past are keeping everyone on their toes, writes Elizabeth Nash
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The Independent Online
YOU CAN'T keep old feuds down, even in Lisbon's Expo98, which opened last week on the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India - an excuse for more than 150 countries to join together for four months of partying and self-promotion.

The theme "The Oceans: our heritage for the future" has cast up a spray of national resentments involving Portugal, Japan, India and Spain, partnerships storm-tossed by centuries of trade and conquest. Far from spoiling the fun, however, the douche of cold water enlivens the Expo, lifting the experience out of Disneyesque blandness.

The Japanese pavilion displays a musket introduced by the Portuguese when they were wrecked on the Japanese island of Tanegashima in 1543. The local lord was so astonished that he purloined one and had copies made. "After that everything changed for us," as the pavilion guide gently put it. Tanegashima became the word for musket, and the strange voyagers were labelled dismissively as namban-jin: barbarians from the south.

The arrival throughout the 16th century of big black Portuguese ships laden with camels, elephants, Persian horses, almonds, pineapples and pear jam made such an impact on the Japanese that they developed an entire art form to portray it. Gilded folding namban screens depict with startling accuracy the Portuguese traders, with their dark looks and strong noses, landing on the beach and toting their cargo through Nagasaki, accompanied by their African servants.

The Japanese pavilion shows one such screen, but Lisbon's Antique Art Museum has far better examples, and these have inspired a film, for Portugal's pavilion, about the meeting of the two cultures, which mixes animation, actors and special effects. The Portuguese think that the 16th-century Japanese artists mocked and exaggerated their long noses - despite the fact that these handsome, if mournful, features adorn many a Lisbon face. "They painted the Portuguese with long noses," explained the guide at the Portuguese pavilion condescendingly, "because they didn't think we were really human." Accentuating the perceived slight, the film endows every actor with a grotesque Cyrano conk.

More serious is the clash between India and Portugal over the role of Vasco da Gama: a godlike hero for the Portuguese, but a cruel, temperamental adventurer who boosted his legend for social and financial gain, according to a recent work by the Indian historian, Sanjay Subrahmanyam. The discovery of the sea route to India inspired Portugal's most revered poet, Camoens, to write his epic poem, The Lusiads, while Indian children sing in the playground of Vasco da Gama, who "took off his pyjama and showed his banana."

"He was no hero," wrote Mr Subrahmanyam in a Portuguese newspaper this week, "but a minor nobleman who used his achievement as a form of blackmail to force the Portuguese crown to give him what he wanted." The desire of many Indians to forget, rather than commemorate, the great discoverer scotched joint celebrations of the anniversary at government level, and a polemical eve-of-Expo conference on "Vasco de Gama and India", mounted by Lisbon's Gulbenkian Foundation, took place not in Lisbon but in Paris, to avoid a boycott by some Indian participants.

The Portuguese are rather abashed about all this. Despite a history of bloody colonial wars, they have long portrayed their imperial rule as softer and more racially tolerant than that of the French, British or Spanish - though many concede this was largely a myth. "Portugal is well- placed to be a middleman on a world scale without other countries worrying about our dominance," said the Expo commissioner, Antonio Mega Ferreira, last week, explaining Portugal's role as Expo host. Amid suggestions that the Portuguese are downplaying da Gama's starring role, they mumble that "it's all very sensitive and diplomatically delicate".

No such reticence from the Spanish, whose pavilion - the biggest and most expensive - is devoted to the artistic glories of their own empire under Spanish Habsburg monarchs who also happened to reign over Portugal. Priceless treasures from the Prado and Spain's royal palace have been shipped in, along with magnificent brass navigation instruments from the age of the conquista. When it comes to imperial grandeur, this suggests, Spain is second to none. Some Portuguese have even complained that Spain was trying to steal the show.

To mark the Expo, Madrid gave Portugal a 1622 engraving of Philip III of Spain (who was also Philip II of Portugal) landing in Lisbon. The gift deeply offended the Portuguese, who thought it celebrated Spain's conquest of its neighbour and was another instance of Spanish insensitivity to Portuguese feelings. The row deepened when a historian ventured the heresy that the 17th-century revolt that freed Portugal from Habsburg rule was no popular uprising, but one engineered by the church and social elites - not a claim anyone would make about the liberation of Portugal's own colonies.