Vasco Da Gama

Vasco Da Gama

Was a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea. His initial voyage to India, between 1497-1499 was the first to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route, connecting the Atlantic and the Indian oceans and, in this way, the West and the Orient.

Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, on the southwest coast of Portugal. Estêvão Da Gama was the father of Vasco da Gama. In the 1460’s years, he was a knight of the Knights of Santiago, in the service of the Duke of Viseu, Dom Fernando, who appointed him as governor. Estêvão da Gama was married to Dona Sodre Isabel, daughter of João Sodré who had ties to the house of Prince Diogo, Duke of Viseu, son of King Edward I of Portugal and military governor of the Order of Christ.

Little is known about the early life of the explorer. Portuguese historian, Teixeira de Aragão suggests that Da Gama would have studied in the city of Évora, where he was taught mathematics and navigation. It is obviously that Da Gama knew astronomy very well, and it is possible that he studied it with the famous astronomer, Abraham Zacuto. In 1492, King João II of Portugal sent Da Gama to the port of Setubal, to the south of Lisbon and to Algarve to punish the French merchants and pirates for the plundering of the Portuguese ships in peacetime, a task that Vasco executed quickly and efficiently. The same king facilitated his entry into the “Order of the Knights of Christ”.

On 8 July 1497, Vasco da Gama led a fleet of four vessels with a crew of 170 people, which departed from Lisbon. The distance travelled by Da Gama and his fleet around Africa to India and back home was longer than around the equator. The seafarers included the most experienced people in Portugal: Pero de Alenquer, Pedro Escobar, João de Coimbra, and Afonso Gonçalves. Approximately 55 people returned back to Portugal and two ships were lost. The four ships were: São Gabriel, commanded by Vasco da Gama, a carrack of 178 tons, 27 m long, 8,5 m wide, 372 m² sails; São Rafael, whose commander was his brother, Paulo da Gama, having similar sizes as São Gabriel; Caravela Berrio, slightly smaller than the first and later renamed São Miguel, commanded by Nicolau Coelho and a last storage ship commanded by Gonçalo Nunes, later lost near the Bay of São Brás, along the east coast of Africa.

With the best helmsman on board, the expedition started going around the coast of Africa, the Cape Verde Islands and Tenerife. After reaching the coast of Sierra Leone, the crew took the course southwards into the open ocean, crossing the Equator and searched for Bartolomeu Dias’s route in the South Atlantic, discovered in 1487. This course has proved successful and on 4 November 1497, the expedition made it. For more than three months, the ships sailed more than 6.000 kilometers in the open ocean, by far, the longest journey of those times. Until 16 December, the fleet passed by the Great Fish River, the place from where Dias found his way back, and sailed into waters previously unknown to the Europeans.

The Arab-controlled territory on the East African coast has been an integral part of the network of trade in the Indian Ocean. Fearing that the local population would be hostile to Christians, Gama presented himself as a Muslim and gained audience to the Sultan of Mozambique. Unable to provide an appropriate gift for their leader, soon the local population became suspicious. Forced by a hostile population to flee from Mozambique, Gama left the port by firing guns towards the city in retaliation. In the vicinity of today’s Kenya, the expedition resorted to piracy, looting Arab merchant ships. The Portuguese became the first Europeans to visit the port of Mombasa, but they were met with hostility.

In February 1498, Vasco da Gama continued his journey towards north, accosting at the friendly port of Malindi, whose leaders were in conflict with those of Mombasa. Vasco da Gama and his crew hired a pilot whose knowledge of the monsoon winds allowed him to bring the expedition to Calicut. The fleet arrived in Kappad, next to Calicut, India on 20 May 1498. The King of Calicut, Saamoothiri (Zamorin) received the crew with traditional hospitality, which included a large procession of at least 3.000 soldiers, but the meeting with Zamorin failed to produce concrete results. Although the gifts sent by the King of Portugal failed to break the ice and the expedition couldn’t conclude trade relations, da Gama’s expedition was a success beyond all reasonable expectations, bringing in merchandise, sixty times the cost of the expedition.

Vasco da Gama set out for home on 29 August 1498. Regardless of wind and sailing against them, the road took him 132 days, compared to 23 days that he made upon arriving in India. During this trip, about half of his crew died, and many were affected by scurvy. Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal in September 1499 and was richly rewarded as the man who brought to fruition a plan that took eighty years. He was awarded the title of “Admiral of the Indian Seas” and his feudal rights from Sines were confirmed. Manuel I granted him the title of Dom. Spice trade would prove to be a major asset for the Portuguese economy and other consequences soon followed. For this purpose, coastal ports were needed for repairs and supplies. A significant result was the colonization of Mozambique by the Portuguese crown.

In 1519, he became the first Earl of Vidigueira, a title created by King Manuel I of Portugal, becoming thus the first count which wasn’t born with royal blood. By acquiring the reputation of one who could solve any problem in India, he was sent there in 1524 as Viceroy. Not a long time after reaching India, he became ill with malaria in Goa and died in Cochin on the Christmas Eve of 1524.

As much as anyone, after Henry the Navigator, Gama was responsible for Portugal’s success as a colonizing power. His skills in war and politics have made Portugal the monopoly holder in the Indian Ocean trade. In connection with his international fame, it is worth noting that, unlike Columbus or Magellan, Gama never sailed into uncharted waters. He never made any breakthrough discovery like terra incognita. He was a colonialist, a pioneer who combined greed with diplomacy and covered his greed with refinement. Vasco da Gama is one of the most famous and celebrated explorers from the Age of Discovery. Following da Gama’s initial voyage, the Portuguese crown realized that securing outposts on the eastern coast of Africa would prove vital to maintaining national trade routes to the Far East.

Tomb of Vasco Da Gama
Tomb of Vasco Da Gama

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