Vasco da Gama, Portugal's Columbus, Is Just as Controversial
When school children learn about the Age of Discovery — the 15th- and 16th-century maritime exploits of Spain and Portugal, chiefly — they memorize a list of a half-dozen European men in funny hats who sailed bravely into uncharted waters to discover far-off lands. Among them is Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer who was the first European to sail to spice-rich India by rounding the southern tip of Africa.
But just like his contemporary, Christopher Columbus, da Gama is a complex and controversial historical figure. A devout Christian and a loyal Portuguese subject, da Gama had no qualms about using violence — including against unarmed civilians — to force his way into the lucrative Indian and African trade routes dominated at the time by Muslims.
"Da Gama deserves to be recognized as one of the more heavy-handed explorers," says Marc Nucup, a public historian at The Mariners' Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia. "He was willing to take what he wanted and get his way at the point of a canon."
Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a history professor at UCLA who wrote an eye-opening book about da Gama, says that the Portuguese explorer left almost no personal writing or journals compared to the prolific Columbus, but that scraps of letters and journal entries penned by da Gama's crew paint a "troubling" picture of an ill-tempered, even dangerous character.
"The accounts written by people on da Gama's voyages portray someone who was, even by the standards of the time, a violent personality," says Subrahmanyam.
Keeping Up with Columbus
In the 15th century, the Spanish and Portuguese were in a bitter race to find a sea route to India that bypassed the tortuously long and expensive overland trade route through unfriendly Ottoman and Egyptian territory. In 1488, the Portuguese took the lead when Bartolomeu Dias successfully navigated around the Cape of Good Hope (Dias called it the "Cape of Storms") in modern-day South Africa and became the first European to reach the Indian Ocean.
But Dias returned with bad news for King João II of Portugal. The winds and currents in the Indian Ocean blew northeast to southwest, making it all but impossible to cross the sea from Africa to India. Nucup says that Dias didn't understand how the seasonal monsoons of the region worked, and that the winds actually switched directions for half the year. Thinking it was hopeless, Portugal didn't attempt another southern run to India for 10 years.
In the meantime, Columbus — who learned his trade in Portugal — discovered what he believed to be a western route to the Indies (or possibly Japan) for Spain in 1492. For the Portuguese, the pressure was high to stake their own claim to Oriental trade, so Manuel I, now king of Portugal, ordered a new expedition to India via the South African route, and in command of this mission wasn't Dias, but Vasco da Gama.
Who Was da Gama?
Historians know little of da Gama's early life, just that he was born sometime in the 1460s in the small coastal Portuguese city of Sines to well-positioned parents, a knight and a noblewoman, which afforded him a good education in navigation and advanced mathematics. At some point he gained practical experience on ships and may have become a captain as early as 20 years old.
Why did King Manuel I choose da Gama, then in his thirties, for the voyage to India? Nucup says that da Gama had proved a loyal enforcer when he was sent to put an end to a conflict between Portuguese and French merchants.
"Apparently he did a really good job seizing French vessels, so he gained the king's trust," says Nucup. "This is a guy who can get stuff done for me."
First Voyage — Success Turns to Frustration
On July 8, 1497, da Gama set sail from Lisbon with four ships and 170 men, including his brother Paolo. There was nothing easy about navigating 15th-century sailboats through unruly seas, but da Gama wisely took Dias's advice and swung far west into the southern Atlantic (just 600 miles, or 965 kilometers, from Brazil) to catch strong winds that would propel them eastward toward the tip of Africa.
The risky plan worked, and after 13 long weeks on the open water out of sight of land, da Gama landed in St. Helena Bay, just 125 miles (200 kilometers) north of the Cape of Good Hope on November 7, nearly four months after leaving Portugal. The expedition slowly worked its way around the stormy Cape and entered the Indian Ocean around Christmastime. But now came the real test, figuring out how to cross the sea to India. For that, he needed a knowledgeable local captain, who he hoped to recruit or kidnap from Eastern Africa.
Da Gama's first major encounter with an African kingdom was in Mozambique, where he was poorly received, an experience that would be repeated throughout the first voyage. Nucup says that da Gama was following the example of Columbus, who had won over native leaders with simple European goods like bells, flannel and metalwork.
"But when da Gama stopped at ports in Eastern Africa and offered these items for trade, people would laugh at him," says Nucup. "These weren't impressive to local traders."
In Mozambique, the Sultan and his people were actually offended and started to riot, says Nucup. Da Gama fled back to his ship and lobbed a few canon balls at the city as parting shots. The Portuguese were better received in the African kingdom of Malindi, where da Gama was able to recruit a local pilot who could guide them across the tricky Indian Ocean to their final destination.
After a 27-day journey, da Gama and his men arrived in Calicut, a coastal city in Southern India known today as Kozhikode. Subrahmanyam says that the Portuguese were "shocked" to find that Muslims were running the spice trade in India.
"They were under the impression that there were a lot of Christians in India and that these people would be their natural allies," says Subrahmanyam.
Instead, da Gama found outposts of an extensive African-Indian trade network operated largely by Arab Muslims. Again, nobody in Calicut was impressed with the paltry goods the Portuguese had brought to trade for high-end spices. The local traders and merchants made it clear that gold was the only currency that mattered.
After a tortuous journey home against the monsoon winds, Da Gama returned to Lisbon nearly empty-handed, but he was still greeted as a hero for reaching his destination and making it home after two years and 24,000 miles (38,600 kilometers) at sea. Sadly, scurvy had claimed all but 54 of his 170-man crew including da Gama's brother Paolo.
The Second Voyage — Things Get Ugly
Before da Gama returned to India, another Portuguese explorer named Pedro Álvarez Cabral was given command of an Indian expedition. Cabral sailed with a much larger crew of 1,200 men and 13 vessels, including one captained by Dias. Following da Gama's route, Cabral swung far west to catch those helpful Antarctic winds, but he ended up swinging even farther west than intended and accidentally discovered Brazil, which he claimed for the Portuguese.
Cabral eventually continued on to India, encountering terrible storms that claimed four of his ships, including the one captained by Dias. When he finally arrived in Calicut, he met fierce resistance from the Arab Muslim traders, who killed some Portuguese sailors in an attack. Cabral responded by bombarding the city, raiding 10 Arab ships and killing an estimated 600 Muslims. It was a "diplomatic" style that da Gama would follow to terrible effect.
In 1502, da Gama set sail again for India in command of 10 ships and with his sights set on breaking the Muslim monopoly on the spice trade once and for all. On his way, he threatened African leaders with his canons in exchange for vows of loyalty to Portugal, but nothing compares to the campaign of terror he waged along India's Malabar Coast.
In the most horrific incident, da Gama intercepted a ship carrying Muslim families returning from a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Da Gama locked up the passengers in the ship's hull, and despite pleas from his own crew members not to do it, he set the pilgrim ship ablaze, slowly killing hundreds of men, women and children.
"Maybe he was trying to create an image for the Portuguese — you don't mess with us," says Subrahmanyam. "And that message did come across. The pilgrim ship incident cemented the reputation of the Portuguese as very dangerous and violent people in the Indian Ocean."
In Calicut, there were more skirmishes between da Gama and Arab traders. Da Gama responded by capturing 30 unarmed local fishermen, dismembering their bodies and letting the remains wash in on the tide as a message of Portuguese power.
The combined cruelties of Cabral and de Gama succeeded in establishing Portuguese trading outposts in Calicut and in the southern Indian state of Goa, where Subrahmanyam says the Portuguese maintained an official presence until the 1960s.
Da Gama had married after his first voyage and went on to sire six sons and one daughter. He spent 20 years as an adviser on Indian affairs to the Portuguese king. In 1524 he was sent back to Goa as viceroy to deal with some corruption in the government the Portuguese established there. He soon got ill and died that same year in India.
Da Gama's Legacy
Given da Gama's questionable methods and the important contributions of Dias and Cabral, it's fair to ask why da Gama is so famous and why school kids continue to memorize his name. Nucup says that you simply can't tell the story of European exploration and colonization without da Gama.
"Was he a great explorer? No," says Nucup. "But through his efforts, Portugal established a European sea route to India and eventually further to China and the Indies and helped create what would become the Portuguese overseas empire. Again, whether that's progress or not is up for debate."
Subrahmanyam says that one of the main reasons why da Gama's name rings down through the centuries is because the Portuguese needed a national hero to rival Columbus.
"The Spaniards made a big deal of Columbus and the Portuguese were very annoyed with that," says Subrahmanyam. "The Portuguese made a very deliberate attempt in the 16th century to build up da Gama as their Columbus."
The best example of this Portuguese propaganda campaign was a 12-part epic poem called "The Lusiad, or The Discovery of India," written by Portugal's most famous poet, Luís de Camões. The poem, which portrays da Gama as a Greek-style hero rivaling not only Columbus, but Achilles and Odysseus, sealed the controversial explorer as a larger-than-life Portuguese hero.
HowStuffWorks earns a small affiliate commission when you purchase through links on our site.
In 1971, the Goan port city of Vasco da Gama was officially renamed Sambhaji, but nobody told the residents, so most people still call it "Vasco." A 1997 plan to celebrate the 500th anniversary of da Gama's "discovery" of India in Goa was foiled by protestors.
Extracts from : A Portuguese East Indiaman from the 1502–1503 Fleet of Vasco da Gama off Al Hallaniyah Island, Oman: an interim report, Mearns, D.L., Parham, D., and Frohlich, B, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 45.2, © 2016 The Nautical Archaeology Society.
Map of Portuguese Discoveries
Age of Discovery
The Age of Discovery describes a period in European history when extensive overseas exploration by a handful of seaborne powers led to the rise of global trade in concert with the building of colonial empires. While the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English were all heavily involved in this economic and territorial expansion, it was the Portuguese, from their small coastal country fronting the Atlantic Ocean who were the first to venture beyond their shores to make important discoveries in the New World. Having discovered Madeira Island in 1418 and the Azores archipelago in 1427, Portuguese ships commanded by their most skilled explorers and navigators pushed further south reaching successively distant locations along the west coast of Africa.
These methodical explorations by the Portuguese were generally driven by their quest to conquer and exploit new lands whilst also searching for Christian allies (none more important than the legendary Prester John) who could help in their conflicts with the ‘Moors’ of North Africa. By the year 1488 Bartholomeu Dias had rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa and for the first time a European had entered the waters of the Indian Ocean. Only the nervousness of Dias’ crew prevented him from continuing his voyage all the way to India, which the Portuguese knew was a land rich in valuable spices and was their ultimate objective. Another decade was to pass before Vasco da Gama completed the voyage to India in 1498 (in a ship Dias reportedly help build) but it was Dias’ who first put the Portuguese at the doorstep to this exciting new land and to lands further east.
Loss of Esmeralda as per Livro das Armadas
Fourth Portuguese Armada to India (1502-1503)
In 1502, four years after his discovery of the sea route to India earned him the titles Dom and Admiral of the Indies, Vasco da Gama was once again appointed Captain-Major by the Portuguese King Dom Manuel I for a voyage to India. Following the disastrous outcome of Pedro Cabral’s earlier (1500-1501) command of 13 ships, of which only six made it to the Malabar coast, da Gama was apparently a late replacement for Cabral of this 4 th Portuguese voyage that was central to the prestige and military ambitions of Dom Manuel. The Portuguese King’s investment in the Indian Ocean had yet to turn a profit nor had it resulted in finding large numbers of friendly Christians in India that could be allies against the Mamluks of Egypt who controlled the spice trade through the Red Sea. In fact Cabral’s relations with the Zamorin of Calicut was decidedly unfriendly. Continuing da Gama’s policy of hostile trade Cabral’s fleet first seized a Muslim ship, which in turn precipitated a retaliatory attack by the enraged Muslim merchants on the newly established Portuguese feitoria (factory) in Calicut. Fifty-four Portuguese, including the feitor Aires Correia, were killed in the ensuing battle. Cabral’s reply to the heavy loss of his men and goods was to capture still more Muslim ships and then to bombard Calicut with his heavy guns killing as many as 500.
In replacing Cabral, Dom Manuel opted for a fleet that was full of military intent and family members of da Gama. Of the 20 ships, the largest Carreira da India fleet to date, five were commanded by present, or soon to be relations of da Gama, including: his uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré, a cousin Estêvão da Gama, a brother-in-law Alvaro de Ataíde, and a future brother-in-law Lopo Mendes de Vasconcelos. The main figure however, other than da Gama himself, was Vicente Sodré who was given his own regimento (instructions) by Dom Manuel and was to assume the role of Captain-Major if anything happened to his famous nephew. Sailing in the nau Esmeralda, Vicente led a separate five-ship squadron (three naus and two caravels) and together with his younger brother Brás engaged in some of the most brutal and notorious attacks on enemy ships they encountered off the coast of India.
After da Gama returned to Lisbon with the main part of the fleet in early 1503, the senior Sodré was instructed to patrol the waters off the southwest Indian coast. From this post he could protect the newly established Portuguese factories and their allies in Cochin and Cannanore from the inevitable Zamorin attacks, and still be able to capture Arab ships trading between the Red Sea and Kerala to fulfil the Royal regimento. However, Sodré ignored these instructions and instead sailed to the Gulf of Aden where his fleet captured and looted a number of Arab ships of their valuable cargoes. In conducting this high-seas piracy Sodré was abetted by his brother Brás in the nau São Pedro who led the brutal attacks, which spared no lives as every ship was burnt after being plundered. According to Pêro d’Ataíde, who was captain of the third nau, the Sodré brothers then kept the lion’s share of the stolen cargoes (pepper, sugar, clothing, rice, cloves) leading to dissension amongst the other commanders and crews.
In April of 1503, Sodré took his fleet to the Khuriya Muriya Islands off the southern coast of Oman to shelter from the southwest monsoon and to repair the hull of one of the caravels. They remained on the largest and only inhabited island (now known as Al Hallaniyah) for many weeks and enjoyed friendly relations with the indigenous Arab population, including bartering for food and provisions. In May the local fishermen warned the Portuguese of an impending dangerous wind from the north that would place their anchored ships at risk unless they moved to the leeward side of the island. Confidant that their iron anchors were strong enough to withstand the tempest the Sodré brothers, along with Pêro de Ataíde, kept their ships in the northern anchorage whilst the smaller caravels moved to a safe location on the other side of the island.
When the strong winds came, as the Arab fisherman had accurately predicted, they were sudden and furious and were accompanied by a powerful swell that tore the Sodré brothers’ ships from their moorings and drove them hard against the rocky shoreline smashing their wooden hulls and breaking their masts. An illustration made later for the pictorial chronicle Livro das Armadas dramatically captures the demise of the two naus. Whilst most men on the São Pedro survived by scrambling across her fallen mast and rigging onto land it was reported that everyone from the Esmeralda, including Vicente Sodré, perished in the deeper waters of the bay. Although Brás initially survived the wrecking of his ship he later died of unknown causes, but not before he had two Moorish pilots killed including the best pilot in all of India left to him by Vasco da Gama, in misplaced revenge for the death of his brother.
After burying their dead on the island the surviving Portuguese spent six days salvaging as much as they could from the wrecks before setting fire to the hulls. Under the new command of Pêro de Ataíde, the three remaining ships sailed back to India where they met Francisco D’Albuquerque and according to Ataíde handed over 17 pieces of artillery they had salvaged from the wrecks. Ataíde later succumbed to illness and died in early 1504 after his ship wrecked near Mozambique during his return journey to Lisbon. Shortly before he died, however, Ataíde wrote a five-page personal letter to Dom Manuel relating the events described above. This letter, the original of which is held in the Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo in Lisbon, represents the most complete first-hand account of what transpired with the Sodré squadron.
Vasco de Gama Sets Off for India - History
Vasco da Gama was born about 1460 at Sines, Portugal. Both Prince John and Prince Manuel continued the efforts of Prince Henry to find a sea route to India, and in 1497 Manuel placed Vasco da Gama, who already had some reputation as a warrior and navigator, in charge of four vessels built especially for the expedition. They set sail July 8, 1497, rounded the Cape of Good Hope four months later, and reached Calicut May 20, 1498. The Moors in Calicut instigated the Zamorin of Calicut against him, and he was compelled to return with the bare discovery and the few spices he had bought there at inflated prices [but still he made a 3000% profit!]. A force left by a second expedition under Cabral (who discovered Brazil by sailing too far west), left behind some men in a "factory" or trading station, but these were killed by the Moors in revenge for Cabral's attacks on Arab shipping in the Indian Ocean. Vasco da Gama was sent on a mission of vengeance in 1502, he bombarded Calicut (virtually destroying the port), and returned with great spoil. His expedition turned the commerce of Europe from the Mediterranean cities to the Atlantic Coast, and opened up the east to European enterprise.
1497 The Bay of St. Helena [on the west coast of the present country of South Africa]. On Tuesday (November 7) we returned to the land, which we found to be low, with a broad bay opening into it. The captain-major [i.e., da Gama speaking in the third person] sent Pero d'Alenquer in a boat to take soundings and to search for good anchoring ground. The bay was found to be very clean, and to afford shelter against all winds except those from the N.W. It extended east and west, and we named it Santa Helena.
On Wednesday (November 8) we cast anchor in this bay, and we remained there eight days, cleaning the ships, mending the sails, and taking in wood. The river Samtiagua (S. Thiago) enters the bay four leagues to the S.E. of the anchorage. It comes from the interior (sertao), is about a stone's throw across at the mouth, and from two to three fathoms in depth at all states of the tide.
The inhabitants of this country are tawny-colored. Their food is confined to the flesh of seals, whales and gazelles, and the roots of herbs. They are dressed in skins, and wear sheaths over their virile members. They are armed with poles of olive wood to which a horn, browned in the fire, is attached. Their numerous dogs resemble those of Portugal, and bark like them. The birds of the country, likewise, are the same as in Portugal, and include cormorants, gulls, turtle doves, crested larks, and many others. The climate is healthy and temperate, and produces good herbage. On the day after we had cast anchor, that is to say on Thursday (November 9), we landed with the captain-major, and made captive one of the natives, who was small of stature like Sancho Mexia. This man had been gathering honey in the sandy waste, for in this country the bees deposit their honey at the foot of the mounds around the bushes. He was taken on board the captain-major's ship, and being placed at table he ate of all we ate. On the following day the captain-major had him well dressed and sent ashore.
On the following day (November 10) fourteen or fifteen natives came to where our ship lay. The captain-major landed and showed them a variety of merchandise, with the view of finding out whether such things were to be found in their country. This merchandise included cinnamon, cloves, seed-pearls, gold, and many other things, but it was evident that they had no knowledge whatever of such articles, and they were consequently given round bells and tin rings. This happened on Friday, and the like took place on Saturday.
On Sunday (November 12) about forty or fifty natives made their appearance, and having dined, we landed, and in exchange for the eitils with which we came provided, we obtained shells, which they wore as ornaments in their ears, and which looked as if they had been plated, and foxtails attached to a handle, with which they fanned their faces. The captain-major also acquired for one eitil one of the sheaths which they wore over their members, and this seemed to show that they valued copper very highly indeed, they wore small beads of that metal in their ears.
On that day Fernao Velloso, who was with the captain-major, expressed a great desire to be permitted to accompany the natives to their houses, so that he might find out how they lived and what they ate. The captain-major yielded to his importunities, and allowed him to accompany them, and when we returned to the captain-major's vessel to sup, he went away with the negroes. Soon after they had left us they caught a seal, and when they came to the foot of a hill in a barren place they roasted it, and gave some of it to Fernao Velloso, as also some of the roots which they eat. After this meal they expressed a desire that he should not accompany them any further, but return to the vessels. When Fernao Velloso came abreast of the vessels he began to shout, the negroes keeping in the bush.
We were still at supper but when his shouts were heard the captain-major rose at once, and so did we others, and we entered a sailing boat. The negroes then began running along the beach, and they came as quickly up with Fernao Velloso as we did, and when we endeavored to get him into the boat they threw their assegais, and wounded the captain-major and three or four others. All this happened because we looked upon these people as men of little spirit, quite incapable of violence, and had therefore landed without first arming ourselves. We then returned to the ships.
Rounding the Cape. At daybreak of Thursday the 16th of November, having careened our ships and taken in woods we set sail. At that time we did not know how far we might be abaft the Cape of Good Hope. Pero d'Alenquer thought the distance about thirty leagues, but he was not certain, for on his return voyage (when with B. Dias) he had left the Cape in the morning and had gone past this bay with the wind astern, whilst on the outward voyage he had kept at sea, and was therefore unable to identify the locality where we now were. We therefore stood out towards S.S.W., and late on Saturday (November 18) we beheld the Cape. On that same day we again stood out to sea, returning to the land in the course of the night. On Sunday morning, November 19, we once more made for the Cape, but were again unable to round it, for the wind blew from the S.S.W., whilst the Cape juts out towards S.W.. We then again stood out to sea, returning to the land on Monday night. At last, on Wednesday (November 22), at noon, having the wind astern, we succeeded in doubling the Cape, and then ran along the coast. To the south of this Cape of Good Hope, and close to it, a vast bay, six leagues broad at its mouth, enters about six leagues into the land.
1498. Calicut. [Arrival.] That night (May 20) we anchored two leagues from the city of Calicut, and we did so because our pilot mistook Capna, a town at that place, for Calicut. Still further there is another town called Pandarani. We anchored about a league and a half from the shore. After we were at anchor, four boats (almadias) approached us from the land, who asked of what nation we were. We told them, and they then pointed out Calicut to us.
On the following day (May 22) these same boats came again alongside, when the captain-major sent one of the convicts to Calicut, and those with whom he went took him to two Moors from Tunis, who could speak Castilian and Genoese. The first greeting that he received was in these words: "May the Devil take thee! What brought you hither?" They asked what he sought so far away from home, and he told them that we came in search of Christians and of spices. They said: "Why does not the King of Castile, the King of France, or the Signoria of Venice send thither?" He said that the King of Portugal would not consent to their doing so, and they said he did the right thing. After this conversation they took him to their lodgings and gave him wheaten bread and honey. When he had eaten he returned to the ships, accompanied by one of the Moors, who was no sooner on board, than he said these words: "A lucky venture, a lucky venture! Plenty of rubies, plenty of emeralds! You owe great thanks to God, for having brought you to a country holding such riches!" We were greatly astonished to hear his talk, for we never expected to hear our language spoken so far away from Portugal.[
The city of Calicut is inhabited by Christians. [The first voyagers to India mistook the Hindus for Christians.] They are of tawny complexion. Some of them have big beards and long hair, whilst others clip their hair short or shave the head, merely allowing a tuft to remain on the crown as a sign that they are Christians. They also wear moustaches. They pierce the ears and wear much gold in them. They go naked down to the waist, covering their lower extremities with very fine cotton stuffs. But it is only the most respectable who do this, for the others manage as best they are able. The women of this country, as a rule, are ugly and of small stature. They wear many jewels of gold round the neck, numerous bracelets on their arms, and rings set with precious stones on their toes. All these people are well-disposed and apparently of mild temper. At first sight they seem covetous and ignorant.
When we arrived at Calicut the king was fifteen leagues away. The captain-major sent two men to him with a message, informing him that an ambassador had arrived from the King of Portugal with letters, and that if he desired it he would take them to where the king then was. The king presented the bearers of this message with much fine cloth. He sent word to the captain-major bidding him welcome, saying that he was about to proceed to Calicut. As a matter of fact, he started at once with a large retinue. A pilot accompanied our two men, with orders to take us to a place called Pandarani, below the place (Capna) where we anchored at first. At this time we were actually in front of the city of Calicut. We were told that the anchorage at the place to which we were to go was good, whilst at the place we were then it was bad, with a stony bottom, which was quite true and, moreover, that it was customary for the ships which came to this country to anchor there for the sake of safety. We ourselves did not feel comfortable, and the captain-major had no sooner received this royal message than he ordered the sails to be set, and we departed. We did not, however, anchor as near the shore as the king's pilot desired.
When we were at anchor, a message arrived informing the captain-major that the king was already in the city. At the same time the king sent a bale, with other men of distinction, to Pandarani, to conduct the captain-major to where the king awaited him. This bale is like an alcaide, and is always attended by two hundred men armed with swords and bucklers. As it was late when this message arrived, the captain-major deferred going.
On the following morning, which was Monday, May 28th, the captain-major set out to speak to the king, and took with him thirteen men. On landing, the captain-major was received by the alcaide, with whom were many men, armed and unarmed. The reception was friendly, as if the people were pleased to see us, though at first appearances looked threatening, for they carried naked swords in their hands. A palanquin was provided for the captain-major, such as is used by men of distinction in that country, as also by some of the merchants, who pay something to the king for this privilege. The captain-major entered the palanquin, which was carried by six men by turns. Attended by all these people we took the road of Calicut, and came first to another town, called Capna. The captain-major was there deposited at the house of a man of rank, whilst we others were provided with food, consisting of rice, with much butter, and excellent boiled fish. The captain-major did not wish to eat, and as we had done so, we embarked on a river close by, which flows between the sea end the mainland, close to the coast. The two boats in which we embarked were lashed together, so that we were not separated. There were numerous other boats, all crowded with people. As to those who were on the banks I say nothing their number was infinite, and they had all come to see us. We went up that river for about a league, and saw many large ships drawn up high and dry on its banks, for there is no port here.
When we disembarked, the captain-major once more entered his palanquin. The road was crowded with a countless multitude anxious to see us. Even the women came out of their houses with children in their arms and followed us. When we arrived (at Calicut) they took us to a large church, and this is what we saw: The body of the church is as large as a monastery, all built of hewn stone and covered with tiles. At the main entrance rises a pillar of bronze as high as a mast, on the top of which was perched a bird, apparently a cock. In addition to this, there was another pillar as high as a man, and very stout. In the center of the body of the church rose a chapel, all built of hewn stone, with a bronze door sufficiently wide for a man to pass, and stone steps leading up to it. Within this sanctuary stood a small image which they said represented Our Lady. Along the walls, by the main entrance, hung seven small bells. In this church the captain-major said his prayers, and we with him.
We did not go within the chapel, for it is the custom that only certain servants of the church, called quafees, should enter. These quafees wore some threads passing over the left shoulder and under the right arm, in the same manner as our deacons wear the stole. They threw holy water over us, and gave us some white earth, which the Christians of this country are in the habit of putting on their foreheads, breasts, around the neck, and on the forearms. They threw holy water upon the captain-major and gave him some of the earth, which he gave in charge of someone, giving them to understand that he would put it on later. Many other saints were painted on the walls of the church, wearing crowns. They were painted variously, with teeth protruding an inch from the mouth, and four or five arms. Below this church there was a large masonry tank, similar to many others which we had seen along the road.
After we had left that place, and had arrived at the entrance to the city (of Calicut) we were shown another church, where we saw things like those described above. Here the crowd grew so dense that progress along the street became next to impossible, and for this reason they put the captain-major into a house, and us with him. The king sent a brother of the bale, who was a lord of this country, to accompany the captain-major, and he was attended by men beating drums, blowing arafils and bagpipes, and firing off matchlocks. In conducting the captain-major they showed us much respect, more than is shown in Spain to a king. The number of people was countless, for in addition to those who surrounded us, and among whom there were two thousand armed men, they crowded the roofs and houses.
The further we advanced in the direction of the king's palace, the more did they increase in number. And when we arrived there, men of much distinction and great lords came out to meet the captain-major, and joined those who were already in attendance upon him. It was then an hour before sunset. When we reached the palace we passed through a gate into a courtyard of great size, and before we arrived at where the king was, we passed four doors, through which we had to force our way, giving many blows to the people. When, at last, we reached the door where the king was, there came forth from it a little old man, who holds a position resembling that of a bishop, and whose advice the king acts upon in all affairs of the church. This man embraced the captain-major when he entered the door. Several men were wounded at this door, and we only got in by the use of much force.
May 28. The king was in a small court, reclining upon a couch covered with a cloth of green velvet, above which was a good mattress, and upon this again a sheet of cotton stuff, very white and fine, more so than any linen. The cushions were after the same fashion. In his left hand the king held a very large golden cup (spittoon), having a capacity of half an almude (8 pints). At its mouth this cup was two palmas (16 inches) wide, and apparently it was massive. Into this cup the king threw the husks of a certain herb which is chewed by the people of this country because of its soothing effects, and which they call atambor. On the right side of the king stood a basin of gold, so large that a man might just encircle it with his arms: this contained the herbs. There were likewise many silver jugs. The canopy above the couch was all gilt.
The captain-major, on entering, saluted in the manner of the country: by putting the hands together, then raising them towards Heaven, as is done by Christians when addressing God, and immediately afterwards opening them and shutting fists quickly. The king beckoned to the captain-major with his right hand to come nearer, but the captain-major did not approach him, for it is the custom of the country for no man to approach the king except only the servant who hands him the herbs, and when anyone addresses the king he holds his hand before the mouth, and remains at a distance. When the king beckoned to the captain-major he looked at the others [i.e., da Gama's men], and ordered them to be seated on a stone bench near him, where he could see them. He ordered that water for their hands should be given them, as also some fruit, one kind of which resembled a melon, except that its outside was rough and the inside sweet, whilst another kind of fruit resembled a fig, and tasted very nice. There were men who prepared these fruits for them and the king looked at them eating, and smiled and talked to the servant who stood near him supplying him with the herbs referred to.
Then, throwing his eyes on the captain-major, who sat facing him, he invited him to address himself to the courtiers present, saying they were men of much distinction, that he could tell them whatever he desired to say, and they would repeat it to him (the king). The captain-major replied that he was the ambassador of the King of Portugal, and the bearer of a message which he could only deliver to him personally. The king said this was good, and immediately asked him to be conducted to a chamber. When the captain-major had entered, the king, too, rose and joined him, whilst the rest remained where they were. All this happened about sunset. An old man who was in the court took away the couch as soon as the king rose, but allowed the plate to remain. The king, when he joined the captain-major, threw himself upon another couch, covered with various stuffs embroidered in gold, and asked the captain-major what he wanted.
And the captain-major told him he was the ambassador of a King of Portugal, who was Lord of many countries and the possessor of great wealth of every description, exceeding that of any king of these parts that for a period of sixty years his ancestors had annually sent out vessels to make discoveries in the direction of India, as they knew that there were Christian kings there like themselves. This, he said, was the reason which induced them to order this country to be discovered, not because they sought for gold or silver, for of this they had such abundance that they needed not what was to be found in this country. He further stated that the captains sent out traveled for a year or two, until their provisions were exhausted, and then returned to Portugal, without having succeeded in making the desired discovery. There reigned a king now whose name was Dom Manuel, who had ordered him to build three vessels, of which he had been appointed captain-major, and who had ordered him not to return to Portugal until he should have discovered this King of the Christians, on pain of having his head cut off. That two letters had been intrusted to him to be presented in case he succeeded in discovering him, and that he would do so on the ensuing day and, finally, he had been instructed to say by word of mouth that he [the King of Portugal] desired to be his friend and brother.
In reply to this the king said that he was welcome that, on his part, he held him as a friend and brother, and would send ambassadors with him to Portugal. This latter had been asked as a favor, the captain-major pretending that he would not dare to present himself before his king and master unless he was able to present, at the same time, some men of this country. These and many other things passed between the two in this chamber, and as it was already late in the night, the king asked the captain-major with whom he desired to lodge, with Christians or with Moors ? And the captain-major replied, neither with Christians nor with Moors, and begged as a favor that he be given a lodging by himself. The king said he would order it thus, upon which the captain-major took leave of the king and came to where the men were, that is, to a veranda lit up by a huge candlestick. By that time four hours of the night had already gone.
The captain-major went on the back of six men [in a palanquin], and the time occupied in passing through the city was so long that the captain-major at last grew tired, and complained to the king's factor, a Moor of distinction, who attended him to the lodgings. The Moor then took him to his own house, and we were admitted to a court within it, where there was a veranda roofed in with tiles. Many carpets had been spread, and there were two large candlesticks like those at the Royal palace. At the top of each of these were great iron lamps, fed with oil or butter, and each lamp had four wicks, which gave much light. These lamps they use instead of torches.
This same Moor then had a horse brought for the captain-major to take him to his lodgings, but it was without a saddle, and the captain-major refused to mount it. We then started for our lodgings, and when we arrived we found there some of our men [who had come from the ships] with the captain-major's bed, and with numerous other things which the captain-major had brought as presents for the king.
On Tuesday, May 29, the captain-major got ready the following things to be sent to the king, viz., twelve pieces of lambel, four scarlet hoods, six hats, four strings of coral, a case containing six wash-hand basins, a case of sugar, two casks of oil, and two of honey. And as it is the custom not to send anything to the king without the knowledge of the Moor, his factor, and of the bale, the captain-major informed them of his intention. They came, and when they saw the present they laughed at it, saying that it was not a thing to offer to a king, that the poorest merchant from Mecca, or any other part of India, gave more, and that if he wanted to make a present it should be in gold, as the king would not accept such things. When the captain-major heard this he grew sad, and said that he had brought no gold, that, moreover, he was no merchant, but an ambassador that he gave of that which he had, which was his own private gift and not the king's that if the King of Portugal ordered him to return he would intrust him with far richer presents and that if King Camolim would not accept these things he would send them back to the ships. Upon this they declared that they would not forward his presents, nor consent to his forwarding them himself. When they had gone there came certain Moorish merchants, and they all depreciated the present which the captain-major desired to be sent to the king.
When the captain-major saw that they were determined not to forward his present, he said, that as they would not allow him to send his present to the palace he would go to speak to the king, and would then return to the ships. They approved of this, and told him that if he would wait a short time they would return and accompany him to the palace. And the captain-major waited all day, but they never came back. The captain-major was very wroth at being among so phlegmatic and unreliable a people, and intended, at first, to go to the palace without them. On further consideration, however, he thought it best to wait until the following day. The men diverted themselves, singing and dancing to the sound of trumpets, and enjoyed themselves much.
May 30. On Wednesday morning the Moors returned, and took the captain-major to the palace. The palace was crowded with armed men. Our captain-major was kept waiting with his conductors for fully four long hours, outside a door, which was only opened when the king sent word to admit him, attended by two men only, whom he might select. The captain-major said that he desired to have Fernao Martins with him, who could interpret, and his secretary. It seemed to him that this separation portended no good. When he had entered, the king said that he had expected him on Tuesday. The captain-major said that the long road had tired him, and that for this reason he had not come to see him. The king then said that he had told him that he came from a very rich kingdom, and yet had brought him nothing that he had also told him that he was the bearer of a letter, which had not yet been delivered. To this the captain-major rejoined that he had brought nothing, because the object of his voyage was merely to make discoveries, but that when other ships came he would then see what they brought him as to the letter, it was true that he had brought one, and would deliver it immediately.
The king then asked what it was he had come to discover: stones or men? If he came to discover men, as he said, why had he brought nothing? Moreover, he had been told that he carried with him the golden image of a Santa Maria. The captain-major said that the Santa Maria was not of gold, and that even if she were he would not part with her, as she had guided him across the ocean, and would guide him back to his own country. The king then asked for the letter. The captain-major said that he begged as a favor, that as the Moors wished him ill and might misinterpret him, a Christian able to speak Arabic should be sent for. The king said this was well, and at once sent for a young man, of small stature, whose name was Quaram. The captain-major then said that he had two letters, one written in his own language and the other in that of the Moors that he was able to read the former, and knew that it contained nothing but what would prove acceptable but that as to the other he was unable to read it, and it might be good, or contain something that was erroneous. As the Christian was unable to read Moorish, four Moors took the letter and read it between them, after which they translated it to the king, who was well satisfied with its contents.
The king then asked what kind of merchandise was to be found in his country. The captain-major said there was much corn, cloth, iron, bronze, and many other things. The king asked whether he had any merchandise with him. The captain-major replied that he had a little of each sort, as samples, and that if permitted to return to the ships he would order it to be landed, and that meantime four or five men would remain at the lodgings assigned them. The king said no! He might take all his people with him, securely moor his ships, land his merchandise, and sell it to the best advantage. Having taken leave of the king the captain-major returned to his lodgings, and we with him. As it was already late no attempt was made to depart that night.
May 31. On Thursday morning a horse without a saddle was brought to the captain-major, who declined to mount it, asking that a horse of the country, that is a palanquin, might be provided, as he could not ride a horse without a saddle. He was then taken to the house of a wealthy merchant of the name of Guzerate, who ordered a palanquin to be got ready. On its arrival the captain-major started at once for Pandarani, where our ships were, many people following him. The others, not being able to keep up with him, were left behind. Trudging thus along they were overtaken by the bale, who passed on to join the captain-major. When they reached Pandarani they found the captain-major inside a resthouse, of which there were many along the road, so that travelers and wayfarers might find protection against the rain.
May 31 to June 2. The bale and many others were with the captain-major. On our arrival the captain-major asked the bale for an almadia, so that we might go to our ships but the bale and the others said that it was already late---in fact, the sun had set---and that he should go next day. The captain-major said that unless he provided an almadia he would return to the king, who had given orders to take him back to the ships, whilst they tried to detain him---a very bad thing, as he was a Christian like themselves. When they saw the dark looks of the captain-major they said he was at liberty to depart at once, and that they would give him thirty almadias if he needed them. They then took us along the beach, and as it seemed to the captain-major that they harbored some evil design, he sent three men in advance, with orders that in case they found the ship's boats and his brother, to tell him to conceal himself. They went, and finding nothing, turned back but as we had been taken in another direction we did not meet.
They then took us to the house of a Moor---for it was already far in the night---and when we got there they told us they would go in search of the three men who had not yet returned. When they were gone, the captain-major ordered fowls and rice to be purchased, and we ate, notwithstanding our fatigue, having been all day on our legs. Those who had gone in search of the three men only returned in the morning, and the captain-major said that after all they seemed well disposed towards us, and had acted with the best intentions when they objected to our departure the day before. On the other hand we suspected them on account of what had happened at Calicut, and looked upon them as ill-disposed.
When they returned [June 1] the captain-major again asked for boats to take him to his ships. They then began to whisper among themselves, and said that we should have them if we would order our vessels to come nearer the shore. The captain-major said that if he ordered his vessels to approach his brother would think that he was being held a prisoner, and would hoist the sails and return to Portugal. They said that if we refused to order the ships to come nearer we should not be permitted to embark. The captain-major that said King Camolin had sent him back to his ships, and that as they would not let him go, as ordered by the king, he should return to the king, who was a Christian like himself. If the king would not let him go, and wanted him to remain in his country, he would do so with much pleasure. They agreed that he should be permitted to go, but afforded him no opportunity for doing so, for they immediately closed all the doors, and many armed men entered to guard us, none of us being allowed to go outside without being accompanied by several of these guards. They then asked us to give up our sails and rudders. The captain declared that he would give up none of these things: King Camolin having unconditionally ordered him to return to his ships, they might do with him whatever they liked, but he would give up nothing.
The captain-major and we others felt very down-hearted, though outwardly we pretended not to notice what they did. The captain-major said that as they refused him permission to go back, they would at least allow his men to do so, as at the place they were in they would die of hunger. But they said that we must remain where we were, and that if we died of hunger we must bear it, as they cared nothing for that. Whilst thus detained, one of the men whom we had missed the night before turned up. He told the captain-major that Nicolau Coelho had been awaiting him with the boats since last night. When the captain-major heard this he sent a man away secretly to Nicolau Coelho, because of the guards by whom we were surrounded, with orders to go back to the ships and place them in a secure place. Nicolau Coelho, on receipt of this message, departed forthwith. But our guards having information of what was going on, at once launched a large number of almadias and pursued him for a short distance. When they found that they could not overtake him they returned to the captain-major, whom they asked to write a letter to his brother, requesting him to bring the ships nearer to the land and further within the port. The captain-major said he was quite willing, but that his brother would not do this and that even if he consented those who were with him, not being willing to die, would not do so. But they asked how this could be, as they knew well that any order he gave would be obeyed. The captain-major did not wish the ships to come within the port, for it seemed to him---as it did to us---that once inside they could easily be captured, after which they would first kill him, and us others, as we were already in their power.
We passed all that day most anxiously. At night more people surrounded us than ever before, and we were no longer allowed to walk in the compound, within which we were, but confined within a small tiled court, with a multitude of people around us. We quite expected that on the following day we should be separated, or that some harm would befall us, for we noticed that our jailers were much annoyed with us. This, however, did not prevent our making a good supper off the things found in the village. Throughout that night we were guarded by over a hundred men, all armed with swords, two-edged battle-axes, shields, and bows and arrows. Whilst some of these slept, others kept guard, each taking his turn of duty throughout the night.
On the following day, Saturday, June 2, in the morning, these gentlemen [i.e., the bale and others] came back, and this time they wore better faces. They told the captain-major that as he had informed the king that he intended to land his merchandise, he should now give orders to have this done, as it was the custom of the country that every ship on its arrival should at once land the merchandise it brought, as also the crews, and that the vendors should not return on board until the whole of it had been sold. The captain-major consented, and said he would write to his brother to see to its being done. They said this was well, and that immediately after the arrival of the merchandise he would be permitted to return to his ship. The captain-major at once wrote to his brother to send him certain things, and he did so at once. On their receipt the captain was allowed to go on board, two men remaining behind with the things that had been landed. At this there was great rejoicing, thanks being rendered to God for having extricated us from the hands of people who had no more sense than beasts, for we knew well that once the captain-major was on board those who had been landed would have nothing to fear. When the captain-major reached his ship he ordered that no more merchandise should be sent.
From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. V: 9th to 16th Centuries, pp. 26-40.
Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.
This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.
Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.
The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University. Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.
© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 20 January 2021 [CV]
Vasco de Gama Sets Off for India - History
1er CONDE (1st count) DA VIDIGUEIRA
(b. c. 1460, Sines, Port.--d. Dec. 24, 1524, Cochin, India), Portuguese navigator whose voyages to India (1497-99, 1502-03, 1524) opened up the sea route from western Europe to the East by way of the Cape of Good Hope and thus ushered in a new era in world history. He also helped make Portugal a world power.
From Encyclopia Britannica Online
he third son of Est�v�o da Gama, a nobleman who was commander of the fortress of Sines on the coast of Alentejo province in southwestern Portugal, Vasco was born in about 1460. Little is known of his early life he may have studied at the inland town of �vora--somewhere he learned mathematics and navigation. In 1492 King John II of Portugal sent him to the port of Setl, south of Lisbon, and to the Algarve, Portugal&aposs southernmost province, to seize French ships in retaliation for French peacetime depredations against Portuguese shipping--a task that Vasco rapidly and effectively performed.
In accordance with the policy of Prince Henry the Navigator, King John was planning to send a Portuguese fleet to India to open the sea route to Asia and to outflank the Muslims, who had hitherto enjoyed a monopoly of trade with India and other eastern states. Est�v�o da Gama was chosen to lead the expedition, but after his death Vasco took his place. Accounts of his appointment differ whether he was chosen by King John and this choice confirmed by King Manuel, who ascended the throne in 1495, or whether it was King Manuel who first chose him, remains unclear. According to one version, the appointment was first offered to his eldest brother Paulo, who declined because of ill health.
Da Gama sailed from Lisbon on July 8, 1497, with a fleet of four vessels--two medium-sized three-masted sailing ships, each of about 120 tons, named the
"S�o Rafael" a 50-ton caravel, named the
"Berrio" and a 200-ton storeship. They were accompanied to the Cape Verde Islands by another ship commanded by Bartolomeu Dias, the Portuguese navigator who had discovered the Cape of Good Hope a few years earlier and who was en route to the West African castle of S�o Jorge da Mina on the Gold Coast (now Ghana). With da Gama&aposs fleet went three interpreters--two Arabic speakers and one who spoke several Bantu dialects. The fleet also carried
padrs (stone pillars) to set up as marks of discovery and overlordship.
Passing the Canary Islands on July 15, the fleet reached the S�o Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands on the 26th, remaining there until August 3. Then, to avoid the currents of the Gulf of Guinea, da Gama took a circular course through the South Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope, reaching Santa Helena Bay (in modern South Africa) on November 7. The expedition departed on November 16, but unfavourable winds delayed their rounding of the Cape of Good Hope until November 22. Three days later da Gama anchored in Mossel Bay, erected a padr�o on an island, and ordered the storeship to be broken up. Sailing again on December 8, the fleet reached the coast of Natal on Christmas Day. On Jan. 11, 1498, it anchored for five days near the mouth of a small river between Natal and Mozambique, which they called the Rio do Cobre (Copper River). On January 25, in what is now Mozambique, they reached the Quelimane River, which they called the Rio dos Bons Sinais (the River of Good Omens), and erected another padr�o. By this time many of the crews were sick with scurvy the expedition rested a month while the ships were repaired.
On March 2 the fleet reached the island of Mozambique, the inhabitants of which believed the Portuguese to be Muslims like themselves. Da Gama learned that they traded with Arab merchants and that four Arab vessels laden with gold, jewels, silver, and spices were then in port he was also told that Prester John, the long-sought Christian ruler, lived in the interior but held many coastal cities. The Sultan of Mozambique supplied da Gama with two pilots, one of whom deserted when he discovered that the Portuguese were Christians.
The expedition reached Mombasa (now in Kenya) on April 7 and dropped anchor at Malindi (also now in Kenya) on April 14, where a pilot who knew the route to Calicut, on the southwest coast of India, was taken aboard. After a 23-day run across the Indian Ocean, the Ghats Mountains of India were sighted, and Calicut was reached on May 20. There da Gama erected a padr�o to prove he had reached India. Welcomed by the Zamorin, the Hindu ruler, of Calicut (then the most important trading centre of southern India), he failed, however, to conclude a treaty--partly because of the hostility of Muslim merchants and partly because the trumpery presents and cheap trade goods that he had brought, while suited to the West African trade, were hardly in demand in India.
After tension between da Gama&aposs expedition and the Zamorin of Calicut increased, da Gama left at the end of August, taking with him five or six Hindus so that King Manuel might learn about their customs. He visited Anjidiv Island (near Goa) before sailing for Malindi, which he reached on Jan. 8, 1499. Unfavourable winds caused the expedition to take nearly three months crossing the Arabian Sea, and many of the crew died of scurvy. At Malindi, because of greatly reduced numbers, da Gama ordered the "S�o Rafael" to be burned there he also erected a padr�o. Mozambique, where he set up his last padr�o, was reached on February 1. On March 20 the "S�o Gabriel" and "Berrio" rounded the Cape together but a month later were parted by a storm the "Berrio" reached the Tagus River in Portugal on July 10. Da Gama, in the "S�o Gabriel," continued to Terceira Island in the Azores, whence he is said to have dispatched his flagship to Lisbon. He himself reached Lisbon on September 9 and made his triumphal entry nine days later, spending the interval mourning his brother Paulo, who had died on Terceira. Manuel I granted Vasco the title of
dom (equivalent to the English "sir"), an annual pension of 1,000 cruzados, and estates.
To further da Gama&aposs achievement, Manuel I dispatched the Portuguese navigator Pedro �lvares Cabral to Calicut with a fleet of 13 ships. Later, the Hindus, incited by the Muslims, rose in arms and massacred the Portuguese whom Cabral had left behind. To avenge this deed a new fleet was fitted out in Lisbon to be sent against Calicut and to establish Portuguese hegemony in the Indian Ocean. At first the command was to be given to Cabral, but it was later transferred to da Gama, who in January 1502 was given the rank of admiral. Da Gama himself commanded 10 ships, which were in turn supported by two flotillas of five ships each, each flotilla being under the command of one of his relations. Sailing in February 1502, the fleet called at the Cape Verdes, reaching the port of Sofala in East Africa on June 14. After calling briefly at Mozambique, the Portuguese expedition sailed to Kilwa, in what is now Tanzania. The ruler of Kilwa, the amir
Ibrahim, had been unfriendly to Cabral da Gama threatened to burn Kilwa if the Amir did not submit to the Portuguese and swear loyalty to King Manuel, which he then did.
Coasting southern Arabia, da Gama then called at Goa (later the focus of Portuguese power in India) before proceeding to Cannanore, a port in southwestern India to the north of Calicut, where he lay in wait for Arab shipping. After several days an Arab ship arrived with merchandise and between 200 and 400 passengers, including women and children. After seizing the cargo, da Gama shut up the passengers aboard the captured ship and set it afire, killing all on board, the cruelest act of his career.
After da Gama formed an alliance with the ruler of Cannanore, an enemy of the Zamorin, the fleet sailed to Calicut. The Zamorin offered friendship, but da Gama rejected the offer and presented an ultimatum that the Muslims be banished from the port. To show that he meant what he threatened, da Gama bombarded the port and seized and massacred 38 Hindu fishermen who had sailed out to his ships to sell their wares their bodies were then thrown overboard, to be washed ashore. The Portuguese then sailed south to the port of Cochin, with whose ruler (an enemy of the Zamorin) they formed an alliance. After an invitation to da Gama from the Zamorin had proved to be an attempt to entrap him, the Portuguese had a brief fight with Arab ships off Calicut but put them to full flight. On Feb. 20, 1503, the fleet left Cannanore for Mozambique on the first stage of their return voyage, reaching the Tagus on October 11.
Obscurity surrounds the reception of da Gama on his return by King Manuel. Da Gama seemingly felt himself inadequately recompensed for his pains. Controversy broke out between the Admiral and the Order (i.e., religious association) of
S�o Tiago over the ownership of the town of Sines, which the Admiral had been promised but which the order refused to yield. Da Gama had married a lady of good family, Caterina de Ata--perhaps in 1500 after his return from his first voyage--and he then appears to have retired to the town of �vora. He was later granted additional privileges and revenues, and his wife bore him six sons. Until 1505 he continued to advise the King on Indian matters, and he was created count of Vidigueira in 1519. Not until after King Manuel died was he again sent overseas King John III nominated him in 1524 as Portuguese viceroy in India.
DK’S HISTORY BLOG
Vasco da Gama is famous for his completion of the first all water trade route between Europe and India. Da Gama’s father, Estavao, had originally been chosen by King Joao II to make this historic voyage, but he died before he could complete the mission. It is also said that the opportunity was then given to da Gama’s brother, Paulo, who turned it down. The trip needed to be made, and as a last choice, King Emmanuel looked to da Gama to complete the mission.
Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal in 1469. Being the son of the town’s governor, he was educated as a nobleman and served in the court of King Joao II. Da Gama also served as a navel officer, and in 1492 he commanded a defense of Portuguese colonies from the French on the coast of Guinea. Da Gama was then given the mission to the take command of the first Portuguese expedition around Africa to India.
When Vasco da Gama set out on July 8, 1497 he and his crew planned and equipped four ships. Goncalo Alvares commanded the flagship Sao (Saint) Gabriel. Paulo, da Gama’s brother, commanded the Sao Rafael. The other two ships were the Berrio and the Starship. Most of the men working on the ship were convicts and were treated as expendable. On the voyage, da Gama set out from Lisbon, Portugal, rounded the Cape of Good Hope on November 22, and sailed north. Da Gama made various stops along the coast of Africa in trading centers such as Mombasa, Mozambique, Malindi, Kenya, and Quilmana.
As the ships sailed along the east coast of Africa, many conflicts arose between the Portuguese and the Muslims who had already established trading centers along the coast. The Muslim traders in Mozambique and Mombasa did not want interference in their trade centers. Therefore, they perceived the Portuguese as a threat and tried to seize the ships. In Malindi, on the other hand, the Portuguese were well received, because the ruler was hoping to gain an ally against Mombasa, the neighboring port. From Malindi, da Gama was accompanied the rest of the way to India by Ahmad Ibn Majid, a famous Arab pilot.
Vasco da Gama finally arrived in Calicut, India on May 20, 1498. Calicut was the principle market of trade for precious stones, pearls, and spices. At first, the Portuguese were well received and accepted by the Hindu ruler. There was a great ceremony, and da Gama was taken to a Hindu temple. However, this immediate reaction did not last. The ruler later felt insulted by the gifts that Vasco da Gama brought, because they were of little value to him. Da Gama was not able to establish his trading station or negotiate a trading agreement, because the Zamorin (samudrin raja, the Hindu King) did not want to alienate the local merchants. The Portuguese goods that had been well accepted in Africa were not suitable for the prestigious Indian market. The Muslim merchants despised the Portuguese interference in their business and often threatened to not trade with them. Finally, when da Gama wanted to leave, the Zamorin told him that he had to pay a heavy tax and leave all the Portuguese goods as a form of collateral. Da Gama was enraged, and on August 29, 1498, da Gama and his crew departed with all of their possessions and five hostages. Da Gama also took a letter from the Zamorin stating that the Zamorin would trade spices and gems if the Portuguese could get scarlet cloth, coral, silver, and gold.
Vasco da Gama and his crew departed in August 1498 and reached Lisbon in September of 1499. The return trip took so long because many of the sailors died of diseases such as scurvy. When Vasco da Gama returned, he was rewarded with a great celebration. Da Gama was looked upon as a hero, and King Manoel awarded him with titles and a large income.
When Vasco da Gama went out on his second expedition on February 12, 1502, he was prepared for an encounter with the Muslim traders. He set sail with 20 well-armed ships, hoping to force his way into the market and to get revenge on the Muslims for the opposition in 1498. Da Gama killed many innocent Indians and Muslims. In one instance, da Gama waited for a ship to return from Mecca, a Muslim trading and religious center. The Portuguese overtook the ship and seized all the merchandise. Then they locked the 380 passengers in the hold and set the ship on fire. It took four days for the ship to sink, killing all men, women, and children.
When da Gama arrived in Calicut on October 30, 1502, the Zamorin was willing to sign a treaty. Da Gama told him that he would have to banish all of the Muslims. To demonstrate his power, da Gama hung 38 fishermen cut off their heads, feet, and hands and floated the dismembered corpses onto the shore. Later da Gama bombarded the city with guns and forced his way into the trading system. This led the way for other Portuguese conquests in the East Indies.
In February of 1503, da Gama returned home. During his final voyage to India, da Gama got sick and died on December 24, 1524. Vasco da Gama’s remains were taken back to Portugal, where he was buried in the chapel where he had prayed before his first voyage.
Vasco da Gama’s voyages to India resulted in centuries of Portuguese colonialism throughout Asia (Macao was only returned to the Chinese government in 1999). However, whether colonization was Portugal’s first intention is a matter of debate. It seems that Portugal, a country formed by its struggles against the Moors, sent da Gama abroad to seek pre-existing Christian nations with which to form anti-Islamic alliances. The lucrative spice trade was further temptation for the Portuguese crown. Eventually, these aims led to religious conversion, inethical trade, and colonization.
Vasco de Gama Sets Off for India - History
Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira, was a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea. His initial voyage to India was the first to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route, connecting the Atlantic and the Indian oceans and therefore, the West and the Orient. Take a look below for 30 more fascinating and interesting facts about Vasco de Gama.
1. Da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India was significant and opened the way for an age of global imperialism and for the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia.
2. Traveling the ocean route allowed the Portuguese to avoid sailing across the highly disputed Mediterranean and traversing the dangerous Arabian Peninsula.
3. After decades of sailors trying to reach the Indies, with thousands of lives and dozes of vessels lost in shipwrecks and attacks, da Gama landed in Calicut on May 20, 1498.
4. Da Gama led two of the Portuguese India Armadas, the first and the fourth. The latter was the largest and departed for India four years after his return from the first one.
5. For his contributions, in 1524, da Gama was appointed Governor of India, with the title of Viceroy, and was ennobled as Count of Vidigueira in 1519.
6. Da Gama remains a leading figure in the history of exploration.
7. Numerous homages have been made worldwide to celebrate his explorations and accomplishments.
8. The Portuguese national epic poem, Os Lusiadas, was written in his honor by Camoes.
9. His first trip to India is widely considered a milestone in world history, as it marked the beginning of a sea-based phase of global multiculturalism.
10. In March 2016, thousands of artifacts and nautical remains were recovered from the wreck of the ship Esmeralda, one of da Gama’s armada, found off the coast of Oman.
11. Historians can’t agree whether he was born in 1460 or 1469, but they do know that he died on December 23rd, 1524.
12. He was born in Sines, a coastal town in Portugal. He died in 1524, in Kochi, India.
13. Da Gama’s father was a knight and also an explorer.
14. Thousands of sailors lost their lives in attacks and shipwrecks while trying to reach India for years before Vasco da Gama made the successful voyage.
15. Da Gama left Portugal on July 8, 1497, to find a sea route to India. He had four ships and 170 men.
16. His ships were named the San Gabriel, the Sao Rafael, and the Berrio. The fourth ship didn’t have a name as it was only used for storage.
17. Because there was a monsoon wind, they reached India in less than one month.
18. Da Gama took three interpreters on the first voyage.
19. The spices in India were popular with Europeans, which was one of the reasons the safe passage was necessary.
20. On the return voyage, half of da Gama’s crew died of scurvy.
21. He was the commander of two more trips to India.
22. On his second trip, he had 20 armed ships instead of only the four on the original journey.
23. On da Gama’s second voyage, he ordered his crew to seize the cargo of an Arab ship carrying as many as 400 passengers. The ship was set on fire and all those on board died.
24. While in Calicut, he demanded that all Muslims be banned from India. The king refused.
25. Da Gama was given Vidigueira, a newly created county in 1519. During this year, he also became the first non-royal blood count in Portugal.
26. In 1524, da Gama was named the Governor of India. However, he died of malaria before he could take over his new post.
27. His father was supposed to be the commander of the expedition to India. It was delayed for so many years that da Gama ended up being given the expedition.
28. There is a crater on the Moon that was named Vasco da Gama.
29. He had one daughter and six sons. His second born son later became the governor of Portuguese India.
30. Much of da Gama’s early life was spent on fishing boats. He also studies navigation and astronomy, and he was friends with Ponce de Leon, who discovered Florida.
Da Gama reaches Calicut, India
On May 20, 1498, sailing for the Portuguese crown, Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, India. Having successfully sailed around the southern tip of Africa, da Gama had pioneered a sea route from Europe to Asia that bypassed the Muslim nations that controlled the overland spice trade.
In his late thirties at the time of his voyage, da Gama was the son of a minor Portuguese nobleman. Why he was chosen by Portugal’s King Manuel to lead the expedition to India is unknown his only achievement to date had been carrying out a mission for Manuel’s predecessor a few years earlier. Nevertheless, he was named to head the historic voyage.
Vasco da Gama's ship with gods above by Ernesto Casanova (ca. 1880). Source: Library of Congress. At the head of four ships (one a floating warehouse) and 170 men, da Gama began his journey on July 8, 1497. He carried with him priests to see to the crews’ souls, interpreters to help communicate with Bantu and Arabic speakers, and a store of gifts the king intended for him to use to attract Indian rulers to trade.
The voyage posed many challenges. The trip across the southern Atlantic left the ships a worrying three months without sight of land, and the expedition met hostile natives in southern Africa — who gave da Gama an arrow wound — and Muslims in eastern Africa. The long voyage also took a serious toll of the crew around two-thirds died during the voyage, most of disease.
Once he reached Calicut, da Gama’s reception was not very warm. The goods Manuel had sent as gifts were of poor value, infuriating Calicut’s ruler. Still, da Gama was able to leave India with some spices. After a long and harrowing return trip — which included the death of his brother — da Gama reached Portugal in September of 1499, more than two years after having set out.
He was greeted as a hero and richly rewarded by the king. With his voyage, the Portuguese overseas empire was born.
“This Day in World History” is brought to you by USA Higher Education.
You can subscribe to these posts via RSS or receive them by email.
We will only use your personal information to register you for OUPblog articles.
Why Vasco da Gama Went to India
The Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama set sail from Belém, a village at the mouth of the Tagus River now part of greater Lisbon, on July 8, 1497. An obscure but well-connected courtier, he had been chosen, much to everyone’s surprise, by King Manuel I to head the ambitious expedition to chart a new route to India. The king was not moved chiefly by a desire for plunder. He possessed a visionary cast of mind bordering on derangement he saw himself spearheading a holy war to topple Islam, recover Jerusalem from “the infidels” and establish himself as the “King of Jerusalem.”
Da Gama shared these dreams, but like his hard-bitten crew, rogues or criminals to a man, he coveted the fabled riches of the East — not only gold and gems but spices, then the most precious of commodities. On this voyage, as on his two later ones, he proved a brilliant navigator and commander. But where courage could not bring him through violent storms, contrary seas and the machinations of hostile rulers, luck came to his rescue. He sailed blindly, virtually by instinct, without maps, charts or reliable pilots, into unknown oceans.
As Nigel Cliff, a historian and journalist, demonstrates in his lively and ambitious “Holy War,” da Gama was abetted as much by ignorance as by skill and daring. To discover the sea route to India, he deliberately set his course in a different direction from Columbus, his great seafaring rival. Instead of heading west, da Gama went south. After months of sailing, he rounded the Cape of Good Hope. From there, creeping up the east coast of Africa, he embarked on the uncharted vastness of the Indian Ocean. Uncharted, that is, by European navigators. For at the time, the Indian Ocean was crisscrossed by Muslim vessels, and it was Muslim merchants, backed up by powerful local rulers, who controlled the trade routes and had done so for centuries. Da Gama sought to break this maritime dominance even stronger was his ambition to discover the Christians of India and their “long-lost Christian king,” the legendary Prester John, and by forging an alliance with them, to unite Christianity and destroy Islam.
The ambition was not entirely fanciful there were Christian communities in India, founded according to legend by St. Thomas the Apostle. Da Gama couldn’t tell an Indian Christian from a cassowary, but on this occasion, ignorance was truly bliss. When his ships finally moored at Calicut, near the southern tip of the subcontinent, he and his crew rejoiced to learn that there were indeed many Christians long settled there. As Cliff recounts, the “landing party had assumed that Hindu temples were Christian churches, they had misconstrued the Brahmins’ invocation of a local deity as veneration of the Virgin Mary and they had decided the Hindu figures on the temple walls were outlandish Christian saints.” True, “the temples were also crammed with animal gods and sacred phalluses,” but these surely reflected exotic local Christian practices. What mattered to the Portuguese was that these long-lost Indian Christians permitted images in their “churches.” Thus, whatever their idiosyncrasies, they could not be Muslims. The Portuguese joined in the chants and invocations with gusto. When the Hindu priests chanted “Krishna,” the Portuguese heard it as “Christ.”
Such farcical episodes recur throughout Cliff’s account and add unexpected levity to what is otherwise a dismal record of greed, savagery and fanaticism, especially — but not exclusively — on the part of the European explorers. The Portuguese didn’t know that Hinduism, let alone Buddhism or Jainism, existed. For them, the world was starkly divided between Christianity and Islam. They knew about Jews, of course they’d been steadily persecuting them with renewed vigor in the 1490s by forced conversion, expulsion and massacre, but to them, Judaism was merely a forerunner of Christianity, not a faith in its own right.
Cliff’s narrative covers a huge span of time. For once the term “epic” seems an understatement. Da Gama’s exploits alone demand such terms. His maiden voyage took two years and traversed an extraordinary 24,000 miles, all this in leaky wooden vessels battered by storms and riddled with scurvy, and it was only the first of his three pioneering voyages that together established little Portugal as a world power.
To provide the widest possible context, Cliff begins with the Prophet Muhammad and the rise of Islam in the early seventh century and concludes with the siege of Vienna in 1529 and the subsequent rise of Dutch maritime expansion. His account of early Islamic history is brisk and factual, but it has a somewhat potted feel, as does his chapter on the crusades, for all the horrific detail he provides. This is, after all, well-trodden turf. When he finally comes to Portugal and its succession of zealous, sinister and quite dotty monarchs, he is in his element, and his book really takes off. He has a novelist’s gift for depicting character. From the fabled Henry the Navigator who, despite his appellation, “never set foot on an oceangoing ship,” to Vasco da Gama himself, at once steely and quixotic, to formidable figures like Magellan and the brutal Afonso de Albuquerque, who terrorized his victims by threatening to build a fort out of their bones and nail their ears to the door, he brings 16th-century Portugal in all its splendor and squalor pungently to life.
Cliff is good too at such mundane but intricate matters as shipbuilding, royal protocols and the hazards of trade, all of which he documents by well-chosen citations from travel accounts, official papers and personal correspondence. Rather surprisingly, however, he fails to bring the great 16th-century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões into his account (though he’s mentioned in the very full bibliography), even though Camões participated in later Portuguese expeditions and wrote his Virgilian-style epic “The Lusiads” in praise of da Gama.
While Cliff spins his tale under the aegis of “holy war” and in his subtitle invokes Samuel P. Huntington's well-worn “clash of civilizations,” on the evidence of his own narrative this framework seems more than a little creaky. Though there was longstanding mutual detestation between Christians and Muslims, the real antagonism seems to have been mercantile. There was no “clash of civilizations” to speak of. The Portuguese gazed in covetous admiration at the trappings of the Muslim courts they visited, and Muslims showed no interest whatsoever in European culture (which they considered pitifully inferior to their own). When they clashed, they did so over lucrative trade routes and territorial hegemony each was quite proudly ignorant of the other’s creed.
Cliff struggles to find relevance to present-day events, but his attempts are unconvincing. He notes, for example, that in 2006, Ayman al-Zawahri, now the head of Al Qaeda, called for the liberation of Ceuta — a North African city besieged by King John of Portugal in 1415 — from the Spanish Christians who now control it. Nevertheless, the real clash today is not between Christianity and Islam, nor between opposing civilizations, but between our own resolutely secular and consumerist culture and a rigid and absolutist mindset outraged by the prosperity Western “infidels” enjoy. That, however, is another epic, yet to be written.
1498: Vasco da Gama: The First European Ships Come to India
The sea route from Europe to Asia was officially established. At the time, the route was enormously important due to a trade, especially the spice trade. Namely, the trade with Asia (via the Middle East) had come under the control of the Ottoman Turks.
Vasco da Gama travelled for 10-and-a-half-months from Portugal to India. He had four ships, and his ship was named “São Gabriel”.
It was accompanied by other ships: “São Rafael” (under the command of his brother Paul da Gama), “Berrio” (commanded by Nicolau Coelho), and one supply ship.
On this day, they landed on the Indian coast for the first time (Kappad beach in Southern India).
The Indians were very hospitable. They organized a procession, and allegedly 3,000 people participated in it.
Da Gama was even welcomed by the local ruler Zamorin, who was a powerful monarch. He ruled over the vast area, and lived a life of luxury. When Vasco da Gama gave him their gifts, Zamorin was disappointed.
These were: six hats, four bathrobes, four branches of coral, boxes of sugar, honey, and two barrels of oil. The Indians wanted gold and silver.
The local Arab merchants, who were enemies of the Portuguese, tried to convince the Indians that da Gama was a pirate, and not a minister of the mighty Portuguese king.
Therefore, the Indians and the Portuguese didn’t have a good relationship, but Vasco da Gama managed to return home with spices. When he came to Europe, his revenues were allegedly 60 times greater than than the cost of the expedition.