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Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama

The Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama (ca. 1460-1524) was the first to travel by sea from Portugal to India. The term "Da Gama epoch" is used to describe the era of European commercial and imperial expansion launched by his navigational enterprise.

Little is known of the early life of Vasco da Gama; his father was governor of Sines, Portugal, where Vasco was born. He first comes to historical notice in 1492, when he seized French ships in Portuguese ports as reprisal for piratical raids. When he was commissioned for his famous voyage, he was a gentleman at the court of King Manuel I.

Manuel, against the advice of a majority of his counselors, had decided to follow up Bartolomeu Dias's triumphal voyage round the Cape of Good Hope (1487-1488) with a well-planned attempt to reach all the way to the Malabar Coast of India, the ports of which were the major entrepôts for the Western spice trade with southeastern Asia. This trade had fallen under the control of Moslem merchants; the Venetians were only the final distributors to Europe of these valuable commodities.

Manuel hoped to displace the Moslem (and thus the Venetian) middlemen and to establish Portuguese hegemony over the Oriental oceanic trades. He also hoped to join with Eastern Christian forces (symbolized to medieval Europeans by the legend of the powerful priest-king, Prester John) and thus carry on a worldwide crusade against Islam. Da Gama's voyage was to be the first complete step toward the realization of these ambitions.

Voyage to India

Da Gama, supplied with letters of introduction to Prester John and to the ruler of the Malabar city of Calicut, set sail from the Tagus River in Lisbon on July 8, 1497. He commanded the flagship St. Gabriel, accompanied by the St. Raphael and Berrio (commanded, respectively, by his brother Paulo and Nicolas Coelho) and a large supply ship. After a landfall in the Cape Verde Islands, he stood well out to sea, rounding the Cape of Good Hope on November 22. Sailing past the port of Sofala, the expedition landed at Kilimane, the second in a string of East African coastal cities. These towns were under Moslem control and gained their wealth largely through trade in gold and ivory. Proceeding to Mozambique, where they were at first mistaken for Moslems, the Portuguese were kindly received by the sultan. A subsequent dispute, however, led da Gama to order a naval bombardment of the city.

Traveling northward to Mombasa, the Portuguese escaped a Moslem attempt to destroy the small fleet and hurriedly sailed for the nearby port of Malindi. Its sultan, learning of the bombardment to the south, decided to cooperate with da Gama and lent him the services of the famous Indian pilot Ibn Majid for the next leg of the journey. On May 20, 1498, the Portuguese anchored off Calicut—then the most important trading center in southern India—well prepared to tap the fabulous riches of India.

Their expectations, however, were soon to be deflated. The Portuguese at first thought the Hindu inhabitants of the city to be Christians, although a visit to a local temple where they were permitted to worship "Our Lady"—Devaki, mother of the god Krishna—made them question the purity of the faith as locally practiced. The zamorin, the ruler of Calicut, warmly welcomed the newcomers—until his treasurers appraised the inexpensive items sent as gifts by King Manuel. In fact, the potentates of the East were at that time wealthier than the financially embarrassed Western kings, and the zamorin quite naturally had looked for a standard tribute in gold. The Portuguese merchandise did not sell well in the port, and the Moslem merchants who dominated the city's trade convinced the zamorin that he stood to gain nothing by concluding a commercial agreement with the intruders.

Amid rumors of plots against his life but with his ships stocked with samples of precious jewels and spices, da Gama sailed from Calicut at the end of August 1498. The trip back to Portugal proved far more difficult than the voyage out, and many men died of scurvy during the 3-month journey across the Arabian Sea. The St. Raphael was burned and its complement distributed among the other ships. The remaining vessels became separated in a storm off the West African coast, and Coelho was the first to reach home (July 10, 1499). The da Gamas had gone to the Azores, where Paulo died, and Vasco arrived in Lisbon on September 9.

Da Gama returned twice to India: in 1502, when he bombarded Calicut in revenge for an attack on a previous Portuguese expedition; and in 1524, when he was appointed viceroy. On Dec. 24, 1524, Vasco da Gama died in the southwestern Indian city of Cochin. He was richly rewarded for his services by his sovereign, being made Count of Vidiguerira and Admiral of the Indian Seas and receiving pensions and a lucrative slice of the Eastern trade.

Da Gama's first voyage deserves to be compared with Columbus's more celebrated "discovery" of the New World. Neither man actually "discovered" unoccupied territories; rather, both linked anciently settled and developed parts of the world with Europe. The Spaniards subsequently conquered the "Indians" of the West, living in settler societies off their labor and natural resources; the Portuguese founded a seaborne commercial empire from which they tried to drain middlemen's profits from a trade still on the whole unfavorably balanced against Europe.

Further Reading

The best account of da Gama's enterprises remains K. G. Jayne, Vasco da Gama and His Successors, 1460-1580 (1910). A contemporary account of the first voyage was translated and edited by E. G. Ravenstein, A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499 (1898). This voyage also served as the theme of the great epic of Portuguese literature, Luis de Camões, The Lusiads, translated by William C. Atkinson (1952). The da Gama expedition led to the rise of a maritime empire, described in C. R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborn Empire, 1415-1825 (1969), and to the "Da Gama epoch" of Europeans in the East, outlined from an Asian point of view in K. M. Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance: A Survey of the Vasco da Gama Epoch of Asian History, 1498-1945 (1954; new ed. 1959). □

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Gama, Vasco Da (c. 1469–1524)

GAMA, VASCO DA (c. 14691524)

GAMA, VASCO DA (c. 14691524), Portuguese explorer, first count of Vidigueira, and "discoverer" of the sea route to India. Vasco da Gama was born in the Alentejo coastal town of Sines about 1469. His family had longstanding service ties to the crown in its struggles against Castile and Islam, and Vasco's father, Estevão, had won grants, including the post of alcaide-mor (governor-major) of Sines, for these services. He also became a commandery holder, or possessor of a revenue-generating land grant, in the powerful Order of Santiago, thus elevating the family's social and economic status, a process that would culminate with the career of his son. King João II (ruled 14811495) may have asked Estevão to undertake the search for an all-water trade route between Europe and India, but he died before he could make the voyage.

Not much is known about the early years of Vasco da Gama's life. He received a solid education in nautical matters and had also demonstrated martial skills in campaigns against Castile. In 1492, King João II had selected da Gama to confiscate French shipping in the ports of the Algarve, in retaliation for the French seizure of a Portuguese ship returning from Africa loaded with gold, and he accomplished this task with "great brevity."

In 1497, King Manuel (ruled 14951521) selected da Gama to command the epic expedition to India that successfully ended the search for a sea route to Asian spices begun during the days of the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator (13941460). Some say that Vasco's brother, Paulo, was first offered the opportunity but turned it down. The four-ship fleet (São Gabriel, São Rafael, Berrio, and a stores ship) departed Lisbon on 8 July 1497 with 170 men aboard. After stopping at São Tiago (27 July3 August) in the Cape Verde Islands, da Gama and his fleet headed out into the Atlantic to exploit the prevailing winds. On 8 November, the fleet reached Santa Helena Bay, and on the 22 November rounded the Cape of Good Hope. In the Indian Ocean, da Gama confronted the entrenched economic power of the Arabs. This religious and economic hostility complicated his task along the East African coast during a stay at Mozambique island (March 1498), and especially at Mombasa (April 1498), where the local sultan sought to storm the fleet in a midnight raid. Da Gama received a more favorable reception at Malindi, obtaining a skilled pilot who guided the Portuguese fleet across the Arabian Sea to the pepper-rich Malabar coast of India by May 1498. His mission of arranging both a treaty and the purchase of pepper in the key port city of Calicut was complicated by the intrigues of Arab merchants with the local Hindu ruler, the Zamorin (Samudri), and da Gama's rather paltry gifts. Nevertheless, his resolve overcame these problems, and he departed in August with a respectable cargo of spices. Although the return trip to Portugal was complicated by fickle winds, the Berrio and São Gabriel reached Lisbon in July and August 1499, respectively. Da Gama, after burying his brother Paulo on Terceira in the Azores, reached home in September. He received the right to use the prestigious title "Dom," a hefty annual pension, and other rewards, including the title admiral of the Indian Seas.

To avenge the massacre of Portuguese factors left at Calicut by the fleet of Pedro Álvares Cabral (15001501), in 1502 King Manuel dispatched twenty well-armed ships under da Gama. He used this formidable force to intimidate the sultan of Kilwa on the east African coast into fealty (July 1502), to intercept Muslim shipping arriving on the Indian coast, and to inflict a decisive defeat on an Arab fleet in the service of the Zamorin (February 1503). His ruthless nature was revealed on this voyage when he burned several hundred Muslim pilgrims alive aboard a captured ship in September 1502. He returned to Lisbon in October 1503 and received additional rewards. During the following two decades, da Gama labored in Portugal to consolidate his social and economic position. His marriage to Dona Catarina de Ataíde produced seven children, and, despite problems with the mercurial King Manuel, da Gama at last entered the ranks of the senhorial elite in 1519 when he was created the first count of Vidigueira.

By 1524, although the Portuguese empire in Asia stretched from Mozambique to Indonesia, corruption had begun to infiltrate this impressive imperial edifice. The young king, John III, appointed Vasco viceroy in that year to address these problems. Sailing with fourteen ships in April 1524, da Gama reached India in September and undertook an impressive reform campaign that was tragically cut short by his death at Calicut on Christmas Eve 1524.

Da Gama's life and career mirrored the rise of Portugal: nautical expertise, military prowess, ruthlessness, and religious conviction entrenched his personal and familial fortune while Portugal, at the same time, achieved its Golden Age.

See also Camões, Luís Vaz de ; Exploration ; Portugal ; Portuguese Colonies: The Indian Ocean and Asia .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ames, Glenn J. Portuguese Pilgrim: The Life and Career of Vasco da Gama. New York, 2003.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Teixeira de Aragão, A. C. Vasco da Gama e a Vidigueira. Lisbon, 1871.

Velho, Alvaro. A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 14971499. Translated and edited by E. G. Ravenstein. London, 1898.

Glenn J. Ames

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da Gama, Vasco (ca. 1469–1524)

da Gama, Vasco (ca. 14691524)

A Portuguese explorer, da Gama lived at a time when this small kingdom at the southwestern edge of Europe was building one of the largest colonial realms in history. Trained in the school of Henry the Navigator, Portuguese ship captains were braving unknown seas and building small trading stations along the west African coast. A sea route between Africa and Asia would, in theory, allow merchants to easily reach the Spice Islands, in what is now Indonesia, and the markets of South Asia. Da Gama first served his king as an officer in west Africa, where the Portuguese ports were under frequent assault by rival European nations. After proving his ability as a sailor as well as a soldier, he won a commission from Manuel I to discover a route to India, which could only be reached at that time by a long and dangerous land route through countries held by hostile Turks and Arabs. In the late fourteenth century, the more northerly Silk Route to Asia was also disrupted by unrest and war after the fall of the Mongol Empire.

In 1497 da Gama set out with four ships from Lisbon, Portugal, reaching the Cape of Good Hope and then continuing up the eastern coast of Africa. The fleet called at Madagascar, Mombasa (in present-day Kenya), and Malindi, and then crossed the Indian Ocean to Calicut, on the southwestern coast of India, reached in May 1498. Da Gama returned to Lisbon in September 1949 in triumph and with a fortune in trade goods, for which he was rewarded with a noble title. His journey had established the Portuguese claim to important trading posts in Africa and India. Da Gama returned to India on a second voyage in 1502, conquering the nowhostile port of Calicut and forcing further trade concessions. A third voyage in 1524 ended with da Gama's death from malaria in the small Indian realm of Cochin.

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Gama, Vasco da

Vasco da Gama (vă´skō də gă´mə, Port. väsh´kō dä gä´mə), c.1469–1524, Portuguese navigator, the first European to journey by sea to India. His epochal voyage (1497–99) was made at the order of Manuel I. With four vessels, he rounded the Cape of Good Hope, passed the easternmost point reached by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, continued up the east coast of Africa to Malindi, and sailed across the uncharted Indian Ocean to Calicut. This voyage opened up a way for Europe to reach the wealth of the Indies, and immediately Portugal gained great riches from the spice trade; out of it ultimately grew the Portuguese Empire. Gama dictated the instructions for Cabral's voyage (1500–1502) to India, and in 1502 he himself led a fleet of 20 ships on his second India voyage. With this force he attempted to establish Portuguese power in Indian waters and sought to secure the submission of a number of chiefs on the African coast. He was harsh in his methods and was not as good an administrator as many of the Portuguese captains who later went to the East, but he was the first, and he was honored with many tributes and the title of count of Vidigueria. In 1524 he was sent back to India as viceroy, but he died soon after his arrival. Gama's voyage is the subject of Camões's epic The Lusiads.

See A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama (1898), the journal of one of Gama's subordinates; G. Corrêa, The Three Voyages of Vasco da Gama and His Viceroyalty (1869, repr. 1964); K. G. Jayne, Vasco da Gama and His Successors (1910, repr. 1970); H. H. Hart, Sea Route to the Indies (1950, repr. 1971); N. Cliff, Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations (2011) and The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco Da Gama (2012).

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Gama, Vasco da

Gama, Vasco da (1469–1524) Portuguese navigator. He was charged with continuing Bartholomeu Diaz's search for a sea route to India. Da Gama's successful expedition (1497–99) rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed across the Indian Ocean to Calicut. In 1502–03, he led a heavily armed expedition of 20 ships to Calicut, and brutally avenged the killing of Portuguese settlers left there by Cabral. Da Gama secured Portuguese supremacy in the Eastern spice trade.

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da Gama, Vasco

da Gama, Vasco (c.1469–1524), Portuguese explorer. He led the first European expedition round the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, sighting and naming Natal on Christmas Day before crossing the Indian Ocean and arriving in Calicut in 1498.

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Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama: see Gama, Vasco da.

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Vasco da Gama

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Vasco da Gama

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