Gama, Vasco da ca. 1469–1524 Portuguese Explorer

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Gama, Vasco da
ca. 1469–1524
Portuguese explorer

Vasco da Gama made one of the most important voyages of exploration in the Renaissance. Unlike Christopher Columbus, he did not discover new lands unknown to Europeans. Instead, da Gama pioneered a new route to Asia, a place known to Europeans but very difficult to reach. By sailing around Africa to India, da Gama opened the door to trade, conquest, and a Portuguese empire in East Africa and Asia.

Da Gama's career as an explorer began in 1497, when the Portuguese king Manuel I named him captain of a fleet of four ships and sent him to find a route across the Indian Ocean to India. The voyage built on years of Portuguese exploration along Africa's coasts, including the voyage of Bartolomeu Dias nine years earlier around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa.

Da Gama headed south from Portugal, paused at the Cape Verde Islands off western Africa, and then moved out into the Atlantic. Although his exact route is unknown, da Gama sailed through the open ocean rather than inching his way along the coast. After 90 days at sea out of sight of land, the fleet arrived 100 miles north of the Cape of Good Hope. Da Gama rounded the cape in November 1497 and proceeded north along the eastern coast of Africa.

After stopping at several ports, da Gama found an Indian sailor to guide him across the Indian Ocean. In May 1498 the Portuguese reached the Indian port of Calicut, where they spent more than three months trying to trade for spices and gems. Despite the hostility of Muslim traders and the local Hindu ruler, da Gama obtained a cargo of cinnamon and pepper. In 1499 he returned to Portugal. In some ways he had been less than successful, having wrecked two of his four ships and lost two-thirds of his crew. Yet he had proved that the sea route to India existed.

King Manuel rewarded da Gama and promptly sent larger fleets along the new route. Da Gama made his second voyage to India in 1502 and another in 1524, this time as the viceroy* of India.

(See alsoExploration; Portugal; Travel and Tourism. )

see color plate 2, vol. 4

* viceroy

someone who rules a territory on behalf of a king