Gama, Vasco Da (c. 1469–1524)
GAMA, VASCO DA (c. 1469–1524)
GAMA, VASCO DA (c. 1469–1524), 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 1481–1495) 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 1495–1521) 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 (1394–1460). 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 July–3 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 (1500–1501), 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 .
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, 1497–1499. Translated and edited by E. G. Ravenstein. London, 1898.
Glenn J. Ames
Gama, Vasco da
Gama, Vasco da
The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route from Europe to India. Continuing the long-term Portuguese project of exploring the African coastline, he rounded the Cape of Good Hope and continued to Calicut, India, during a voyage that lasted from 1497 to 1499, "an open-sea excursion of unprecedented duration for a European navigator … a demonstration of audacity rather than ability" (Fernández-Armesto 2000a, p. 479).
Gama was a violent, ruthless, and ambitious man whose successes in forging a network of Portuguese footholds in Asia became, over the course of his lifetime and subsequent centuries, the stuff of Portuguese national legend. Portugal's national epic, The Lusíads (1572) by Luis Vaz de Camões (1524–1580), is based on Gama's activities, transforming a story of seamanship and poor diplomacy into one of endurance, adventure, and heroism in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Vasco da Gama was a minor Portuguese noble born in the 1460s (probably 1469, argues Sanjay Subrahmanyam  in the most authoritative and scholarly biography of Gama), possibly in the southern Portuguese coastal town of Sines. Much of what we know about Gama's background and life are based on conjecture from notoriously inclusive and fragmentary surviving documents. There are huge gaps in our knowledge and much disagreement among historians over many of the details.
It is far from certain why Gama was chosen as the leader of the expedition that made his name and career. He was a member of the Order of Santiago, one of the several military orders that played important political and social roles in medieval Portugal. In the 1490s the orders were particularly tied up with contests over court influence and the ends and means of overseas expansion.
Subrahmanyam argues that Manuel I (known as "the Fortunate," r. 1495–1521) gave Gama command of the modest expedition of four ships to the pepper emporium of Calicut in the hope that, should the expedition fail, some of the disrepute would rub off on the political faction with which Gama was associated. This group gathered around Dom Jorge (1481–1550), the illegitimate son of João II (r. 1481–1495), Manuel's predecessor on the throne. Dom Jorge's faction believed that the old enemy Castile, rather than India, should be the object of the state's imperial activity, although Gama himself pragmatically came to see the value of India once his own fortunes became tied to the success of Portugal's expeditions to the region.
Motivations for the "voyage of discovery" were mixed. As Gama acknowledged at the beginning of the narrative of his first voyage (probably written by his crewmember Álvaro Velho), "In the year 1497 King Dom Manuel, the first of that name in Portugal, dispatched four vessels to make discoveries and go in search of spices" (Ravenstein 1898, p. 1). Adventure, colonization, commerce, and religion combined to send Gama in search of the sea route to India.
Once in the Indian Ocean, Gama encountered polycentric networks of great religious and ethnic diversity—not a monolithic Islamic monopoly—a mix into which Gama's aggression and ambition cast a further complicating factor. In East Africa, Gama and his men at first pretended to be Muslims out of fear of the locals. When this ruse was discovered, Gama's party was regarded with distrust and suspicion. Gama aggravated things by frequently taking hostages as part of negotiations. In March 1498, several months before reaching India, he bombarded the shores of Mozambique in order to demonstrate, as an anonymous onlooker recorded, "how much harm we could do them if we wanted." He continued his confrontational strategy in India, which contributed to souring relations with the rulers of Calicut, the main pepper market and the principal destination of his voyage.
Despite his preference for violence and confrontation over compromise and negotiation, Gama was not above taking advantage of local expertise or politics. During his first voyage, Gama used local pilots (although not, as was thought, the great Ahmad Ibn Majid [1432–1500]) to cross the Indian Ocean, and exploited local political tensions to gain friends in Malindi in Africa and amongst the Saint Thomas Christians in Cochin in India. Yet he did so without compassion: One pilot was whipped after mistaking some islands for the mainland. Gama did not bring conflict single-handedly into the region, but rather intensified it by his ruthless tactics and by introducing new naval technology and a more systematic approach to warfare.
Upon his return to Lisbon in 1499, Gama was not received as the hero he felt himself to be. The Portuguese Crown awarded him a grant of land around Sines, but Gama was infuriated with what he perceived to be the meager nature of this prize. The turn of the century saw deep rivalry between other profoundly ambitious social climbers who sought patronage in Iberia for adventurous schemes of exploration and "discovery."
On the follow-up voyage to Gama's discovery of the sea route, in 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral (ca. 1467–1520) happened upon the Brazilian littoral. Yet the failure of either Gama's or Cabral's voyages to yield tangible financial profits, considered in the light of news of the discoveries of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) in the Indies to the west, put considerable pressure on Gama's second expedition (1502–1503). On this voyage Gama bore the Columbus-inspired title of Admiral of the Seas of Arabia, Persia, and India. He was just as confrontational in style on this voyage, which included an infamous and terrible incident in which he plundered, burned, and sank a passing ship, the Mîrî, thus ensuring the death by drowning of the 240 Muslim pilgrims it was carrying.
Such deeds have not prevented a long Portuguese history of elaborating and promoting Gama's legend. The image of Gama as national hero and icon grew out of his triumphant return to Lisbon from his second voyage in 1503, laden with gold and spices. Nevertheless, it was immediately followed by a lengthy period in the political wilderness from 1504 to 1523 because Gama did not share Manuel I's conception of a universal Portuguese empire in Asia that might link up with the realm of Prester John, a mythical ruler of a Christian empire thought to lie in Central Asia or Africa, and other local Christians to outflank and destroy Islam.
Profits from the spice trade were a secondary consideration. Gama—famously spendthrift and moneygrubbing—thought colonial enterprises to be a waste of money that a kingdom with meager resources like Portugal could ill afford. Gama believed it would be better for private merchants to handle the spice trade and for the state to establish and service just a few trading posts in order to facilitate commerce. This allowed others to reap the financial and political rewards of voyages to India, in particular one of Gama's rivals, Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515). The descendents and admirers of the two men perpetuated the two heroes' images and exploits in subsequent centuries, but Gama himself set about manipulating his growing legend during his period out of political favor precisely in order to ensure his own rehabilitation. That he did succeed in returning to a position of power and influence and that he died as a viceroy was testament to his vigorous social climbing and endurance.
Upon the death of Manuel I in 1521 and the arrival on the throne of João III (r. 1521–1557), Vasco da Gama became one of the king's advisors, arguing forcefully that Portugal should limit its position in India to Cochin and Goa. Faced with financial constraints and Dutch and Castilian threats to Portugal's imperial outposts, João sent Gama to India as viceroy and count of Vidigueira in 1524 to carry out a program of administrative and organizational reform and to remove Castilian infiltrators from the Moluccas. In the brief period in India that his poor health allowed him (less than a year), Gama once again revealed his characteristics as a stern disciplinarian, an avid fortune hunter, and an assiduous enemy of Muslims in Malabar. Overworked and unable to overcome the effects of the local climate on his weakened body, Gama died on December 24, 1524. He was buried with full honors in the Franciscan Church of San Antonio in Cochin.
Contemporaries did not all see Gama as a courageous hero. Some saw him as a "xenophobe improbably transplanted to the tropics" (Fernández-Armesto 2000b, p. 13). Certainly he was an arrogant and uncompromising leader who was resolutely focused on his own status and wealth (and that of his clientele). He was a merciless killer of opponents and unfortunates. Yet his legend continued apace, assured most notably by the success of Camões's Lusíads. In the late nineteenth century, the Portuguese state sponsored extravagant and drawn-out celebrations surrounding the reinterment in Lisbon of Gama's bones.
The Indian nationalist historian K. M. Panikkar (1959) dubbed the period of European imperialism in Asia from 1500 to 1945 as the "Vasco da Gama era." Gama's discovery of the sea route to India for Portugal was not the forceful heroism of one man but the culmination of decades of advances and incremental accumulation of knowledge. Gama's tactics in assuring the success of his explorative and commercial ventures were hard-nosed, confrontational, aggressive, and often violent. His initial cultivation of the legend surrounding his heroism was pursued with equal vigor. Gama was the first to profit from the "actual financial, fiscal and material returns" (Subrahmanyam 1997, p. 361) of this legend, but he was by no means the last.
Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Civilizations. Basingstoke and Oxford, U.K.: Macmillan, 2000a.
Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. "The Indian Ocean in World History." In Vasco da Gama and the Linking of Europe and Asia, edited by Anthony Disney and Emily Booth. New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000b, pp. 11-29.
Panikkar, K. M. Asia and Western Dominance: A Survey of the Vasco da Gama Epoch of Asian History, 1498–1945, new ed. London: Allen & Unwin, 1959.
Ravenstein, E. G. A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497–99, London: Hakluyt Society, 1898.
Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
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.
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). □
Gama, Vasco da
GAMA, VASCO DA
GAMA, VASCO DA (c. 1460–1524), Portuguese explorer. Portuguese sea captain Vasco da Gama discovered the Cape of Good Hope route to India in May 1498, relying on the expertise of local seamen, both Indian and Arab, to sail across the ocean they knew so well. Crucial to da Gama's crossing of the Indian Ocean to Calicut was the assistance given by Arab navigator Ahmad ibn-Madjid, who knew the secrets of the treacherous monsoon. Ibn-Madjid's help allowed Vasco da Gama to become the first European to reach India by sea.
Vasco had left Lisbon on 8 July 1497 with four ships, reaching Mozambique on 2 March, Malindi on 14 April, anchoring 12 miles (19 km) off Calicut on 18 May 1498. The first encounter of Europeans with India was fraught with misunderstandings on both sides. Vasco da Gama and his men, mistaken for Muslims, were at first warmly received by the Hindu ruler, the samuri (zamorin in Portuguese records) of Calicut. Vasco and his crew, on the other hand, thought that the Malabar ruler and his subjects were Christians. The Portuguese worshiped in a Hindu temple, which they assumed was a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. At the instigation of the powerful local Muslim merchants, the samuri's attitude toward Vasco da Gama and his men quickly changed. The samuri found Vasco's goods to be of "inferior quality" and the Portuguese sailors' refusal to pay the traditional customs duties on their purchases only intensified local dislike of the arrogant visitors.
Da Gama left on 5 October 1498 without the trade treaty he sought, but with precious cargo, which brought Portugal a hefty profit of sixty times its investment after meeting the expenses of the entire voyage. The human costs of the first voyage, however, were very high. Of the 170 Portuguese sailors, only 55 survived, most dying of scurvy. In Lisbon, Vasco da Gama received a tumultuous public welcome, rewarded by King Manuel I with presents, cash, an annual pension, and the exalted rank of "admiral of the Indian Ocean."
On his second voyage to India, in 1502, Vasco da Gama was brutal beyond belief. He seized a ship headed for Mecca, and after confiscating the goods, burned it with hundreds of Muslim pilgrims—men, women and children—on board. He extracted treaties of "friendship and trade" from the rulers of Cannanore and Cochin by terrorizing the rulers and their subjects, bombarding the coast, killing scores of innocent, unarmed fishermen, and selling many others into slavery.
Vasco da Gama was sent for the third time to India in 1524, with the title of viceroy, to cleanse the Portuguese administration there. Within two months of his arrival, however, he died. Fourteen years later, in keeping with his will, his body was taken to Portugal and interred on his estate at Vidigueira. For Portugal, he remains its greatest hero.
D. R. SarDesai
See alsoPortuguese in India
Gama, Vasco da. A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497–1498, translated and edited by E. G. Ravenstein. London: Hakluyt Society, 1898.
Hart, Henry Hersch. Sea Road to the Indies: An Account of the Voyages and Exploits of the Portuguese Navigators, Together with the Life and Times of Dom Vasco da Gama. London: Hodge, 1952.
Madan, D. K. Life and Letters of Vasco da Gama. New Delhi: Laurie Books, 1998.
Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
da Gama, Vasco (ca. 1469–1524)
da Gama, Vasco (ca. 1469–1524)
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.