Vasco da Gama

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Vasco da Gama


Portuguese Explorer

In the last years of the fifteenth century, an explorer set off from the Iberian Peninsula, full of grand illusions and hoping to reach India by going where no European had ever gone before. Though that statement would seem to describe the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) to the New World, it is equally true of a less famous expedition—from an American perspective, at least—that set sail five years later. This one was led by Vasco da Gama, who sailed under the Portuguese flag and rounded the southern tip of Africa to become the first European to reach the Indian subcontinent by sea.

Da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal, where his father was governor. As a member of the nobility, he led a Portuguese attack on French ships in 1492, and later served as a gentleman at the court of King Manuel I. Under the leadership of Manuel, the Portuguese continued the tradition, begun by Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) and maintained sporadically ever since, of exploring the African coast. This had been done by bits and pieces, with each subsequent probe venturing just a bit further south, until Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500) had rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the continent's southern tip in 1487-1488. Now Manuel was prepared to take the bold step of passing the Cape by and sailing across thousands of miles of open sea to India. Therefore on July 7, 1498, da Gama and his crew set sail from Lisbon aboard four ships.

Their goal was the city of Calicut (not to be confused with Calcutta) on the Malabar, or southwestern, coast of India, and da Gama took with him letters of introduction both to the ruler of Calicut and to Prester John. The latter, supposedly the ruler of a Christian kingdom, is now known to have been an utterly fictitious character, created by a sort of early urban legend around 1150; but people in da Gama's time did not know that, and Manuel was convinced that Christian Portugal would find an ally in India.

Sailing well west of Africa, the crew rounded the Cape on November 22, then began tracing the continent's east coast. This put them in contact with coastal trading cities, which served as ports for Arab and Persian vessels plying the Indian Ocean route da Gama intended to cross. The Portuguese did battle with the Muslims in Mozambique and Mombasa (now part of Kenya), but found a better reception in the city of Malindi, whose sultan provided them with an Indian pilot to guide them across the ocean. Thanks in part to this help, da Gama landed in Calicut on May 20, 1498.

At first the Portuguese were sure they had found Prester John's land, because they mistook a temple to a Hindu goddess as a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Disappointment followed when the zamorin, the local ruler, examined the treasures Manuel had sent him as examples of Portugal's economic might. From the standpoint of India, wealthy in natural resources, these were cheap trinkets, and though the zamorin sent back samples of treasure and spices when da Gama set sail again in August 1498, this was probably more from courtesy than from a genuine belief that trade with Europe would prove profitable. The zamorin could not have known that the ragtag band of sailors were the advance party for waves of European colonization that would not end until the nation of India annexed the Portuguese colony of Goa in 1961.

As for da Gama, his crew ran into considerable hardships on the return voyage, which claimed the life of his brother Paulo (captain of one of the ships), along with many other crew members. He arrived in Lisbon on September 9, 1499, and would spend most of his remaining years enjoying the wealth and titles he had accrued through his pioneering voyage. Da Gama returned to India twice: first in 1502, then in 1524, when he served as viceroy of the Portuguese colony before dying on December 24 in the city of Cochin.