Vasco da Gama Establishes the First Ocean Trade Route from Europe to India and Asia

views updated

Vasco da Gama Establishes the First Ocean Trade Route from Europe to India and Asia


Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) of Portugal is often credited with initiating the "Age of Discovery." This was the term given to the quest of European countries to seek out new lands and trade routes by sea. Prince Henry had multiple motives for this endeavor. He wanted to establish new routes of trade, find a possible route to attack the Moors from the rear, test new advances in shipbuilding and navigational aids, and fulfill his curiosity regarding the world. He commissioned numerous expeditions throughout the fifteenth century to explore and chart the African coast. Although Prince Henry died in 1460, his legacy was firmly established and exploration continued.

King John II of Portugal sought to establish both a land route and a sea route to India. The sea route was to go around the southern tip of Africa, which was not even believed to exist by some at that time. In 1487 Portuguese navigator Bartholomeu Dias (1450?-1500) rounded the cape of Africa in stormy seas and began sailing in a northeast direction to reach what is now South Africa. Dias had shown that there was indeed a possible route to India via the southern tip of Africa. Upon his return voyage, he set up a pillar on the Cape to commemorate its discovery.

Although Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) claimed to have reached India by a much easier westerly route in 1492, interest in the route around Africa was renewed when the validity of his contention came under close scrutiny. Although the land that Columbus discovered would prove to be very important—he had discovered America—he had not found the rich land of India that was so desperately sought by many. In 1497 a Portuguese captain named Vasco da Gama (1469?-1524) put together an expedition in an attempt to sail around the southern edge of Africa to the port of Calicut, located on the west coast of India.


Da Gama sailed from Lisbon on July 8, 1497, with a four-vessel fleet consisting of two medium-sized sailing ships, a caravel (a small, fast ship), and a large storeship. Because of previous voyages, da Gama knew that the currents along the African coast would impede his progress, so he boldly set a course that took him far from land, sailing in uncharted waters. The explorers rounded the southern tip of Africa, which da Gama named the Cape of Good Hope, on November 22. At this point they no longer need the storeship, so it was broken up and burned. They continued sailing up the eastern African coast but stopped because many of the crews were sick with scurvy. The expedition rested a month so that the men could heal and the ships could be repaired.

On March 2 the fleet reached the island of Mozambique. They were treated friendly because the inhabitants believed the Portuguese sailors were Muslims like themselves. While in port, da Gama learned that the natives traded with Arab merchants, and the Sultan of Mozambique supplied da Gama with a pilot to help guide them. The expedition reached Malindi (present-day Kenya) on April 14, and another pilot who knew the route to Calicut was taken aboard. He proved to be very skilled, and they safely made the treacherous crossing to Calicut in less than a month. They were now in the most important trading center in Southern India at that time and were initially welcomed by Zamorin, the Hindu ruler. Da Gama could not persuade him to make a trade agreement, though, partly because of the cheap gifts that da Gama had brought and partly because the Muslim merchants were extremely hostile to the Christian sailors. As tensions mounted, da Gama left for Malindi in late August with little to show for his efforts.

The crossing to Malindi was extremely harsh. The pilot had abandoned them in Calicut, so they were forced to traverse their way back on their own. The weather was uncooperative, and they were not prepared for a return trip that would last three times as long as the initial voyage. Most of the men contracted scurvy and many died, while the others were nearing death when they finally arrived in Malindi. There, the Sultan helped the crew by providing life-giving oranges and allowing the crew a chance to heal. He also gave them gifts to bring back home. Because da Gama had lost so many men, he ordered one of the ships burned before they began their long journey home.

The remaining two ships set out for home and skirted the Cape of Good Hope on March 20. They were later separated by a storm, with one ship eventually reaching Portugal on July 10. Da Gama's ship continued on to the Azores, and he reached his original starting point, Lisbon, on September 9. While he was hailed as a hero and his achievement was remarkable—for he had traveled some 27,000 miles (43,452 km) by sea—the trip had taken a great toll. He returned with only half of his ships and less than half of his men. One casualty was especially hard on him: he had lost his brother, Paulo, to sickness on the last leg of the journey. Although da Gama had returned with a small amount of tradable goods, he brought back a much more valuable commodity, a sea route to India. The door was open, and the Portuguese intended to use it to their fullest.


The discovery of a sea route to India proved to be extremely valuable to the Portuguese. They amassed huge profits in a limited amount of time due to their exclusive hold on commerce in that area. Da Gama opened a passage for his countrymen to follow, and the route was one of the most closely guarded secrets of that era. Pedro Álvares Cabral (1460?-1526) traveled to the Orient within a year of da Gama's return and established a trade treaty with Calicut, which gave the Portuguese a foothold on the commerce of that area. Things did not go smoothly, however, and after some serious fighting, Cabral moved on to another port, Cochin. The ruler of this port was the bitter rival of those at Calicut, so Cabral was able to trade quite easily by playing the ruling parties against one another. He also set up a depot, where trading could take place and where ships could unload. This pattern set the precedent for trading in that area. The Portuguese would play the various mercantile factions against each other to get what they wanted, and if that was not successful, they would use force. Although more than half the fleet and men were lost, Cabral returned ladened with spice, which was sold at a huge profit. Expeditions became annual events, and Portugal profited greatly from these trips. Portugal was now at the forefront of maritime European commerce.

These expeditions to India and the Far East had tremendous impact on the European population. The supply of exotic goods such as spices was higher than it had ever been. While still expensive, these types of items were now available. In addition, many people profited from the sale of such items. These voyages set all of Europe ablaze with thoughts of exotic lands just waiting to have treasure plucked from them.

The Portuguese discovered very important sea routes that had not previously been used by other people. In their quest, they had significantly advanced maritime knowledge, including fine-tuning systematic nautical practices, furthering scientific and technical innovations, increasing cartographical and navigational skills, and fostering a spirit of adventure and endurance. These achievements are important contributions to world history and had a significant influence on other nations of Europe.

Although the Portuguese benefited tremendously from their expeditions, they did so to the detriment of the people living both in that area and even some living far from it. Much of the area and trade that the Portuguese controlled came at the expense of Moslem merchants who had been trading in that area for centuries. Additionally, Venice had a virtual monopoly on trade in that area from land routes, and much of their wealth was derived from it. Although there were other factors that helped its downfall, ultimately it was Portugal's establishment of trade in India that led to its demise.

Portugal was single-minded and brutal in its obsession for this part of the world. Ports and towns were taken by force until Portugal had moved India from a mere trading post to a full-fledged colony. It could not have been predicted how quickly the Portuguese would rise to power and how far they would extend their influence. Within 50 years they had established trade with ports as far away as Japan and all points in between. They pushed their way inland and established footholds to expand their territory. They believed it was their divine right to expand their empire and even had papal approval for their conquests. They were ruthless and unyielding in their endeavors and built themselves the enviable position of controlling the trade routes to India and the Orient. At the same time, Spain was becoming rich from their conquests in America. Thus Portugal and Spain had taken the early lead in the race for riches from far-away lands. The English, Dutch, and French, who argued that the seas should be open and that possession of land should depend on occupation, would soon challenge this position. Soon all five of these countries would vie for supremacy of these lands. And because Portugal was so singleminded and had set up such a wide-ranging trading network, it was soon overextended and could not adequately protect its interests. This paved the way for the English, Dutch, and French to step in and seize command of much of the trade in that area. Thus, although Portugal pioneered the way and showed tremendous immediate profit, it was other countries that would reap the long-term benefits.


Further Reading

Berger, Josef. Discovers of the New World. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1960.

Lomask, Milton. Exploration: Great Lives. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988.

Syme, Ronald. Vasco de Gama. Sailor Toward the Sunrise. New York: Morrow Publishing, 1960.

About this article

Vasco da Gama Establishes the First Ocean Trade Route from Europe to India and Asia

Updated About content Print Article Share Article