Vasco da Gama (1469?-1524), Portuguese explorer and navigator, who was the first person to reach India from Europe by a sea route. Da Gama was born in Sines, in southwestern Portugal. He joined the Portuguese navy at a young age and participated in the wars against the Spanish kingdom of Castile. Little else is known of his early life.
|II||VOYAGE TO INDIA|
Following the discovery in 1488 of the Cape of Good Hope by Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias, Portuguese king John II ordered the construction of a fleet to seek a maritime route to the Indies. The Portuguese had been spurred by the discoveries of Italian-Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus and by the fear that the Spanish might reach the Indies and tap their wealth first. John died in 1495, however, before the completion of the ships. He was succeeded as king by Manuel, who issued orders for the expedition and, impressed by da Gama’s ability, appointed him to lead it. The fleet consisted of the flagship São Gabriel, the São Raphael (captained by da Gama’s brother Paulo), and two smaller ships.
Departing from Lisbon on July 8, 1497, da Gama plotted his route to take advantage of the prevailing winds. After reaching the vicinity of Cape Verde he veered far to the west and then swung back in a great arc to arrive at the African coast near the Cape of Good Hope. Whether he did this by chance or by following information gathered by earlier mariners is not known, but his procedure established the route still followed by sailing vessels.
Da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in November. On Christmas Day he sighted and named the region of Natal, from the Portuguese word for Christmas. In the spring of 1498 da Gama reached the East African ports of Moçambique and Mombasa, but ran into armed resistance from Arab Muslim traders at both. At Malindi, on the coast of what is now Kenya, he managed to secure a pilot to guide him eastward. With the aid of Arab navigator Ahmed ibn Majid, da Gama sailed across the Arabian Sea and on May 20, 1498, reached Calicut (now Kozhikode) on the Malabar Coast of India. Da Gama thus completed the first voyage from western Europe around Africa to the East.
Because of the hostility of local Arab merchants, who controlled the seaborne trade of the East and feared the loss of their monopoly, the ruler of Calicut rebuffed da Gama. He received a better reception from other coastal rulers, however, and obtained from them a valuable cargo of spices. He set sail for Portugal on August 29, 1498. Facing unfavorable winds for much of the voyage, the return journey took three times longer than the outgoing trip. Many of da Gama’s crew—including his brother Paulo—died of scurvy before they returned to Portugal in September 1499.
Da Gama navigated about 40,000 km (25,000 mi) on his expedition and demonstrated that the Indian Ocean was not the landlocked sea Europeans had thought it to be since the time of the ancient Greeks. King Manuel rewarded him with the titles Dom and, later, Admiral of the Indian Sea.
To follow up the discoveries of da Gama, Manuel immediately dispatched Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral to India. Cabral established a Portuguese trading post in Calicut. When news reached Portugal that those stationed in Calicut by Cabral had been massacred, da Gama was sent to avenge that act. On the way to India he attacked Arab Muslim ships ruthlessly. One ship he sunk carried more than 400 men, women, and children returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Arriving in Calicut, da Gama quickly subdued the inhabitants, impressing them with the superior firepower of the Portuguese and forcing the ruler to make peace. On his return voyage he established Portuguese colonies at Moçambique and Sofala on the coast of what is now Mozambique. He returned to Portugal in September 1503 having accomplished his mission and bearing a rich cargo of spices, but he left behind a memory of useless cruelty that damaged the Portuguese name for generations.
Richly rewarded by the Portuguese royal family for breaking the Arab Muslim monopoly on trade with India, da Gama settled down to profit from his ventures. For the next 20 years he saw no active sea duty. He received the title of count of Vidigueira in 1519. In 1524 he was named viceroy and sent to India to correct the mounting corruption among the Portuguese authorities there. Da Gama reached India in the autumn of 1524, but he died in Cochin only three months after his arrival.
He was buried in Goa, on the coast of India, but in 1539 his remains were conveyed to Portugal and interred in the Church of Vidigueira. There the coffin remained until 1880, when it was transferred to a marble sepulcher in the church of the Monastery of the Jerónimos at Belém, outside Lisbon. This monastery had been erected by Manuel as a token of the country’s gratitude to da Gama. Later it was proved that the wrong coffin had been removed from Vidigueira and in 1898, about 400 years after da Gama’s first voyage, the coffin that contained his true remains was placed in the sepulcher. The tomb lies very near that of Camões, Portugal’s most famous poet, who commemorated da Gama’s deeds in his epic 1572 poem The Lusiads.
|IV||DA GAMA’S LEGACY|
On his return to Lisbon in 1499, da Gama had completed the longest recorded sea voyage ever to set sail up to that time. By pioneering the Portuguese sea route to India, da Gama established Lisbon as the center of the European spice trade. This laid the foundation for the Portuguese Empire, which controlled trade with the ports of East Africa, southwest India, and Indonesia for centuries.