Vasco de Gama was a Portuguese explorer who became the first European to successfully navigate a naval route from Europe to India. In reaching India by sea, de Gama opened up a new era of European Imperialism on the Indian sub-continent. De Gama’s mission enabled Portugal to gain a head start in gaining a commercial monopoly on trade with India and become the first European power to accumulate an empire in Asia. De Gama led four expeditions to India and was rewarded with the title ‘Governor of India’ by the King of Portugal.
Vasco de Gama was born in the 1460s in Sines a seaport on the south west of Portugal. His family were of the minor nobility.
The Portuguese had a strong naval tradition and had already sent ships down the west coast of Africa in search of gold and slaves. Portuguese ships had got as far south as the southern tip of Africa, but loss rates were high and they only received limited riches from the west coast of Africa.
In 1481, King John II of Portugal ascended to the throne; he was a keen supporter of encouraging better trade routes. He hoped that gaining the riches of the Indian spice market would help boost his income and make him less dependent on the nobles. He was also keen to gain the prestige and power of being the first European power to navigate a much quicker route to India – rather than the perilous and long land route through Persia.
In 1488, a fellow Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias returned from rounding the Cape of Good Hope and exploring the east coast of Africa. This was a significant development and increased the confidence that India could be reached.
De Gama’s first voyage to India
On 8 July 1497, de Gama led a fleet of four ships departing from Lisbon with a royal mission to reach India. De Gama sailed to the Cape Verde Island and then breaking with previous voyages, he headed due south, through open ocean, ignoring the better known, but slower route down the African coast. The ships sailed for three months in open water – a record journey out of sight of land. Around Christmas time, they passed the Cape of Good Home and christened the land Natal – Portuguese for Christmas.
The expedition continued up the east coast of Africa, stopping at Mozambique, Mombasa (modern-day Kenya) and Malindi (also modern-day Kenya) In Malindi, de Gama found a sailer with knowledge of the journey to India, so de Vasco employed him and within a month they had landed on the Indian coast near Calicut. The journey had taken nearly ten months and was nearly three times the distance of Christopher Columbus journey to the Americas.
De Vasco was welcomed by the Hindu king or Zamorin of Calicut. On arrival the Zamorin asked de Gama why he had come to India, De Gama replied.
“In search of Christians and spices.”
However, relations between the two became constrained. De Gama had only a relatively few cheap gifts to offer, and the Indians and Muslim traders doubted whether they were real delegates from a European king. De Gama was displeased by the suspicion.
On 29 August 1498, de Gama left India for the return journey (he took a few Indians captive). He ignored warnings about the monsoon weather and with unfavourable headwinds, the return journey to east African coast took 132 days – four times as long as the journey to India. It also took a severe toll on his sailors – with many succumbing to scurvy. He lost many men, and when the expedition arrived on the African coast, he had to ditch a ship and consolidate his sailors in the remaining ones.
The remaining journey was less eventful, though de Gama’s brother died near the journey’s end. De Gama and the remaining sailors arrive in Lisbon on 29 August 1499. Only a third of the initial number of sailors survived the journey – illustrating the great dangers and perils of sailing in that age. However, news of their successful mission was greeted with enthusiasm and national pride. They were given a triumphal welcome and showered with praise and rewards. Amongst other rewards, De Gama was made a hereditary lord and given a substantial annual payment.
De Gama made a second voyage in 1500, with the aim of establishing a treaty with the Hindu king and establishing a Portuguese commercial presence in Calicut. However, the Portuguese factory met with resistance from Muslim traders who feared they would be squeezed out of business by the powerful European – 70 Portuguese died in a riot.
In 1502, the king authorised a large Portuguese Armada to exact revenge and make the Zamorin of Calicut submit to trading terms. On arrival in India, De Gama was ruthless and cruel in his treatment of the Indians. He demanded the Zamorin expel all Muslims from Calicut, and when he ignored this request, he began bombarding the undefended city causing great loss of life and buildings. In a fit of anger and cruelty, De Gama also massacred 700 Muslim civilians who were sailing to Mecca on pilgrimage in the boat Miri. He had the unarmed passengers locked below decks and then had the boat set alight. De Gama watched on. Other Indian fishermen who De Gama captured and killed were also treated cruelly with many having their ears, hands and nose cut off and sent to the Zamorin king.
Despite the military supremacy of the Portuguese, the Zamorin king refused to submit and so De Gama returned in 1503, without securing a treaty and strong presence in India. On his return, he received none of the previous praise due to the perceived humiliation of failing to achieve the mission’s objectives. In the next two decades, De Gama did not return to India but remained in relative obscurity after falling out of favour.
However, in late 1521, a new king John III recalled de Gama to try a new policy of overseas expansion. He was given the title Viceroy of India and permission to launch a new mission to India. His fourth mission set sail in April 1524 and arrived in India by December of the same year. On arrival in India, he contracted malaria and died shortly after. He was buried in India, but 15 years later his body was returned to Portugal.
He married Catarina de Ataíde and had six sons and one daughter.
Legacy of Vasco de Gama
The journey of Vasco de Gama was genuinely pioneering and a remarkable achievement, especially given the dangers and limitations of ocean travel in the 16th Century. De Gama had the courage and bravery to pursue new routes and finally achieving his goal of reaching Indian and returning. In doing so, he gave Portugal increased power and wealth and led to Portugal becoming a leading power in south-east Asia.
It also increased the wealth of Portugal, and for a time, they were one of the main European powers. In the next few centuries, the relative power of Portugal declined, and ultimately, India would become controlled by the British. But, de Gama’s first journey was important in opening up India to the arrival of European powers.
De Gama’s great skill and courage as an explorer and navigator, is tempered by his personal cruelty, brutality and arrogant attitude to the Indian continent he discovered. Like many European of his time, he felt a divine right to treat non-Europeans as inferior and ripe for exploitation. However, even by the standards of his day, his brutal methods and unnecessary cruelty in burning alive unarmed citizens make him a polarising figure.
The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama
The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama by Nigel Cliff at Amazon
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