Sunday, September 18, 2011

Vasco Da Gama (c. 1460 Or 1469 – 24 December 1524) Portuguese Explorer

Vasco da Gama


1460 or 1469
Sines or Vidigueira, Alentejo, Portugal


24 December 1524 (aged 64)
Kochi, India


Explorer, Governor of Portuguese India


Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira (Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈvaʃku dɐ ˈɡɐmɐ]) (c. 1460 or 1469 – 24 December 1524) was a Portuguese explorer, one of the most successful in the Age of Discovery and the commander of the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India. For a short time in 1524 he was Governor of Portuguese India under the title of Viceroy.

Early life

Vasco da Gama was born in either 1460 or 1469 in Sines, on the southwest coast of Portugal, probably in a house near the church of Nossa Senhora das Salas. Sines, one of the few seaports on the Alentejo coast, consisted of little more than a cluster of whitewashed, red-tiled cottages, tenanted chiefly by fisherfolk.

Statue of Vasco da Gama at his birthplace, Sines, Portugal

Vasco da Gama's father was Estêvão da Gama. In the 1460s he was a knight in the household of the Duke of Viseu, Dom Fernando, who appointed him Alcaide-Mór or Civil Governor of Sines and enabled him to receive a small revenue from taxes on soap making in Estremoz.

Estêvão da Gama was married to Dona Isabel Sodré, daughter of João Sodré (also known as João de Resende). Sodré, who was of English descent, had links to the household of Prince Diogo, Duke of Viseu, son of king Edward I of Portugal and governor of the military Order of Christ.

Little is known of Vasco da Gama's early life. The Portuguese historian Teixeira de Aragão suggests that Gama studied at the inland town of Évora, which is where he may have learned mathematics and navigation. It is evident that Gama knew astronomy well, and it is possible that he may have studied under the astronomer Abraham Zacuto.

In 1492 King John II of Portugal sent Gama to the port of Setúbal, south of Lisbon and to the Algarve to seize French ships in retaliation for peacetime depredations against Portuguese shipping - a task that Vasco rapidly and effectively performed.

Exploration before Gama

From the early fifteenth century, the nautical school of Henry the Navigator had been extending Portuguese knowledge of the African coastline. From the 1460s, the goal had become one of rounding that continent's southern extremity to gain easier access to the riches of India (mainly black pepper and other spices) through a reliable sea route.

The Republic of Venice had gained control over much of the trade routes between Europe and Asia. Portugal hoped to use the route pioneered by Bartolomeu Dias to break the Venetian trading monopoly.

By the time Gama was ten years old, these long-term plans were coming to fruition. Bartolomeu Dias had returned from rounding the Cape of Good Hope, having explored as far as the Fish River (Rio do Infante) in modern-day South Africa and having verified that the unknown coast stretched away to the northeast.

Concurrent land exploration during the reign of João II of Portugal supported the theory that India was reachable by sea from the Atlantic Ocean. Pero da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva were sent via Barcelona, Naples and Rhodes, into Alexandria and thence to Aden, Hormuz and India, which gave credence to the theory.

It remained for an explorer to prove the link between the findings of Dias and those of da Covilhã and de Paiva and to connect these separate segments into a potentially lucrative trade route into the Indian Ocean. The task, originally given to Vasco da Gama's father, was offered to Vasco by Manuel I on the strength of his record of protecting Portuguese trading stations along the African Gold Coast from depredations by the French.

First voyage

The route followed in Vasco da Gama's first voyage (1497–1499)

On 8 July 1497 Vasco da Gama led a fleet of four ships with a crew of 170 men from Lisbon. The distance traveled in the journey around Africa to India and back was greater than around the equator. The navigators included Portugal's most experienced, Pero de Alenquer, Pedro Escobar, João de Coimbra, and Afonso Gonçalves. It is not known for certain how many people were in each ship's crew but approximately 55 returned, and two ships were lost. Two of the vessels were as naus or newly built for the voyage, possibly a caravel and a supply boat. The four ships were:

  • The São Gabriel, commanded by Vasco da Gama; a carrack of 178 tons, length 27 m, width 8.5 m, draft 2.3 m, sails of 372 m²
  • The São Rafael, whose commander was his brother Paulo da Gama; similar dimensions to the São Gabriel
  • The caravel Berrio, slightly smaller than the former two (later re-named São Miguel), commanded by Nicolau Coelho
  • A storage ship of unknown name, commanded by Gonçalo Nunes, later lost near the Bay of São Brás, along the east coast of Africa

Journey to the Cape

Monument to the Cross of Vasco da Gama at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

The expedition set sail from Lisbon on 8 July 1497, following the route pioneered by earlier explorers along the coast of Africa via Tenerife and the Cape Verde Islands. After reaching the coast of present day Sierra Leone, Gama took a course south into the open ocean, crossing the Equator and seeking the South Atlantic westerlies that Bartolomeu Dias had discovered in 1487. This course proved successful and on November 4, 1497, the expedition made landfall on the African coast. For over three months the ships had sailed more than 6,000 miles of open ocean, by far the longest journey out of sight of land made by the time.

By December 16, the fleet had passed the Great Fish River - where Dias had turned back - and sailed into waters previously unknown to Europeans. With Christmas pending, Gama and his crew gave the coast they were passing the name Natal, which carried the connotation of "birth of Christ" in Portuguese.

Arab-controlled territory on the East African coast was an integral part of the network of trade in the Indian Ocean. Fearing the local population would be hostile to Christians, Gama impersonated a Muslim and gained audience with the Sultan of Mozambique. With the paltry trade goods he had to offer, Gama was unable to provide a suitable gift to the ruler and soon the local populace became suspicious of Gama and his men. Forced by a hostile crowd to flee Mozambique, Gama departed the harbor, firing his cannons into the city in retaliation.


In the vicinity of modern Kenya, the expedition resorted to piracy, looting Arab merchant ships - generally unarmed trading vessels without heavy cannons. The Portuguese became the first known Europeans to visit the port of Mombasa but were met with hostility and soon departed.


Pillar of Vasco da Gama in Malindi, 3°13′25″S 40°7′47.8″E / 3.22361°S 40.129944°E.

In February 1498, Vasco da Gama continued north, landing at the friendlier port of Malindi - whose leaders were then in conflict with those of Mombasa - and there the expedition first noted evidence of Indian traders. Gama and his crew contracted the services of a pilot whose knowledge of the monsoon winds allowed him to bring the expedition the rest of the way to Calicut (Kozhikode), located on the southwest coast of India. Sources differ over the identity of the pilot, calling him variously a Christian, a Muslim, and a Gujarati. One traditional story describes the pilot as the famous Arab navigator Ibn Majid, but other contemporaneous accounts place Majid elsewhere, and he could not have been near the vicinity at the time. Also, none of the Portuguese historians of the time mention Ibn Majid.

Calicut, India

The fleet arrived in Kappad near Calicut, India on 20 May 1498. The King of Calicut, the Saamoothiri (Zamorin), who was at that time staying in his second capital at Ponnani, returned to Calicut on hearing the news of the European fleets's arrival. The navigator was received with traditional hospitality, including a grand procession of at least 3,000 armed Nairs, but an interview with the Zamorin failed to produce any concrete results. The presents that da Gama sent to the Zamorin as gifts from Dom Manuel—four cloaks of scarlet cloth, six hats, four branches of corals, twelve almasares, a box with seven brass vessels, a chest of sugar, two barrels of oil and a cask of honey—were trivial, and failed to cut any ice. While Zamorin's officials wondered at why there was no gold or silver, the Muslim merchants who considered da Gama their rival suggested that the latter was only an ordinary pirate and not a royal ambassador! Vasco da Gama's request for permission to leave a factor behind him in charge of the merchandise he could not sell was turned down by the King, who insisted that da Gama pay customs duty—preferably in gold—like any other trader, which strained the relation between the two. Annoyed by this, da Gama carried a few Nairs and sixteen Mukkuva fishermen off with him by force. Nevertheless, da Gama's expedition was successful beyond all reasonable expectation, bringing in cargo that was worth sixty times the cost of the expedition.


Vasco da Gama lands at Calicut, May 20, 1498.

Vasco da Gama set sail for home on 29 August 1498. Eager to leave he ignored the local knowledge of monsoon wind patterns, which was still blowing onshore. Crossing the Indian Ocean to India, sailing with the monsoon wind, had taken Gama's ships only 23 days. The return trip across the ocean, sailing against the wind, took 132 days, and Gama arrived in Malindi on 7 January 1499. During this trip, approximately half of the crew died, and many of the rest were afflicted with scurvy. Two of Gama's ships made it back to Portugal, arriving in July and August of 1499.

Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal in September 1499 and was richly rewarded as the man who had brought to fruition a plan that had taken eighty years to fulfill. He was given the title "Admiral of the Indian Seas," and his feudal rights to Sines were confirmed. Manuel I also awarded the perpetual title of Dom (lord) to Gama, as well as to his brothers and sisters and to all of their descendants.

The spice trade would prove to be a major asset to the Portuguese economy, and other consequences soon followed. For example, Gama's voyage had made it clear that the east coast of Africa, the Contra Costa, was essential to Portuguese interests; its ports provided fresh water, provisions, timber, and harbors for repairs, and served as a refuge where ships could wait out unfavorable weather. One significant result was the colonization of Mozambique by the Portuguese Crown.

However, Gama's achievements were somewhat dimmed by his failure to bring any trade goods of interest to the nations of India. Moreover, the sea route was fraught with its own perils - his fleet went more than thirty days without seeing land and only 60 of his 180 companions, on one of his three ships, returned to Portugal in 1498. Nevertheless, Gama's initial journey opened a direct sea route to Asia.

Second voyage

Main article: 4th Portuguese India Armada (Gama, 1502)

On 12 February 1502, Gama commnanded the 4th Portuguese Armada to India, a fleet of fifteen ships and eight hundred men, with the object of enforcing Portuguese interests in the east. On reaching India in October 1502, Gama started capturing any Arab vessel he came across in Indian waters. While the Zamorin was willing to sign a treaty, Gama made a preposterous call to the Hindu King to expel all Muslims from Calicut which was naturally turned down. He bombarded the city that destroyed several houses on the sea shore and captured several rice vessels and barbariously cut off the crew's hands, ears and noses. He returned to Portugal in September 1503. He then sailed south to Cochin, a small vassal kingdom of Calicut where he was given a warm welcome. He returned to Europe with silk and gold.

Once he had reached the northern parts of the Indian Ocean, Gama waited for a ship to return from Mecca and seized all the merchandise on it. He then ordered the hundreds of passengers be locked in the hold and the ship - named Mîrî, and which contained many wealthy Muslim merchants — to be set on fire.

Gama assaulted and exacted tribute from the Arab-controlled port of Kilwa in East Africa, one of those ports involved in frustrating the Portuguese. His ships engaged in privateer actions against Arab merchant ships.

Third voyage


Tomb of Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon



St. Francis CSI Church, in Kochi. Vasco da Gama, died in Kochi in 1524 when he was on his third visit to India. His body was originally buried in this church.

In 1519 he became the first Count of Vidigueira, a count title created by King Manuel I of Portugal on a royal decree issued in Évora in December 29, after an agreement with Dom Jaime, Duke of Braganza, who cede him on payment the towns of Vidigueira and Vila dos Frades, granting Vasco da Gama and his heirs all the revenues and privileges related, thus becoming the first Portuguese count (earl) who was not born with royal blood.

Having acquired a fearsome reputation as a "fixer" of problems that arose in India, Vasco da Gama was sent to the subcontinent once more in 1524. The intention was that he was to replace the incompetent Eduardo de Menezes as viceroy (representative) of the Portuguese possessions, but Gama contracted malaria not long after arriving in Goa and died in the city of Cochin on Christmas Eve in 1524.

His body was first buried at St. Francis Church, which was located at Fort Kochi in the city of Kochi, but his remains were returned to Portugal in 1539. The body of Vasco da Gama was re-interred in Vidigueira in a casket decorated with gold and jewels.

The Monastery of the Hieronymites in Belém was erected in honor of his voyage to India.

Acts of cruelty

Vasco da Gama inflicted acts of cruelty upon competing traders and local inhabitants. During his second voyage to Calicut, Gama intercepted a ship of Muslim pilgrims at Madayi travelling from Calicut to Mecca. Described by the Portuguese historian Gaspar Correia as one that is unequalled in cold-blooded cruelty, Gama looted the ship with over 400 pilgrims on board including 50 women, locked the passengers, the owner and an ambassador from Egypt and burnt them to death. They offered their wealth which 'could ransom all the Christian slaves in the Kingdom of Fez and much more' but were not spared. Gama looked on through the porthole and saw the women bringing up their gold and jewels and holding up their babies to beg for mercy.'

After demanding the expulsion of Muslims from Calicut to the Hindu Zamorin, the latter sent the high priest Talappana Namboothiri (the very same person who conducted Gama to the Zamorin's chamber during his much celebrated first visit to Calicut in May 1498) for talks, Gama called him a spy, ordered the priests' lips and ears to be cut off and after sewing a pair of dog's ears to his head, sent him away.


Map of the Portuguese Empire during the reign of John III (1502–1557).

Gama and his wife, Catarina de Ataíde, had six sons and one daughter: Dom Francisco da Gama, 2nd Count of Vidigueira; Dom Estevão da Gama, 11th Governor of India (1540–1542); Dom Paulo da Gama; Dom Pedro da Silva da Gama; Dom Álvaro de Ataíde da Gama, Captain of Malacca; Dona Isabel de Ataíde da Gama and Dom Cristovão da Gama, a martyr in Ethiopia. His male line issue became extinct in 1747, though the title went through female line.

As much as anyone after Henry the Navigator, Gama was responsible for Portugal's success as an early colonising power. Beside the fact of the first voyage itself, it was his astute mix of politics and war on the other side of the world that placed Portugal in a prominent position in Indian Ocean trade. Following Gama's initial voyage, the Portuguese crown realized that securing outposts on the eastern coast of Africa would prove vital to maintaining national trade routes to the Far East.

Nevertheless, Vasco da Gama's international fame has more often been argued as due to historical reasons for which he was hardly responsible. It is to be noted that unlike Columbus or Magellan, Gama was never sailing in uncharted waters. He was not making a discovery as India was no terra incognita as it was already in contact with Europe, Africa and Asia for ages. The seafarers of African coast from where Gama set out for Calicut knew the routes and winds and more importantly he was accompanied by a Portuguese- knowing Arab merchant provided by the Sultan of Malindi in East Africa. Gama, in fact pioneered modern European Colonialism built up by men who combined greed with diplomacy and covered up the greed with sophistication.

Gama's arrival at Calicut and the so- called discovery of sea route to India was not an important event in the international trade scene. The official Kozhikode Grandhavari (Calicut Chronicles) did not even deem the episode of Gama meeting the Zamorin worthy of separate reference. It looms large in our minds when we look back in search of a specific, dramatic starting point for modern European colonialism in India and the rest of Asia. It was pleasing to the western mind as it enhanced the prestige of Europe recovering from the throes of the Dark Ages.

The Portuguese national epic, the Lusíadas of Luís Vaz de Camões, largely concerns Vasco da Gama's voyages. The 1865 opera L'Africaine: Opéra en Cinq Actes, composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer and Eugène Scribe, prominently includes the character of Vasco da Gama. A 1989 production of the composition by the San Francisco Opera featured noted tenor Placido Domingo in the role of Gama.[27] The 19th century composer, Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, composed an eponymous 1872 opera based on Gama's life and exploits at sea.

The port city of Vasco da Gama in Goa is named after him, as is the crater Vasco da Gama on the Moon. There are three football clubs in Brazil (including Club de Regatas Vasco da Gama) and Vasco Sports Club in Goa that were also named after him. There exists a church in Kochi, Kerala called Vasco da Gama Church, and a private residence on the island of Saint Helena. The suburb of Vasco in Cape Town also honours him.

A few places in Lisbon's Parque das Nações are named after the explorer, such as the Vasco da Gama Bridge, Vasco da Gama Tower and the Centro Comercial Vasco da Gama shopping centre. The Oceanário in the Parque das Nações, has a mascot of a cartoon diver with the name of "Vasco", who is named after the explorer.

South African musician Hugh Masekela recorded an anti-colonialist song entitled "Vasco da Gama (The Sailor Man)", which contains the lyrics "Vasco da Gama was no friend of mine". He later recorded another version of this song under the name "Colonial Man".

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