Vasco da Gama (1460–1524) Button for link to Chinese version of this page

Navigator Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal (circa 1460). He came from an aristocratic family. His father, Estêvão da Gama received an order to set out on an expedition to the East to get spices. However, Estêvão died as the expedition was being prepared, and his son, Vasco took over in his father’s place.

At that time, most Europeans preserved or flavored their food with spices, and the sources of getting spices were through the Arab merchants who traded with Indian merchants. Overall, the trade route on land was a monopoly held by the Arabs, and later, the route was controlled by the Ottoman Turks, and Genoese and Venetian interests. Therefore the cost of spices were high due to the great demand for them and the many merchants enriching themselves between harvest and delivery to European markets. The trade routes on land were hazardous, so King John II of Portugal (ruled 1481-1495) planned to open a sea route to India, building on three generations of exploration up and down the western African coast and out to the Islands of the Atlantic (the Portuguese had recently colonized Madeira, Cape Verde Islands, and the Azores).

Vasco da Gama's first voyage began on July 8, 1497, the King of Portugal sent Vasco da Gama with a fleet of four ships. Two ships named São Gabriel and São Rafael were each about 120 tons, and they were accompanied by a 50-ton caravel, named Berrio and a 200-tons store-ship. There were also two Arabic speaking interpreters and one who knew varieties of Bantu dialects onboard.

With the latest maps and navigational instruments on board, the fleet launched from Lisbon, Portugal. There was another Portuguese navigator, Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1451 - 1500) commending a ship at the outset to guide the fleet of Vasco da Gama to the Cape Verde Islands. Then Vasco da Gama’s fleet had to finish the rest of the voyage by itself.

In order to avoid the Gulf of Guinea currents, the fleet took a circular course which led them onto the South Atlantic Ocean, about 600 miles off Brazil, and then sailed back toward the Cape of Good Hope to reach Santa Helena Bay (now South Africa). On March 2, 1498, the fleet reached the island of Mozambique, at the southern end of a string of coastal and island trading towns that stretched north along the East African coast to Arabia. There were four Arab vessels at the port when the Portuguese boats arrived, and the Arabs had their boats loaded with gold, jewelry, silver, and spices, much to the excitement of the Portuguese. On April 14, 1498 in Malindi, further up the coast of East Africa (now a town in Kenya), the fleet hired a pilot who knew the routes around the Indian Ocean. With his help, on May 20, 1498 the fleet landed in the port of Calicut (Kozhikode), India.

Vasco da Gama became the first European who opened the direct sea route from Europe to India, the voyage also began the direct trading of Europeans with Africa and Asia. The trading no longer depended on the Arabic merchants. It also inspired the Western European countries exploring the unknown overseas lands. He failed to establish a trading treaty with the ruler of Calicut, but he also avoided violence, in contrast to the next Portuguese expedition to Calicut (led by Petro Alvares Cabral, in 1500), which ended up getting involved in a war. Vasco de Gama’s second voyage to India (in 1502) he responded to various injustices and massacres by committing his own injustices and massacres, as was becoming the custom. After spending a couple decades as a noble in Portugal, he was sent to India a third time in 1524, to be the governor of the new Portuguese colony of Goa. He died in Cochin not long after arriving in India, having tried during his brief time as governor to correct some of the corruption and abuse in the Portuguese colony.


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