Vasco da Gama

Explorer

Age of Discovery

Quick Facts:

He found a direct sea route from Europe to Asia, and was the first European to sail to India by going around Africa

Name: Vasco da Gama

Birth/Death: 1460 CE - 1524 CE

Nationality: Portuguese

Birthplace: Portugal

Vasco da Gama portrait

Vasco da Gama

Portrait of Vasco da Gama by artist Antonio Manuel da Fonseca in 1838. Vasco da Gama, (c.1469 – 1524) was a Portuguese explorer, one of the most successful in the European Age of Discovery and the commander of the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India. (Credit: National Maritime Museum)

Early Life

  • Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal around 1460 or 1469.

  • His father, Estĕvão da Gama, had been a knight of the house of Infante Ferdinand, Duke of Viseu and later joined the military Order of Santiago. He was appointed civil governor of Sines in the 1460’s until 1478.

  • His mother was Isabel Sodré who was from a well-connected family.

  • With such a prominent family, da Gama would have received a good education and would have learned navigation and mathematics.

  • Vasco da Gama joined the Order of Santiago around 1480, and his connections to Prince John, later King John II of Portugal, would later influence da Gama’s life.

  • In 1492, on John II’s orders, da Gama went on a mission to Setúbal in Portugal in order to seize French ships in retaliation for the French attacks on Portuguese ships during peacetime.

Voyages

  • Vasco da Gama’s father, Estĕvão da Gama, was given the task to find a direct route to Asia. He died before the journey could begin, and the task was given to his then twenty-eight year old son, Vasco.

  • On July 8, 1497, da Gama and four ships left the Lisbon coast for a voyage around Africa to Asia. About 170 men went on the voyage including interpreters who spoke Arabic and Bantu languages. There were four priests for each ship and some condemned criminals who were assigned the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. About 55 of the men returned and two ships were lost on the voyage.

  • By July 15th, the crew reached the Canary Islands and on the 26th they were at the Cape Verde Islands where they spent a week  as they repaired their ships and rested.

  • On August 3rd, the voyage continued on to Asia with the help of explorer Bartolomeu Dias, who accompanied the crew in a separate vessel; Dias was going to a Portuguese settlement on the Gold Coast of Africa, in present-day Ghana. It was a dangerous journey, but da Gama avoided the offshore winds and currents of Western Africa. In fact, as he sailed the South Atlantic, he steered closer to Brazil then Africa. The crew would not spot land for 96 days. Finally, on November 7th, they spotted St. Helena Bay, located in South Africa. It was at this point that da Gama rested and repaired his ships. The crew also had a chance to trade Portuguese goods for fresh food with the friendly natives.

  • On November 16th, da Gama sailed again and four days later, the ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope. On November 25th, they anchored at Mossel Bay and rested for 13 days.

  • On December 8th, the three ships set sail in a northeasterly direction and by late December they passed the Great Fish River; at this point, they had gone farther than Dias and his crew had in 1488. Around Christmas Day, da Gama landed at a place he named Natal to commemorate Christmas. On January 25, 1498, the ships headed north and reached the Quelimane River, which is modern-day Mozambique. Da Gama and his crew stayed there for over a month.

  • When they went back to sea, they sailed for the next six months and many contracted scurvy.  Paulo da Gama (Vasco’s brother) visited with those who were sick day and night and used his own medicines on the men. Two-thirds of the crew who sailed with Vasco Da Gama did not return.

  • By March 5th, the sailors saw the port of Mozambique and entered Arab controlled seas. The Arabs controlled the Indian Ocean with a very profitable trade in slaves and other goods. Da Gama and his men asked questions about the east coast of Africa, its inland area, and the Arabian Sea. The questions made the natives very suspicious because da Gama and his crew pretended to be Muslim sailors. The Sultan agreed to give them pilots to help them cross the Indian Ocean.

  • Once across the Indian Ocean, the crew found two Indian Christians who were purchased as slaves from their native country. The two Indian slaves realized the sailors were not Muslims as the religious figureheads on the São Gabriel and the São Rafael gave the Portuguese sailors away as being Christian. When the Muslims discovered the secret, fighting broke out between the Portuguese and the Muslims. By March 10th, da Gama and his crew were ordered to leave the area. One of the pilots who had accompanied da Gama and his crew deserted the ship and the other pilot was held. Da Gama wanted to catch the pilot who had escaped, so he sent two boats and rowed toward the shore. When they got closer, they saw six boats with heavily armed men ready to attack. Da Gama and his crew quickly returned to their ships and went into the open sea. Poor winds and bad currents forced the ships back toward the shore. The crew was low on water, but when they attempted to refill their supply, they were caught in a battle. Several Muslims were killed and the pilot who had escaped was recaptured. Finally, the winds were in their favor and the ships were able to sail up the coast.

  • The Muslim pilots were now unreliable and gave bad directions to the Portuguese sailors so da Gama had them whipped. Da Gama’s men spotted another Muslim pilot at sea, took him prisoner and tortured him for information.

  • On April 7th, da Gama anchored his ships in Mombasa on the East African coast where a friendly local sheik, or ruler, gave them new supplies. In return, da Gama sent the sheik a string of coral trade beads. Da Gama did not trust the sheik so he sent the convicts instead of officers to meet with him. The convicts were treated well, and the next day the two Muslim pilots jumped ship and swam to safety. Da Gama was angry and seized four Arabs, and tortured them until the hostages confessed that the sheik planned an attack. That night, the sailors indeed saw natives swimming toward the São Rafael and the Berrio. The alarm was raised, the attackers were beaten off, and on April 13th, the crew fled the area.

  • On the evening of April 14, off the coast of Malindi, the sailors found a sheik who was a rival of the sheik in Mombasa. He wanted the Portuguese as his allies, so he promised them a pilot to lead them across the Indian Ocean. At the time, there were four vessels in the harbor from India, and both the Portuguese and the Indians were very curious about each other. The Indians, who were Hindus, thought the Portuguese shared the same religion, while the Portuguese thought the Indians were Christians. Da Gama and his crew stayed in the harbor for a week, and dined and participated in festivals. Impatient, da Gama finally took hostages and demanded to be provided with the pilot who was promised to him. Ahmad Ibn Majid, a pilot well acquainted with the sea route to India’s Malabar Coast, guided da Gama’s fleet on April 24th. Twenty-three days later, the crew spotted land and on May 21st they anchored off the coast of Calicut.

  • The ruler of Calicut, called the Zamorin or “Lord of the Sea,” was originally friendly to da Gama and his crew. Da Gama traded goods with their host, but unfortunately, the goods were not appreciated; the cloth, hats, strings of coral, and jars of honey were seen as insults. To make matters worse, da Gama and his crew were exposed as liars. Da Gama had told the Zamorin that his crew was larger than it really was and that storms separated his vessels. Arabian merchants had already heard about the fleet from their vast network, so they knew this was a lie. News of the Portuguese’s bad behavior in Africa had reached India. Da Gama and his crew were seen as pirates. The Muslims offered the Hindus large amounts of money to destroy the Portuguese ships and da Gama escaped with just a small amount of spices to take back to Portugal.

  • On the return home, the ships struggled in the Arabian Sea for three months. Scurvy killed thirty more people and by the time they reached Malindi on January 7th, they didn’t have enough men to crew the three ships. Da Gama ordered the São Rafael to be scuttled, or destroyed, and had the crew from the São Rafael join the other two ships. On March 10th, the Berrio and the São Gabriel rounded the Cape of Good Hope. One month later, the two ships were separated in an Atlantic storm. Da Gama, commanding the São Gabriel, made it to the Cape Verde Islands. On July 10th, 1499, two years and two days after their departure, the Berrio made it to Lisbon. On September 9th, da Gama finally entered the city and was rewarded with a pension, estates, and a new title of Dom (sir).

  • In February 1502, Dom Vasco left Lisbon for India a second time. This time, he left with twenty ships; it was Portugal’s largest and best armed fleet. The purpose of the voyage was to punish the Africans and Indians who had been hostile to the Portuguese, to stop Arab shipping, and win control over the spice trade.

  • The fleet sailed toward India, but was slowed down by bad weather. Eventually they anchored at Cannanore where they waited for Muslim ships to come in. The Portuguese destroyed a Muslim merchant vessel, the Meri, which carried 200 to 380 men, women, and children returning to India after a pilgrimage to Mecca. The sailors of the Meri handed over all the cargo before da Gama ordered the ship to be set on fire. Everyone except twenty small boys who agreed to convert to Christianity died in the flames.

  • The torture did not stop when da Gama reached Calicut. The Raja of Cannanore, who had been friendly to da Gama on his first voyage, saw the Portuguese as allies against the Zamorin ruler of Calicut. When Da Gama arrived in Calicut, he demanded that the Zamorin banish every Mohammedan from the city. To make sure his demand took place, da Gama kidnapped 38 fishermen and hanged them, then dismembered the corpses and threw them into the sea. The following day, da Gama and his crew bombarded the city, and then left six ships to form a blockade, or barrier.

  • Da Gama sailed to Cochin where he finished his trade agreement with the Raja. A mediator arrived in Calicut and asked for peace, but it was just a trap. When da Gama’s ship anchored off Calicut it was attacked, but the crew managed to defend themselves until other Portuguese ships came to help. Even though the Arabs left the battle, it was not a real victory for the Portuguese. With the ship’s hull full of supplies and those on the Malabar Coast afraid of the Portuguese, da Gama returned to Lisbon on October 11th.

  • Back in Portugal, Vasco da Gama was considered a hero, but to the African and Indian people, he was known as a tyrant. In 1519, the King named da Gama Count of the city of Vidigueira. In 1521, King Manuel died and his oldest son, John III, took over. He was 19 at the time. In 1524, King John sent da Gama to India to help build the relationship between Portugal and India. Da Gama left on April 9, 1524, with fourteen ships. By the beginning of September, da Gama reached the Malabar Coast. His reputation as a tyrant was known throughout the area so his administration did not last. His adventures came to an end when he became sick and died on December 24th, 1524.

Notable Ships

  • São Gabriel (a carrack; commanded by da Gama)

  • São Rafael (commanded by Vasco’s brother, Paulo da Gama)

  • Berrio (a caravel; later renamed São Gabriel; commanded by Nicolau Coelho)

Legacy

  • Da Gama’s voyage placed Portugal in a prominent position of power in the Indian Ocean trade by establishing its dominance and securing the trade route through outposts along the eastern coast of Africa.