Vasco da Gama (ca. 1469 - 1524)
From the earlier part of the 15th Century, Portuguese expeditions organized by
Prince Henry the Navigator had been crawling down the African coastline,
principally in search for west African gold and slaves.
They had greatly extended Portuguese maritime knowledge, settled on the islands
of Madeira (1420), Azores (1427) and Cap Verde (1456), but had little profit
from these efforts.
Upon becoming king of Portugal in 1481, John II was eager to break into the
highly-profitable spice trade between Europe and Asia.
At the time, this was virtually monopolized by the Republic of Venice, who operated overland
routes via Levantine and Egyptian ports, through the Red Sea across to the spice markets
In 1487, John II dispatched two spies, Pero da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva,
overland via Egypt, to East Africa and India, to scout the details of the spice
markets and trade routes of the Indian Ocean.
After encouraging reports of his spies, John II set a new objective for his captains:
to find a sea route to Asia by sailing around the African continent.
The breakthrough came soon after when John II's captain Bartolomeu Dias returned
from rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, having explored the south African coast
as far as the Great Fish River (Rio do Infante) in modern-day South Africa and
having verified that the unknown east coast stretched away to the northeast.
Ten years after that, it was Vasco da Gama, who commanded the first expedition to sail
directly from Europe to India by sailing around the African continent.
Very little is known about Vasco da Gama before his appointment as "Capitão Mor"
(Captain-General) of the fleet sent to find the sea route to India.
Vasco da Gama was born circa 1469 at Sines as the son of Estêvão da Gama -
a knight commander of Cercal of the Order of St. James of the Sword, - and of his wife
His father's family, from the southern province of Alentejo, appears to have had
close links with the military Order of Avis and later on with the Order of St. James.
His mother's family, of English ascendancy, had also links with Dom Diogo, duke of
Viseu and governor of the military Order of Christ.
First Voyage (1497-1499)
After the return of Bartolomeu Dias, Estevão da Gama was chosen by João II
to command the next expedition of discovery, but, as both died before the project
could be carried into execution, the new king Manuel I commissioned Vasco da Gama,
who had already distinguished himself at the beginning of the year 1490 by defending
the Portuguese colonies on the coast of Guinea against French encroachments.
Pedro de Corvilhão on his land way from India had descended the east coast
of Africa as far as the twentieth degree of south latitude, and had become
cognizant of the old Arabic-Indian commercial association.
It remained for an expedition 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 nautical problem, therefore, to be solved by Vasco da Gama was clearly outlined,
and the course for the sea route to the East Indies designated.
In January, 1497, the command of the expedition was solemnly conferred upon Vasco da
Gama, and on 8 July, 1497, the fleet of four ships with a total crew of about one
hundred and fifty men, sailed from Lisbon under the leadership of Vasco, his brother
Paulo, and Nicoláo Coelho.
They followed 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, da 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 south 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.
After their landfall in south Africa they had to refill provisions and anchored in
St. Helena Bay and in Mossel Bay rounding the south-most point of the African
On 16 December, the fleet arrived at the furthest landing point of Dias.
With Christmas pending, da Gama and his crew gave the coast they were passing the
By the end of January, 1498, the expedition reached the month of the Zambezi,
which was in the territory controlled by the Arabian maritime commercial association.
Menanced by the Arabs in Mozambique and Mombasa, who feared to loose the supremacy
in their Indian Ocean commerce, they were on the contrary, received in a friendly
manner at Malindi, East Africa on 14 April.
Da 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, located on
the southwest coast of India. They reached Kozhikkode (Calicut) on 20 May 1498.
Calicut had been the principal market for trade in spices, precious stones, and pearls
since many centuries.
Muslim Arab merchants traded with Calicut as early as 7th century, and the strong colony
of Arab merchants settled in Calicut was hostile to Vasco da Gama's expedition, but the
Zamorin welcomed the Portuguese and allowed them to take pepper, drugs etc., on board.
Zamorin was the royal title used by the Hindu Nair kings of Calicut,
which was one of the larger feudal kingdoms in late medieval India.
Despite the Arab opposition, Gama succeeded in obtaining a permission to carry out trade,
but failed in establishing a permanent trading colony in Calicut.
Vasco da Gama left Calicut on 29 August 1498.
Eager to set sail for home, he ignored the local knowledge of monsoon wind patterns which
were still blowing onshore.
The fleet initially inched north along the Indian coast, and then anchored in at Anjediva
island for a spell. They finally struck out for their Indian Ocean crossing on 3 October,
But with the winter monsoon yet to set in, it was a harrowing journey.
On the outgoing journey, sailing with the summer monsoon wind, it had taken Gama's fleet
only 23 days to cross the Indian Ocean; now, on the return trip, sailing against the wind,
it took 132 days.
Vasco da Gama's fleet finally arrived in Malindi on 7 January 1499, in a terrible shape
- approximately half of the crew had died during the crossing, and many of the rest were
afflicted with scurvy.
Not having enough crewmen left standing to manage three ships, Vasco da Gama ordered to
scuttle off one ship on the East African coast, and to re-distributed the crew to the two
remaining two ships, the São Gabriel and the Berrio.
Thereafter, the sailing was smoother.
By early March, they had arrived in Mossel Bay, and crossed the Cape of Good Hope in the
opposite direction on March 20. They reached the west African coast by April 25.
They continued to Cape Verde, where Nicolau Coelho's Berrio separated from
Vasco da Gama's São Gabriel, and sailed on by itself.
Coelho arrived in Portugal on 10 July, 1499.
In the meantime, back in Cape Verde, Vasco's brother, Paulo da Gama had fallen grievously
Gama elected to stay by his side on Santiago island, and handed the São Gabriel
over to his clerk, João de Sá, to take home.
The Sá arrived in Lisbon sometime in late July or early August.
Vasco da Gama and his sickly brother eventually sailed with a Guinea caravel
returning to Portugal, but Paulo da Gama died en route.
Vasco da Gama got off at the Azores to bury his brother and eventually took passage
on an Azorean caravel arriving in Lisbon on August 29, 1499.
He was appointed to the newly created post of Admiral of the Indian Ocean, which
was rewarded with a high salary.
The expedition had demanded a large cost - two ships and over half the men had been lost.
It had also failed in its principal mission of securing a commercial treaty with Calicut.
Nonetheless, the spices brought back on the remaining two ships were sold at an enormous
profit to the crown.
Vasco da Gama was celebrated for opening a direct sea route to Asia.
His path would be followed up thereafter by yearly Portuguese "India Armadas".
The spice trade would prove to be a major asset to the Portuguese royal treasury,
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 harbours for repairs, and
served as a refuge where ships could wait out unfavourable weather.
One significant result was the colonization of Mozambique by the Portuguese Crown.
Second Voyage (1502-1503)
The follow-up expedition, the "Second India Armada" launched in 1500, was placed under
the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, with the mission of making a treaty with the
Zamorin of Calicut and setting up a Portuguese factory in the city.
However, Cabral entered into a conflict with the local Arab merchant guilds, with the
result that the Portuguese factory was overrun in a riot and up to 70 Portuguese killed.
Cabral blamed the Zamorin for the incident and bombarded the city.
Thus war broke out between Portugal and Calicut.
By royal appointment, Vasco da Gama was put to command of the "Fourth India Armada",
scheduled to set out in 1502, with the goal of taking revenge upon the Zamorin and force
him to submit to Portuguese terms.
The first two squadrons of the heavily-armed fleet of fifteen ships and eight hundred men
left Lisbon on 12 February 1502.
One of the squadrons was led by his uncles, Vicente Sodré.
A third squadron - five ships under Gama's cousin Estêvão da Gama - sets out
from Lisbon about two months later.
Charting its own course, this third squadron will catch up with the main body of the
"Fourth Armada" in India.
Violent storms at the Cape separates the fifteen ships of Vasco da Gama's fleet.
Each captain is forced to figure out his own passage around the Cape, and make his own way
towards the pre-arranged rendez-vous point at Mozambique Island where the fleet will stop for
repairs and refilling supplies.
Also Estêvão da Gama's fleet is caught in a terrible storm around the Cape
and split into two groups.
On reaching India in October 1502, da Gama started capturing any Arab vessel he came across
in Indian waters, most infamous the capturing of the Miri, a pilgrim ship from Mecca,
whose passengers he had massacred in open water.
He then appeared before Calicut, demanding redress for the treatment meted out to Cabral.
While the Zamorin was willing to sign a new treaty, Gama made a preposterous call to the
Hindu king to expel all Muslims from Calicut before beginning negotiations, which was
naturally turned down.
The Portuguese fleet then bombarded the city for nearly two days from the sea shore.
He also captured several rice vessels and barbarously cut off the crew's hands, ears and noses,
dispatching them with an insulting note to the Zamorin.
The violent treatment meted out by Gama quickly brought trade along the Malabar coast of India,
upon which Calicut depended, to a standstill.
But the Zamorin refused to submit to Portuguese terms, and even ventured to hire
a fleet of strong corsair warships to challenge Gama's armada, but which Gama managed
to defeat in a naval battle before Calicut harbor.
Finally, Gama loaded up with spices at Cochin and Cannanore, small nearby kingdoms, half-vassal and
half-at-war with the Zamorin, whose alliances had been secured by prior Portuguese fleets.
The "Fourth Armada" left India in early 1503.
Gama left behind a small squadron of caravels, under the command of his uncle, Vicente Sodré,
to patrol the Indian coast, continue harassing Calicut shipping and protect the newly
established Portuguese factories at Cochin and Cannanore from the Zamorin's inevitable
Vasco da Gama arrived back in Portugal in September 1503, effectively having failed
in his mission to bring the Zamorin to submission.
Third Voyage (1524)
For the next two decades, Vasco da Gama lived out a quiet life, unwelcome in the royal court
and sidelined from Indian affairs.
His attempts to return to the favor of Manuel I yielded little.
Almeida, Albuquerque and Albergaria were the king's new point men for India.
But after Ferdinand Magellan defected to the Crown of Castile in 1518, Vasco da Gama
threatened to do the same, prompting the king to undertake steps to retain him in Portugal
and avoid the embarrassment of losing his own "Admiral of the Seas of India" to Spain.
In 1519, after years of ignoring his petitions, King Manuel I finally hurried to give
Vasco da Gama a feudal title, appointing him the first Count of Vidigueira, a count title
created by a royal decree issued in &Eecute;vora on December 29, after a complicated
agreement with Dom Jaime, Duke of Braganza, who ceded him on payment the towns of
Vidigueira and Vila dos Frades.
This decree granted Vasco da Gama and his heirs all the revenues and privileges related,
thus establishing da Gama as the first Portuguese count who was not born with royal blood.
After the death of King Manuel I in late 1521, his son and successor, King John III
of Portugal set about reviewing the Portuguese government overseas.
Turning away from the Albuquerque clique, represented by Diogo Lopes de Sequeira,
John III looked for a fresh start.
Vasco da Gama re-emerged from his political wilderness as an important advisor to
the new king's appointments and strategy.
Seeing the new Spanish threat to the Moluccas as the priority, Vasco da Gama advised
against the obsession with Arabia that had pervaded much of the Manueline period,
and continued to be the dominant concern of Duarte de Menezes, then-governor of
Menezes also turned out to be incompetent and corrupt, subject to numerous complaints.
As a result, John III decided to appoint Vasco da Gama himself to replace Menezes,
confident that the magic of his name and memory of his deeds might better impress
his authority, and manage the transition to a new government and new strategy.
By his appointment letter of February 1524, John III granted Vasco da Gama the privileged
title of "Viceroy", being only the second Portuguese governor to enjoy that title
(the first was Francisco de Almeida in 1505).
His second son, Estêvão da Gama was simultaneously appointed "Capitão Mor"
do Mar da Índia, to replace Duarte's brother, Luís de Menezes.
As a final condition, Gama secured from John III of Portugal the commitment to appoint
all his sons successively as Portuguese captains of Malacca.
Setting out in April 1524, with a fleet of fourteen ships, Vasco da Gama took as his
flagship the famous large carrack Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai on her last journey
to India, along with two of his sons, Estêvão and Paulo.
After a troubled journey - four or five of the ships were lost en route - he arrived
in India in September.
Vasco da Gama immediately invoked his high vice-regent powers to impose a new order
in Portuguese India, replacing all the old officials with his own appointments.
But Gama contracted malaria not long after arriving, and died in the city of Cochin
on Christmas Eve in 1524, three months after his arrival.
As per royal instructions, Gama was succeeded as governor of India by one the captains
who had come with him, Henrique de Menezes.
Vasco's sons Estêvão and Paulo immediately lost their posts and joined
the returning fleet of early 1525.
Vasco da Gama's 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.