Vasco da Gama
1469 - 1524
Established first all-water trade route between Europe and Indiaby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Ever since 1416, the dream of Prince Henry of Portugal (known as "the Navigator") had been to round the Cape of Good Hope to find an all water trade route from Portugal to India. However, he did not live to see his dream fulfilled in full.1 Exploring the southern extremity of the continent of Africa was not accomplished until 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope showing that circumnavigating Africa was indeed a feasible way of reaching India.2 But who had the zeal to fulfill Prince Henry's great ambitious dream? Which Portuguese captain had the courage to sail all the way to India to trade for its valuable commodities? Inspiration from Prince Henry's expeditions and other pioneering voyages fifty years earlier, competition in oceanic exploration from Spain, and the great achievement of rounding of the Cape of Good Hope may have contributed to Vasco da Gama's desire to find an all-ocean route to India.
Vasco da Gama's birth in 1469 in Sines, Portugal is one of the few things we know about his life before the voyage to India.3 We also know that he was the town governor's son, he was educated as a nobleman, and served in the court of the King of Portugal, Joao II, the brother of Prince Henry the Navigator. Although little else is known about Vasco da Gama before his attempt to find a sea route to India, we do know that his father, Estevoa da Gama, was given the task to find the trade route to India but died before he could begin.4 Tradition has it that King Emanuel then asked Paulo da Gama, Vasco da Gama's brother, to undertake the mission, but Paulo refused. Since the trip was held in high priority because of competition in expansion from Spain's discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, King Emanuel then looked to Vasco de Gama to complete the mission because of his former experience in the field as a naval officer and because of his merit in the wars against Castile. In 1492 (the same year as Columbus' discovery of the Americas), he had commanded a defence of Portuguese colonies from the French on the coast of Guinea.5
Vasco da Gama set out on his historic expedition from Lisbon, Portugal on July 8, 1497 with 170 men and four ships: the São Gabriel, the São Rafael, the Berrio, and a storage ship of unknown name. Ironically, Paulo de Gama, who it is said refused to command the voyage earlier, commanded the São Rafael. De Gama's ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope on November 22, 1497. Most of the first part of the trip was uneventful except for one episode when a group of native Africans attacked and wounded five men. However, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, he narrowly avoided a mutiny because his men wanted to return home. When January came, da Gama's small fleet came into Muslim-controlled water off the coast of East Africa near Mozambique where he employed the help of a pilot from Malindi named Ahmad Ibn Majid who helped to guide them the rest of the way to Calcut, India. At other points along the coast of Mozambique, the Muslims reacted with hostility towards da Gama seeing him as a threat to their trade with India and tried to sieze his ships. Finally, on May 20, 1498, Vasco da Gama arrived on India's western shore in Calicut, India (now known as Kozhikode). What had been attemted and dreamed by so many, like Columbus and Prince Henry, had finally been acomplished. At first, he was received well by the Zamorin (Hindu ruler of India) and was taken to the Hindu temple. But after da Gama presented the Zamorin what he felt were inferor gifts, the attitudes towards the newcomers quickly changed; the trade goods that had been accepted in Africa were of little worth in the high-class Indian market. The Muslims' attitude towards the Portuguese interference also contributed towards the hostility. "Da Gama's arrival aroused the hostility of the Arab traders at Calicut. He was jailed as a pirate and narrowly escaped death. Finally he was allowed to assemble a rich cargo of spices and precious stones."6 Finally, the Zamorin agreed to trade spices and gems for Portuguese gold, silver, coral, and scarlet cloth. After his release, he set sail for Lisbon, Portugal in August, 1498 with only 55 of his 170 men - most of whom had died of scurvy.7 Da Gama and his remaining crew arrived back in Portugal in September, 1499 to be hailed as heroes. King Emanuel made Vasco da Gama a Lord and supplied him with a large income. Economically, the trip was well worth the effort earning a 3000% profit due to inflated prices back in Portugal.8
Vasco da Gama returned twice more to India: once to avenge Portuguese merchants who were killed by Muslim traders in 1502 and another time to become the viceroy of India in 1524. When da Gama returned to avenge the deaths of the traders, the King made him an admiral and sent a well-armed fleet of twenty ships.
When Vasco da Gama went out on his second expedition on February 12, 1502, he was prepared for an encounter with the Muslim traders. He set sail with 20 well-armed ships, hoping to force his way into the market and to get revenge on the Muslims for the opposition in 1498. Da Gama killed many innocent Indians and Muslims. In one instance, da Gama waited for a ship to return from Mecca, a Muslim trading and religious center. The Portuguese overtook the ship and seized all the merchandise. Then they locked the 380 passengers in the hold and set the ship on fire. It took four days for the ship to sink, killing all men, women, and children. When da Gama arrived in Calicut on October 30, 1502, the Zamorin was willing to sign a treaty. Da Gama told him that he would have to banish all of the Muslims. To demonstrate his power, da Gama hung 38 fishermen; cut off their heads, feet, and hands; and floated the dismembered corpses onto the shore. Later da Gama bombarded the city with guns and forced his way into the trading system. This led the way for other Portuguese conquests in the East Indies.9
Da Gama returned in February, 1503. In 1519, da Gama was made a count. When he was appointed the viceroy of India in 1524, he returned to India for his third and last time. However, he died soon after arriving in Goa in September, 1524. Supposedly, his remains were taken back to Portugal to be buried in the chapel where he had prayed before his first voyage to India.10
What was the overall importance of Vasco's voyage and what effect does it have on us today? Not only did it help Potugal's economy, but it helped all of Europe's economy and trade. William Durant asserts that his voyage was one of the causes that helped end the Medieval Ages: "What put an end to the Middle Ages? Many causes, operating through three centuries: the failure of the Crusades; the spreading acquaintance of renascent Europe with Islam; the disillusioning capture of Constantinople; the resurrection of classic pagan culture; the expansion of commerce through the voyages of Henry the Navigator's fleet, and Columbus, and Vasco de Gama; the rise of the business class , which financed the centralization of monoarchial government; the development of national states challenging the supernational authority of the popes; the sucessful revolt of Luther against the papacy; printing."11 Durant also claims that Vasco da Gama's voyage helped one of the greatest commercial revolutions before the invention of the airplane: "The discoveries begun by Henry the Navigator, advanced by Vasco da Gama, culminating in Columbus, and rounded out by Magellam effected the greatest commercial revolution in history before the coming of the airplane."12 Another outcome of da Gama's voyages was the Muslims' loss of control of the Indian Ocean to the Portuguese in trade. Because of this, many Arab nations entered a state of economic decline. This may have contributed to the period of stagnation that Islam experenced in the seventeenth century. In conclusion, Vasco da Gama's voyage, which sailed from Portugal to navigate around Africa to find an all ocean trade route with India, had major effects on Europe's economy because of newly opened trade with the riches of India. It also helped to bring an end to the Middle Ages, stopped Muslim superiority in trade in the Indian ocean, and was a significant revolution in trade.
up1"Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia",
Henry the Navigator, December 15, 2004, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_the_Navigator
(December 17, 2004)
up2Bradford Burns, "Latin America, a Concise Interpretative History", The Origins of a Multiracial Society, 1972, http://www.mty.itesm.mx/dhcs/deptos/ri/ri-802/lecturas/lecvmx334.html (December 10, 2004)
up3José Vicente de Bragança, "Vasco da Gama", Admiral Dom Vasco da Gama, Knight Commander of the Military of Order of Christ, May 23, 1998, http://www.angelfire.com/ak/militaryorders/vascogama.html (December 12, 2004)
up4"Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia", Vasco da Gama, December 14, 2004, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasco_da_Gama (December 12, 2004)
up5David W. Koeller, "World History Chronology", Vasco da Gama Arrives in India: 1498, December 15, 1998, http://campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/WestEurope/DaGama.html (December 11, 2004)
up6New Standard Encyclopedia, Volume 5, F/G, Standard Educational Corporation, Chicago, Illinois, 1970, G-18
up8Paul Halsall, "Modern History Sourcebook", Modern History Sourcebook: Vasco da Gama: Round Africa to India, 1497-1498 CE, June 1998, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1497degama.html (December 13, 2004)
up9David W. Koeller, "World History Chronology", Vasco da Gama Arrives in India: 1498, December 15, 1998, http://campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/WestEurope/DaGama.html (December 11, 2004)
up11Will Durant, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300-1564, Volume VI, The Story of Civilization, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1957, 156-57
The Applied History Research Group, "The European Voyages of Exploration", An Overview of Portugal's History, 1997, http://www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/eurvoya/portover.html (December 12, 2004)
Louise Barratt, Charlotte Traill, Millennium Family Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, C: Climate to I: India, Dorling Kindersley Publishing Inc., New York, New York, 1997, "Exploration", page 320