Following the traces of Vasco da Gama

Meet the man who discovered the first global maritime trading route

Southern India (1682) by Johan NieuhofKalakriti Archives

The first to reach India 

After decades of sailors trying to reach the Indies, with thousands of lives and dozens of vessels lost in shipwrecks and attacks, Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer was the first European to reach India by sea. His initial voyage to India (1497–1499) was the first to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route, connecting the Atlantic and the Indian oceans and therefore, the West and the Orient, ushering in a new era of globalisation. This was to be the longest maritime journey of its time, giving the Portuguese crown unopposed access to the Indian spice routes therefor boosting the economy of the Portuguese Empire.

Vasco da Gama was born in 1460 or 1469 in the town of Sines where a statue in his honour looks out to the ocean.

Around 1480, da Gama followed his father and joined the Order of Santiago. The master of Santiago was Prince John, who ascended to the throne in 1481 as King D. João II of Portugal. D. João II doted on the Order, and the da Gamas' prospects rose accordingly.

The Grand Canal, Venice, with the Palazzo Bembo (about 1768)The J. Paul Getty Museum

King D. João II of Portugal set out on many long reforms. To break the monarch's dependence on the feudal nobility, João II needed to build up the royal treasury; he considered royal commerce to be the key to achieving that.

Under João II's watch, the gold and slave trade in west Africa was greatly expanded. He was eager to break into the highly profitable spice trade between Europe and Asia, which was conducted chiefly by land.

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 of India. João II set a new objective for his captains: to find a sea route to Asia by sailing around the African continent.

By the time Vasco da Gama was in his 20s, the king's plans were coming to fruition. In 1487, João 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. The breakthrough came soon after, when John II's captain Bartolomeu Dias returned from rounding the Cape of Good Hope (on the left) in 1488, 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.
An explorer was needed who could prove the link between the findings of Dias and those of da Covilhã and de Paiva, and connect these separate segments into a potentially lucrative trade route across the Indian Ocean.

This sculpture of Bartolomeu Dias in Cape was erected in his honour, in the background table mountain can be seen.

Da Gama was the man chosen for the job, on 8 July 1497 he led a fleet of four ships with a crew of 170 men from Restelo in Lisbon, most likely from a location near to where the Tower of Belém is today.

The expedition 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 4 November 1497, the expedition made landfall on the African coast. For over three months the ships had sailed more than 10,000 kilometres (6,000 mi) of open ocean, by far the longest journey out of sight of land made by that time.

This monument a replica of the Cross of Vasco da Gama is located at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.

Vasco da Gama op audiëntie bij koning van Calcutta (1676) by Padtbrugge, HermanRijksmuseum

After stopping in Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi, The fleet arrived in Kappadu near Kozhikode (Calicut), in Malabar Coast (present day Kerala state of India), on 20 May 1498. Here he met with King of Calicut, the Samudiri (Zamorin), but was unsuccessful securing the desired commercial treaty with Calicut.

Medallion - Vasco da Gama (16th century)Jerónimos Monastery

Nevertheless, Vasco da Gama's expedition was successful beyond all reasonable expectation, bringing in cargo that was worth sixty times the cost of the expedition, an enormous profit to the crown. Vasco da Gama was justly celebrated for opening a direct sea route to Asia. His path would be followed up thereafter by yearly Portuguese India Armadas.

Medallion - Pedro Alvares Cabral (16th century)Jerónimos Monastery

A follow-up expedition, the Second India Armada, launched in 1500 under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral it was during this voyage when sailing southwest so as to bypass the becalmed waters of the Gulf of Guinea the Alvares Cabral was the first European to set foot in Brazil. He would eventually cast anchor in September 1500, at Calicut, India. Here the zamorin welcomed Cabral and allowed him to establish a fortified trading post.

Disputes with rival traders soon arose, however, and on December 17 a large force attacked the trading post. Cabral retaliated by bombarding the city and then by capturing and destroying rival vessels.

He then sailed for the Indian port of Cochin (now Kochi), farther south, where he was affably received and permitted to trade for precious spices, with which he loaded his six remaining ships.

Three Caravels in a Rising Squall with Arion on a Dolphin from The Sailing Vessels by After Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, Breda (?) ca. 1525–1569 Brussels)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As a result Vasco da Gama took command of the 4th India Armada, scheduled to set out in 1502, with the explicit aim of taking revenge upon the Zamorin and force him to submit to Portuguese terms. The heavily armed fleet left in February 1502.

Views of Kozhikode and Kannur, Kerala with Hormuz, Iran and Elmina, Ghana (1572) by Georg BraunKalakriti Archives

Once in the region Vasco da Gama formed an alliance with the ruler of Cannanore, an enemy of the Zamorin, the fleet sailed to Calicut, with the aim of wrecking its trade and punishing the Zamorin for the favour he had shown to rival traders. Da Gama bombarded the port and seized and massacred hostages.

The Portuguese then sailed south to the port of Cochin, with whose ruler (an enemy of the Zamorin) an alliance with the Portuguese had been formed.

Belém Monstrance (16th century) by Gil Vicente (attrib.)MNAA National Museum of Ancient Art

Vasco da Gama arrived back in Portugal in September 1503.

On da Gama's second journey to India, his fleet opened contact with the sultanate of Kilwa (present day Tanzania) who gave as a tribute to the Portuguese Crown the sum of 1500 old 'miticais´. This gold would be used by King Manuel to create the Belém Monstrance.

Widely considered Portugal's most emblematic goldsmith work, the monstrance presents the twelve apostles kneeling in the centre...

...with a swinging dove hovering above them, in white enamelled gold, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, and...

...on the upper level, the figure of God the Father, holding the globe of the Universe is featured.

Armillary spheres, the emblem of king Dom Manuel I, mark out the knot of the central stem as if uniting two worlds (the earthly world, which spreads across the base, and the supernatural world, which rises upwards at the top of the piece), appear as the fullest possible consecration of the royal power at that historic moment of overseas expansion.

‏‏‎ Main GateJerónimos Monastery

After the death of King Manuel (on the left) I in late 1521, his son and successor, King John III of Portugal set about reviewing the Portuguese government overseas whom he viewed as corrupt and incompetent, after a appointing Duarte de Menses to the position, who himself proved inept, John III decided to appoint Vasco da Gama to replace Menezes, confident that the magic of his name and memory of his deeds might better impress his authority on Portuguese India, and manage the transition to a new government and new strategy.

The third voyage to India

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 viceregent 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.

Here we can see the St. Francis CSI Church - the original resting place of Vasco da Gama in Fort Cochin, Kochi, Kerala India.

View of Jerónimos Monastery and Belém Beach (1657/1657)Jerónimos Monastery

The Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, which would become the necropolis of the Portuguese royal dynasty of Aviz, was erected in the early 1500s near the launch point of Vasco da Gama's first journey, and its construction funded by a tax on the profits of the yearly Portuguese India Armadas, made thanks to the sea route Vasco da Gama discovered.

In 1880, da Gama's remains and those of the poet Luís de Camões (who celebrated da Gama's first voyage in his 1572 epic poem, The Lusiadas), were moved to new carved tombs in the nave of the monastery's church, only a few meters away from the tombs of the kings Manuel I and John III, whom da Gama had served.

The legacy of Vasco da Gama's importance in world history remains.

Portugal's longest bridge is named after him as is the port city of Vasco da Gama in Goa, as is a crater on the Moon. There are three football clubs in Brazil (including Club de Regatas Vasco da Gama) and Vasco Sports Club in Goa. There exists a church in Kochi, Kerala called Vasco da Gama Church, the suburb of Vasco in Cape Town also honours him.

Credits: Story

Text: Jerónimos Monastery & Wikipedia

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