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Saturday, 21 March 2015

Vasco da Gama


Vasco da Gama  (c. 1460s – 1524) was born in Sines, Portugal, A tiny port on the south west coast, Sines consisted of little more than a cluster of whitewashed, red-tiled cottages, tenanted chiefly by fisherfolk.

Vasco da Gama's father, Estêvão da Gama, was appointed alcaide-mór (civil governor) of Sines in the 1460s, a post he held until 1478. He continued as a receiver of taxes in the region.

His mother, Isabel Sodré, was a daughter of João Sodré (also known as João de Resende), scion of a well-connected family of English origin.

As a boy Vasco wanted to become a sea captain. He studied navigation and took every opportunity to go on voyages.


King Manuel I of Portugal sent Vasco da Gama out to discover a trade route into the Indian Ocean via the southern tip of Africa, He was given the job on the strength of his record of protecting Portuguese trading stations along the African Gold Coast from depredations by the French.

On July 8, 1497 da Gama led a fleet of four ships with a crew of 170 men from Lisbon. The expedition made landfall on the African coast five months later on November 4. Out of sight of land for over 13 weeks, da Gama and his crew had sailed more than 6,000 miles of open ocean, by far the longest journey out of sight of land made by that time.

Vasco da Gama leaving the port of Lisbon, Portugal.

After rounding the South West tip of Africa and seeing it as the turning point on his way to India, da Gama named it the Cape of Good Hope.

On December 16, 1497, Vasco da Gama passed the Great Fish River, a river running 400 miles (644 kilometres) through the South African province of the Eastern Cape. It was here that Bartolomeu Dias had previously turned back to Portugal.

Da Gama reached the south African province of Natal on December 25, 1497. He named it Natal as Christmas in Portuguese was “Natale”. The Vasco Da Gama Memorial in Durban today immortalizes
Vasco Da Gama's first sighting of South Africa.

Da Gama and his men reached modern-day Mozambique on the East African coast in early March. Mozambique was controlled by Arabs because it was part of the Indian Ocean's network of trade. An angry crowd discovered that da Gama's men were not Muslims, so the crew continued north to Kenya.

Da Gama and his crew became the first known Europeans to visit the port of Mombasa in Kenya between April 7th and 13, 1498, but were met with hostility and soon departed.

At Malindi, 120 miles north of Mombasa, da Gama hired a pilot from India..The pilot brought the Portuguese men to the city of Calicut on the southwest coast of India on May 20, 1498. Da Gama became the first man to sail the passage from Europe to India using the newly discovered route round Africa.

The picture below shows Vasco de Gama arriving in Calicut Roque Gameiro  (1864–1935)

The presents that da Gama gave to the King of Calicut as gifts from Dom Manuel were considered trivial compared with some of the stuff he got from the Moslem Arab traders. The items that failed to impress included four cloaks of scarlet cloth, six hats, four branches of corals, a box with seven brass vessels, a chest of sugar, two barrels of oil and a cask of honey.

Among the people living in South India when Da Gama arrived were "Christians of St Thomas" who were descendants of Christians converted possibly as far back as the apostle St Thomas himself.

After a few months in the humid tropics, the Moors (Arab Moslems) persuaded the Indians to turn against da Gama and the Portuguese explorer was forced to escape from India quickly to prevent his ships being captured.

Da Gama's passage back to Lisbon was a constant battle against opposing winds, sickness and tiredness. His brother, Paulo da Gama, fell grievously ill and Da Gama elected to stay by his side at Cape Verde.

His companion Nicolau Coelho's Berrio separated from Vasco da Gama's São Gabriel and sailed on by itself. It arrived in Lisbon on July 10, 1499 and Nicolau Coelho personally delivered the news to King Manuel I and the royal court, then assembled in Sintra.

Da Gama and his sickly brother eventually hitched a ride with a Guinea caravel returning to Portugal, but Paulo da Gama died en route. Da Gama disembarked at the Azores to bury his brother, and lingered there for a little while in mourning. He eventually took passage on an Azorean caravel and finally arrived in Lisbon on August 29, 1499.

The expedition had exacted a large cost – one ship and over half the men had been lost, many to scurvy. Nonetheless, the spices and precious stones brought back on the remaining two ships were sold at an enormous profit to the crown.

Da Gama's discovery virtually put an end to the Arab monopoly of routes to the East. His path would be followed up thereafter by yearly Portuguese India Armadas.

In 1502 da Gama returned to India to avenge the massacre of Portuguese settlers, a feat he accomplished with utmost brutality. On reaching India in October 1502, da Gama's fleet set about capturing any Arab vessel he came across in Indian waters. This included seizing an innocent cargo and passenger vessel and setting fire to it killing around 300 passengers. They had been returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca.

When he arrived in Calicut  da Gama demanded all the Muslims be expelled from the town. Because the response was delayed, the ruthless Portuguese hanged the traders and fishermen that his men had taken in the port. Their bodies were dismembered and cut into pieces. A message in Arabic accompanied the heads and limbs thrown into the bottom of a small boat, which invited the city ruler to use these “left overs” to make a curry.


In 1492, King John II dispatched da Gama on a mission to the port of Setúbal and to the Algarve in the south of Porugal to seize French ships in retaliation for their plundering of Portuguese vessels. Da Gama carried out the task rapidly and effectively.

On returning to Portugal after discovering the sea route to India da Gama was granted substantial hereditary royal pension of 300,000 reis and estates. On January 30, 1502, he was given the title of Almirante dos mares de Arabia, Persia, India e de todo o Oriente ("Admiral of the Seas of Arabia, Persia, India and all the Orient") .

Da Gama was appointed the first Count of Vidigueira, by a royal decree on December 29, 1519, The agreement ceded him the towns of Vidigueira and Vila de Frades, granting Da Gama and his heirs and successors all the revenues and privileges related.


Vasco da Gama was short and stout and bearded with an exceptionally ruddy complexion.

Around 1501, da Gama married Catarina de Ataíde, daughter of Álvaro de Ataíde,  a prominent nobleman. She bore him six sons.

Vasco Da Gama built himself a house in Rua das Casa, Pintadas, Evora Portugal in 1507. It was the explorer's last home and he decorated it with lavish paintings of beasts and Indians.

Earlier Da Gama had built himself a manor at his home town Sines but he had no legal title there and the landowners evicted him.


Vasco da Gama went on one last trip to India in 1524, after being appointed viceroy (governor) of Calicut, which was now a Portuguese colony.

Da Gama contracted malaria not long after arriving, and died in the city of Cochin on December 24, 1524, three months after his arrival.

Vasco da Gama's body was first buried at St. Francis Church, which was located at Fort Kochi in the city of Kochi.

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.

In 1572 Luís Vaz de Camões,  wrote "Os Lusiadas" an epic poem about Da Gama's voyages, which is the Portuguese national epic. Not all factually based, the account includes da Gama's various encounters with Venus and other ancient gods.

Da Gama's tomb now lies in the Monastery of the Hieronymites, in Belém, a Lisbon suburb. The monastery was built to mark his discovery of a sea passage to India, near the launch point of Vasco da Gama's first journey.

To celebrate the  fourth centenary of the arrival of Vasco da Gama in India, it was decided to restore the tomb of the explorer in 1894. The tombs of Vasco da Gama and Luís de Camões, carved by the sculptor Costa Mota, were placed in the southern lateral chapel

Tomb of Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon

Da Gama's journey destroyed the Arabic stranglehold on the spice trade and bought his country immense wealth. As a result Portugal became one of the most foremost powers of Europe as it controlled the route to the East Indies.

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