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Vasco da Gama

By: History.com Editors

Updated: June 6, 2023 | Original: December 18, 2009

Portrait of Vasco da Gama

The Portuguese nobleman Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) sailed from Lisbon in 1497 on a mission to reach India and open a sea route from Europe to the East. After sailing down the western coast of Africa and rounding the Cape of Good Hope, his expedition made numerous stops in Africa before reaching the trading post of Calicut, India, in May 1498. Da Gama received a hero’s welcome back in Portugal, and was sent on a second expedition to India in 1502, during which he brutally clashed with Muslim traders in the region. Two decades later, da Gama again returned to India, this time as Portuguese viceroy; he died there of an illness in late 1524.

Vasco da Gama’s Early Life and First Voyage to India

Born circa 1460, Vasco da Gama was the son of a minor nobleman who commanded the fortress at Sines, located on the coast of the Alentejo province in southwestern Portugal. Little else is known about his early life, but in 1492 King John II sent da Gama to the port city of Setubal (south of Lisbon) and to the Algarve region to seize French ships in retaliation for French attacks on Portuguese shipping interests.

Did you know? By the time Vasco da Gama returned from his first voyage to India in 1499, he had spent more than two years away from home, including 300 days at sea, and had traveled some 24,000 miles. Only 54 of his original crew of 170 men returned with him; the majority (including da Gama's brother Paolo) had died of illnesses such as scurvy.

In 1497, John’s successor, King Manuel I (crowned in 1495), chose da Gama to lead a Portuguese fleet to India in search of a maritime route from Western Europe to the East. At the time, the Muslims held a monopoly of trade with India and other Eastern nations, thanks to their geographical position. Da Gama sailed from Lisbon that July with four vessels, traveling south along the coast of Africa before veering far off into the southern Atlantic in order to avoid unfavorable currents. The fleet was finally able to round the Cape of Good Hope at Africa’s southern tip in late November, and headed north along Africa’s eastern coast, making stops at what is now Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi (both now in Kenya). With the help of a local navigator, da Gama was able to cross the Indian Ocean and reach the coast of India at Calicut (now Kozhikode) in May 1498.

Relations with Local Population & Rival Traders

Though the local Hindu population of Calicut initially welcomed the arrival of the Portuguese sailors (who mistook them for Christians), tensions quickly flared after da Gama offered their ruler a collection of relatively cheap goods as an arrival gift. This conflict, along with hostility from Muslim traders, led Da Gama to leave without concluding a treaty and return to Portugal. A much larger fleet, commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral, was dispatched to capitalize on da Gama’s discoveries and secure a trading post at Calicut.

After Muslim traders killed 50 of his men, Cabral retaliated by burning 10 Muslim cargo vessels and killing the nearly 600 sailors aboard. He then moved on to Cochin, where he established the first Portuguese trading post in India. In 1502, King Manuel put da Gama in charge of another Indian expedition, which sailed that February. On this voyage, da Gama attacked Arab shipping interests in the region and used force to reach an agreement with Calicut’s ruler. For these brutal demonstrations of power, da Gama was vilified throughout India and the region. Upon his return to Portugal, by contrast, he was richly rewarded for another successful voyage.

Da Gama’s Later Life and Last Voyage to India

Da Gama had married a well-born woman sometime after returning from his first voyage to India; the couple would have six sons. For the next 20 years, da Gama continued to advise the Portuguese ruler on Indian affairs, but he was not sent back to the region until 1524, when King John III appointed him as Portuguese viceroy in India.

Da Gama arrived in Goa with the task of combating the growing corruption that had tainted the Portuguese government in India. He soon fell ill, and in December 1524 he died in Cochin. His body was later taken back to Portugal for burial there.

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The map as History

This map is part of a series of 16 animated maps showing .

▶ view series: the age of discovery, vasco da gama’s voyage 1497-1498.

This map is part of a series of 16 animated maps showing the history of The Age of Discovery.

In 1497, King Manuel I of Portugal chose Vasco da Gama to lead the first maritime expedition to the Indies.

The route had already been opened up by Bartolomeu Dias who had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope ten years earlier.

In the meantime, Pero da Covilha had sent back to Lisbon valuable information on navigational conditions in the Indian Ocean.

Da Gama’s flotilla was composed of four ships. It left Lisbon on 8 July and headed for the islands of Cape Verde.

It then sailed westwards taking advantage of the favourable winds in the South Atlantic before returning to the African coast at Saint Helena Bay.

The ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in mid-November, after struggling for several days against winds and strong currents.

Vasco da Gama then spent one month on the coast of what is now Natal Province, giving his crew time to recuperate their strength and repair the ships.  They then continued to sail along the eastern coast of Africa. The first contacts with local sultans were difficult because Muslim merchants, who were already well established in this region, were worried about losing their trading monopoly.  

In Malindi, relations were more amicable. Vasco da Gama was able to hire a pilot, whose good knowledge of conditions in the Indian Ocean helped the Portuguese navigator make the crossing to India in 23 days.

During their three-month stay in India, relations between Vasco da Gama and the sovereign of Calicut were difficult, and there were few opportunities for trade.

On the return journey, the Portuguese fleet sailed past Mogadiscio and, later, Zanzibar.  Of the 150 men who had set out from Lisbon more than 2 years earlier, half had lost their lives during the voyage.

Vasco da Gama’s exploit marked the end of nearly a century of Portuguese efforts to discover a sea route between Europe and the Indies.

With regard to diplomatic contacts, Vasco da Gama’s mission to oriental sovereigns was a failure, and the Portuguese understood that they were not welcome in the Indian Ocean trading controlled by Muslim merchants.

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The Ages of Exploration

Vasco da gama, age of discovery.

Quick Facts:

Portuguese explorer and navigator who 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 [vas-koh]; [(Portuguese) vahsh-koo] [duh gah-muh]

Birth/Death : ca. 1460 CE - 1524 CE

Nationality : Portuguese

Birthplace : Portugal

Vasco da Gama portrait

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)

Introduction Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese explorer who sailed to India from Europe. Gold, spices, and other riches were valuable in Europe. But they had to navigate long ways over sea and land to reach them in Asia. Europeans during this time were looking to find a faster way to reach India by sailing around Africa. Da Gama accomplished the task. By doing so, he helped open a major trade route to Asia. Portugal celebrated his success, and his voyage launched a new era of discovery and world trade.

Biography Early Life Vasco da Gama’s exact birthdate and place is unknown. It is believed he was born between 1460 and 1469 in Sines, Portugal. 1 He was the third son to his parents. His father, Estêvão da Gama, was a knight in the Duke of Viseu’s court; and his mother was a noblewoman named Isabel Sodré. 2 His father’s role in the court would have allowed young Vasco to have a good education. But because he lived close to a seaport town, he probably also learned about ships and navigation. Vasco attended school in a larger village about 70 miles from Sines called Évora. Here, he learned advanced mathematics, and studied principles of navigation. By fifteen he became familiar with trading ships that were docked in port. By the age of twenty, he was the captain of a ship. 3 These skills would all make him an acceptable choice to lead an expedition to India.

Vasco da Gama’s maritime career was during the period when Portugal was searching for a trade route around Africa to India. The Ottoman Empire controlled almost all European trade routes to Asia. This meant they could, and did, charge high prices for ships passing through ports. Prince Henry of Portugal – also called Prince Henry the Navigator – began Portugal’s great age of exploration. From about 1419 until his death in 1460, he sent several sailing expeditions down the coast of Africa. 4 In 1481, King John II of Portugal began sending expeditions to find a sea route around the southern shores of Africa. Many explorers made several attempts. It was Bartolomeu Dias who was the first to round Africa and make it to the Indian Ocean in 1488. But he was forced to head back to Portugal before he could make it to India. When Manuel I became king of Portugal in 1495, he continued efforts to open a trade route to India by going around Africa. Although other people were considered for the job, Manuel I finally chose thirty-seven year old Vasco da Gama for this task.

Voyages Principal Voyage On 8 July 1497 Vasco da Gama sailed from Lisbon with a fleet of four ships with a crew of 170 men from Lisbon. Da Gama commanded the Sao Gabriel . Paulo da Gama – brother to Vasco – commanded the São Rafael , a three masted ship. There was also the caravel Berrio , and a storeship São Maria . Bartolomeu Dias also sailed with da Gama, and gave helpful advice for navigating down the African coast. They sailed past the Canary Islands, and reached the Cape Verde islands by July 26. They stayed about a week, then continued sailing on August 3. To help avoid the storms and strong currents near the Gulf of Guinea, da Gama and his fleet sailed out into the South Atlantic and swung down to the Cape of Good Hope. Storms still delayed them for a while. They rounded the cape on November 22 and three days later anchored at Mossel Bay, South Africa. 5 They began sailing again on December 8. They anchored for a bit in January near Mozambique at the Rio do Cobre (Copper River) and continued on until they reached the Rio dos Bons Sinais (River of Good Omens). Here they erected a statue in the name of Portugal.

They stayed here for a month because much of the crew were sick from scurvy – a disease caused by lack of Vitamin C. 6 Da Gama’s fleet eventually began sailing again. On March 2 they reached the Island of Mozambique. After trading with the local Muslim merchants, da Gama sailed on once more stopping briefly in Malindi (in present day Kenya). He hired a pilot to help him navigate through the Indian Ocean. They sailed for 23 days, and on May 20, 1498 they reached India. 7 They headed for Kappad, India near the large city of Calicut. In Calicut, da Gama met with the king. But the king of Calicut was not impressed with da Gama, and the gifts he brought as offering. They spent several months trading in India, and studying their customs. They left India at the end of August. He visited the Anjidiv Island near Goa, and then once more stopped in Malindi in January 1499. Many of his crew were dying of scurvy. He had the São Rafael burned to help contain the illness. Da Gama finally returned to Portugal in September 1499. Manuel I praised da Gama’s success, and gave him money and a new title of admiral.

Subsequent Voyages Vasco da Gama’s later voyages were less friendly with the people he met. He sailed once again beginning in February 1502 with a fleet of 10 ships. They stopped at the Cape Verdes Islands, Mozambique, and then sailed to Kilwa (in modern day Tanzania). Da Gama threatened their leader, and forced him and his people to swear loyalty to the king of Portugal. At Calicut, he bombarded the port, and caused the death of several Muslim traders. Again, later at Cochin, they fought with Arab ships, and sent them into flight. 8 Da Gama was paving the way for an expanded Portuguese empire. This came at the cruel treatment of East African and South Asian people. Finally, on February 20, 1503 da Gama began the return journey home arriving on October 11 1503. King Manuel I died in 1521, and King John III became ruler. He made da Gama a Portuguese viceroy in India. 9 King John III sent da Gama to India to stop the corruption and settle administrative problems of the Portuguese officials. Da Gama’s third journey would be his last.

Later Years and Death After he had returned from his first trip, in 1500 Vasco da Gama had married Caterina de Ataíde. They had six sons, and lived in the town Évora. Da Gama continued advising on Indian affairs until he was sent overseas again in 1524. Vasco da Gama left Portugal for India, and arrived at Goa in September 1524. Da Gama quickly re-established order among the Portuguese leaders. By the end of the year he fell ill. Vasco da Gama died on December 24, 1524 in Cochin, India. He was buried in the local church. In 1539, his remains were brought back to Portugal.

Legacy Vasco De Gama was the first European to find an ocean trading route to India. He accomplished what many explorers before him could not do. His discovery of this sea route helped the Portuguese establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia and Africa. The new ocean route around Africa allowed Portuguese sailors to avoid the Arab trading hold in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Better access to the Indian spice routes boosted Portugal’s economy. Vasco da Gama opened a new world of riches by opening up an Indian Ocean route. His voyage and explorations helped change the world for Europeans.

  • Emmanuel Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, Dictionary of African Biography (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2012), 415.
  • Akyeampong and Gates, Dictionary of African Biography , 415.
  • Patricia Calvert, Vasco Da Gama: So Strong a Spirit (Tarrytown: Benchmark Books, 2005), 11-12.
  • Aileen Gallagher, Prince Henry, the Navigator: Pioneer of Modern Exploration (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2003), 5.
  • Kenneth Pletcher, ed., The Britannica Guide to Explorers and Explorations That Changed the Modern World (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2009), 54.
  • Pletcher, The Britannica Guide, 55.
  • Pletcher, The Britannica Guide , 55.
  • Pletcher, The Britannica Guide , 57.
  • Pletcher, The Britannica Guide , 58.

Bibliography

Akyeampong, Emmanuel, and Henry Louis Gates. Dictionary of African Biography . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Calvert, Patricia. Vasco Da Gama: So Strong a Spirit . Tarrytown: Benchmark Books, 2005.

Gallagher, Aileen. Prince Henry, the Navigator: Pioneer of Modern Exploration . New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2003.

Pletcher, Kenneth ed. The Britannica Guide to Explorers and Explorations That Changed the Modern World. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2009.

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On his globe Waldseemüller portrayed the seas that led to the East, to India and beyond.

Vasco da Gama

Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was commissioned by the Portuguese king to find a maritime route to the East. He was the first person to sail directly from Europe to India.

vasco da gama

(1460-1524)

Who Was Vasco Da Gama

In 1497, explorer Vasco da Gama was commissioned by the Portuguese king to find a maritime route to the East. His success in doing so proved to be one of the more instrumental moments in the history of navigation. He subsequently made two other voyages to India and was appointed as Portuguese viceroy in India in 1524.

Early Years

Da Gama was born into a noble family around 1460 in Sines, Portugal. Little is known about his upbringing except that he was the third son of Estêvão da Gama, who was commander of the fortress in Sines in the southwestern pocket of Portugal. When he was old enough, young da Gama joined the navy, where was taught how to navigate.

Known as a tough and fearless navigator, da Gama solidified his reputation as a reputable sailor when, in 1492, King John II of Portugal dispatched him to the south of Lisbon and then to the Algarve region of the country, to seize French ships as an act of vengeance against the French government for disrupting Portuguese shipping.

Following da Gama's completion of King John II's orders, in 1495, King Manuel took the throne, and the country revived its earlier mission to find a direct trade route to India. By this time, Portugal had established itself as one of the most powerful maritime countries in Europe.

Much of that was due to Henry the Navigator, who, at his base in the southern region of the country, had brought together a team of knowledgeable mapmakers, geographers and navigators. He dispatched ships to explore the western coast of Africa to expand Portugal's trade influence. He also believed that he could find and form an alliance with Prester John, who ruled over a Christian empire somewhere in Africa. Henry the Navigator never did locate Prester John, but his impact on Portuguese trade along Africa's east coast during his 40 years of explorative work was undeniable. Still, for all his work, the southern portion of Africa — what lay east — remained shrouded in mystery.

In 1487, an important breakthrough was made when Bartolomeu Dias discovered the southern tip of Africa and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. This journey was significant; it proved, for the first time, that the Atlantic and Indian oceans were connected. The trip, in turn, sparked a renewed interest in seeking out a trade route to India.

By the late 1490s, however, King Manuel wasn't just thinking about commercial opportunities as he set his sights on the East. In fact, his impetus for finding a route was driven less by a desire to secure for more lucrative trading grounds for his country, and more by a quest to conquer Islam and establish himself as the king of Jerusalem.

First Voyage

Historians know little about why exactly da Gama, still an inexperienced explorer, was chosen to lead the expedition to India in 1497. On July 8 of that year, he captained a team of four vessels, including his flagship, the 200-ton St. Gabriel , to find a sailing route to India and the East.

To embark on the journey, da Gama pointed his ships south, taking advantage of the prevailing winds along the coast of Africa. His choice of direction was also a bit of a rebuke to Christopher Columbus, who had believed he'd found a route to India by sailing east.

Following s months of sailing, he rounded the Cape of Good Hope and began making his way up the eastern coast of Africa, toward the uncharted waters of the Indian Ocean. By January, as the fleet neared what is now Mozambique, many of da Gama's crewmembers were sick with scurvy, forcing the expedition to anchor for rest and repairs for nearly one month.

In early March of 1498, da Gama and his crew dropped their anchors in the port of Mozambique, a Muslim city-state that sat on the outskirts of the east coast of Africa and was dominated by Muslim traders. Here, da Gama was turned back by the ruling sultan, who felt offended by the explorer's modest gifts.

By early April, the fleet reached what is now Kenya, before setting sail on a 23-day run that would take them across the Indian Ocean. They reached Calicut, India, on May 20. But da Gama's own ignorance of the region, as well as his presumption that the residents were Christians, led to some confusion. The residents of Calicut were actually Hindu, a fact that was lost on da Gama and his crew, as they had not heard of the religion.

Still, the local Hindu ruler welcomed da Gama and his men, at first, and the crew ended up staying in Calicut for three months. Not everyone embraced their presence, especially Muslim traders who clearly had no intention of giving up their trading grounds to Christian visitors. Eventually, da Gama and his crew were forced to barter on the waterfront in order to secure enough goods for the passage home. In August 1498, da Gama and his men took to the seas again, beginning their journey back to Portugal.

Da Gama's timing could not have been worse; his departure coincided with the start of a monsoon. By early 1499, several crew members had died of scurvy and in an effort to economize his fleet, da Gama ordered one of his ships to be burned. The first ship in the fleet didn't reach Portugal until July 10, nearly a full year after they'd left India.

In all, da Gama's first journey covered nearly 24,000 miles in close to two years, and only 54 of the crew's original 170 members survived.

Second Voyage

When da Gama returned to Lisbon, he was greeted as a hero. In an effort to secure the trade route with India and usurp Muslim traders, Portugal dispatched another team of vessels, headed by Pedro Álvares Cabral. The crew reached India in just six months, and the voyage included a firefight with Muslim merchants, where Cabral's crew killed 600 men on Muslim cargo vessels. More important for his home country, Cabral established the first Portuguese trading post in India.

In 1502, da Gama helmed another journey to India that included 20 ships. Ten of the ships were directly under his command, with his uncle and nephew helming the others. In the wake of Cabral's success and battles, the king charged da Gama to further secure Portugal's dominance in the region.

To do so, da Gama embarked on one of the most gruesome massacres of the exploration age. He and his crew terrorized Muslim ports up and down the African east coast, and at one point, set ablaze a Muslim ship returning from Mecca, killing the several hundreds of people (including women and children) who were on board. Next, the crew moved to Calicut, where they wrecked the city's trade port and killed 38 hostages. From there, they moved to the city of Cochin, a city south of Calicut, where da Gama formed an alliance with the local ruler.

Finally, on February 20, 1503, da Gama and his crew began to make their way home. They reached Portugal on October 11 of that year.

Later Years and Death

Little was recorded about da Gama's return home and the reception that followed, though it has been speculated that the explorer felt miffed at the recognition and compensation for his exploits.

Married at this time, and the father of six sons, da Gama settled into retirement and family life. He maintained contact with King Manuel, advising him on Indian matters, and was named count of Vidigueira in 1519. Late in life, after the death of King Manuel, da Gama was asked to return to India, in an effort to contend with the growing corruption from Portuguese officials in the country. In 1524, King John III named da Gama Portuguese viceroy in India.

That same year, da Gama died in Cochin — the result, it has been speculated, from possibly overworking himself. His body was sailed back to Portugal, and buried there, in 1538.

QUICK FACTS

  • Name: Vasco da Gama
  • Birth Year: 1460
  • Birth City: Sines
  • Birth Country: Portugal
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was commissioned by the Portuguese king to find a maritime route to the East. He was the first person to sail directly from Europe to India.
  • World Politics
  • Nationalities
  • Death Year: 1524
  • Death date: December 24, 1524
  • Death City: Cochin
  • Death Country: India
  • I am not the man I once was. I do not want to go back in time, to be the second son, the second man.
  • I am not afraid of the darkness. Real death is preferable to a life without living.
  • We left from Restelo one Saturday, the 8th day of July of the said year, 1479, on out journey. May God our Lord allow us to complete it in His service.
  • There was great rejoicing, thanks being rendered to God for having extricated us from the hands of people who had no more sense than beasts.

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Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese sailor and explorer who lived between the 15th and 16th centuries. Not only is da Gama a significant figure in the history of Portugal and Europe, but he is also an important personage in world history. Vasco da Gama was the first European to reach India via an oceanic route.

As a result of Vasco da Gama’s voyages , Portugal cemented its reputation as a formidable seafaring nation and grew rich from the goods that were coming from the East. Moreover, da Gama’s discovery of a maritime route connecting Europe to Asia may be regarded to be the beginning of the age of global imperialism.

Not long after da Gama’s first voyage to the East, the Portuguese established their first colony in Asia, when they conquered Goa, in India, in 1510. Portugal’s last colony, Macau, is also in Asia and was only handed back to China in 1999.

The journey of Vasco da Gama connected Europe and the East. Source: Archivist / Adobe Stock.

The journey of Vasco da Gama connected Europe and the East. Source: Archivist / Adobe Stock.

The Early Life of Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama was born around 1460 in Sines, a coastal town in the Alentejo region, in the southwestern part of Portugal. da Gama’s father was a minor provincial nobleman by the name of Estêvão da Gama, who served as a commander of the town’s castle. Unfortunately, little else is known about da Gama’s early life.

In fact, the next piece of information about Vasco da Gama’s life prior to his voyage to the East comes from 1492. In that year, the King of Portugal, John II, sent da Gama to Setubal, a port city between Lisbon and Sines, to seize French vessels.

This was carried out in retaliation for attacks by the French on Portuguese shipping interests, despite the fact that the two countries were not at war. da Gama proved his capabilities by performing his mission swiftly and effectively.

Politics and the Portuguese Fleet

In 1497, Vasco da Gama was given the task of seeking an oceanic route from Western Europe to the East and was placed at the head of a Portuguese fleet. Although da Gama is one of Portugal’s greatest maritime explorers, he was certainly not its first. In fact, the kingdom began to explore the uncharted waters to its west and south about 80 years before da Gama’s first voyage.

In 1415, the Portuguese crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and captured Ceuta from the Moors. This is considered to be the starting point of the Portuguese Colonial Empire. In the decades that followed, the Portuguese discovered (and colonized) the island of Madeira, and the Azores, and continued their exploration down the western coast of Africa.

Interestingly, one of the reasons that spurred the Portuguese to seek a sea route to the East was the legend of Prester John, who was rumored to be the monarch of a long-lost Christian kingdom in the East. The rulers of Portugal, as Catholics, saw it as their sacred duty to spread Christianity, and to destroy Islam. Therefore, the Portuguese kings were hoping to find this legendary Christian king in the East, form an alliance with him, and encircle the Muslims .

The envisioned ‘grand alliance’ against the Muslims never materialized, since the Portuguese were not able to locate the legendary Prester John. Nevertheless, the Portuguese grew wealthy as a consequence of the commerce that they conducted during their voyages. The most lucrative of all was the African slave trade and the first consignment of slaves was brought to Lisbon in 1441.

Six years after that, Portuguese seafarers had reached as far south as present-day Sierra Leone. The Portuguese arrived in the Congo in 1482 and 4 years later they were at Cape Cross, in present day Namibia. The Portuguese finally reached the ‘southern end’ of the African continent in 1488, when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope.

The route followed in Vasco da Gama's first voyage, 1497–1499. (PhiLip / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The route followed in Vasco da Gama's first voyage, 1497–1499. (PhiLip / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

It may be pointed out that the Cape of Good Hope was thought (incorrectly) to be the dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Today, however, we know that the southern tip of Africa is in fact Cape Agulhas, located to the southeast of the Cape of Good Hope. While some accounts claim that the name of the landmark was given by Dias himself, others claim that Dias had originally named it ‘Cape of Storms’.

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Map of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas the southernmost point of Africa. (Johantheghost / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Map of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas the southernmost point of Africa. (Johantheghost / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

This was a reference to the stormy weather and rough seas that the area is famous for, which was a challenge for the early seafarers who intended to sail round the cape. The story goes on to say that it was John II who changed the name of the cape from ‘Cape of Storms’ to ‘Cape of Good Hope’, as it was supposed to be a good omen indicating that the Europeans could reach India (and presumably the elusive Prester John as well) via the sea.

It seems that there was a hiatus in Portugal’s exploratory voyages after Dias’ rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, as it took the Portuguese another decade before they finally arrived in India. By that time, John was dead, and had been succeeded by Manuel I, the king who gave Vasco da Gama the mission to seek the maritime route to India.

Manuel has a rather unusual, though appropriate epithet, ‘the Fortunate’. He was the ninth child of Dom Fernando, the younger brother of Afonso V, John’s father and predecessor. Considering his position, it was pretty unlikely that Manuel would ever attain the Portuguese throne. In addition, during John’s reign, Manuel’s only surviving brother was murdered by the king on suspicion of conspiracy.

Manuel, however, was spared, and even made Duke of Beja. In 1491, John’s legitimate son, Afonso, died in a horse-riding accident. For the remaining years of his life, John tried to legitimize his bastard son, Jorge de Lencastre, but without success.

The queen, Eleanor of Viseu, herself opposed John on this matter and supported Manuel as the new heir to the throne. The queen, incidentally, was one of Manuel’s sisters. Thus, in 1494, when John’s health was in decline, he named Manuel as his successor, and when the king died in October the following year, Manuel became Portugal’s new king.

Vasco da Gama’s Mission

It was Manuel who placed  Vasco da Gama in charge of the fleet that was to sail to India in 1497. da Gama is said to have lacked the relevant experience to lead such an expedition, though some have suggested that he may have studied navigation prior to this. It is more likely that da Gama was chosen for political reasons – Manuel was in favor of the da Gama family and their supporters.

In any case, Vasco da Gama left Lisbon on the 8th of July 1497. The fleet consisted of four vessels – two medium-sized three-masted sailing ships known as carracks, each weighing about 120 tonnes, a smaller caravel, weighing about 50 tonnes, and a supply ship.

Departure of Vasco da Gama to India in 1497. (Dantadd / Public Domain)

Departure of Vasco da Gama to India in 1497. (Dantadd / Public Domain )

The carracks were named São Gabriel and São Rafael , the former commanded by da Gama himself, while the latter by his brother, Paulo da Gama. The caravel was named São Miguel (nicknamed Berrio ) and commanded by Nicolau Coelho, whereas the name of the supply ship is today unknown and was commanded by Gonçalo Nunes.

The fleet passed the Canary Islands (which was under Spanish control) on the 15th of July and on the 26th arrived at São Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands. The fleet remained on the island until the 3rd of August before continuing their journey. da Gama initially sailed southwards along the west coast of Africa, but then veered far off into the southern Atlantic, in order to avoid the currents in the Gulf of Guinea.

On the 7th of November, the fleet arrived in Santa Helena Bay (in modern South Africa), where unfavorable winds and adverse currents caused da Gama and his men to halt their journey for several weeks. Finally, on the 22nd of November, da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and continued the journey eastwards.

Three days after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, da Gama set foot on Mossel Bay, and erected a padrão (a stone pillar left by the Portuguese explorers to mark significant landfalls and to establish possession of the area) there. It was also here that the supply ship was scuttled. Around Christmas, da Gama sailed passed a coast that was yet to be explored by Europeans and called it Natal (the Portuguese word for Christmas).

Pillar of Vasco da Gama in Malindi, in modern-day Kenya, erected on the return journey. (Mgiganteus / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pillar of Vasco da Gama in Malindi, in modern-day Kenya, erected on the return journey. (Mgiganteus / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Vasco da Gama’s Journey Continues

In the months that followed, the fleet sailed northwards along the east coast of Africa. In January 1498, the fleet had arrived in the area that is today Mozambique. On the 25th of that month, da Gama and his men reached the Quelimane River, which they called Rio dos Bons Sinais (meaning ‘River of Good Omens’) and set up another padrão . The fleet rested there for a month, as many of the men were suffering from scurvy and the ships needed to be repaired.

On the 2nd of March, da Gama arrived on the island of Mozambique, which was ruled by a Muslim sultan. The islanders believed that the Portuguese were Muslims like themselves and therefore treated them kindly. da Gama gained much information from them and was even given two navigators by the sultan, one of whom deserted when he learned that the Portuguese were in fact Christians.

In April, the fleet reached the coast of modern day Kenya. On the 14th of April, da Gama was in Malindi, where he obtained the service of a Gujarati navigator who knew the way to Calicut, on the southwestern coast of India. On the 20th of May, the fleet arrived in Calicut after sailing for 23 days directly across the Indian Ocean.

Vasco da Gama landing at Calicut. (Piggy58 / Public Domain)

Vasco da Gama landing at Calicut. (Piggy58 / Public Domain )

At Calicut, da Gama’ gifts failed to impress the Zamorin (the Hindu ruler of Calicut). In addition, the Muslims merchants who were already there were hostile towards the Portuguese. As a consequence, the Portuguese failed to conclude a trade treaty with the Indians of Calicut.

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Vasco da Gama meets Zamorin. (Donaldduck100 / Public Domain)

Vasco da Gama meets Zamorin. (Donaldduck100 / Public Domain )

In the meantime, relations between the Portuguese and the Indians grew increasingly tense and Vasco da Gama finally decided to sail back to Portugal at the end of August. The Portuguese, who were still ignorant about the monsoon wind patterns, chose the worst possible time for their return journey. As a result of sailing against the monsoon winds, da Gama took nearly three months to cross the Indian Ocean, during which time many of his crew died of scurvy.

The lack of crew members also forced da Gama to order the destruction of São Rafael when the fleet arrived at Malindi on the 7th of January 1499. The two remaining ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope on the 20th of March but were separated a month later by a storm.

São Miguel arrived in Portugal on the 10th of July, while São Gabriel arrived on the 9th of September. Nine days later, da Gama entered Lisbon, and was welcomed as a hero.

The king bestowed the title Dom on Vasco da Gama, gave him an annual pension of 1000 cruzados, and estates. Nevertheless, da Gama had paid a hefty price for his success – of the original crew of 170 men only 55 returned, and his own brother was among the dead.

The king granted Vasco da Gama the title of Dom. (laufer / Adobe Stock)

The king granted Vasco da Gama the title of Dom. ( laufer / Adobe Stock)

The Success of Vasco da Gama’s Voyage Demands a Repeat

The success of Vasco da Gama’s voyage encouraged the king to send another fleet, this time consisting of 13 ships, to secure a trade treaty with Calicut. Although relations between the Zamorin and the Portuguese began much better this time round, it quickly went south. The Portuguese came into conflict with the Muslim merchants, who wanted to keep their monopoly on the city’s trade.

As a result, a riot broke out, which overran the Portuguese trading post and many Portuguese were slaughtered. The Zamorin was blamed for the incident and his city was bombarded, thus war was declared by the Portuguese on Calicut.

In 1502, another fleet was set out from Lisbon, under the command of da Gama, who was charged with exacting revenge on Calicut, and to force the Zamorin into submission. Raids were also carried out against Arab merchant ships, and, according to one story, da Gama had captured a pilgrim ship with 200-400 passengers, locked them up in the vessel after plundering its goods, and set fire to the ship.

The story, which may have been false, or at least exaggerated, caused Vasco da Gama to be reviled in that part of the world. Incidentally, one of da Gama’s ships from his second voyage has been found off the coast of Oman and excavated between 2013 and 2015.

Vasco da Gama failed to force the Zamorin to submit and seems to have lost the favor of Manuel when he returned. For the next two decades of his life, da Gama retired to the town of Évora and lived a quiet life with his wife and six sons. He was only sent on his third and last voyage in 1524 by John III, Manuel’s successor.

This time, Vasco da Gama was sent to serve as the Portuguese viceroy in India. In September 1524, da Gama arrived in Goa and began combating the corruption that was plaguing the Portuguese administration in India.

Three months later, however, da Gama died in Cochin as a result of illness, either due to overwork or some other reason. His remains were first buried in St. Francis Church in Cochin, and then brought back to Portugal in 1539 and laid to rest Vidigueira before being transferred to the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon during the late 19th century, where they have remained till today.

Tomb of Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon. (Christine und Hagen Graf / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tomb of Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon. (Christine und Hagen Graf / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Top image: Portuguese caravel of the 15th century. Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese sailor and explorer. Credit: Michael Rosskothen / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

Updated on January 21, 2021.

Fernandez-Armesto, F., and Campbell, E. 2019. Vasco da Gama . [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Vasco-da-Gama

History.com Editors. 2018. Vasco da Gama . [Online] Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/exploration/vasco-da-gama

LisbonLisboaPortugal.com. 2020. Vasco Da Gama . [Online] Available at: https://lisbonlisboaportugal.com/Lisbon-information/Vasco_gama.html

Livermore, H. 2019. Manuel I . [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Manuel-I

New World Encyclopedia. 2019. Portuguese Empire . [Online] Available at: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Portuguese_Empire

Romey, K. 2016. Shipwreck Discovered from Explorer Vasco da Gama's Fleet . [Online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/03/20160314-oman-shipwreck-explorer-vasco-da-gama-age-of-exploration-india-route/

Szalay, J. 2016. Vasco da Gama: Facts & Biography . [Online] Available at: https://www.livescience.com/39078-vasco-da-gama.html

The BBC. 2014. Vasco da Gama (c.1460 - 1524) . [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/da_gama_vasco.shtml

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. Cape of Good Hope . [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Cape-of-Good-Hope

The Mariners' Museum & Park. 2020. Vasco da Gama . [Online] Available at: https://exploration.marinersmuseum.org/subject/vasco-da-gama/

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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Vasco da Gama Timeline

Vasco da Gama Timeline

Vasco da Gama, a prominent Portuguese explorer of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, is renowned for his pioneering voyages that opened new sea routes to distant lands.

Born in the 1460s, da Gama’s remarkable expeditions aimed to establish direct trade connections with India and the East, bypassing traditional overland routes.

His tenacity and navigation skills led to the discovery of a sea route to India in 1498, revolutionizing global trade and reshaping the world’s interconnectedness.

This brief introduction offers a glimpse into the life and significance of Vasco da Gama, an explorer whose journeys left an enduring impact on exploration and trade routes.

Timeline of Vasco da Gama

1460s – vasco da gama is born in sines, portugal.

Vasco da Gama is born in Sines, Portugal, during the 1460s. The exact year of his birth is not well-documented, but it’s believed to be around 1469.

Also Read: Vasco da Gama Accomplishments

He was born into a noble family, which gave him access to education and opportunities that would later shape his career as an explorer.

1497 – Sets sail from Lisbon on his first voyage to find a sea route to India

In July 1497, Vasco da Gama embarks on his first significant voyage. He leads a fleet of four ships: the São Gabriel, São Rafael, Berrio, and a storage ship.

Also Read: Vasco da Gama Facts

The expedition is sponsored by King Manuel I of Portugal and has the primary goal of finding a sea route to India, bypassing the overland trade routes that were controlled by various intermediaries and often resulted in high costs for valuable spices and other goods from the East.

1498 – Reaches Calicut, India, completing his first successful voyage

On May 20, 1498, after several months of sailing along the African coast and overcoming various challenges including harsh weather and dwindling supplies, Vasco da Gama’s fleet arrives in Calicut, a major trading port in India.

This marks a historic achievement, as Vasco da Gama becomes the first European explorer to successfully reach India by sea, establishing a direct maritime route between Europe and Asia. This accomplishment opens up new opportunities for trade and cultural exchange.

1499 – Returns to Portugal with valuable goods from India

Having successfully established contact with Indian merchants and acquired valuable spices like pepper and cinnamon, Vasco da Gama’s fleet begins its return journey to Portugal. They face additional challenges, including storms and conflicts with local rulers along the African coast. The journey takes nearly a year, but in September 1499, Vasco da Gama and his crew arrive back in Lisbon. The expedition is considered a major success, as it not only brings back valuable goods but also proves the viability of a sea route to India.

1502 – Leads a second expedition to India, establishing Portuguese influence

Building on the success of his first voyage, Vasco da Gama leads a second expedition to India in 1502. This time, his mission is not only to establish trade relations but also to solidify Portuguese dominance in the Indian Ocean trade network.

The expedition involves a more assertive approach, including the use of military force to secure trading privileges and establish Portuguese forts and trading posts along the East African coast.

1503 – Captures the Arab ship “Mirí” and continues his expedition

During his second expedition, Vasco da Gama captures the Arab trading ship “Mirí.” This victory is significant, as it not only demonstrates Portuguese naval power but also sends a clear message to other traders and rulers in the region about Portuguese strength. This event further bolsters Vasco da Gama’s reputation and the Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean.

1503-1504 – Returns to Portugal after a successful second voyage

Vasco da Gama’s second expedition takes him to various key locations. He visits the island of Mozambique, where he establishes a Portuguese trading post.

He continues along the east coast of Africa, making stops at several ports to negotiate treaties and secure trading rights. His expedition also takes him back to the Malabar Coast of India, where he engages in further trade negotiations and establishes Portuguese outposts.

1524 – Appointed as the Portuguese Viceroy of India

After a period of time back in Portugal, Vasco da Gama is appointed as the Portuguese Viceroy of India in 1524.

As the Viceroy, his responsibilities include overseeing the Portuguese trading posts, forts, and diplomatic relations in the region. His appointment reflects the importance of maintaining Portuguese control and influence in the Indian Ocean trade network.

1524 – Begins his third and final voyage to India

In 1524, Vasco da Gama embarked on his third and final voyage to India. This expedition marked another chapter in his efforts to establish and consolidate Portuguese influence in the lucrative Indian Ocean trade network.

As the newly appointed Viceroy of India, da Gama undertook this journey with a dual purpose: to reinforce Portuguese control over existing trading posts and to address challenges posed by local rulers and merchants who resisted their dominance.

1524 – Oversees administrative and military activities in India

As Viceroy of India, Vasco da Gama returns to India for his third and final voyage. During this period, he engages in various administrative and military activities to strengthen Portuguese control and suppress any challenges to their dominance.

He faces resistance from local rulers and merchants who seek to resist Portuguese control, leading to conflicts and tensions.

1524 – Dies on December 24 in Cochin, India

Unfortunately, Vasco da Gama’s final voyage is marked by personal hardship. He falls seriously ill during his time in India and, despite receiving medical treatment, his condition worsens. On December 24, 1524, Vasco da Gama passes away in Cochin, India. His death marks the end of an era in Portuguese exploration and trade in the Indian Ocean.

COMMENTS

  1. Vasco da Gama

    Vasco da Gama (born c. 1460, Sines, Portugal—died December 24, 1524, Cochin, India) was a Portuguese navigator whose voyages to India (1497-99, 1502-03, 1524) opened up the sea route from western Europe to the East by way of the Cape of Good Hope. The famed bridge named in his honor in Lisbon, the Vasco da Gama Bridge that crosses over ...

  2. Vasco da Gama Interactive Map

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  3. Vasco da Gama

    Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira (/ ˌ v æ s k u d ə ˈ ɡ ɑː m ə, ˈ ɡ æ m ə /; European Portuguese: [ˈvaʃku ðɐ ˈɣɐ̃mɐ]; c. 1460s - 24 December 1524), was a Portuguese explorer and nobleman who was the first European to reach India by sea.. His initial voyage to India by way of Cape of Good Hope (1497-1499) was the first to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route ...

  4. Vasco da Gama

    The Portuguese nobleman Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) sailed from Lisbon in 1497 on a mission to reach India and open a sea route from Europe to the East. After sailing down the western coast of ...

  5. Vasco da Gama's voyage 1497-1498

    Vasco da Gama's voyage 1497-1498. This map is part of a series of 16 animated maps showing the history of The Age of Discovery. In 1497, King Manuel I of Portugal chose Vasco da Gama to lead the first maritime expedition to the Indies. The route had already been opened up by Bartolomeu Dias who had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope ten ...

  6. Portuguese discovery of the sea route to India

    Vasco da Gama on his arrival in India in May 1498, bearing the flag used during the first voyage by sea to this part of the world: the arms of Portugal and the Cross of the Order of Christ, sponsors of the expansion movement initiated by Henry the Navigator, are seen.. The Portuguese discovery of the sea route to India was the first recorded trip directly from Europe to the Indian subcontinent ...

  7. Vasco da Gama

    Vasco da Gama (c. 1469-1524) was a Portuguese navigator who, in 1497-9, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa and arrived at Calicut (now Kozhikode) on the south-west coast of India.This was the first direct voyage from Portugal to India and allowed the Europeans to cut in on the immensely lucrative Eastern trade in spices.. Da Gama repeated his voyage in 1502-3, but this time ...

  8. Vasco da Gama

    Vasco da Gama in India in 1497 By Alfredo Roque Gameiro (1864-1935). (Credit: National Library of Portugal) "A Chart Illustrating the First Voyage of Vasco Da Gama, 1497-1499," A journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, 1898, From The Library at The Mariners' Museum, G401.G2.V45.1898.

  9. Waldseemüller and Vasco da Gama

    The voyage of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama from Lisbon (July, 1497) around the Cape of Good Hope to Melinde on the east coast of Africa (April, 1498) and across the Indian Ocean to Calicut (May 19, 1498) revealed the sea route from Europe to the Indies. On his globe Waldseemüller portrayed the seas that led to the East, to India and ...

  10. Vasco da Gama (c.1469-1524)

    Vasco da Gama (c.1469-1524) Prince Henry the Navigator inspired the first era of Portuguese exploration of the coast of Africa and beyond, starting in the 1430's ... Early depictions of Vasco da Gama; *a map showing his route*; on his voyages see *Kerr, 2:6:1* On his first voyage (1498-99), he arrived in Calicut on May 20, 1498; many artists ...

  11. Vasco da Gama's Voyages

    And The Rest. Vasco da Gama took two more voyages, all to India. On the third voyage he went to India and replaced all the governor and all his officials. And on Christmas eve 1524 Vasco da Gama died in Cochin, India. Eventually, his body was returned to Portugal, and he was buried in a ornate coffin decorated with gold and jewels.

  12. Vasco Da Gama (1496-1524)

    Vasco Da Gama was a Portuguese explorer. He commanded the first fleet from Europe to India and sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to India. Vasco Da Gama (1496-1524)

  13. G

    a journal of the voyage of vasco da gama in 1497-99; appendices; a two letters of king manuel, 1499; b girolamo sernigi's letters, 1499; c three portuguese accounts of vasco da gama's first voyage; d vasco da gama's ships and their equipment; e muster-roll of vasco da gama's fleet; f the voyage; g early maps illustrating vasco da gama's first ...

  14. Vasco da Gama

    Vasco da Gama - Explorer, India, Portugal: To exploit da Gama's achievement, Manuel I dispatched the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral to Calicut with a fleet of 13 ships. The profits of this expedition were such that a third fleet was soon fitted out in Lisbon. The command of this fleet was given to da Gama, who in January 1502 received the title of admiral.

  15. Vasco da Gama: Biography, Explorer, Europe to India, Facts

    In all, da Gama's first journey covered nearly 24,000 miles in close to two years, and only 54 of the crew's original 170 members survived. Second Voyage When da Gama returned to Lisbon, he was ...

  16. BBC

    Last updated 2011-02-17. Vasco da Gama was the first European to open a sea-based trade route to India. In an epic voyage, he sailed around Africa's Cape of Good Hope and succeeded in breaking the ...

  17. Vasco Da Gama

    Vasco Da Gama was a Portuguese sea captain and explorer. He commanded the first fleet to reach India from Europe. He lived from 1469-1524. Vasco Da Gama was a Portuguese sea captain and explorer. ... Th The First Voyage. Da Gama sailed from India of July 8th,1497, with a fleet of 4 ships. 2. Second Voyage.

  18. A journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499

    Appendices: Two letters of King Manuel, 1499 -- Girolamo Sernigi's letters, 1499 -- Three Portuguese accounts of Vasco da Gama's first voyage, 1608, 1612, 1646 -- Vasco da Gama's ships and their equipment -- Muster-roll of Vasco da Gama's fleet -- The voyage -- Early maps illustrating Vasco da Gama's first voyage -- Honours and rewards bestowed ...

  19. Epic Voyage of Vasco da Gama Connected Europe to the East

    The route followed in Vasco da Gama's first voyage, 1497-1499. ... Map of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas the southernmost point of Africa. (Johantheghost / CC BY-SA 3.0) This was a reference to the stormy weather and rough seas that the area is famous for, which was a challenge for the early seafarers who intended to sail round the ...

  20. Vasco da Gama

    On Vasco da Gama's second voyage, he commanded 10 ships. They started sailing in February 1502. On June 14 they researched at the port of Sofala, East Africa. They sailed from Mozambique to Kilwa. The Portuguese and the ruler of Kilwa did not start on good turns. da Gama threatened to burn Kilwa if they did not surrender to the Portuguese and ...

  21. Vasco da Gama Timeline

    1502. Vasco da Gama leads his second expedition to India, establishing Portuguese dominance. 1503. Da Gama captures the Arab ship "Mirí" and continues his expedition. 1503-1504. Vasco da Gama returns to Portugal after his successful expedition. 1524. Vasco da Gama is appointed as the Portuguese Viceroy of India. 1524.

  22. Vasco Da Gama

    Vasco Da Gama, after returning to Portugal in 1503, retired from sea. In 1524, King John /// called Da Gama Viceroy of India. Vasco Da Gama sailed to India where he died on December 25th. Vasco Da Gama was a Portuguese explorer. He was famous for being the first person to sail from Europe to India via the Cape of Good Hope.