Vasco da Gama - Portuguese Explorer

Vasco da Gama - Portuguese Explorer

Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese explorer who discovered the sea route to India from Europe through the Cape of Good Hope. It is believed that da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal, in approximately 1460.

He received his first important appointment in 1497 when he was named commander of a four-ship expedition that was to continue the work started by Bartolomeu Dias, who had attempted to find a route from Europe to India via the Cape of Good Hope.

Dias’s expedition had only made it a short distance past the Cape of Good Hope. Da Gama’s expedition set out from Lisbon on July 8, 1497. The ships passed the Canary Islands on July 15, but then became separated in a fog. They were able to regroup on July 26 at the Cape Verde island of Santiago.

Da Gama wanted to avoid the Gulf of Guinea, where Dias had had problems with the weather and currents. To do this da Gama sailed his ships out into the Atlantic Ocean, eventually coming within 600 miles of South America. When da Gama’s ships finally made landfall on November 7, they had been on the open sea for 96 days and had sailed 4,500 miles.

The fleet spent the next eight days at St. Helena Bay before continuing on to the Cape of Good Hope, which they sailed around on November 22. Putting into Mossel Bay, da Gama’s crews broke up their supply ship and distributed the supplies to the other ships. They set off again on December 8.

Making their way up the eastern coast of Africa the expedition anchored in the Kilimane River estuary, where they spent 32 days repairing their ships and nursing members of the crew who had come down with scurvy. From there they continued up the coast putting into Malindi on April 13, 1498. In Malindi, the local sultan gave da Gama a pilot, who left with them on April 24 as they set out to cross the Indian Ocean.

Vasco da Gama landing at Calicut
Vasco da Gama landing at Calicut

Da Gama was successful in crossing the Indian Ocean and anchored off the city of Calicut, India, on May 20. He spent the next several months trying to work out a trade treaty with the local rajah, but because of the intervention of the local Muslim merchants, he was unable to reach an agreement and headed home at the end of August 1498.

The trip back across the Indian Ocean proved to be much harder. By the time his ships put into Malindi (January 7, 1499), he was forced, because of losses among his crew, to burn one of his ships and proceed with only two ships. The ships sailed on and rounded the Cape of Good Hope on March 20, 1499.

The ships became separated in a storm in April. The ship da Gama was on made it to Cape Verde, where he sent the ship on to Lisbon while he took his dying brother on a hired ship to the Azores, where his brother died. Da Gama then went on to Lisbon, where he arrived in September 8, 1499, to a hero’s reception.

Da Gama’s second voyage to India was in 1502 and was made up of 20 ships. During this voyage, he bombarded the city of Calicut. He was able to sign treaties with the rajahs in the cities of Cochin and Cannanore.

With his remaining 13 ships full of goods he set sail for Portugal on December 28, 1502. He reached Lisbon on September 1, 1503. King Manuel I rewarded him with the titles of admiral of the Indian Seas and count of Vidigueira.

Da Gama was called upon again in 1524 by King João III the Pious when Portuguese affairs in India had been declining. The king appointed him viceroy of India and sent him there with 14 ships. The fleet left Lisbon on April 9, 1524, and arrived at the Indian port of Chaul on September 5, 1524, having lost two ships along the way.

By the end of the month, he had reached Goa, the Portuguese capital in India. Da Gama tried to put an end to the corruption, but his harsh ways did not help. Then on Christmas night of 1524, he passed away. His body was not returned to Portugal until 1538.