Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama
Born 1460 or 1469
Sines or Vidigueira, Alentejo, Kingdom of Portugal
Died 23 December 1524 (aged 54-64)
Kochi, India
Occupation Explorer, Governor of Portuguese India

Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira (Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈvaʃku ðɐ ˈɣɐmɐ]) (c. 1460 or 1469 – 24 December 1524) was a Portuguese explorer, one of the most successful in the Age of Discovery and the commander of the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India. For a short time in 1524 he was the Governor of Portuguese India, under the title of Viceroy.


Early life

Vasco da Gama was born in either 1460[1] or 1469[2] in Sines, on the southwest coast of Portugal, probably in a house near the church of Nossa Senhora das Salas. Sines, one of the few seaports on the Alentejo coast, consisted of little more than a cluster of whitewashed, red-tiled cottages, tenanted chiefly by fisherfolk.

Statue of Vasco da Gama at his birthplace, Sines, Portugal

Vasco da Gama's father was Estêvão da Gama, who had served in the 1460s as a knight of the household of Infante Ferdinand, Duke of Viseu[3] and went on to rise in the ranks of the military Order of Santiago. Estêvão da Gama was appointed alcaide-mór (civil governor) of Sines in the 1460s, a post he held until 1478, and continued as a receiver of taxes and holder of the Order's commendas in the region.

Estêvão da Gama married Isabel Sodré, a daughter of João Sodré (also known as João de Resende), scion of a well-connected family of English origin.[4] Her father and her brothers, Vicente Sodré and Brás Sodré, had links to the household of Infante Diogo, Duke of Viseu and were prominent figures in the military Order of Christ.

Vasco da Gama was the third of five sons of Estêvão da Gama and Isabel Sodré - in (probable) order of age: Paulo da Gama, João Sodré, Vasco da Gama, Pedro da Gama and Aires da Gama. Vasco also had one known sister, Teresa da Gama (who married Lopo Mendes de Vasconcelos).[5]

Little is known of Vasco da Gama's early life. The Portuguese historian Teixeira de Aragão suggests that Gama studied at the inland town of Évora, which is where he may have learned mathematics and navigation and it has even been claimed (although dubiously) that he studied under the astronomer Abraham Zacuto.[6]

Around 1480, Vasco da Gama followed his father (rather than the Sodrés) and joined the Order of Santiago.[7] The master of Santiago was Prince John, who would ascend to the throne in 1481 as King John II of Portugal. John II doted on the Order, and the Gamas prospects rose accordingly.

In 1492, John II dispatched Vasco da Gama on a mission to the port of Setúbal and to the Algarve to seize French ships in retaliation for peacetime depredations against Portuguese shipping - a task that Vasco rapidly and effectively performed.[8]

Exploration before Gama

From the earlier part of the 15th Century, Portuguese expeditions organized by Prince Henry the Navigator had been crawling down the African coastline, principally in search for west African riches (notably, gold). They had greatly extended Portuguese maritime knowledge, but had little profit to show for the effort. After Henry's death in 1460, the Portuguese crown showed little interest in continuing and, in 1469, the crown sold off the neglected African enterprise to a private Lisbon merchant consortium, led by Fernão Gomes. In a few short years, Gomes's captains rapidly expanded Portuguese knowledge across the Gulf of Guinea and drummed up some business in gold dust, melagueta pepper, ivory and slaves . When Gomes charter came up for renewal in 1474, Prince John (future John II), asked his father Afonso V of Portugal to pass the African charter to him.

Upon becoming king in 1481, John II of Portugal set out on many long reforms. To break the monarch's dependence on the feudal nobility, John II needed to build up the royal treasury and saw royal commerce as the key to it. Under John II's watch, the gold and slave trade in west Africa was greatly expanded. But John II was also eager to break into the highly-profitable spice trade between Europe and Asia. 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. So John II soon set a new objective for his captains: to find a sea route to Asia by sailing under the African continent.

By the time Vasco da Gama was in his 20s, these plans were coming to fruition. In 1487, John 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 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.

It remained for an explorer to prove the link between the findings of Dias and those of da Covilhã and de Paiva and to connect these separate segments into a potentially lucrative trade route into the Indian Ocean. The task, originally given to Vasco da Gama's father, was finally offered to Vasco by Manuel I on the strength of his record of protecting Portuguese trading stations along the African Gold Coast from depredations by the French.

First voyage

The route followed in Vasco da Gama's first voyage (1497–1499)

On 8 July 1497 Vasco da Gama led a fleet of four ships with a crew of 170 men from Lisbon. The distance traveled in the journey around Africa to India and back was greater than around the equator.[9][10] The navigators included Portugal's most experienced, Pero de Alenquer, Pedro Escobar, João de Coimbra, and Afonso Gonçalves. It is not known for certain how many people were in each ship's crew but approximately 55 returned, and two ships were lost. Two of the vessels were as naus or newly built for the voyage, possibly a caravel and a supply boat.[9] The four ships were:

  • The São Gabriel, commanded by Vasco da Gama; a carrack of 178 tons, length 27 m, width 8.5 m, draft 2.3 m, sails of 372 m²
  • The São Rafael, whose commander was his brother Paulo da Gama; similar dimensions to the São Gabriel
  • The caravel Berrio, slightly smaller than the former two (later re-named São Miguel), commanded by Nicolau Coelho
  • A storage ship of unknown name, commanded by Gonçalo Nunes, later lost near the Bay of São Brás, along the east coast of Africa[3]

Journey to the Cape

Monument to the Cross of Vasco da Gama at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

The expedition set sail from Lisbon on 8 July 1497, following 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.[11] This course proved successful and on November 4, 1497, the expedition made landfall on the African coast. For over three months the ships had sailed more than 6,000 miles of open ocean, by far the longest journey out of sight of land made by the time.[9][12]

By December 16, the fleet had passed the Great Fish River (Eastern Cape, South Africa) - where Dias had turned back - and sailed into waters previously unknown to Europeans. With Christmas pending, da Gama and his crew gave the coast they were passing the name Natal, which carried the connotation of "birth of Christ" in Portuguese.

Arab-controlled territory on the East African coast was an integral part of the network of trade in the Indian Ocean. Fearing the local population would be hostile to Christians, da Gama impersonated a Muslim and gained audience with the Sultan of Mozambique. With the paltry trade goods he had to offer, da Gama was unable to provide a suitable gift to the ruler and soon the local populace became suspicious of da Gama and his men. Forced by a hostile crowd to flee Mozambique, da Gama departed the harbor, firing his cannons into the city in retaliation.[13]


In the vicinity of modern Kenya, the expedition resorted to piracy, looting Arab merchant ships - generally unarmed trading vessels without heavy cannons. The Portuguese became the first known Europeans to visit the port of Mombasa but were met with hostility and soon departed.


In February 1498, Vasco da Gama continued north, landing at the friendlier port of Malindi - whose leaders were then in conflict with those of Mombasa - and there the expedition first noted evidence of Indian traders. Da Gama and his crew contracted the services of a pilot whose knowledge of the monsoon winds allowed him to bring the expedition the rest of the way to Calicut (Kozhikode), located on the southwest coast of India. Sources differ over the identity of the pilot, calling him variously a Christian, a Muslim, and a Gujarati. One traditional story describes the pilot as the famous Arab navigator Ibn Majid, but other contemporaneous accounts place Majid elsewhere, and he could not have been near the vicinity at the time.[14] Also, none of the Portuguese historians of the time mention Ibn Majid.

Calicut, India

The fleet arrived in Kappad near Calicut, India on 20 May 1498. The King of Calicut, the Saamoothiri (Zamorin), who was at that time staying in his second capital at Ponnani, returned to Calicut on hearing the news of the European fleets's arrival. The navigator was received with traditional hospitality, including a grand procession of at least 3,000 armed Nairs, but an interview with the Zamorin failed to produce any concrete results. The presents that da Gama sent to the Zamorin as gifts from Dom Manuel—four cloaks of scarlet cloth, six hats, four branches of corals, twelve almasares, a box with seven brass vessels, a chest of sugar, two barrels of oil and a cask of honey—were trivial, and failed to impress. While Zamorin's officials wondered at why there was no gold or silver, the Muslim merchants who considered da Gama their rival suggested that the latter was only an ordinary pirate and not a royal ambassador.[15] Vasco da Gama's request for permission to leave a factor behind him in charge of the merchandise he could not sell was turned down by the King, who insisted that da Gama pay customs duty—preferably in gold—like any other trader, which strained the relation between the two. Annoyed by this, da Gama carried a few Nairs and sixteen Mukkuva fishermen off with him by force.[16] Nevertheless, da Gama's expedition was successful beyond all reasonable expectation, bringing in cargo that was worth sixty times the cost of the expedition.


Vasco da Gama lands at Calicut, May 20, 1498.

Vasco da Gama set sail for home on 29 August 1498. Eager to leave, he ignored the local knowledge of monsoon wind patterns which were still blowing onshore. Crossing the Indian Ocean to India, sailing with the monsoon wind, had taken da Gama's ships only 23 days. The return trip across the ocean, sailing against the wind, took 132 days, and da Gama arrived in Malindi on 7 January 1499. During this trip, approximately half of the crew died, and many of the rest were afflicted with scurvy. Two of da Gama's ships made it back to Portugal, arriving in July and August of 1499.[17]

Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal in September 1499 and was richly rewarded as the man who had brought to fruition a plan that had taken eighty years to fulfill. He was given the title "Admiral of the Indian Seas,"[18] and his feudal rights to Sines were confirmed.[19] Manuel I also awarded the perpetual title of Dom (lord) to da Gama, as well as to his brothers and sisters and to all of their descendants.

The spice trade would prove to be a major asset to the Portuguese economy, and other consequences soon followed. For example, da Gama's voyage had made it clear that the east coast of Africa, the Contra Costa, was essential to Portuguese interests; its ports provided fresh water, provisions, timber, and harbors for repairs, and served as a refuge where ships could wait out unfavorable weather. One significant result was the colonization of Mozambique by the Portuguese Crown.

However, da Gama's achievements were somewhat dimmed by his failure to bring any trade goods of interest to the nations of India. Moreover, the sea route was fraught with its own perils - his fleet went more than thirty days without seeing land and only 60 of his 180 companions, on one of his three ships, returned to Portugal in 1498. Nevertheless, da Gama's initial journey opened a direct sea route to Asia.

Second voyage

On 12 February 1502, da Gama commanded the 4th Portuguese Armada to India, a fleet of fifteen ships and eight hundred men, with the object of enforcing Portuguese interests in the east. On reaching India in October 1502, da Gama started capturing any Arab vessel he came across in Indian waters. While the Zamorin was willing to sign a treaty,[20] da Gama made a preposterous call to the Hindu King to expel all Muslims from Calicut which was naturally turned down. He bombarded the city destroying several houses on the sea shore. He also captured several rice vessels and barbarously cut off the crew's hands, ears and noses.[21] He then sailed south to Cochin, a small vassal kingdom of Calicut where he was given a warm welcome. Da Gama continued north on his return path. Once he had reached the northern parts of the Indian Ocean, da Gama waited for a ship to return from Mecca and seized all the merchandise on it. He then ordered the hundreds of passengers be locked in the hold and the ship - named Mîrî, and which contained many wealthy Muslim merchants — to be set on fire.[22] Da Gama assaulted and exacted tribute from the Arab-controlled port of Kilwa in East Africa, one of those ports involved in frustrating the Portuguese. His ships engaged in privateer actions against Arab merchant ships. He returned to Portugal in September 1503 with silk and gold.

Third voyage

Tomb of Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon
St. Francis CSI Church, in Kochi. Vasco da Gama, died in Kochi in 1524 when he was on his third visit to India. His body was originally buried in this church.

In 1519 he became the first Count of Vidigueira, a count title created by King Manuel I of Portugal on a royal decree issued in Évora on December 29, after an agreement with Dom Jaime, Duke of Braganza, who ceded him on payment the towns of Vidigueira and Vila dos Frades. This decree granted Vasco da Gama and his heirs all the revenues and privileges related,[23] thus establishing da Gama as the first Portuguese count (earl) who was not born with royal blood.

Having acquired a fearsome reputation as a "fixer" of problems that arose in India, Vasco da Gama was sent to the subcontinent once more in 1524. The intention was that he was to replace the incompetent Eduardo de Menezes as Viceroy (representative) of the Portuguese possessions, but da Gama contracted malaria not long after arriving in Goa and died in the city of Cochin on Christmas Eve in 1524.

His body was first buried at St. Francis Church, which was located at Fort Kochi in the city of Kochi, but 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.

The Monastery of the Hieronymites, in Belém was erected in honor of his voyage to India.

Pilgrim ship incident

Vasco da Gama inflicted acts of cruelty upon competing traders and local inhabitants.[24][25] During his second voyage to Calicut, da Gama intercepted a ship of Muslim pilgrims at Madayi travelling from Calicut to Mecca. Described by the Portuguese historian Gaspar Correia as one that is unequalled in cold-blooded cruelty, da Gama looted the ship with over 400 pilgrims on board including 50 women, locked in the passengers, the owner and an ambassador from Egypt and burnt them to death. They offered their wealth which 'could ransom all the Christian slaves in the Kingdom of Fez and much more' but were not spared. Da Gama looked on through the porthole and saw the women bringing up their gold and jewels and holding up their babies to beg for mercy.'[26]

After demanding the expulsion of Muslims from Calicut to the Hindu Zamorin, the latter sent the high priest Talappana Namboothiri (the very same person who conducted da Gama to the Zamorin's chamber during his much celebrated first visit to Calicut in May 1498) for talks. Da Gama called him a spy, ordered the priests' lips and ears to be cut off and after sewing a pair of dog's ears to his head, sent him away.[24]


Map of the Portuguese Empire during the reign of John III (1502–1557).

Da Gama and his wife, Catarina de Ataíde, had six sons and one daughter: Dom Francisco da Gama, 2nd Count of Vidigueira; Dom Estevão da Gama, 11th Governor of India (1540–1542); Dom Paulo da Gama; Dom Pedro da Silva da Gama; Dom Álvaro de Ataíde da Gama, Captain of Malacca; Dona Isabel de Ataíde da Gama and Dom Cristovão da Gama, a martyr in Ethiopia. His male line issue became extinct in 1747, though the title went through female line.

As much as anyone after Henry the Navigator, da Gama was responsible for Portugal's success as an early colonising power. Beside the fact of the first voyage itself, it was his astute mix of politics and war on the other side of the world that placed Portugal in a prominent position in Indian Ocean trade. Following da Gama's initial voyage, the Portuguese crown realized that securing outposts on the eastern coast of Africa would prove vital to maintaining national trade routes to the Far East.

The Portuguese national epic, the Lusíadas of Luís Vaz de Camões, largely concerns Vasco da Gama's voyages.

The 1865 grand opera L'Africaine: Opéra en Cinq Actes, composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer from a libretto by Eugène Scribe, prominently includes the character of Vasco da Gama. The events depicted, however, are fictitious. Meyerbeer's working title for the opera was Vasco da Gama. A 1989 production of the opera by the San Francisco Opera featured noted tenor Placido Domingo in the role of da Gama.[27] The 19th century composer Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray composed an eponymous 1872 opera based on da Gama's life and exploits at sea.

The port city of Vasco da Gama in Goa is named after him, as is the crater Vasco da Gama on the Moon. There are three football clubs in Brazil (including Club de Regatas Vasco da Gama) and Vasco Sports Club in Goa that were also named after him. There exists a church in Kochi, Kerala called Vasco da Gama Church, and a private residence on the island of Saint Helena. The suburb of Vasco in Cape Town also honours him.

A few places in Lisbon's Parque das Nações are named after the explorer, such as the Vasco da Gama Bridge, Vasco da Gama Tower and the Centro Comercial Vasco da Gama shopping centre.[28] The Oceanário in the Parque das Nações has a mascot of a cartoon diver with the name of "Vasco", who is named after the explorer.[29]

South African musician Hugh Masekela recorded an anti-colonialist song entitled "Vasco da Gama (The Sailor Man)", which contains the lyrics "Vasco da Gama was no friend of mine". He later recorded another version of this song under the name "Colonial Man".

In fiction

Vasco da Gama appears as a villain like character in a Malayalam film titled Urumi. The tale of Kelu Nayanar depicted in the film is fictional, and though it is based on historical events, the film has a mystical fantasy flavour.

See also


  1. ^ Modern History Sourcebook: Vasco da Gama: Round Africa to India, 1497-1498 CE,, Retrieved June 27, 2007
  2. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Vasco da Gama Retrieved June 27, 2007
  3. ^ a b Ames, Glenn J. (2008). The Globe Encompassed. p. 27. ISBN 0131933884. 
  4. ^ The Sodrés were said to have been descended from Frederick Sudley, of Gloucestershire, who accompanied the Earl of Cambridge to Portugal in 1381, and subsequently settled down there (Subrahmanyam 1997: p.61)
  5. ^ Subrahmanyam (1997: p.61)
  6. ^ Subrahmanyam 1997, p.62.
  7. ^ Subrahmanyam 1997, p.60-61.
  8. ^ Subrahmanyam, 1997, p.63
  9. ^ a b c Diffie, Bailey W.; Winius, George D. (1977). Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415-1850. Europe and the World in the Age of Expansion. 1. p. 177. ISBN 978-0816608508. 
  10. ^ Da Gama's Round Africa to India, Retrieved 16 November 2006
  11. ^ Gago Coutinho, C.V. (1951-52) A Nautica dos Descobrimentos: os descobrimentos maritimos visitos por um navegador, Lisbon: Agencia Geral do Ultramar; p.319-63; Axelson, E. (1988) "The Dias Voyage, 1487-1488: toponymy and padrões", Revista da Universidade de Coimbra, Vol. 34, p.29-55 offprint; Waters, D.W. (1988) "Reflections Upon Some Navigational and Hydrographic Problems of the XVIth Century Related to the voyage of Bartolomeu Dias", Revista da Universidade de Coimbra, Vol. 34, p.275-347. offprint
  12. ^ Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe (2006). Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 177–178. ISBN 0-393-06259-7. 
  13. ^ Vasco da Gamma Seeks Sea Route to India, Retrieved 8 July 2006
  14. ^ Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe (2006). Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 178–179. ISBN 0-393-06259-7. 
  15. ^ Castaneda, Herman Lopes de, The First Book of the Historie of the Discoveries and Conquests of the East India by the Portingals, London, 1582, in Kerr, Robert (ed.) A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels Vol. II, London, 1811.
  16. ^ M.G.S. Narayanan, Calicut: The City of Truth (2006) Calicut University Publications (The incident is mentioned by Camoes in The Lusiads, wherein it is stated that the Zamorin "showed no signs of treachery" and that "on the other hand, da Gama's conduct in carrying off the five men he had entrapped on board his ships is indefensible.")
  17. ^ Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe (2006). Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 180. ISBN 0-393-06259-7. 
  18. ^ Ames, Glenn J. (2008). The Globe Encompassed. p. 28. ISBN 0131933884. 
  19. ^ Subrahmanyam 1997, p.169
  20. ^ Vasco da Gama Arrives in India 1498 (Google cached version) Dana Thompson, Felicity Ruiz, Michelle Mejiak; December 15, 1998. Retrieved 8 July 2006
  21. ^ Sreedhara Menon. A. A Survey of Kerala History(1967), p.152. D. C. Books Kottayam
  22. ^ Subrahmanyam 1997, p.205
  23. ^ Vasco Da Gama, Ernest George Ravenstein, "A journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499", p. Hakluyt Society, Issue 99 of Works issued by the Hakluyt Society, ISBN 81-206-1136-5
  24. ^ a b M. G. S. Narayanan, Calicut: The City of Truth (2006) Calicut University Publications
  25. ^ A. Sreedhara Menon. A Survey of Kerala History (1967), D. C. Books Kottayam
  26. ^ Nambiar O.K, The Kunjalis- Admirals of Calicut, Bombay, 1963.
  27. ^ Subrahmanyam 1997, p.2
  28. ^ "Centro Vasco da Gama". Retrieved 2009-01-29. 
  29. ^ Wikipedia: Oceanário de Lisboa (Portuguese)

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  • Vasco da Gama — Vasco da Gama. Porträt von Gregorio Lopes (1490–1550) Dom Vasco da Gama, Graf von Vidigueira (* um 1469 in Sines; † 24. Dezember 1524 in Cochin, Indien) war ein portugiesischer Seefahrer und Entdecker des Seewegs nach …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Vasco de gama — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Vasco da Gama. Vasco de Gama Portrait par Gregorio Lopes (v. 1524) …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Vasco da Gama —     Vasco da Gama     † Catholic Encyclopedia ► Vasco da Gama     The discover of the sea route to East Indies; born at Sines, Province of Alemtejo, Portugal, about 1469; died at Cochin, India, 24 December, 1524.     His father, Estevão da Gama,… …   Catholic encyclopedia

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  • Vasco da Gama — (Sines, Portugal, 1469 Cochin, actual India, 1524) Navegante portugués. Nacido en el seno de una familia noble, en 1497 recibió del rey Manuel el Afortunado el encargo de abrir una ruta por mar a las tierras productoras de especias. Con ello se… …   Enciclopedia Universal

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