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Vasco da Gama
1460 - 1524

The Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama was the first to travel by sea from Portugal to India. The term "Da Gama epoch" is used to describe the era of European commercial and imperial expansion launched by his navigational enterprise.


Little is known of the early life of Vasco da Gama; his father was governor of Sines, Portugal, where Vasco was born. He first comes to historical notice in 1492, when he seized French ships in Portuguese ports as reprisal for piratical raids. When he was commissioned for his famous voyage, he was a gentleman at the court of King Manuel I.

Manuel, against the advice of a majority of his counselors, had decided to follow up Bartolomeu Dias's triumphal voyage round the Cape of Good Hope (1487-1488) with a well-planned attempt to reach all the way to the Malabar Coast of India, the ports of which were the major entrepôts for the Western spice trade with southeastern Asia. This trade had fallen under the control of Moslem merchants; the Venetians were only the final distributors to Europe of these valuable commodities.

Manuel hoped to displace the Moslem (and thus the Venetian) middlemen and to establish Portuguese hegemony over the Oriental oceanic trades. He also hoped to join with Eastern Christian forces (symbolized to medieval Europeans by the legend of the powerful priest-king, Prester John) and thus carry on a worldwide crusade against Islam. Da Gama's voyage was to be the first complete step toward the realization of these ambitions.

Voyage to India

Da Gama, supplied with letters of introduction to Prester John and to the ruler of the Malabar city of Calicut, set sail from the Tagus River in Lisbon on July 8, 1497. He commanded the flagship St. Gabriel, accompanied by the St. Raphael and Berrio (commanded, respectively, by his brother Paulo and Nicolas Coelho) and a large supply ship. After a landfall in the Cape Verde Islands, he stood well out to sea, rounding the Cape of Good Hope on November 22. Sailing past the port of Sofala, the expedition landed at Kilimane, the second in a string of East African coastal cities. These towns were under Moslem control and gained their wealth largely through trade in gold and ivory. Proceeding to Mozambique, where they were at first mistaken for Moslems, the Portuguese were kindly received by the sultan. A subsequent dispute, however, led da Gama to order a naval bombardment of the city.

Traveling northward to Mombasa, the Portuguese escaped a Moslem attempt to destroy the small fleet and hurriedly sailed for the nearby port of Malindi. Its sultan, learning of the bombardment to the south, decided to cooperate with da Gama and lent him the services of the famous Indian pilot Ibn Majid for the next leg of the journey. On May 20, 1498, the Portuguese anchored off Calicut - then the most important trading center in southern India - well prepared to tap the fabulous riches of India.

Their expectations, however, were soon to be deflated. The Portuguese at first thought the Hindu inhabitants of the city to be Christians, although a visit to a local temple where they were permitted to worship "Our Lady" - Devaki, mother of the god Krishna - made them question the purity of the faith as locally practiced. The zamorin, the ruler of Calicut, warmly welcomed the newcomers - until his treasurers appraised the inexpensive items sent as gifts by King Manuel. In fact, the potentates of the East were at that time wealthier than the financially embarrassed Western kings, and the zamorin quite naturally had looked for a standard tribute in gold. The Portuguese merchandise did not sell well in the port, and the Moslem merchants who dominated the city's trade convinced the zamorin that he stood to gain nothing by concluding a commercial agreement with the intruders.

Amid rumors of plots against his life but with his ships stocked with samples of precious jewels and spices, da Gama sailed from Calicut at the end of August 1498. The trip back to Portugal proved far more difficult than the voyage out, and many men died of scurvy during the 3-month journey across the Arabian Sea. The St. Raphael was burned and its complement distributed among the other ships. The remaining vessels became separated in a storm off the West African coast, and Coelho was the first to reach home (July 10, 1499). The da Gamas had gone to the Azores, where Paulo died, and Vasco arrived in Lisbon on September 9.

Da Gama returned twice to India: in 1502, when he bombarded Calicut in revenge for an attack on a previous Portuguese expedition; and in 1524, when he was appointed viceroy. On Dec. 24, 1524, Vasco da Gama died in the southwestern Indian city of Cochin. He was richly rewarded for his services by his sovereign, being made Count of Vidiguerira and Admiral of the Indian Seas and receiving pensions and a lucrative slice of the Eastern trade.

Da Gama's first voyage deserves to be compared with Columbus's more celebrated "discovery" of the New World. Neither man actually "discovered" unoccupied territories; rather, both linked anciently settled and developed parts of the world with Europe. The Spaniards subsequently conquered the "Indians" of the West, living in settler societies off their labor and natural resources; the Portuguese founded a seaborne commercial empire from which they tried to drain middlemen's profits from a trade still on the whole unfavourably balanced against Europe.


Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira, ca. either 1460 or 1469 – December 24, 1524 in Kochi, India) 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.

Early life

Vasco da Gama was probably born in either 1460 or 1469,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. In the 1460s he was a knight in the household of the Duke of Viseu, Dom Fernando. Dom Fernando appointed him Alcaide-Mór or Civil Governor of Sines and enabled him to receive a small revenue from taxes on soap making in Estremoz.

Estêvão da Gama was married to Dona Isabel Sodré, who was the daughter of João Sodré (also known as João de Resende). Sodré, who was of English descent, had links to the household of Prince Diogo, Duke of Viseu, son of king Edward I of Portugal and governor of the military Order of Christ.

Little is known of Vasco da Gama's early life. It has been suggested by the Portuguese historian Teixeira de Aragão that he studied at the inland town of Évora, which is where he may have learned mathematics and navigation. It is evident that Gama knew astronomy well, and it is possible that he may have studied under the astronomer Abraham Zacuto.

In 1492 King John II of Portugal sent Gama to the port of Setúbal, south of Lisbon and to the Algarve to seize French ships in retaliation for peacetime depredations against Portuguese shipping - a task that Vasco rapidly and effectively performed.

Exploration before Gama

From the early fifteenth century, the nautical school of Henry the Navigator had been extending Portuguese knowledge of the African coastline. From the 1460s, the goal had become one of rounding that continent's southern extremity to gain easier access to the riches of India (mainly black pepper and other spices) through a reliable sea route.

The Republic of Venice had gained control over much of the trade routes between Europe and Asia. Portugal hoped to use the route pioneered by Bartolomeu Dias to break the Venetian trading monopoly, challenging older trading networks of mixed land and sea routes, such as the Spice routes that utilized the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and caravans to reach the eastern Mediterranean.

By the time Gama was ten years old, these long-term plans were coming to fruition. Bartolomeu Dias had returned from rounding the Cape of Good Hope, 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.

Concurrent land exploration during the reign of João II of Portugal supported the theory that India was reachable by sea from the Atlantic Ocean. Pero da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva were sent via Barcelona, Naples and Rhodes, into Alexandria and thence to Aden, Hormuz and India, which gave credence to the theory.

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 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 the fleet, consisting of four ships and a crew of 170 men, left Lisbon. The vessels 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-baptized 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.

Journey to the Cape

The expedition set sail from Lisbon on July 8, 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, 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 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.

By December 16, the fleet had passed the Great Fish River - where Dias had turned back - and sailed into waters previously unknown to Europeans. With Christmas pending, 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, Gama impersonated a Muslim and gained audience with the Sultan of Mozambique. With the paltry trade goods he had to offer, Gama was unable to provide a suitable gift to the ruler and soon the local populace became suspicious of Gama and his men. Forced by a hostile crowd to flee Mozambique, Gama departed the harbor, firing his cannons into the city in retaliation.


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. 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 (modern 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.

Calicut, India

The fleet arrived in Calicut on 20 May 1498. Negotiations with the local ruler, the Zamorin of Calicut, occasionally took on a violent nature. Efforts by Gama and the Portuguese to obtain favorable trade terms were complicated by resistance from indigenous Arab merchants. Eventually Gama was able to gain an ambiguous letter of concession for trading rights, but he had to depart without giving notice of his intention to do so after the Zamorin insisted that Gama leave all his goods as collateral. Vasco da Gama kept his goods, but left a few Portuguese with orders to start a trading post.


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

Paulo da Gama died in the Azores on the homeward voyage. 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," and his feudal rights to Sines were confirmed. Manuel I also awarded the perpetual title of Dom (lord) to Gama, as well as to his brothers and sisters and to all of their descendants. He was created first Earl of Vidigueira, and Gama was named the first Portuguese count who was not born with royal blood.

The spice trade would prove to be a major asset to the Portuguese economy, and other consequences soon followed. For example, 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 unfavourable weather. One significant result was the colonization of Mozambique by the Portuguese Crown.

However, 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 day's without seeing land and only 60 of his 180 companions, on one of his three ships, returned to Portugal in 1498. Nevertheless, Gama's initial journey opened direct sea route to Asia.

Second voyage

On 12 February 1502, Gama sailed with a fleet of twenty warships, with the object of enforcing Portuguese interests in the east. This was subsequent to the voyage of Pedro Álvares Cabral, who had been sent to India two years earlier. (Swinging far to the west across the Atlantic in order to make use of the pattern of favourable winds, Cabral became the official European discoverer of Brazil. The find may have been an accident). When he finally reached India, Cabral learned that the Portuguese citizens who had been left by Gama at the trading post had been murdered. After encountering further resistance from the locals, he bombarded Calicut and then sailed south of Calicut to reach Cochin, a small kingdom where he was given a warm welcome. He returned to Europe with silk and gold.

Once he had reached the northern parts of the Indian Ocean, Gama waited for a ship to return from Mecca and seized all the merchandise on it. He then ordered that the hundreds of passengers be locked in the hold and the ship - which was named Mîrî, and which contained many wealthy Muslim merchants - to be set on fire. When Gama arrived at Calicut on October 30, 1502 the Zamorin was willing to sign a treaty.

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, and then destroyed a Calicut fleet of twenty-nine ships. Following that battle he extracted favourable trading concessions from the Zamorin.

On his return to Portugal, in September 1503, he was made Count of Vidigueira, with his seat in land sold to him by the Duke of Bragança (the future royal family of Bragança). He was also awarded feudal rights and jurisdiction over Vidigueira and Vila dos Frades.

Third voyage

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 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 honour of his voyage to India.


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, 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 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 opera L'Africaine: Opéra en Cinq Actes, composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer and Eugène Scribe, prominently includes the character of Vasco da Gama. A 1989 production of the composition by the San Francisco Opera featured noted tenor Placido Domingo in the role of Gama.

The port city of Vasco da Gama in Goa is named after him, as is the Vasco da Gama crater, a big crater 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. A church in Kochi, Kerala Vasco da Gama Church, a private residence on the island of Saint Helena and Lisbon's Vasco da Gama Bridge and Centro Vasco da Gama shopping centre are also named after him. The suburb of Vasco in Cape Town also honours him.

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".


Portuguese explorer, first count of Vidigueira, and "discoverer" of the sea route to India. Vasco da Gama was born in the Alentejo coastal town of Sines about 1469. His family had longstanding service ties to the crown in its struggles against Castile and Islam, and Vasco's father, Estevão, had won grants, including the post of alcaide-mor (governor-major) of Sines, for these services. He also became a commandery holder, or possessor of a revenue-generating land grant, in the powerful Order of Santiago, thus elevating the family's social and economic status, a process that would culminate with the career of his son. King João II (ruled 1481–1495) may have asked Estevão to undertake the search for an all-water trade route between Europe and India, but he died before he could make the voyage.

Not much is known about the early years of Vasco da Gama's life. He received a solid education in nautical matters and had also demonstrated martial skills in campaigns against Castile. In 1492, King João II had selected da Gama to confiscate French shipping in the ports of the Algarve, in retaliation for the French seizure of a Portuguese ship returning from Africa loaded with gold, and he accomplished this task with "great brevity."

In 1497, King Manuel (ruled 1495–1521) selected da Gama to command the epic expedition to India that successfully ended the search for a sea route to Asian spices begun during the days of the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460). Some say that Vasco's brother, Paulo, was first offered the opportunity but turned it down. The four-ship fleet (São Gabriel, São Rafael, Berrio, and a stores ship) departed Lisbon on 8 July 1497 with 170 men aboard. After stopping at São Tiago (27 July–3 August) in the Cape Verde Islands, da Gama and his fleet headed out into the Atlantic to exploit the prevailing winds. On 8 November, the fleet reached Santa Helena Bay, and on the 22 November rounded the Cape of Good Hope. In the Indian Ocean, da Gama confronted the entrenched economic power of the Arabs. This religious and economic hostility complicated his task along the East African coast during a stay at Mozambique island (March 1498), and especially at Mombasa (April 1498), where the local sultan sought to storm the fleet in a midnight raid. Da Gama received a more favorable reception at Malindi, obtaining a skilled pilot who guided the Portuguese fleet across the Arabian Sea to the pepper-rich Malabar coast of India by May 1498. His mission of arranging both a treaty and the purchase of pepper in the key port city of Calicut was complicated by the intrigues of Arab merchants with the local Hindu ruler, the Zamorin (Samudri), and da Gama's rather paltry gifts. Nevertheless, his resolve overcame these problems, and he departed in August with a respectable cargo of spices. Although the return trip to Portugal was complicated by fickle winds, the Berrio and São Gabriel reached Lisbon in July and August 1499, respectively. Da Gama, after burying his brother Paulo on Terceira in the Azores, reached home in September. He received the right to use the prestigious title "Dom," a hefty annual pension, and other rewards, including the title admiral of the Indian Seas.

To avenge the massacre of Portuguese factors left at Calicut by the fleet of Pedro Álvares Cabral (1500–1501), in 1502 King Manuel dispatched twenty well-armed ships under da Gama. He used this formidable force to intimidate the sultan of Kilwa on the east African coast into fealty (July 1502), to intercept Muslim shipping arriving on the Indian coast, and to inflict a decisive defeat on an Arab fleet in the service of the Zamorin (February 1503). His ruthless nature was revealed on this voyage when he burned several hundred Muslim pilgrims alive aboard a captured ship in September 1502. He returned to Lisbon in October 1503 and received additional rewards. During the following two decades, da Gama laboured in Portugal to consolidate his social and economic position. His marriage to Dona Catarina de Ataíde produced seven children, and, despite problems with the mercurial King Manuel, da Gama at last entered the ranks of the senhorial elite in 1519 when he was created the first count of Vidigueira.

By 1524, although the Portuguese empire in Asia stretched from Mozambique to Indonesia, corruption had begun to infiltrate this impressive imperial edifice. The young king, John III, appointed Vasco viceroy in that year to address these problems. Sailing with fourteen ships in April 1524, da Gama reached India in September and undertook an impressive reform campaign that was tragically cut short by his death at Calicut on Christmas Eve 1524.

Da Gama's life and career mirrored the rise of Portugal: nautical expertise, military prowess, ruthlessness, and religious conviction entrenched his personal and familial fortune while Portugal, at the same time, achieved its Golden Age.










This web page was last updated on: 20 December, 2008