The Remarkable Voyage of Vasco da Gama
Sheets of seawater arch outward as the ship’s wooden prow crashes down on wave after wave. After months at sea and many hardships, Vasco da Gama and his crew are about to become the first Europeans to reach India by sailing around the southern tip of Africa. Such a voyage would be arduous even with today’s navigational knowledge and equipment. But to the men aboard Da Gama’s three little ships 500 years ago, it must have seemed nearly like a trip to the moon. What drove this intrepid Portuguese explorer and his men to undertake such an adventure? How did it affect the world?
BEFORE Da Gama’s birth, the groundwork for the trip had been laid by Portuguese Prince Henry, sometimes called the Navigator. Under Henry’s patronage, Portuguese seamanship and ocean commerce had made great strides. For Henry and the explorers who came after him, discovery, commerce, and religion were closely intertwined. Henry’s aims were to enrich Portugal and to promote Catholicism. He was governor of the Order of Christ, the highest military-religious order in Portugal. It was sponsored by the pope, and Henry’s projects were largely paid for with funds made available through this order. For this reason, all of his ships bore on their sails a red cross.
By the time of Henry’s death, in 1460, the Portuguese had explored the west coast of Africa as far south as what is today known as Sierra Leone. In 1488, Bartholomeu Dias sailed around the tip of Africa. King John II then confidently ordered preparation for an expedition to India. John’s successor, King Manuel I, continued preparations. At the time, Indian spices could be obtained in Europe only through overland connections involving Italian and Arabic traders. Trade on the Indian Ocean was dominated by the Arab Muslim merchants. Manuel knew that the leader of the expedition would have to be, in the words of one historian, “a man who could combine the courage of a soldier, the cunning of a merchant, and the tact of a diplomat.” Perhaps with such thoughts in mind, Manuel chose Vasco da Gama.
The Epic Voyage
On July 8, 1497, under the banner of the Order of Christ, Da Gama and his crew of 170 marched two by two down to their newly built ships. On the beach a priest granted him and his crew absolution. Should any of them die on the voyage, they would be absolved of whatever sins they may have committed along the way. Da Gama evidently expected trouble—he went equipped with cannons plus many crossbows, pikes, and spears.
Da Gama decided to avoid the unfavorable winds and currents that Dias had encountered ten years earlier. At Sierra Leone, he steered his ships southwest until he was closer to Brazil than to Africa. Prevailing winds in the South Atlantic then carried him back to Africa and close to the Cape of Good Hope. No record exists of anyone taking this route before, but afterward, it was used by every sailing vessel headed to the Cape.
Passing the point where Dias had turned back, Da Gama sailed his fleet up the east coast of Africa. At Mozambique and at Mombasa, the local sultans plotted to kill Da Gama and his crew. So Da Gama moved on to Malindi (now southeast Kenya). There he finally found an experienced pilot to guide them across the Indian Ocean.
West Meets East
After sailing 23 days out of Malindi, on May 20, 1498, an elated Vasco da Gama and his crew dropped anchor off Calicut, India. Da Gama found the Hindu zamorin, or king, to be living in great wealth and luxury. The mariner explained that his mission was one of friendship and that he and his men were in search of Christians. He initially made no mention of the spice trade. But the merchants who controlled the trade in the area quickly discerned the threat to their position and advised the king to destroy the intruders. If he dealt with the Portuguese, they warned, he would lose everything. Unsettled by this counsel, the king vacillated. But finally he gave Da Gama what he wanted—a letter to the king of Portugal in which the zamorin agreed to trade with the king.
A Changed World
Da Gama returned to Lisbon on September 8, 1499—to a hero’s welcome. Immediately, King Manuel arranged for more missions. The next was headed by Pedro Álvares Cabral, who left more than 70 men in Calicut to protect Portuguese interests. But the merchants were not about to tolerate such interference with their trade. One night a large mob killed more than half the men. When Da Gama returned to India as head of the third expedition, he retaliated, bombarding Calicut from his well-armed fleet of 14 ships. He also captured a ship returning from Mecca and burned it, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. Though they pleaded for mercy, Da Gama looked on without pity.
The Portuguese went on to become the dominant power in the Indian Ocean. In time, they mounted expeditions to Malacca, China, Japan, and the Moluccas (Spice Islands). They believed that the people they encountered were “outside the law of Jesus Christ” and were therefore “condemned to eternal fire,” wrote 16th-century annalist João de Barros. The explorers thus felt free to use violence whenever they deemed it necessary. Such unchristian actions resulted in deep resentment of Christianity in Asia.
Da Gama’s accomplishment opened the sea route between Europe and Asia. Thus, a new epoch of exploration began, bringing new ideas to the peoples contacted by the explorers. “None of these peoples,” writes Professor J. H. Parry, “escaped European influence, whether social, religious, commercial or technical.” To some extent, Eastern ideas, flowing back through the same channels, began to exert greater influence in Europe. Eventually this exchange of ideas helped to increase awareness of the immense diversity of human culture. Indeed, for better or for worse, the modern world still feels the effects of the remarkable voyage of Vasco da Gama.
[Map on page 24, 25]
The route of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Picture on page 26]
A sketch of one of Da Gama’s ships
Cortesia da Academia das Ciências de Lisboa, Portugal
[Picture Credit Line on page 24]
Cortesia do Museu Nacional da Arte Antiga, Lisboa, Portugal, fotografia de Francisco Matias, Divisão de Documentação Fotográfica - IPM