Vasco da Gama

Sailing into the Unknown

Vasco da Gama, the renowned Portuguese navigator, ventured around Africa to ultimately reach India. This monumental journey marked the first direct sea route from Portugal to India, opening the gateway for Europeans to the lucrative Eastern spice trade.

Da Gama was born around 1460 in Sines, a coastal town in southwestern Portugal. Hailing from a minor noble family, he was the third offspring of Estêvão da Gama, the overseer of the Sines fortress. Although details about his early life are limited, we know that as he grew, da Gama pursued a naval career, learning the art of navigation.

Portrait of Vasco da Gama

Portrait of Vasco da Gama

In 1492, King John II of Portugal entrusted da Gama to seize French ships near the Portuguese shores. This was in retaliation for French aggression against Portuguese vessels. Da Gama executed this task swiftly and efficiently.

By 1495, when King Manuel assumed the throne, the da Gama family found increased favor at the royal court. Around this time, Portugal was reigniting its long-held ambition to carve out a maritime passage to Asia. This would bypass the Muslim traders who held a tight grip on the Indian trade routes. Despite his limited exploration experience, da Gama was chosen for this mission.

Setting sail in July 1497, da Gama led a fleet of four ships. They journeyed southwards along Africa’s coast, shifting deep into the southern Atlantic to dodge adverse currents. By late November, they navigated around Africa’s southernmost point, the Cape of Good Hope. Advancing north, they stopped at present-day Mozambique, Mombasa, and Malindi (now in Kenya). A local navigator guided da Gama across the Indian Ocean, and they reached Calicut (now Kozhikode, India) in May 1498.

Upon their arrival in Calicut, they were initially received warmly by the Hindu ruler, the Zamorin. However, da Gama’s modest gifts and lack of diplomatic tact soured their relations. His failure to secure a treaty was further hampered by the antagonism of Muslim traders and the low-quality trade goods he brought. These goods, while fitting for West African trade, didn’t appeal to the Indian market.

Vasco da Gama before the Zamorin of Calicut. Painting by Veloso Salgado, 1898.

Vasco da Gama before the Zamorin of Calicut. Painting by Veloso Salgado, 1898.

The situation grew tense, prompting da Gama to depart by the end of August. He took along several Hindus to acquaint King Manuel with their traditions. His ships also collected valuable spices like pepper, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon, though not in the volumes seen in later voyages.

Da Gama’s unfamiliarity with the region’s monsoon patterns led him to set sail during the least favorable time. By early 1499, over 30 of his crew succumbed to scurvy, a then-mysterious disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C. Desperate to conserve resources, he had one of his ships set ablaze.

Almost a year after departing from India, the fleet’s flagship finally anchored in Portugal. Covering an astounding 24,000 miles (or 38,600 km) in nearly two years, only 54 of the original 170 crew members survived this voyage.

Vasco da Gama’s first voyage. By Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Vasco da Gama’s first voyage. By Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Upon his return, Vasco da Gama was greeted as a hero. Despite challenges, the mission was deemed a success as he had established a sea route, providing the Portuguese with direct access to the treasures of the East and bypassing intermediary traders.

Three years later, as the Portuguese Empire rose in the East, Vasco da Gama led the 4th Armada to Calicut. This was in retaliation for the killing of Portuguese explorers by the locals (even though the Portuguese had previously committed atrocities there).

His second expedition to India was significantly more aggressive. Tasked with establishing Portuguese dominance, da Gama targeted Muslim ports along the African east coast. A particularly brutal act was the attack on a pilgrim-bound ship, killing over 300 people onboard. In Calicut, he escalated tensions by wreaking havoc on the trade port while taking many lives. However, in Cochin, he opted for diplomacy, forging an alliance with the local leader. While these actions secured Portuguese power in the short term, they also painted them as ruthless in the regional trade scene.

After his return home, da Gama, a married man with six sons, chose to spend his days in retirement. Nonetheless, he consulted with King Manuel, offering insights on India-related matters.

Years later, King John III sought da Gama’s expertise. Concerned with the escalating corruption among Portuguese officials in India, he appointed da Gama as the Portuguese viceroy in India in 1524.

However, da Gama’s tenure as viceroy was short-lived. That same year, at about the age of 60, he passed away in Cochin. Honoring the explorer, his remains were transported to Portugal, finding their final resting place in 1538.


Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese navigator, pioneered the first direct sea route from Portugal to India, paving the way for Europe’s entry into the Eastern spice trade. His first trip to India was fraught with challenges but secured Portugal’s direct access to Asian treasures. Yet his second voyage was a brutal mission that marked the Portuguese as ruthless in regional trade.

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” —Lao Tzu

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” —Benjamin Franklin

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” —Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

“What wisdom can you find greater than kindness?” —Jean Jacques Rousseau


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