Vasco da Gama Biography – Portuguese Explorer, Navigator, Age of Discovery, Life, Legacy

Vasco da Gama Essay
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Vasco da Gama. National Museum of Ancient Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Vasco da Gama Biography and Legacy

Although I am not sure about the rest of the world, most Indians have certainly heard of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who was the first European to arrive on the shores of India by sea.

Along with Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, Vasco da Gama was responsible for Portugal’s success as an early colonizing power. His voyages and exploits across Africa and Asia have made him one of the most celebrated and famous explorers from the Age of Discovery.

I too grew up hearing and learning about Vasco da Gama and his voyages to India. I grew up hearing about how he was the first explorer to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route, connecting the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. I also learned about how his discovery of the ocean route is regarded as a significant milestone in world history as it marked the beginning of a sea-based era of global multiculturalism.

Learning about all his voyages and exploits, I could not help but admire the man and find him inspiring. For me, he was an explorer who had undertaken arduous and adventurous voyages, risking his life while discovering new sea routes to Africa and Asia and exploring new places on these continents. How could a young boy not admire him?

Sadly, it was only years later when I was an adult that I learned about and understood the full extent of Vasco da Gama’s legacy, and it was only then that I realized that his legacy was not all positive but included an abundance of wrong, negative, and violent elements that I still struggle to wrap my head around at times.

I learned that Vasco da Gama was not just a celebrated and pioneering explorer but a cruel man whose extremely violent and hostage-taking methods set a definite pattern for western colonialism during the age of discovery and colonization.

The crimes he committed against the natives of India and several other colonies in Asia and Africa disturbed me and made me question and even condemn his legacy. However, I also understand that the times were different back then and that the age of discovery and colonization was also the age of violence.

Other explorers of the time such as Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci did exactly the same. They too committed heinous crimes against the native population of the Americas, taking them as slaves or killing them or maiming and torturing them. In fact, the whole slave trade was a direct result of this dark age of discovery and colonization.

But when these disturbing facts are considered through the lens of historical context, one may understand why Vasco da Gama did what he did. And keeping this in mind, I check myself from condemning a man who lived and died almost five hundred years before I was born.

Interestingly enough, I knew all about the misdeeds of Columbus in the Americas and about the fact that his legacy is tainted with the blood of the native population but knew absolutely nothing about da Gama’s legacy which is tainted with the blood of my own people, and with that of the people of many other Portuguese colonies in Asia and Africa.

In this essay, we will take a look at the life of Vasco da Gama and the dark side of his legacy.

Vasco da Gama was said to be born in 1460 in the city of Sines on the Alentejo coast in southwest Portugal. However, some scholars speculate that he was born in the year 1469. Unfortunately, to this very day, no one knows for sure the exact date and month on which he was born, and as usual, we have no choice but to make do with the information we possess and leave the rest for speculation.

Vasco da Gama was the third of five sons of Estêvão da Gama and Isabel Sodré, and as far as we know so far, he had only one known sister named Teresa.

Unfortunately for us, little to nothing is known of da Gama’s early life. It is said that he studied in the inland town of Évora, where he probably studied mathematics and navigation. It is even speculated that he studied under the tutelage of Castilian astronomer and astrologer Abraham Zacuto. However, both of these claims cannot be confirmed yet with the limited information we have at hand.

Vasco da Gama’s father served as a knight of the household of Infante Ferdinand, Duke of Viseu and Beja, where he rose in the ranks of the military Order of Santiago. By 1480, Vasco da Gama followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Order of Santiago. The master of the order was Prince John, who in 1481 became King John II of Portugal. Prince John’s ascension to the throne became a great advantage to da Gama and his prospects brightened.

King John II undertook the task of renewing Portugal’s exploration of Africa and Asia and sought to re-establish the power of the Portuguese monarchy and reinvigorate its economy. In order to achieve these ends, he concentrated on royal commerce by expanding the slave and gold trade in West Africa and by looking for ways to enter the highly profitable spice trade between Asia and Europe, which was at the time mainly carried out by land and monopolized by the Republic of Venice.

King John II set a new mission for his captains by asking them to find a sea route to Asia by sailing around Africa. In 1487, he sent two of his explorers, Afonso de Paiva and Pero da Covilhã to scout the details of the spice markets and trade routes.

The following year, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias became the first European navigator to round the southern tip of Africa and verified that the unknown coast stretched away to the northeast. King John II then began sending out expeditions to form a link between the findings of Covilhã, Paiva, and Dias, and connect these separate segments into a lucrative trade route across the Indian Ocean.

In the year 1497, Vasco da Gama was chosen for his first voyage to Asia. Prior to this, in 1492, King John II had only sent him on a mission to the port of Setubal and to the Algarve to seize French ships in retaliation for peacetime depredations against Portuguese shipping, and da Gama had successfully carried out this mission.

Now, five years later, on 8th July 1497, Vasco da Gama set sail from Lisbon with a fleet of 4 ships and a crew of about 170 men. Da Gama led the expedition and commanded the main ship while his older brother Paulo da Gama commanded another ship.

The expedition followed the same route pioneered by previous explorers along the coast of Africa via Tenerife and the Cape Verde islands. Seeking and finding the South Atlantic westerlies that Dias had discovered in 1487, the expedition managed to make landfall on the African coast on 4th November.

Through this first leg of the voyage itself, the expedition managed to make history by sailing more than 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) of open ocean, which was by far the longest voyage out of sight of land made at the time.

Passing the Great Fish River in Eastern Cape, South Africa, on 16th December, Vasco da Gama and his men named the coast they were passing Natal, which carried the connotation of the birth of Christ in Portuguese.

Arriving in Mozambique in early March 1498, Vasco da Gama sought an audience with the Sultan. However, since the majority of the population was Muslim, he feared they would be hostile toward Christians. To prevent this from happening, it is said that he impersonated a Muslim and succeeded in getting an audience with the Sultan.

But da Gama had no gifts or goods worthy of the Sultan, and the royal authorities and locals grew suspicious of him and his crew, eventually turning hostile and forcing them to flee Mozambique. As the Portuguese departed, da Gama ordered cannons to be fired into the city in retaliation.

Before arriving in Mombasa, Kenya, in early April, the expedition looted Arab merchant ships which were unarmed. Upon arriving at the port of Mombasa on 7th April, they were met with hostility and were forced to depart on the 13th of April.

Continuing their journey north, they arrived at the port of Malindi in Kenya on 14th April, where they first saw evidence of Indian traders. It is said that in Malindi Vasco da Gama met and contracted the services of a pilot (most probably Indian) who had knowledge of the monsoon winds to guide them toward the city of Calicut on the southwest coast of India.

On 24th April, da Gama and his men set sail from Malindi for India.

Almost a month later, on 20th May 1498, Vasco da Gama and his fleet arrived at the coastal village of Kappad, near Calicut (present-day the Indian state of Kerala). When they arrived, the king of Calicut was away at his second capital Ponnani.

When the king heard of the arrival of da Gama and his crew, he immediately returned to Calicut and gave them an audience with him. When the Portuguese were asked the reason for their arrival on the shores of Calicut, they replied that they came in search of Christians and spices. Da Gama presented the king with several trivial gifts that left the king unimpressed.

The Portuguese had no gold or silver to offer the king, which led the officials and the local population to suspect the motives of da Gama and his men. They began suspecting that the Portuguese were pirates and not royal ambassadors.

Before leaving the shores of Calicut, Vasco da Gama asked the king to allow him to leave behind a factor in charge of the merchandise he could not sell, but the king turned down his request and asked him to pay customs duty in gold just like every other trader.

Da Gama did not take this rejection well and his relationship with the king became strained. In retaliation, da Gama ordered the capture of 16 fishermen and a few Nairs (a group of Indian Hindu castes) and took them with him by force, and left Calicut for Portugal on 29th August 1498.

The return journey of the expedition was arduous and riddled with difficulties and disappointments. Vasco da Gama would arrive in Lisbon only a year later, either on 29th August or on 8th or 18th September 1499 (sources differ). The total distance covered in the outward and return voyages made da Gama’s first expedition to India the longest ocean voyage ever undertaken until then.

However, the expedition had incurred large costs as two out of four ships, along with half the men of the crew (including da Gama’s brother Paulo), had been lost. The expedition had also failed in its primary mission of securing a commercial treaty with the king of Calicut.

But, in spite of these failures and setbacks, Vasco da Gama was welcomed and honored as a hero, with processions and public festivities held in his honor. The description and details of his voyage quickly began spreading across Europe, thereby increasing his fame and reputation as an explorer and navigator.

Da Gama was celebrated for finding and establishing a direct sea route to Asia, and the small quantities of spices and other goods brought back by the two remaining ships showed potential for highly profitable trading in the future.

Vasco da Gama’s first voyage opened up and paved the way for subsequent yearly voyages of the Portuguese Indian Armadas, the fleet of ships funded by the Portuguese crown meant to sail to India. These yearly voyages helped the Portuguese crown enter the profitable spice trade that became a major asset to the royal treasury and also began an age of Portuguese colonization of parts of Africa and Asia, starting with the colonization of Mozambique and then going on to include several colonies in India.

Da Gama’s next expedition to India would take place about three years after his return from the first voyage and would be for the Fourth India Armada which sailed from Lisbon on 12th February 1502. The main purpose of this expedition was not exploration or trade but revenge.

The Second India Armada launched in 1500 under the command of Pedro Alvares Cabral was given the mission of entering into a treaty with the king of Calicut and setting up a Portuguese factory there. However, after getting into conflict with the local Arab merchant guilds, the Portuguese factory was attacked and damaged in a bloody violent riot that killed 70 Portuguese. Blaming the king of Calicut for the riot, Cabral, in retaliation, bombarded the city, and war broke out.

After getting news of the treatment meted out to Cabral, Vasco da Gama, taking offense, wrote a letter to the Portuguese crown asking permission to take command of the Fourth India Armada with the sole mission of taking revenge on the king of Calicut and force him to submit to Portuguese terms.

Keeping this mission in mind, the fleet of this expedition included 15 heavily armed ships and 800 men, followed by 5 more ships led by da Gama’s cousin Estêvão da Gama.

While on their way to India, the fleet got in contact with the East African gold trading port of Sofala and reduced the sultanate of Kilwa to tribute by extracting a large sum of gold.

As they were approaching Indian shores in October 1502, Vasco da Gama’s fleet intercepted a ship of Muslim pilgrims (who were traveling to Mecca from Calicut) at the town of Madayi and looted it, locked up the passengers (400 in total, including women and children), the owner, and an ambassador from Egypt, and burned them to death.

An eyewitness named Thomé Lopes described the incident in detail and even went on to mention how Vasco da Gama witnessed the massacre through the porthole and saw women bring up their gold and jewels and hold up their babies to beg for mercy. However, except for 20 children who were forcefully converted to Christianity, none were spared.

Vasco da Gama’s fleet would then go on toward Calicut and demand redress for the way Cabral was treated. The king of Calicut was now willing to sign a new treaty with Vasco da Gama after learning of the fate of the pilgrim’s ship.

But mere negotiations were not enough for da Gama. He had come there for revenge, and so he asked the king, who was a Hindu, to expel all Muslims from the city before starting negotiations. Needless to say, the king rejected his request and simultaneously sent a message to the Raja of Cochin to assist him in repelling the Portuguese threat.

The Raja of Cochin, who was a rebellious vassal of the king, forwarded the king’s message to da Gama, leaving da Gama furious. The king then sought the help of the high priest Talappana Namboothiri (who had first brought da Gama in contact with the king during the first visit) and sent him for talks with da Gama.

What would happen next is by all measures deeply cruel and disturbing. Vasco da Gama, considering the priest to be a spy, ordered his ears and lips to be cut off and a pair of dog’s ears sewed to his head, and then sent him away.

Then da Gama ordered the bombardment of the city from the sea for almost two days, causing severe damage to it. He also ordered the capture of rice vessels and cut off the hands, noses, and ears of the crew, and then send them with a note to the king, stating that he would be open to relations once the king pays for the items plundered from the Portuguese factory and also for the cannonballs and gunpowder.

This incident brought a sudden halt to trade along the Malabar coast, and, in retaliation, the king despatched a fleet of warships to defeat da Gama’s armada, leading to the Battle of Calicut in which da Gama’s fleet prevailed.

Before leaving Indian shores in early 1503, Vasco da Gama made sure to leave behind a squadron of caravels under the command of his uncle, Vicente Sodré, to harass Calicut shipping, patrol the Indian coast, and protect the Portuguese factories established in Cochin and Cannanore.

In September 1503, Vasco da Gama and his fleet arrived back in Portugal. In spite of all the violence and havoc that da Gama had unleashed in India, he failed in his primary mission of getting the king of Calicut to submit to Portuguese terms. The following years would also reveal his uncle’s failure to protect the Portuguese factories on the Malabar coast.

Upon arriving back in Portugal, Vasco da Gama did not receive the welcome he had received after his first voyage four years ago. There was no hero’s welcome for him and no rewards from the king. No public festivities or processions were held in his honor. And when king Manuel I of Portugal decided to appoint the first governor and viceroy of Portuguese India in 1505, he overlooked Vasco da Gama and chose nobleman and explorer Dom Francisco de Almeida.

Vasco da Gama had fallen out of service with the Portuguese crown and was sidelined from politics and Indian affairs almost entirely. No longer welcomed or celebrated at the royal court, he spent the next 20 years living a quiet life away from the affairs of the court.

In 1519, after several years of ignoring da Gama’s letters and petitions, and after da Gama threatened to defect to the Crown of Castile following fellow explorer Ferdinand Magellan‘s example, king Manuel I agreed to give him a feudal title by appointing him the first Count of Vidigueira, a count title created by a royal decree. The decree granted Vasco da Gama and his heirs all the revenues and privileges related, thereby making da Gama the first Portuguese count not born with royal blood.

In 1521, king Manuel I died and was succeeded by his son king John III of Portugal. This change saw da Gama’s fortune turn for the good. Coming out of his hiatus from affairs of the royal court, Vasco da Gama became an important adviser to the new king’s overseas strategy and appointments. And after colonial officer Duarte de Menezes, then the governor of Portuguese India, was found to be corrupt and incompetent, the king appointed da Gama to replace him as Governor of India.

The king was confident that the legacy, memory, and name of Vasco da Gama would serve to better impress his authority in Portuguese India. In February 1524, da Gama was given the title of Viceroy, and he immediately used his new position to secure appointments for his sons in various capacities of the Portuguese government overseas.

In April 1524, Vasco da Gama set out with a fleet of 14 ships on his last voyage to India along with two of his sons.

The journey to India was arduous and they ended up losing 4 or 5 of the ships en route. After arriving on Indian shores in September of that year, da Gama set about with the transition to a new government and new order in Portuguese India. He replaced all old officials with new ones and undertook several other strategic changes.

However, his reign in Portuguese India was not destined to last long. Three months after his arrival, he contracted malaria and died in the city of Cochin on 24th December 1524, somewhere between the ages of 55 and 65 (since we do not know the exact year of his birth, his age at the time of his death is difficult and even impossible to calculate).

His body was first buried at St. Francis Church in Fort Cochin before his remains were returned to Portugal in 1539. In Portugal, it was interred in Vidigeueira in a casket decorated with jewels and gold.

In 1880, his remains were again moved to the necropolis of the Portuguese royal dynasty of Aviz and placed in newly carved tombs in the monastery’s church, barely a few meters away from the tombs of king Manuel I and king John III, the latter of whom he had served under.

Although Vasco da Gama’s legacy and reputation have slightly suffered over the years due to his cruels acts against native populations and at times outright piracy in colonies in Africa and Asia, his legacy is still strong and continues to live on.

His voyages and exploits are taught and studied by the colonizing powers as well as by the colonized nations, although the full extent of his cruelty is rarely revealed and taught in contemporary education, not even in the former colonies.

Statutes and monuments have been erected in his honor in Portugal and in the former colonies as well, the latter mostly by him during his own lifetime. Pillars indicating that Vasco da Gama had visited a certain place can be found in Malindi (in Kenya), Cape of Good Hope (in South Africa), Kappad (near Calicut, India), and several other places.

Vasco da Gama has remained a national hero and icon of Portugal, with poems written in his honor (such as the Portuguese national epic poem The Lusiads by Luís Vaz de Camões), and churches, towers, bridges, ports, and other public places named after him.

Not only has da Gama been honored in various ways in Portugal but also in several former Portuguese colonies across the world. In Brazil, three football teams have been named after him. Churches and ports have also been named in his honor in the former colonies, for instance, the Vasco da Gama Church (also known as St. Francis Church, where da Gama was first buried) in Cochin and the port city of Vasco da Gama in Goa.

For all his tainted legacy, one cannot deny or ignore the fact that Vasco da Gama has earned the right to be regarded as one of the greatest and most celebrated explorers of the age of discovery. His achievements as an explorer, navigator, adventurer, and pioneer are admirable, although the collateral damages of his achievements are at times too much to bear.