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Vasco da Gama

leader of the first European expedition to reach India by sea

Vasco da Gama, by Antonio Manuel da Fonseca
Vasco da Gama, by Antonio Manuel da Fonseca

Vasco da Gama was born at Sines, Province of Alemtejo, Portugal, about 1469. His father, Estevćo da Gama, was Alcaide Mor of Sines, and Commendador of Cercal, and held an important office at court under Alfonso V. After the return of Bartolomeu Dias, Estevćo was chosen by Joćo II to command the next voyage of discovery, but, as both died before the project could be carried into execution, the commission was given by Emmanuel I to Vasco, who had already proven himself in 1490 by defending the Portuguese colonies on the coast of Guinea against French encroachments. Vasco's mission was to complete the voyage left unfinished by Dias -- reaching India by sailing around the southern tip of Africa.

Although a near-mutiny by Dias' crew had prevented him from completing his mission, Dias was commissioned to organize and plan Vasco's voyage. Dias oversaw the building of two new ships and had two older ships refurbished. All the ships were well armed, and each carried enough food to supply its crew for three years. Dias also made sure that the ships were supplied with the sort of goods that had proved useful to him in trading with the natives on the west coast of Africa -- glass beads, copper bowls, tin bells, olive oil, sugar, etc.

While Dias outfitted the ships, Vasco recruited his crews. His 170 crewmen included ten convicted killers, whose death sentences were commuted, and a number of translators who spoke Arabic and the various Bantu languages of Africa's west coast.

Command of the expedition was formally conferred upon Vasco da Gama in January 1497, and on July 8 the fleet sailed from Lisbon under the leadership of Vasco, his brother Paulo, and Nicolįo Coelho. At the beginning of November, the fleet anchored in St. Helena Bay and, on the 25th, in Mossel Bay. On December 16, the fleet arrived at the furthest landing point of Dias, gave its present name to the coast of Natal on Christmas Day, and reached the mouth of the Zambesi River by the end of January, 1498. Although they were menaced by Arab traders in Mozambique and Mombasa, they were received in a very friendly manner at Melinda, East Africa. At Melinda they obtained the services of an Arab pilot, who conveyed the fleet to the harbor of Calicut, India, which it reached on May 20, 1498.

Although the rulers of India were generally unimpressed with the trade goods Vasco had brought, his diplomatic skills were enough to secure respect, as well as an agreement for the founding of a Portuguese colony.

On October 5, 1498, the fleet began its homeward voyage. Coelho arrived in Portugal on July 10, 1499, Paulo da Gama died at Angra, and Vasco da Gama reached Lisbon in September.

map of Vasco da Gama's voyage
map of Vasco da Gama's voyage

Upon his return Vasco was appointed Admiral of the Indian Ocean, a post created especially for him, a position which guaranteed him a high salary and the feudal rights over Sines.

In 1502, following a massacre of Portuguese expatriates in Calicut by local Hindus, Gama was sent out with a fleet of twenty ships to re-establish Portuguese control. On the outward voyage he exacted the payment of tribute from the Sheikh of Kilwa (East Africa), laid seige to Calicut, and then concluded favorable treaties and alliances with the native princes. He returned to Portugal in 1503. In 1519, he received feudal rights over the cities of Vidiguira and Villa dos Frades, with the jurisdiction and title of Count.

In 1524, Gama was again sent to India, by Joćo III, to supersede the Viceroy Eduardo de Menezes, who had lost control of the populace under his charge. Gama successfully restored order upon his arrival, but he died at Cochin, India, on December 24, 1524.

BBC History

Bartolomeu Dias

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This page was last updated on 05/07/2017.