Vasco da Gama: Biography, Timeline & Accomplishments

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

This lesson will be about Vasco da Gama, the first Portuguese person to sail to India. He rounded the coast of South Africa and sailed directly to Calicut, India.

Henry the Navigator and His Legacy

Like the Spanish Conquistadores that came to the Americas in the 1500s, Vasco da Gama was both a curse and a blessing to the people around him, depending on whether they were Christian or Muslim.

Vasco da Gama's journey all started with the Portuguese Prince Henry 'the Navigator' and his dream of getting around the Venetian monopoly on trade to Asia. From the Crusades to the 1400s, Venice had enjoyed a monopoly on trade with the Muslims. Anyone wanting merchandise from Asia had to go through them, which meant they could charge outrageous prices.

Henry hoped to best the Venetians by finding another way to Asia and establishing trade. Between 1420 and 1460, his expeditions slowly worked their way down the African coast. Exploration stopped on his death, but resumed when John II came to the throne in 1481. In 1487, John II sent two spies to observe what the spice trade was like, and in 1488, he sent Bartholomeu Dias on a voyage that would round the southern tip of Africa before heading back home.

First Voyage

Voyage of Vasco da Gama
da Gama Africa

Vasco da Gama had proven himself to be a good leader in battles against French ships, and so he was chosen to lead the expedition. Under the new king, Manuel I, Vasco da Gama set sail in 1497 with four ships. He rounded the tip of Africa and worked his way up the eastern African coast.

Soon he ran into Muslim territories. Hating and fearing the Muslims at the same time, he disguised himself as a Muslim and traded where he could, pirated supply ships when he couldn't, and bombarded cities when he thought he had been shortchanged. He eventually was able to employ a navigator to take his fleet to India, and he reached Calicut ten months after leaving Portugal.

Vasco da Gama tried to establish trade by giving gifts to Calicut's ruler, Zamorin. His gifts weren't impressive, though, and his request was denied. Upset with Zamorin, he fired on Calicut as he was leaving.

Return and Laurels

Vasco da Gama's return voyage was more difficult than his voyage out had been. One ship had to be abandoned before they made it to Africa. Another was scuttled along eastern Africa's coastline because too many of the crew had died. Sailing up the western coast of Africa, his brother fell ill and died. The remaining two ships returned in 1499, with da Gama following later that year.

Despite the fact that da Gama had been unable to establish trade with India, he proved that trip was possible. Moreover, he returned with cargo worth 20 times the cost of the voyage, proving that it could be profitable. Vasco da Gama became an instant celebrity. He was given the town of Sines as an hereditary fief, made a noble, awarded the title of Admiral of the Seas of Arabia, Persia, India, and all the Orient, and guaranteed a royal pension of 300 reis.

Portrait of Vasco da Gama
Vasco da Gama

Second Voyage

Another captain, Cabral, was sent to set up trade relations with Calicut. Cabral managed to win over the ruler and set up a trading post there, but his diplomacy upset the local merchants, who destroyed the post. Cabral blamed Zamorin, leading to war between Portugal and Calicut.

Vasco da Gama volunteered to make a second voyage, setting out with a fleet of ships to end the war and resume trade. Once there he was offered another treaty, but da Gama demanded that all Muslims be taken out of the city before trade could resume. When Zamorin refused the stipulation, da Gama bombarded the town.

Zamorin sent out a fleet, which da Gama defeated. Frustrated, da Gama captured a pilgrim ship, looted it, and burned the passengers alive. Eventually, he gave up and sailed for home, having failed.

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