The Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama (ca. 1460-1524) was the first to travel by sea from Portugal to India. The term "Da Gama epoch" is used to describe the era of European commercial and imperial expansion launched by his navigational enterprise.
Little is known of the early life of Vasco da Gama; his father was governor of Sines, Portugal, where Vasco was born. He first comes to historical notice in 1492, when he seized French ships in Portuguese ports as reprisal for piratical raids. When he was commissioned for his famous voyage, he was a gentleman at the court of King Manuel I.
Manuel, against the advice of a majority of his counselors, had decided to follow up Bartolomeu Dias's triumphal voyage round the Cape of Good Hope (1487-1488) with a well-planned attempt to reach all the way to the Malabar Coast of India, the ports of which were the major entrepôts for the Western spice trade with southeastern Asia. This trade had fallen under the control of Moslem merchants; the Venetians were only the final distributors to Europe of these valuable commodities.
Manuel hoped to displace the Moslem (and thus the Venetian) middlemen and to establish Portuguese hegemony over the Oriental oceanic trades. He also hoped to join with Eastern Christian forces (symbolized to medieval Europeans by the legend of the powerful priest-king, Prester John) and thus carry on a worldwide crusade against Islam. Da Gama's voyage was to be the first complete step toward the realization of these ambitions.
Da Gama, supplied with letters of introduction to Prester John and to the ruler of the Malabar city of Calicut, set sail from the Tagus River in Lisbon on July 8, 1497. He commanded the flagship St. Gabriel, accompanied by the St. Raphael and Berrio (commanded, respectively, by his brother Paulo and Nicolas Coelho) and a large supply ship. After a landfall in the Cape Verde Islands, he stood well out to sea, rounding the Cape of Good Hope on November 22. Sailing past the port of Sofala, the expedition landed at Kilimane, the second in a string of East African coastal cities. These towns were under Moslem control and gained their wealth largely through trade in gold and ivory. Proceeding to Mozambique, where they were at first mistaken for Moslems, the Portuguese were kindly received by the sultan. A subsequent dispute, however, led da Gama to order a naval bombardment of the city.
Traveling northward to Mombasa, the Portuguese escaped a Moslem attempt to destroy the small fleet and hurriedly sailed for the nearby port of Malindi. Its sultan, learning of the bombardment to the south, decided to cooperate with da Gama and lent him the services of the famous Indian pilot Ibn Majid for the next leg of the journey. On May 20, 1498, the Portuguese anchored off Calicut—then the most important trading center in southern India—well prepared to tap the fabulous riches of India.
Their expectations, however, were soon to be deflated. The Portuguese at first thought the Hindu inhabitants of the city to be Christians, although a visit to a local temple where they were permitted to worship "Our Lady"—Devaki, mother of the god Krishna—made them question the purity of the faith as locally practiced. The zamorin, the ruler of Calicut, warmly welcomed the newcomers—until his treasurers appraised the inexpensive items sent as gifts by King Manuel. In fact, the potentates of the East were at that time wealthier than the financially embarrassed Western kings, and the zamorin quite naturally had looked for a standard tribute in gold. The Portuguese merchandise did not sell well in the port, and the Moslem merchants who dominated the city's trade convinced the zamorin that he stood to gain nothing by concluding a commercial agreement with the intruders.
Amid rumors of plots against his life but with his ships stocked with samples of precious jewels and spices, da Gama sailed from Calicut at the end of August 1498. The trip back to Portugal proved far more difficult than the voyage out, and many men died of scurvy during the 3-month journey across the Arabian Sea. The St. Raphael was burned and its complement distributed among the other ships. The remaining vessels became separated in a storm off the West African coast, and Coelho was the first to reach home (July 10, 1499). The da Gamas had gone to the Azores, where Paulo died, and Vasco arrived in Lisbon on September 9.
Da Gama returned twice to India: in 1502, when he bombarded Calicut in revenge for an attack on a previous Portuguese expedition; and in 1524, when he was appointed viceroy. On Dec. 24, 1524, Vasco da Gama died in the southwestern Indian city of Cochin. He was richly rewarded for his services by his sovereign, being made Count of Vidiguerira and Admiral of the Indian Seas and receiving pensions and a lucrative slice of the Eastern trade.
Da Gama's first voyage deserves to be compared with Columbus's more celebrated "discovery" of the New World. Neither man actually "discovered" unoccupied territories; rather, both linked anciently settled and developed parts of the world with Europe. The Spaniards subsequently conquered the "Indians" of the West, living in settler societies off their labor and natural resources; the Portuguese founded a seaborne commercial empire from which they tried to drain middlemen's profits from a trade still on the whole unfavorably balanced against Europe.
The best account of da Gama's enterprises remains K. G. Jayne, Vasco da Gama and His Successors, 1460-1580 (1910). A contemporary account of the first voyage was translated and edited by E. G. Ravenstein, A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499 (1898). This voyage also served as the theme of the great epic of Portuguese literature, Luis de Camões, The Lusiads, translated by William C. Atkinson (1952). The da Gama expedition led to the rise of a maritime empire, described in C. R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborn Empire, 1415-1825 (1969), and to the "Da Gama epoch" of Europeans in the East, outlined from an Asian point of view in K. M. Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance: A Survey of the Vasco da Gama Epoch of Asian History, 1498-1945 (1954; new ed. 1959). □