Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira ( ) (Sines or Vidigueira, Alentejo, Portugal, around 1460
or 1469 – December 24, 1524 in Kochi, India) was a
explorer, one of the most successful in the European Age of Discovery and the commander of the
first ships to sail directly from Europe to
For a short time in 1524
he was Governor of
under the title of Viceroy
Gama was born in either 1460 or 1469 in Sines, on the
southwest coast of Portugal, probably in a house near the church of
Nossa Senhora das Salas.
Sines, one of the few seaports on
the Alentejo coast, consisted of little more than a cluster of
whitewashed, red-tiled cottages, tenanted chiefly by fisherfolk.
Vasco da Gama's father was Estêvão da Gama
1460s he was a knight in the household of the
Duke of Viseu, Dom Fernando.
Fernando appointed him Alcaide-Mór or Civil Governor of Sines and
enabled him to receive a small revenue from taxes on soap making in
Estêvão da Gama was married to Dona
Isabel Sodré, who was the daughter of João Sodré (also known as
João de Resende). Sodré, who was of English descent, had
links to the household of Prince Diogo, Duke of Viseu, son of king Edward I of Portugal and governor of
the military Order of
Little is known of Vasco da Gama's early life. It has been
suggested by the Portuguese historian Teixeira de Aragão that he
studied at the inland town of Évora
which is where he may have learned mathematics and navigation. It
is evident that Gama knew astronomy well, and it is possible that
he may have studied under the astronomer Abraham Zacuto
King John II of Portugal sent
Gama to the port of Setúbal, south of
Lisbon and to the Algarve to seize
French ships in retaliation for peacetime depredations
against Portuguese shipping - a task that Vasco rapidly and
Exploration before Gama
From the early fifteenth century, the nautical school of Henry the Navigator
had been extending
Portuguese knowledge of the African coastline. From the 1460s, the
goal had become one of rounding that continent's southern extremity
to gain easier access to the riches of India (mainly black pepper
and other spices) through a reliable sea route.
Venice had gained control over much of the trade routes
between Europe and Asia.
Portugal hoped to use the route
pioneered by Bartolomeu Dias
break the Venetian trading monopoly.
By the time Gama was ten years old, these long-term plans were
coming to fruition. Bartolomeu
Dias had returned from rounding the Cape of Good Hope, having
explored as far as the Fish River (Rio do Infante) in modern-day South Africa and having verified that the
unknown coast stretched away to the northeast.
Concurrent land exploration during the reign of João II of Portugal
theory that India was reachable by sea from the Atlantic Ocean.
Pero da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva were sent via Barcelona, Naples and Rhodes, into
Alexandria and thence to Aden, Hormuz and India, which gave
credence to the theory.
It remained for an explorer to prove the link between the findings
of Dias and those of da Covilhã and de Paiva and to connect these
separate segments into a potentially lucrative trade route into the
Indian Ocean. The task, originally given to Vasco da Gama's father,
was offered to Vasco by Manuel
on the strength of his record of protecting Portuguese
trading stations along the African Gold Coast
from depredations by
On 8 July
1497 the fleet, consisting of four ships and a crew of 170 men,
The route followed in Vasco da Gama's
first voyage (1497–1499)
- The São
Gabriel, commanded by Vasco da Gama; a carrack of 178 tons, length 27 m, width 8.5 m,
draft 2.3 m, sails of 372 m²;
- The São Rafael, whose commander was his brother
Paulo da Gama; similar dimensions to
the São Gabriel;
- The caravel Berrio, slightly
smaller than the former two (later re-baptized São Miguel),
commanded by Nicolau Coelho;
- A storage ship of unknown name, commanded by Gonçalo Nunes,
later lost near the Bay of São Brás, along the east coast of
Journey to the Cape
expedition set sail from Lisbon on July 8, 1497, following the
route pioneered by earlier explorers along the coast of Africa via
Tenerife and the Cape Verde Islands. After reaching the coast of present day
Leone, Gama took a course south into the open ocean,
crossing the Equator and seeking the
Atlantic westerlies that Bartolomeu Dias had discovered in
This course proved successful and on November 4, 1497,
the expedition made landfall on the African coast. For over three
months the ships had sailed more than 6,000 miles of open ocean, by
far the longest journey out of sight of land made by the
December 16, the fleet had passed the Great Fish River - where Dias had turned back - and sailed into
waters previously unknown to Europeans.
pending, Gama and his crew gave the coast they were passing the
, which carried the
connotation of "birth of Christ" in Portuguese
-controlled territory on the East African
coast was an integral part of the network of trade in the Indian
Ocean. Fearing the local population would be hostile to Christians,
Gama impersonated a Muslim and gained audience with the Sultan of
Mozambique. With the paltry trade goods he had to offer, Gama was
unable to provide a suitable gift to the ruler and soon the local
populace became suspicious of Gama and his men. Forced by a hostile
crowd to flee Mozambique, Gama departed the harbor, firing his
cannons into the city in retaliation.
vicinity of modern Kenya, the
expedition resorted to piracy, looting Arab
merchant ships - generally unarmed trading vessels without heavy
cannons. The Portuguese became the first known
Europeans to visit the port of Mombasa but were met with hostility and soon
February 1498, Vasco da Gama continued north, landing at the
friendlier port of Malindi - whose leaders were then in conflict with those of
Mombasa - and there the expedition first noted evidence of Indian
traders. Gama and his crew contracted the services of
a pilot whose knowledge of the monsoon winds
allowed him to bring the expedition the rest of the way to Calicut (modern Kozhikode), located on the southwest coast
Pillar of Vasco da Gama in Malindi,
Sources differ over the identity of the pilot,
calling him variously a Christian, a Muslim, and a Gujarati. One
traditional story describes the pilot as the famous Arab navigator
, but other contemporaneous
accounts place Majid elsewhere, and he could not have been near the
vicinity at the time.
arrived in Kappad, near
Calicut on 20 May 1498 Kerala India.
Negotiations with the local ruler, the Zamorin
of Calicut, occasionally took on a violent
nature. Efforts by Gama and the Portuguese to obtain favorable
trade terms were complicated by resistance from indigenous Arab
merchants. Eventually Gama was able to gain an ambiguous letter of
concession for trading rights, but he had to depart without giving
notice of his intention to do so after the Zamorin and his Navy
chief Kunjali Marakkar
that Gama leave all his goods as collateral
. Vasco da Gama kept his
goods, but left a few Portuguese with orders to start a trading
Vasco da Gama set sail for home on August 29, 1498. Eager to leave
he ignored the local knowledge of monsoon wind patterns, which was
still blowing onshore. Crossing the Indian Ocean to India, sailing
with the monsoon wind, had taken Gama's ships only 23 days.
return trip across the ocean, sailing against the wind, took 132
days, and Gama arrived in Malindi on January 7, 1499.
During this trip,
approximately half of the crew died, and many of the rest were
afflicted with scurvy
. Two of Gama's ships
made it back to Portugal, arriving in July and August of
Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal in September 1499 and was richly
rewarded as the man who had brought to fruition a plan that had
taken eighty years to fulfill. He was given the title "Admiral of
the Indian Seas," and his feudal rights to Sines were confirmed.
also awarded the
perpetual title of Dom
) to Gama,
as well as to his brothers and sisters and to all of their
The spice trade would prove to be a major asset to the Portuguese
economy, and other consequences soon followed. For example, Gama's
voyage had made it clear that the east coast of Africa, the
, was essential to Portuguese interests; its
ports provided fresh water, provisions, timber, and harbors for
repairs, and served as a refuge where ships could wait out
unfavorable weather. One significant result was the colonization
of Mozambique by the Portuguese Crown.
However, Gama's achievements were somewhat dimmed by his failure to
bring any trade goods of interest to the nations of India.
Moreover, the sea route was fraught with its own perils - his fleet
went more than thirty days without seeing land and only 60 of his
180 companions, on one of his three ships, returned to Portugal in
1498. Nevertheless, Gama's initial journey opened a direct sea
route to Asia.
On 12 February 1502, Gama sailed with a fleet of twenty warships
, with the object of enforcing Portuguese
interests in the east. This was subsequent to the voyage of
Pedro Álvares Cabral
had been sent to India two years earlier. (Swinging far to the
west across the Atlantic in order to make use of the pattern of
favourable winds, Cabral became the official European discoverer of
Brazil.) When he
finally reached India, Cabral learned that the Portuguese citizens
who had been left by Gama at the trading post had been
murdered. After encountering further resistance from
the locals, he bombarded Calicut and then sailed south of Calicut to reach Cochin, a small
kingdom where he was given a warm welcome.
He returned to
Europe with silk and gold.
had reached the northern parts of the Indian Ocean, Gama waited for
a ship to return from Mecca and seized
all the merchandise on it.
He then ordered that the hundreds
of passengers be locked in the hold and the ship - which was named
, and which contained many wealthy Muslim merchants -
to be set on fire. When Gama arrived at Calicut on October 30, 1502
the Zamorin was willing to sign a treaty.
assaulted and exacted tribute from the Arab-controlled port of
Kilwa in East Africa, one of those ports involved in
frustrating the Portuguese.
His ships engaged in privateer
actions against Arab merchant ships, and
then destroyed a Calicut fleet of twenty-nine ships. Following that
battle he extracted favorable trading concessions from the Zamorin,
returning to Portugal in September 1503.
Tomb of Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos
Monastery in Belém, Lisbon
1519 he became the first Count of Vidigueira, a count title created
by King Manuel I of Portugal on
a royal decree issued in Évora in December 29, after an agreement
with Dom Jaime, Duke of
Braganza, who cede him on payment the towns of Vidigueira and Vila dos Frades, granting Vasco da Gama and his
heirs all the revenues and privileges related, thus becoming the
first Portuguese count (earl) who was not born
with royal blood.
St. Francis Church, Cochin
Having acquired a fearsome reputation as a "fixer" of problems that
arose in India, Vasco da Gama was sent to the subcontinent once
more in 1524. The intention was that he was to replace the
incompetent Eduardo de Menezes
viceroy (representative) of the Portuguese possessions, but Gama
contracted malaria not long after arriving in Goa and died in the
city of Cochin on Christmas Eve in 1524.
was first buried at St.
Francis Church, which was located at Fort
Kochi in the city of Kochi, but his
remains were returned to Portugal in 1539.
The body of Vasco
da Gama was re-interred in Vidigueira in a casket decorated with
gold and jewels.
of the Hieronymites in Belém was erected in honour of his voyage to
his wife, Catarina de
Ataíde, had six sons and one daughter: Dom Francisco da Gama,
2nd Count of Vidigueira; Dom
Gama, 11th Governor of India (1540–1542); Dom Paulo da Gama; Dom Pedro da Silva
da Gama; Dom Álvaro de Ataíde da Gama, Captain of Malacca; Dona Isabel de Ataíde da Gama and Dom Cristovão da Gama, a martyr in Ethiopia.
His male line issue became
extinct in 1747, though the title went through female line.
As much as anyone after Henry the Navigator, Gama was responsible
for Portugal's success as an early colonising power. Beside the fact of
the first voyage itself, it was his astute mix of politics and war
on the other side of the world that placed Portugal in a prominent
position in Indian
Following Gama's initial voyage, the
Portuguese crown realized that securing outposts on the eastern
coast of Africa would prove vital to maintaining national trade
routes to the Far East.
The Portuguese national epic
of Luís Vaz de Camões
concerns Vasco da Gama's voyages. The 1865 opera L'Africaine:
Opéra en Cinq Actes
, composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer
and Eugène Scribe
, prominently includes the
character of Vasco da Gama. A 1989 production of the composition by
the San Francisco Opera
noted tenor Placido
in the role of Gama. The 19th century composer,
, composed an eponymous 1872 opera based on
Gama's life and exploits at sea.
city of Vasco da
Gama in Goa is named
after him, as is the crater Vasco da Gama on the Moon.
three football clubs in Brazil (including Club de Regatas Vasco da Gama
and Vasco Sports Club
in Goa that
were also named after him. There exists a church in Kochi, Kerala called
Vasco da Gama Church, and a
private residence on the island of Saint
The suburb of Vasco in Cape Town also honours
places in Lisbon's Parque das Nações are named after the explorer, such as the Vasco da Gama Bridge, Vasco da
Gama Tower and the Centro Comercial Vasco da Gama
shopping centre. The Oceanário in the Parque das Nações, has a mascot of a cartoon
diver with the name of "Vasco", who is named after the
South African musician Hugh Masekela
recorded an anti-colonialist song entitled "Vasco da Gama (The
Sailor Man)", which contains the lyrics "Vasco da Gama was no
friend of mine". He later recorded another version of this song
under the name "Colonial Man".