Vasco da Gama
c. 1460 – 1524
Exploration Ranking 6th of 26
500th anniversary of DaGama's birth. Portuguese stamp from 1969.
Following Bartolemeu Dias around the Cape of Good Hope, Vasco da Gama’s voyages to India (first in 1498) opened the sea route from Western Europe to the East (i.e. Asia) and thus ushered in a new era in world history. He also helped make Portugal a world power. “The opening of the route to India and beyond by Portugal was of massive importance, laying the foundation of the first of the great European maritime empires.”(1)
First Voyage to India
Da Gama set sail in July 1497 with four ships and 170 men. Some of the men were convicts, recruited to do the most dangerous tasks. The king ordered da Gama to investigate any opportunities for trade along the way.
The man who first rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Bartolemeu Dias, accompanied the new expedition in his own ship as far as the Cape Verde Islands. From here, da Gama and his fleet took four months to reach the Cape. They then sailed up the eastern coast of Africa. From time to time they landed to take food and water on board, to make repairs, and to trade. Many of the crew fell ill with scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C. Victims grew weak, developing fever and blisters, and rarely survived the illness. Overall, Da Gama lost two-thirds of his crew to scurvy.(2) (See in-depth discussion of scurvy in James Cook biography.)
Da Gama hired an experienced guide to steer his ships across the Indian Ocean. Driven by a seasonal wind called the monsoon, they made the crossing in just twenty-three days. They reached the most important trade center in southern India, Calicut (present-day Kozhikode), after a total of ten months at sea. On the return voyage, so many of his men died, that da Gama burned one of his ships because there were not enough sailors left to form a crew to operate it. By the end, only fifty-five members of the crew—less than one third of those who started out—survived the round-trip voyage.
Subsequent Voyages to India
In 1502 da Gama went out to India for a second time with twenty ships. In 1503 the Portuguese took home an extraordinarily rich cargo of over three million pound weight of spices, mainly pepper but also plenty of sweet-smelling cinnamon. Within five years after da Gama’s first voyage to India an astonishing eighty-one ships were dispatched from Lisbon to India.(3)
Implications of da Gama’s New Route to India
Vasco da Gama’s opening of a new trade route to India was a severe setback to the Islamic traders that formerly controlled the trade routes of the Indian Ocean. Those traders were soon defeated and displaced by the Portuguese. In addition, the overland trade routes from India into Europe fell into disuse, because the Portuguese sea route around Africa was cheaper. This was injurious both to the Ottoman Turks and to the Italian trading cities (such as Venice) that formerly controlled the eastern trade. For the rest of Europe, however, this meant that goods from the Far East were substantially cheaper than before.
Ultimately, however, the greatest impact of da Gama’s voyage was not upon Europe, but rather upon India and Southeast Asia. Before 1498, India was isolated from Europe. Da Gama’s voyage, however, brought India into direct contact with European civilization via the sea routes. The influence and power of the Europeans grew steadily stronger in India, until by the last half of the nineteenth century the entire subcontinent was subject to British rule. As for Indonesia, it fell first under European influence, and then under complete European control. Only in the mid-twentieth century did these areas regain autonomy.
(1) David Abulafia, The Boundless Sea (New York, 2019), p. 545.
(2 Jonathan Lamb, “Captain Cook and the Scourge of Scurvy,” February, 2, 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire/seapower/captaincook_scurvy_01.shtml.
(3) Ibid., p. 541.
1. Unknown Seas: How Vasco Da Gama Opened the East by Ronald Watkins, 2005.
2. The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama by Nigel Cliff, 2011.