Hands on History: Vasco da Gama
By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features
In the 1400s and 1500s, Europe was swept up in a cultural and scientific revolution called the Renaissance. During this time, European nations began to compete with each other over wealth and land. This led to the race to explore new lands through sea routes.
However, as many of the existing sea routes were controlled by other countries, Explorers from European nations had to find their own sea routes in order to access lands in other continents, like Asia. One such explorer was Vasco da Gama, who led the first expedition that travelled from Europe to India by sailing around Africa.
Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal in 1460. He was the third son of a minor provincial nobleman who was the commander of the fortress of Sines on the coast of Alentejo province in south-western Portugal.
Little is known of his younger years, but as a young adult, he began working for the Crown, gaining favour by accomplishing his tasks quickly and effectively. Later, in 1495, under the rule of King Manuel, a previously abandoned project was revived: to send a Portuguese fleet to India in order to open a sea route to Asia.
This was because spices from India were very popular in Europe. At the time, the only way to travel to India from Europe was over land, which took a long time, and was very expensive. So instead, King Manuel wanted to find a way to get to India by sea, a method of travel that was much cheaper. He thought that if he could secure a sea route to Asia, he could become rich by trading spices in Europe.
The first voyage
By this time, an explorer named Bartolomeu Dias had discovered the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of Africa. It was thought that there may be a way around the Cape to India, but since no one had sailed beyond this point, they did not even know if the Atlantic Ocean connected to the Indian Ocean. However, King Manuel wanted to test this theory, and Vasco da Gama was given a fleet of ships and told to attempt to sail around Africa and try to reach India that way. He was also told to find as many trading opportunities as he could along the way.
Vasco da Gama left Lisbon, Portugal on 8 July 1497. He had 170 men and four ships under his command. At first, it was smooth sailing. The ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and travelled north along the eastern coast of Africa. They stopped at trading ports along the way, and even picked up a local navigator who knew the direction to India.
With monsoon winds in their favour, they were able to reach India in less than a month. However, once they reached India, they ran into trouble with local traders. Vasco da Gama had brought little of value in his ships, and did not have anything to trade with for the spices. This bad luck continued on the voyage back to Portugal. The trip took longer and around half of the crew died from scurvy. Nevertheless, Vasco returned home a hero; he had found a much-needed sea route to India.
Later life and death
Vasco da Gama led two more expeditions to India, though neither were of much note compared to his maiden voyage. Unfortunately, on his last trip to India, he died of Malaria shortly after arriving. Today, Vasco da Gama is regarded as one of the greatest European explorers of his time, and a pioneer in sea-faring.