Vasco da Gama, Portuguese explorer

The Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon lies a few meters away from the Tejo River. The most iconic oeuvre of the 16th century Portuguese architecture lies at at the hart of the neighborhood of Belém, from where the main Portuguese expeditions sailed to explore the Atlantic Ocean, the African Coast, and make incredible discoveries and long-lasting conquests.

The monastery is home to the tombs of two national Portuguese heros: the poet Luis de Camões and the explorer Vasco da Gama. The two men never met, but their stories are interconnected. Vasco da Gama entered world history as the man who achieved something that was deemed impossible to many: reach India by circumnavigation of Africa, in 1498. The poet Camões himself would take that same route decades later. He told the story of Gama in the epic poem Lusíadas.

In Lusíadas, Vasco da Gama’s story starts when he is already in the Indian Ocean. The poem describes the — historically accurate — misadventures and encounters of Vasco da Gama with local kings in Mozambique and in the city of Sofala and Melinde, in modern-day Kenya. Camões thus cuts short on the whole adventure that started in Portugal, crossed the Atlantic Ocean almost in a diagonal line between the Azores and current-day Namibia, contoured the much-feared Cape of Good Hope (around Cape Town, South Africa), met many indigenous tribes and then made history for reaching the Eastern coast of Africa. It was possible!

But Camões, of course, was right to start the story where he did. The main achievement of Vasco da Gama was not to reach the Indian Ocean, but to cross it and reach the legendary city of Calicut (today Kozhikode, in the Indian state of Kerala). By doing that, he changed the course of history and provided a scientific breakthrough in the geographic knowledge of the world. (Arguably Christopher Columbus’ expedition in 1492 made a far more important discovery, but its importance was not immediately perceived).

As Geneviève Bouchon lays down in her biography of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese expeditions to the Atlantic in the 15th century were first and foremost a huge scientific enterprise. Until 1434, nothing was known about the African coast south of the Cape Bojador, in today’s Western Sahara. Sponsored by the Avis dynasty, closely connected to the merchant bourgeoisie, several expeditions were to discovering more and more of the African West Coast, reaching unthinkable places such as the Senegal River the Guinea Coast and the Cape of Good Hope.

This huge effort was very risky, since literally nothing was known of the lands yet to be discovered. The Portuguese did know that far into the East there was a place called India with spices and precious goods, and that there were Christians somewhere in East Africa and in India. They were right. Ethiopia was an African Christian kingdom, and an important Christian minority existed in India since immemorial times. According to tradition, Jesus’ disciple Thomas created the community, and is buried today in a church in Chennai.

It was not clear that India could be reached via sea. By the 15th century, Europeans still believed in the geography of Ptolemy, who depicted oceans as huge lakes surrounded by land. Africa thus touched the southern pole by land, and the Indian and Atlantic Oceans were not connected. Since no European had ever adventured to sail so far, this was an unchallenged scientific hypothesis.

In 1488 the Portuguese finally reached and sailed past the Cape of Good Hope — thus named by the great king John II, the “perfect prince”. They really were in the Indian Ocean! It was possible to sail to India! But it was not until 1597 that king Manuel I would charge Vasco da Gama with the mission of proving this hypothesis. He would really reach India in 1598 and bury Ptolemaic geography for good.

It was the start of a new era, and the importance of the event can hardly be overstated. Decades of sailing in Africa had brought some profit, especially with the exploration of gold and the trade of slaves from Guinea. But nothing compared to the exuberance of the products that came from India: cinnamon, clove, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, red woods, rhubarb, incense and many more exotic spices that were well known and highly demanded in Europe.

Trade with these goods happened since the Ancient times and took place throughout the Middle Ages. The expansion of Islam and the decline of the Byzantine Empire created obstacles to it, but Italian merchants eventually made deals with the Arabs to ensure the supply of goods and guarantee trading privileges. Venice was the main market for those spices by the end of the 15th century, and the arrival of the Portuguese in the competition was devastating to the Italian spice trade. Ingenuously, several Italian merchants partnered with the Portuguese by financing their expeditions, but many others were praying for the Portuguese to fail. Venetians went as far as stir the Sultan of Cairo to destroy the Portuguese fleet in India.

The Portuguese presence in India lasted over 450 years. It initiated with Vasco da Gama’s trip to Calicut, which went more or less well. The visit to the king of Calicut — the Samorim — is described in details by Geneviève Bouchon and also by Alvaro Velho, a member of the expedition whose diary survives to this day. Vasco da Gama successfully sailed from modern-day Kenya to India with the help of an Arab pilot who knew how to navigate the treacherous Indian sea (Ibn Madjid, according to Brazilian historian Eduardo Bueno, though Geneviève Bouchon finds that unlikely).

Arriving in Calicut with his small fleet of three ships (the “Archangels”), Vasco da Gama left the Samorim unimpressed by the goods and presents he brought from Portugal. The Hindu king gave the Portuguese explorer a decent reception, and allowed them to set up a warehouse in the area. But a series of problems would eventually sour the relationship between the Samorim and the Portuguese in the following years. Three are worth highlighting: the lack of cultural understanding between Portuguese and Hindus, the lack of knowledge of trade customs of the Hindus, and the mutual dislike between Portuguese and Muslims.

First of all, the Portuguese were pretty clueless about the customs and culture of the rulers of Calicut. As the diary of Alvaro Velho makes crystal clear, the Portuguese were convinced that the Hindus were Christians. The insistence of the Portuguese on the fact that the Hindus were Christians is probably History’s most extreme case of confirmation bias. One can understand how they came to that conclusion. Alvaro Velho describes a temple as a “church”, full of images of “saints”, though some of them had four arms and funny faces. The “priests” wore tunics and burnt incense, just like the Catholic priests. The faithful cried “Krishna! Krishna!”, which the Portuguese understood as “Christe! Christe!”. Plus, there were some real Christians in the area.

Language was another huge problem. The Portuguese had an interpreter for Arabic and for a Congolese language, the latter being useless in India. The Indians also had interpreters for Arabic, but not quite the same kind that was spoken by the Portuguese. Still, they managed to communicate with the Samorim through this intermediary language. To their great surprise, they also met some Muslims merchants who were from Tunis and spoke some Spanish and Italian. There were probably Italian merchants in town, but they showed no interest in meeting the Portuguese.

Second, the Portuguese also did not understand the politics and economic customs of the Malabar. The Samorim, just like the other two kings of the Malabar (kingdoms of Cochim and Cananor), intervened very little in economic affairs, except for levying taxes. Prices were set freely, and the city was inhabited by Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews, who practiced trade freely with East and West. Faced with boycott from several merchants, the Portuguese asked for the Samorim’s intervention, who got exasperated because he could do nothing. The same would happen years later in Cochim and Cananor, where the Portuguese managed to impose — by brute force — price controls that were advantageous to them.

The third point that would lead the Portuguese to a conflict with the Samorim was their incompatibility with Muslim merchants. There was a mutual dislike between the Portuguese and the Muslims, and this becomes clear from the first few days in Calicut. The Muslims were extremely influential in the Samorim’s court, who refused to punish them for apparent hostilities against the Portuguese. Rumors circulated against the Portuguese, accusing them of thievery and violent intentions. Both turned out to be true some years later, but the rumors contributed to a growing hostility of the Calicut establishment against the newcomers.

Vasco da Gama showed in his first trip great leadership skill. No ship wrecked, no great accident happened. He was also extremely protective of his crew, and reacted ruthlessly to any threats made against any of them. He was also a family man, and mourned the death of his brother and co-traveler for a whole month, delaying his triumphal return to Portugal in late 1499. He tortured apparent spies, such as the Jew Gaspar, who later became his friend and godchild. But the extent of his ruthlessness would not be shown until his second trip to India, in 1503. His deeds then cast a dark shade in his biography.

In the few years between the two trips of Vasco da Gama, much had happened in India. In 1500, King Manuel decides to send a decent fleet to impress the Samorim and prove his wealth and magnificence. The fleet of Pedro Alvares Cabral was the greatest ever assembled in Portugal, with 13 ships and 1,5 thousand men. Cabral discovered Brazil in April 1500, before sailing off to India. But in Calicut, the merchants had already made their mind against the Portuguese. Despite the better gifts offered to the Samorim, and his apparent good-will towards the Portuguese, the warehouse was attacked by Hindus and Muslims and about 40 Portuguese were massacred. Cabral declared war on Calicut and bombed the city, sailing south to Cochim, where the king received him with great fear and allowed him to set up a warehouse.

Vasco da Gama’s second trip was therefore prepared as a war enterprise. Calicut had the options to either submit or be bombed. Before arriving to Calicut, Vasco da Gama captured and burned a large ship of passengers coming back from a pilgrimage to Mecca, with all passengers inside except for eight children and the pilot. His blood thirst seemed insatiable, and during the negotiations in Calicut he hanged the Samorim’s emissaries, cut their limbs and send them to the beach in a basket. The key condition for peace was the expulsion of the Muslim merchants from Calicut, to which the Samorim constantly refused.

To Geneviève Bouchon, Vasco da Gama’s stubbornness was a humanitarian catastrophe and a strategic mistake. The all-or-nothing negotiation approach led the Malabar to a constant state of war that lasted more than a decade, consuming lives and resources of the Portuguese crown. It led to the decline of Calicut and the establishment of the Portuguese in Cochim and later in Goa, where they remained from 1510 until its annexation in 1961 by the Republic of India.

In Geneviève’s opinion, it would have been possible to settle with the Samorim in a less costly way, while ensuring the Portuguese presence in the trade of spices. This is very uncertain, of course. But what is certain is that upon Vasco da Gama’s return to Portugal after his bloody expedition, his prestige with the Portuguese king had already waned. For more than ten years there is little notice of Vasco da Gama, who continue nevertheless to be paid generous pensions and hold privileges. In 1519 he was sacred as Count (he came from a wealthy family but was not noble).

During these quiet years in which Gama seems to enjoy his retirement, the Portuguese made great strides in redesigning the political chessboard of the Indian ocean. It was the period in which the Venetians partnered with the Arabs to expel the Portuguese from India. How would History — of Portugal, Egypt, India, Africa — have looked like if they had succeeded? If the Persians and Turks had not threatened the Arabs at the same time by land, diverting them from their war effort in the Red Sea and the Malabar Coast?

But it is also easy to blame Persians and Turks for this failure. The truth is that what the Portuguese lacked in diplomatic skills, they exceeded in their warships. With their strong ships, cannons and musquets, they imposed themselves by force, as they did in Ormuz and as far as the Moluccas Islands — the Spice Islands, in modern-day Indonesia.

All the political and military efforts of the small European nation were turned to the East, and their unbelievable conquests made King Manuel grow in his ambitions. More than a commercial enterprise, the conquest of the Indian Sea represented to him a mission to create an alliance of Christian princes, from Europe to Ethiopa and India, march to Jerusalem and defeat the hated Muslims! Few important people shared King Manuel’s messianic purposes, but it served as a useful public relations tool to legitimize the Portuguese actions with the Pope and other European nations. In practice, the Portuguese military and merchants who settled in India were living an adventure where they risked their lives at one step, and could make unfathomable wealth at another step.

Corruption thrived as much as commerce, and when King Manuel died in 1521 the State of India was a large empire with complex fragile alliances, pirates threatened the safety of merchants and political allegiances switched swiftly. Just like the Portuguese were about to lose newly-discovered Brazil to the French, as a result of their neglect at defending the territory, they were about to lose India to chaos.

In 1524, King John III sends the 60 year-old Vasco da Gama in his third trip to India, this time with the title of Vice-King. His objective is to restore the rule of law and moralize the administration on the Eastern Portuguese Empire. The Vice-King had a short reign, for he died on Christmas Eve of that same year, in Cochim. During his months as Vice-King, he performed moralizing reforms, cut expenses, closed costly fortifications and sent some troublemakers back home or down to hell.

In his last days, he took his time to do some charity, as though the cruel acts of his career haunted somewhat his conscience. He donated wealth to widowers, as well as to the hospital of the poor in Cochim — the Santa Casa de Misericórdia —, which was, according to Geneviève Bouchon, the first welfare institution for the poor in India. His mortal rests were transferred some years later to a church in Portugal, and only in the 19th century were they taken to the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, where it rests to this day.

Economics, Brazil, books, and travels.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store