Vasco da Gama Statue

One particular household name that has stood the test of time is Vasco da Gama – intrepid explorer, world tradesman and Portuguese national hero.

Above all he was a far-sighted visionary. In the fifteenth century when refrigeration was unheard of, spices had an importance which we, in the twenty-first century, can hardly imagine.

Western Europe was growing wealthier and there was a demand for more sophisticated food. The addition of spices to food enhanced the flavour of a meal and also disguised the rancid taste of the meat and fish that graced the tables of the rich.

The Spice Trade of that time can in some ways be equated with the drugs trade of today (except for drugs’ harmful effects); spices, like drugs, are cheap and easy to produce, light and small to transport and very profitable to the traders who carry and sell the goods.

Before the Portuguese discovered the sea route around Africa, the Spice Trade was monopolised by Muslims from the east coast of Africa, and by the Venetians. Indeed Venice had built her wealth on this trade. It is said that when the Venetians learnt of da Gama’s voyage, no less than three banks on the Lido closed their doors.

Vasco da Gama arrived at Calicut in May 1498 after a journey lasting ten months. He sailed for unknown horizons at a time when most people still believed in a flat earth and sea monsters. He and his fellow sailors faced terrible hardship but their journey marked the beginning of a new era.

It is in this context that the importance of Vasco da Gama’s voyage can be appreciated. His fame is not lessened if one recalls that his success was built upon the earlier achievements of his compatriots.

Prince Henry the Navigator, who died before da Gama was born, founded the naval research station at Sagres. He sent his sailors exploring further and further down the West African coast.

Through his influence, correct and up-to-date charts were drawn up; navigational aids such as the astrolabe were developed and suitable ships were built, above all the caravel and the nau. Prince Henry’s dream, which was a combination of idealism and commercial zeal, of ‘Christians and Spices’, led the explorers on.

Da Gama’s contemporary, Bartolomeu Dias, had already proved that Africa did have a southern tip when he landed at Mossel Bay (which he named the Bahia dos Vaqueiros) in February 1488.  Dias discovered that he had accidentally circumnavigated the Cape, which he christened the Cape of Storms, but which King João III was later to rename the Cape of Good Hope.

From his earliest childhood Vasco da Gama had the sound of the sea in his ears: he was born in Sines, a medium-sized town midway down the Alentejo coast, where his house can still be seen. Later in his youth, Da Gama proved his valour in campaigns against the Castilians, the hated enemies and rivals of Portugal.

His king, João II (1481-1495), was determined to find Prester John, the legendary Christian king who was supposed to live in the East. Prester John was reputed to hold both temporal and spiritual dominion over all neighbouring rulers.

King João also wished to make the final link in the sea journey to the fabled Indies. He chose Vasco da Gama to lead the fleet, but died before his dream could be realised. It was his cousin and successor, Manuel I ‘The Fortunate’ (1495-1521), who actually sent Da Gama out from the Tagus on the 8th of July 1497. The four ships that sailed that summer afternoon, led by Da Gama’s boat the São Gabriel, were small. Only three of the ships were to return. Many of the crew would never see Lisbon again.

After four months of relatively uneventful sailing, Da Gama reached St. Helen’s Bay and rounded the Cape. In January of 1498 he reached the port of Malindi on the coast of what is now Kenya. This area of the Indian ocean had been the exclusive zone of the Muslim traders and Da Gama had already experienced their hostility.

From Mozambique to Mombasa and beyond, he was to meet nothing but opposition from them. At Malindi, however, through the friendly local ruler, who was only too happy that there should be some competition to the Muslim traders, Da Gama gained the services of a competent pilot who guided the flotilla across the Indian Ocean and on to Calicut on India’s Malabar Coast.

The Portuguese landed in May 1498, ten months after leaving the Tagus. As was the Portuguese custom, Da Gama set up a padrão – a marble pillar – as a mark of conquest and as a proof of his discovery of India.

Unable to set up a trading factory, he left on the long return journey to Portugal on the 5th of October 1498. The voyage back was a nightmare. The wind dropped, dozens of his men died from scurvy and on the 1st of January 1499, Da Gama was obliged to set on fire his beloved São Rafael; he had only enough sailors left to man three ships. His brother, Paulo, fell sick and in desperation da Gama sent a caravel on ahead carrying Paulo to try and save him, but he died in the Azores, not far from home.

The first two ships of the depleted fleet returned to Portugal in the summer of 1499 to a hero’s welcome but it was only in September that the flagship, with Da Gama on board, reached the Tagus estuary in Lisbon. King Manuel I received him with every mark of distinction, including the title of Admiral for subsequent voyages.

He left Lisbon for the last time in his mid-fifties in April 1524 and died in Cochin, India, on Christmas Eve that same year.

In 1539 his body was transferred to the Carmelite Convent near Vidigueira where it lay until 1898. In that anniversary year, his remains were removed to a tomb in Jerónimos Monastery (indicated on the map below) in Lisbon’s Belém district where it now rests, lying across the aisle from the sarcophagus commemorating Luís de Camões, the writer who had immortalised the voyage of Vasco da Gama in his great poem, Os Lusíadas.