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Navigator and Warrior 1468  (?) - 1524

by Fernando Correia da Silva

Translated by John D. Godinho


Portrait of Vasco da Gama (unknown author)



1468 (?):  Vasco da Gama is born, presumably in Sines, the second son of Estevão da Gama, a nobleman. - 1497: July 8, he leaves Lisbon as the Commander-in-Chief of the fleet that will discover the waterway to India. November 18, the fleet rounds the Cape of Good Hope. - 1498: May 20, he reaches Calicut and has to deal with the hostility of the Zamorin, the local ruler.  October 5, he begins his return trip home. - 1499: Late August, he arrives in Lisbon and is given a hero's welcome. - 1502-04: Second trip to India.  Carries out reprisals against the Zamorin.  Makes alliances with the Kings of Cochin and Cananor,  where he establishes trading posts.  Returns to Lisbon with heavy cargo of spices. - 1524: Third trip to India, but now holding the title of Count of Vidigueira.  He is designated Viceroy of India.  Tries to put an end to insubordination and abuses.  On December 25, da Gama dies in Cochin.




It all begins when Prince Henry, the Navigator, orders his ships to start trading with ports on the West Coast of Africa. They go as far as Guinea, where the slave trade is quite profitable.  Later, King John II sends his men out to discover the waterway to the distant shores of India, where the spice trade is even more profitable (1).

In 1482 Diogo Cão reaches the mouth of the Zaire River and in 1486 he explores the coast of Angola.  In 1487 Bartolomeu Dias tries to sail all the way to Indian waters.

That same year, King John, known as John, the Perfect, sends Pero da Covilhã to the Orient, by land.  The king's agent will try to contact  Prester John, the mysterious leader of Oriental Christianity.  Pero da Covilhã will reach first India, then Abyssinia.  But, to him, the legendary Prester John will remain a mystery.  He has no news to send to the King.  Instead he sends much valuable information to Lisbon regarding navigation along the East Coast of Africa.

In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounds the Cape of Storms, which King John II promptly names Cape of Good Hope.  Nevertheless, he suspends new expeditions. The country is facing a political crisis. Internally, there is a struggle between the Crown and many of the Lords. There is repression. In foreign affairs, the Portuguese and the Spanish plans for territorial and trade expansion are on a collision course.  The two countries negotiate.  Finally, in 1494 King John and the Catholic monarchs of Spain sign the Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing the World between them.  The Treaty is a guaranty that John, the Perfect, how has access not only to India, by going around Africa, but also to the future occupation of Brazil, whose existence he is probably already aware of (2).

King John II dies in 1495.  Rumor has it that he was poisoned. 




Vasco da Gama sets out to sea, heading for India.






Vasco da Gama's fleet, composed of the St. Gabriel, the São Rafael, the Bérrio and a supply ship (Source: Livro das Armadas, 16th century).



Vasco da Gama in born in 1468, date unknown, presumably in Sines.  As the second son of Estevão da Gama, a nobleman, he has no right to a coat of arms, to a title or to his father's fortune.  All of that belongs to the first born.  And it all goes to his brother Paulo da Gama.  A roaring rage is the result.

His alternatives?  Well, there is always the priesthood!  He goes as far as the rites of tonsure.   But then he reconsiders it and turns away.  Maybe he is fascinated by King John's struggle against the privileged nobility, that is, the first born sons of nobility.  He chooses the sea and a military career.  The King hears of his courage and of his leadership qualities.  He might even have heard about Vasco's ferocity.  John, the Perfect, appoints him to lead several missions, which he carries out quite successfully.  He seems driven by a merciless demon.

King John dies and is succeeded by King Manuel I.  The new King reverses the policies of his predecessor and permits the return of the privileges of the nobility.  Manuel invites Paulo da Gama to be the Commander-in-Chief of the first expedition to India. But Paulo hasn't been feeling well;  he is feverish.  It may be tuberculosis.  He forgoes the honor in Vasco's favor.  He likes his brother whose fits of rage make him laugh.  Even so, he requests that he be given the command of one of the ships in the expedition.  Should Vasco need help, he, Paulo, will be standing by.  Brotherly love.

On July 7, 1497, the King, holding court in Montemor, entrusts Vasco with the command of the expedition.

The following day, the day of Our Lady, Vasco attends Mass in Belém and assumes command of the fleet:  the flagship S. Gabriel, of about 90 tons;  the S. Rafael, of the same tonnage, captained by Paulo;  the Bérrio, about 50 tons, skippered by Nicolau Coelho.  There is another ship, an old supply vessel, 110 tons, which is under the command of Gonçalo Nunes and will be destroyed at sea once the supplies run out.

Vasco is aware of his brother's efforts to get him the appointment.  He makes no gesture of thanks.  He got it on his own merits;  it is only fair that number two now become number one... 




Bartolomeu Dias goes along with da Gama's fleet.  He captains a ship headed for S. Jorge da Mina, on the West Coast of Africa, near Guinea. They reach the Canary Islands and then Santiago in the Archipelago of Cape Verde, where they take in supplies and repair the ships.  On August 3, they set sail again.

The fleet enters the Gulf of Guinea, where its course is confirmed by the sun, the salt and the southern skies.  Bartolomeu parts company with the fleet, saluting his fellow seamen on the other ships with volleys of gunfire.  Then, he heads for Mina.  Vasco da Gama sets his sails against the wind (2) , the secret of Portuguese seamanship.  He lets the wind take the fleet in a southwesterly direction.  They will travel many leagues before the wind gradually begins to shift and starts pushing them toward the southeast.  The ships trace a wide arc in the ocean making their way back to the coast of Africa, but at a latitude quite a bit farther south. 

Ninety-three days have slipped by.  Still no land in sight.  On November 7, Vasco da Gama drops anchor in a harbor which Bartolomeu Dias had named Sta. Helena.  Using his wooden astrolabe, the captain major takes his bearings:  the Cape of Good Hope must be only about 30 leagues to the south.















Vasco da Gama rounds the Cape of Good Hope.Vasco da Gama rounds the Cape of Good Hope.










The Cape had been sighted on November 18.  Almost immediately, daylight became darkness.  Bartolomeu was right - the Cape is hellishly stormy.  All the forces of nature lash at the ships;  four nutshells tossed mercilessly, now in the abyss, now in the crest of the waves.  The ships are taking water through the wooden joints separated by the impact of the rushing sea.  Sailors and caulkers try to bail out the invading waters.

Twice the hurricane out of the East pushes the fleet back;  they cannot round the Cape.  Vasco da Gama decides to go south.  In the semidarkness, the dim lanterns of the other ships roll helplessly in all directions.  The crews, overtaken by fear, demand that the ships return to the West Coast of Africa.  The captains refuse, arguing that the flagship, the St. Gabriel, is already heading south. Who dares to challenge the captain major?  Rather chance drowning than be killed for sure.

At last, Vasco da Gama orders that the rudder shift direction.  Now travelling toward the East, the fleet describes a semicircle and, gradually, begins heading north.  The captain major shouts, gives orders and swears:  if land is sighted by starboard, he will turn south once again trying to round the Cape...he will do it three, four, five...as many times as necessary. He does not waver;  he is not about to give in.  I am not the man I once was, I do not want to go back in time, to be the second son, the second man...Rather die than yield.  I am not afraid of the darkness.  Real death is preferable to a life without living.

It is the morning of November 25; the storm abates. The lookout shouts:

- Land ahoy!  Land by portside!

Everyone rushes to the deck.  They all kneel - sailors, caulkers, petty-officers, soldiers and captains.  For seven days now they have weathered the storm.  But the Cape was conquered!  They lift their voices in a Hail Mary, an unlikely choir singing at the edge of the World, as revealed by the sun, the salt and the southern skies.






The East Coast of Africa is in sight.  They reach the Bay of S. Brás.  That is as far as Bartolomeu Dias had managed to go.  They take in water and repair the three ships.  The remaining supplies in the storeship are distributed to the fleet and fire is set to the old ship, as planned.  They offer berets and little bells to the dark-skinned people of the region whose reaction to their presence has seesawed between hostility and friendliness.  There the voyagers rest for thirteen days.

They set sail on December 7.  On the 25th  they sight a region to which they give the name of Natal (Christmas). Now they face another violent storm.  They run out of fresh water.  But on January 11,  they finally anchor off the coast of a place they call Terra da Boa Gente (Land of the Good People) (3), such is the hospitality of the inhabitants.

On January 23, they round the banks of a river they baptize with the name of "Bons Sinais" (of the Good Omens) (4), because among the populace they meet mestizos of Arab descent, a good sign that the Orient is near.  The population takes the Portuguese for Turks and gives them a warm welcome.  Vasco da Gama makes no effort to correct the mistake.  In the meantime, he tries to locate Christians in the city.  There are none.  Nor is there any news of Prester John.

It takes them thirty-two days to repair the ships.  They engage in some trade and establish friendly relations with the locals.  During the lay over there is an outbreak of scurvy among the crews. Paulo da Gama, the gentle brother, is the best loved captain among the sailors, always ready to defend them from the captain major's fits of rage.  He takes care of the sick with great zeal but is not able to prevent a high mortality rate among them.

The landmark they brought in the S. Rafael is planted.  This stone monument with the royal coat of arms marks the presence of the Portuguese as discoverers of the region. They set out to sea on February 24.



Vasco da Gama reaches Calicut.


On March 2 they reach the Island of Mozambique.  There are sailing ships everywhere carrying gold, silver, pearls and rubies, as well as cloves, pepper and ginger.  Visions and aromas of the Orient.  The inhabitants are all faithful followers of the Mafoma sect.  Once again, Vasco da Gama tries to locate Christians in the region; there are none and no one has even heard of Prester John.

Vasco camouflages the differences between the religious creeds and gains the Sultan's good graces.  The ruler thinks the Portuguese are Turks and places two pilots at their disposal to show them the way to Calicut. But the spirit of harmony does not last long;  the Sultan finds out the truth:

- These strangers are Christians and are competing with us.  This is Holy War!

On March 11, the two skiffs carrying the captain major and Nicolau Coelho are attacked by six well-armed boats.  Paulo da Gama comes to the rescue aboard the Bérrio.  His brother is in danger.  Paulo's gentleness turns to firmness and determination.  He fires a broadside against the attackers who scuttle back to shore.  Vasco da Gama boards the S. Gabriel and, as retaliation, orders that the city be shelled.

April 7, they reach the entrance to the port of Mombasa;  but they do not dare go in.  They fear a trap waits for them, so they drop anchor  outside the port.  Even so, the sailors and the locals seem to get along well:  they talk and do some trading, all in an atmosphere of cordiality.  Both sides hide their true feelings.  The Sultan invites the Portuguese to anchor in the port.  The captain major will have none of it;  they are setting up a trap, for sure.  In a moment of distraction by the Portuguese, the two pilots throw themselves into the sea and swim ashore. 

Malindi is da Gama's next stop.  The fleet arrives there on April 15.  The King is well aware of the shelling of Mozambique, so he sends an emissary aboard to greet Vasco da Gama.  Relations are friendly between Moors and Christians;  they exchange presents, the Holy War is forgotten.  Neither side is interested in it.  The captain major, in a magnanimous gesture, frees the Moors he had captured in Mozambique.  This sits well with the local populace.  The King is pressured and finally agrees to assign a pilot, Malemo Canaca (5), who will take the Portuguese fleet to Calicut.  They lift anchor on April 24.



Detail of a tapestry representing Vasco da Gama beingDetail of a tapestry representing Vasco da Gama being received by the Zamorin of Calicut.










Vasco da Gama orders that the hands of some of the Zamorin’s subjects be cut off. Then, he sends the hands to the Indian ruler.




The captain major wishes to impress the Moorish pilot and shows him the wooden astrolabe, an ancestor of today's sextant.   And Malemo Canaca shows him an instrument which Vasco da Gama recognizes as a "staff of Jacob" used by Portuguese navigators.  They are both amazed - the same instrument being used in the East and in the West?  So many thousands of miles from each other?  What they don't know is that, generations before, Jewish scholars, heirs to Arabic scientific knowledge, had given the initial push to Portuguese seamanship.  Later, Malemo Canaca displays a map drawn in the Arabic manner showing the West Coast of Hindustan running through a web of meridians and parallels.  Vasco da Gama is stunned.  The good Moor smiles, gently.  He likes to surprise the captain major of the Portuguese fleet.

They cross the Indian Ocean.  As the sun is setting on May 20, they drop anchor off Calicut.  In front of them, palaces, temples, gardens and artificial lakes.  They also see lots of thatch-roofed huts, the eyesores of the city. 

Vasco da Gama orders that one of the convicted exiles (6) be sent ashore to reconnoiter the city.  As soon as he lands, a Moor exclaims:  

- The devil take you!  What has brought you here? 

The Moor's name is Monsaíde.  He is led to the ship, where he tells of the riches of the city - spices, rubies and many emeralds.

Da Gama repeats his search for Christians.  There are none.  But he is so intent on finding them that he ends up taking an Indian temple for a Christian church.  And, of course, there is no news of Prester John.

On May 28, the local ruler, the Zamorin, grants Vasco da Gama an audience.  The first contact, the initial amenities.  Da Gama exalts the nobility, wealth and power of King Manuel I.  The Zamorin is thinking about an alliance with this far away and powerful king.

But the following day the friendliness and good will vanish when the Zamorin sees the presents from his visitor.  They are ridiculous offerings:  hats, coral trinkets, sugar, olive oil and honey.  The captain major is on the defensive - he is not a merchant, he's only an ambassador, he says.  The Zamorin's suspicions are increasing by the moment;  he does not permit da Gama's return to his fleet.  This, of course, is a grave offence.  The captain swallows his pride and tries to control the rage swelling inside.  He takes a risk, evades the guards and manages to set one of his men free.  When the sailor reaches the shore he goes straight to the S. Rafael.  The captain major sends a message to Paulo da Gama:

- Don't expose yourselves!  Lift anchor and return home to inform the King of what is happening in Calicut...

Paulo da Gama does not take heed.  He brings the fleet closer to shore and gets ready to free his brother with a few broadsides.

But on May 31 the Zamorin has a change of heart and allows Vasco da Gama to leave the palace.  On shore, he is surrounded by Moors who want to imprison the Portuguese.  Da Gama is about to draw his sword.   All his personal demons conspire to make him want to kill everyone in sight.  Who's going to exorcise him?  Suddenly, Paulo da Gama intercedes.  He sends bolts of cloth to be exchanged for spices, shirts, bracelets and pewter.  Tempers calm down.  Even so, as the captain major boards his ship he can hear the crowd shouting insults: "Christian thief, Christian thief..."

Finally, on June 24, the Zamorin agrees to let the Portuguese bring their goods to the city for trading.  The market is receptive.  Still, the Portuguese feel beleaguered, victims of the intrigues engendered by the Moors to influence the Zamorin...

Vasco da Gama retaliates.  On August 19, he retains on board six "men of substance" who had come to visit the ship.  Hostage for hostage.  And on August 23, he makes as if he is setting sail to leave.   His personal demons seem out of control:

- We'll be back soon and then you'll see who is a thief!

The fleet rests far from shore.  The Zamorin sends for Diogo Dias, one of the many sailors held as hostages, and tells him:

- You and those who are with you, go back to your ships.  Tell the captain to release the men he is holding.

The hostages are exchanged. Now no trade agreement is possible with the Zamorin and the fleet sets out to sea on August 29.  Da Gama's rage has not subsided; it is merely under control.  This is not the time to burn bridges.  He knows there will be a second round.  The waterway to India has been discovered and the future belongs to God...and the King.



They stop over at Anjediva Island, where they careen the ships and wait for favorable winds to take them back home. They start out again on October 5, heading for Malindi.  At a shoal south of Mombasa the S. Rafael goes aground and is not able to continue.  The ship is burned down and the shoal is given the ship's name.  Paulo da Gama, quite ill by this time, embarks on the S. Gabriel.  They round the Cape of Good Hope and reach Guinea.  From there, Nicolau Coelho, the skipper of the Bérrio, goes directly to Lisbon, while the S. Gabriel takes a different course, goes to the Cape Verde Islands and calls at Santiago.  Vasco da Gama turns the flagship over to João Dias and charters a sailing ship to take him to Terceira Island, in the Azores. There he remains with his sick brother.  He renounces the glory of personally delivering the message of the discovery to the King, so that he can be with Paulo in his final moments.  Paulo dies in his arms.  Is it spite?  It might be sorrow.  Now, who is the first, who is the second?


Vasco da Gama returns to Lisbon and is received in triumph.


In the beginning there were 150 men;  only 55 make it back. They are welcomed as heroes. It is a glorious moment! For the captain major!  For the King!  For Christianity! And for Europe as it begins to spread its imperialistic influence over Asia!

The King rewards Vasco da Gama handsomely:  the town of Sines;  the right to use the tile of Dom;  an annuity of three hundred thousand réis, for him and his descendants, along with many other royal favors.  And in 1519, after he marries Catarina de Ataíde, who will bear him seven children, he receives the title of Count of Vidigueira. 



D. Vasco da Gama,  "Admiral of the Arabian, Persian, Indian and All Oriental Seas", is Commander-in-Chief of a fleet of twenty ships leaving for India.  They set out from Lisbon on February 10, 1502.  Now anything goes in an effort to establish a trade empire in the Orient.  D. Vasco is not afraid of the unknown;  nothing will stand in his way.  Nor is he afraid of the bitter presence of the Beast himself.  This is a just war. Power is on the side of those who have the will to act and the strength to lead. Paulo is gone now;  there is no one to restrain the captain's rage, his innermost demons, his cruelty. 

On June 12, D. Vasco drops anchor off Kilwa, on the African East Coast.  Their king had persecuted Pedro Álvares Cabral.  In reprisal, D. Vasco now shells the city, which is finally subdued. The Admiral imposes the annual tribute of 500 gold "miticais".

He blockades the route to the Red Sea.  He searches every ship that crosses his path;  those that come from Calicut are to receive special treatment.  Suddenly, the silhouette of a large vessel in the horizon. It is the Meri.  D. Vasco's men strip it of its cargo and twenty children aboard are taken to be properly raised as Christians.  The ship is then bombarded, along with its crew and passengers, men and women.  It sinks.  That's D. Vasco da Gama!  There's no appeasing the devil in him;  no chance of exorcism.  And worse:  he now orders that the remaining prisoners be hanged and their hands cut off to be sent as trophies to the Zamorin of Calicut. He is replying in kind for what the Hindu ruler had done to the 40 sailors of Cabral's fleet (2).  It is an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth.  He also demands that the Hindu expel all the Moors from the city. When he receives an answer he considers inadequate, he shells Calicut for two days and two nights.

An alliance is reached with the kings of Cochin and Cananor. D. Vasco imposes strict commercial conditions as he sets up two trading posts in those kingdoms.  He has fortresses built in strategic points.  This is the beginning of the Portuguese empire in the Orient.  On November 10, 1503, D. Vasco returns to Lisbon with a heavy cargo of spices.



Illustration from Civitates Orbis (1572), representing the city of Goa.Illustration from Civitates Orbis (1572), representing the city of Goa.


On April 9, 1524, D. Vasco begins another trip to the Orient at the request of King John III, who succeeded King Manuel.  He is now the Viceroy of India.  His mission:  to put an end to the insubordination and abuses of the lordlings stationed there.  But he is getting old and tired.  Age and illness allow him to govern for only three months.  He begins to fear the approaching darkness that renders him helpless.  The devil dwells in that dreadful night, but the bitterness of the beast will not block his blind belief in his destiny.   My beloved Jesus, unto your hands I deliver myself.  Now the cawing of the raven is drawing near.  The raven, the raven, that annoying raven.  D. Vasco dies in Cochin on Christmas Day, 1524.

His remains will be sent to Lisbon to be given a state funeral with all the honours due a national hero. He will be immortalized by Luis de Camões in his epic poem The Lusiads.  Centuries later, they will rest side by side, the myth and the myth maker, in the Monastery of Geronimos, as eternal reminders of the discovery of the waterway to India.


(1)   V. Introduction to biography of Christopher Columbus.
V. biography of Pedro Álvares Cabral.
(3) Close to the mouth of the Inharrime, in Mozambique.
(4) The Zambeze River, in Mozambique.
(5) Malemo Canaca, corruption of Arabic language, meaning "astronomer-pilot".
(6) Several convicts were sent on the trip to be left along the way on newly discovered lands.


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