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Vasco da Gama reaches India

Vasco da Gama reaches India

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Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama becomes the first European to reach India via the Atlantic Ocean when he arrives at Calicut on the Malabar Coast.

Da Gama sailed from Lisbon, Portugal, in July 1497, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and anchored at Malindi on the east coast of Africa. With the aid of an Indian merchant he met there, he then set off across the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese explorer was not greeted warmly by the Muslim merchants of Calicut, and in 1499 he had to fight his way out of the harbor on his return trip home. In 1502, he led a squadron of ships to Calicut to avenge the massacre of Portuguese explorers there and succeeded in subduing the inhabitants. In 1524, he was sent as viceroy to India, but he fell ill and died in Cochin.

Portuguese discovery of the sea route to India

The Portuguese discovery of the sea route to India was the first recorded trip directly from Europe to India, via the Cape of Good Hope. [1] Under the command of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, it was undertaken during the reign of King Manuel I in 1495–1499. Considered one of the most remarkable voyages of the Age of Discovery, it initiated the Portuguese maritime and trade presence in Kerala and the Indian Ocean. [2] [3]

Vasco da Gama Reaches The Shores Near Calicut India

Today on May 20, 1498, Portuguese-explorer Vasco da Gama and his crew arrive at Calicut, India.

Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira, was a famous explorer who became the first European to reach India by sea. Before da Gama, there were many failed attempts made by Europeans to reach the East Indies. Dozens of ships were wrecked, and thousands of lives were lost at sea. During his first expedition, he found a sea route connecting the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. This discovery played a critical role in establishing reliable shipping between Western Europe and the Orient. Moreover, this new direct access to India paved the way for centuries of imperialism and subjugation throughout Asia-Pacific. Portugal subsequently transitioned into a colonial empire capable of contending with the other great powers of Europe.

On July 8, 1497, da Gama departed from Lisbon at the head of four ships and a crew of 170 sailors. The fleet sailed along the west coast of Africa and looped around the cape. Along the way, they stopped at Mozambique, Mombasa (present-day Kenya), and Malindi. After traveling for ten months, da Gama finally reached the shores of India, near the Malabar Coast. The King of Calicut promptly returned to the capital city to greet the mysterious foreigners. The Portuguese were welcomed with warm hospitality and exchanged gifts of clothing, honey, and oil. However, the king was not impressed as he expected gold and silver. Nevertheless, da Gama still managed to trade with the local Muslim merchants, eventually returning with a cargo worth sixty times the cost of the expedition.

For his contributions, Vasco da Gama was appointed as the Governor of India and granted the title of Viceroy. He later commanded two major trading expedition back to India. The Portuguese Empire maintained a strong monopoly over these essential commercial routes for nearly a century before the English, French, and Dutch navies began to challenge them. Vasco da Gama undoubtedly remains a controversial figure, as he was known for being cruel to other traders and local inhabitants. His name was despised and hated across many overseas territories, especially in India.

1487-1488 – Vasco da Gama Reaches India

Vasco da Gama’s flagship, the San Rafael.

By the time King Manoel I of Portugal was ready to follow up on Bartolomeu Dias’ discoveries from 1488, the knight King João II had hired to lead the expedition, Estêvão da Gama, had died. [He died in July of 1497.] From his palácio [palace] in Évora(1), Manoel offered the admiral position to Estêvão’s third son, Vasco da Gama. The oldest of Estêvão’s five sons, Paulo, did not want to take the lead, but he would serve as the captain of one of Vasco’s ships.

Vasco Da Gama and his siblings had been born at their father’s comenda in Sines a hundred miles south of Lisbon. They had an older, illegitimate brother, also named Vasco, whom their father had conceived with a mistress before marrying their mother, Isabel Sodré. Both Vasco da Gamas were named after their grandfather, a Portuguese noble. Some of Isabel’s ancestors were English [possibly Lancaster/Lencaster] and she was also related to Fernando and Diogo of Viseu. Her father and brother were Knights of the Order of Christ, rivals to her husband’s order, the Order of São Tiago.

Vasco’s parents probably sent him to Évora for his education. Like his father, he became a Knight of the Order of São Tiago. During his training, he was taught to navigate the Ocean Sea by Portugal’s royal astronomer and historian, Abraham Zacuto (1452-1515).

We met Zacuto in the article about Diogo Cão. In 1492, after Ferdinand and Isabella took possession of Granada and expelled all Jews who would not convert to Christianity from Spain, Zacuto moved to Lisbon. When Manoel became king in 1495, he appointed Zacuto to be his royal astronomer. By that time, Zacuto’s protégé, Master José Vizinho(2) had translated Zacuto’s Great Book from Castilian into Latin. The Latin version [printed on one of Portugal’s first presses using moveable and reusable type] was published in 1496, the year before Vasco Da Gama’s departure. When, in 1446, King Manoel complied with his Castilian bride’s request to expel Jews from Portugal, Manoel made an exception for Zacuto.

Abraham Zacuto made additional improvements to the astrolabe so that it was more useful below the equator. [Possibly he and Martin Behaim worked together on that project. Behaim would have added the knowledge he learned while apprenticing with Regiomontanus.]

Having no idea how long Vasco da Gama’s trip would be, King Manoel issued him a tiny fleet of four ships to carry 170 men. Bartolomeu Dias helped supervise the construction of two 178-ton carracks about 86 feet in length. They were named after the two archangels featured in the Bible: Gabriel and Raphael. The São Gabriel was to serve as Vasco Da Gama’s flagship. Paulo da Gama was to command the São Rafael.

The Da Gamas drafted experienced seamen to accompany them. They chose Pêro Escobar to pilot the caravel named Bérrio, which would be under the command of Nicolau Coelho. Escobar had accompanied Bartolomeu Dias in 1487 and helped discover the islands of St. Tome, Annobon, and Principe. The Bérrio was only slightly smaller than the São Gabriel and São Rafael. The fourth ship in the fleet, commanded by Gonçalo Nunes, was for hauling provisions,. She would not make it back to Portugal, so her name has been lost to history. Bartolomeu Dias would sail with the expedition as far as the Cape Verde Islands.

Drawing from his experience sailing past the equator with Diogo Cão, Abraham Zacuto helped prepare and train the crew. Until the last minute of their departure, he was on board the São Gabriel giving Vasco Da Gama final tips on navigation and warning him about dangers to avoid.

The principal source of information we have for this expedition is an anonymously written diary.

The fleet departed from Lisbon on July 8, 1497, and coasted to Tenerife in the Canaries, where they stopped for water and wood. They then sailed to the Cape Verde Islands. After passing Serra Leone, Da Gama veered away from the coast and pointed the fleet directly south into the open ocean. After crossing the equator, he sought and found the westerly winds Bartolomeu Dias had discovered. On November 4 he made landfall on the west coast of Africa near the southern tip.

After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the fleet stopped in the Bay of São Brás, which was part of Mossel Bay. During their stay, their supply ship caught fire and was lost. On December 16, they passed the Great Fish River, the point where Dias had turned back. From there they sailed into new territory. It was close to Christmas, so they named the land they were sailing past Natal [Birth of Christ].

Da Gama followed the coast of East Africa looking for Sofala, referring to the coordinates sent to King João II by Pedro of Corvilhã in 1487. Sofola was located inside the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and the mainland, not where Fra Mauro had placed it on his planisphere in 1450 at the eastern tip of Madagascar. The fleet reached the trading port of Mozambique on March 2. [Evidently the ports between the Cape of Good Hope and the Mozambique Channel were relatively quiet and unpopulated, with no trading markets.]

After a couple of weeks, the local Arab residents and merchants figured out that the Portuguese were of a different religion and had arrived to compete with their trade. The relations became so bad that on March 29, the Portuguese were forced to flee. They tried trading in ports north of Mozambique but were received with the same hostility. Using their slightly more sophisticated bombards, the Portuguese resorted to brutal force and piracy. From April 7 to April 13 they plied the waters off the coast of Mombasa [near today’s Kenya] raiding Arabian ships.

The Portuguese finally found a friendly reception in Malindi, which they reached on April 14. The Muslim Arabs there were at war with Mombasa, so they were willing to ally with the Portuguese. In Malindi, Vasco da Gama met his first Indian traders [traders from India, not American Indian natives]. He learned more about the trading port that Pedro of Corvilhã had called Calicut [actually Kozhikode] on what we today call the Malabar Coast. Corvilhã wrote that in the market of Calicut “everything, including pepper and cinnamon could be had except cloves.”

Sailing to Calicut was not easy. The Portuguese had to cross the treacherous Indian Ocean and deal with the seasonal monsoons that Marco Polo spoke of. The winds hit twice a year. To help with the passage, Da Gama hired an Indian pilot who was familiar with the dangers. The ships departed from Malindi on April 24 and arrived in Calicut on May 20.

Calicut was the main port of the ruling kingdom of Samoothiri, which had been in power for several centuries. Their king was known as the Zamorin. When the Zamorin heard about the Portuguese arrival, he rushed from his palace in Ponnani and greeted them with a procession of 3000 armed soldiers, called Nairs. Vasco da Gama presented the gifts he had brought from King Manoel I , “four cloaks of scarlet cloth, six hats, four branches of corals, twelve almasares [we do not know what those were], a box with seven brass vessels, a chest of sugar, two barrels of oil, and a cask of honey.” The Zamorin and his court roared with laughter. The gifts paled compared to the riches of India.

Muslim merchants in Calicut learned about Da Gama’s arrival and told the Zamorin that the Portuguese were pirates. The Portuguese reputation had crossed the Indian Ocean quickly. It took some very fancy footwork for Da Gama to wiggle out of paying the import tax that the Zamorin demanded of him – to be paid in gold. Da Gama ended up kidnapping some of the Nairs and using them as hostages to force his way out of Calicut.

Somehow – probably by stealing it – the Portuguese filled their holds with loot, mostly spices, that would be worth sixty times the expense of their expedition. But the trip home went badly. Da Gama had lost his guide. The ships departed August 29 and ran into the monsoons. The winds blew them to Anjediva Island. From there, on October 3, they tried again to cross the Indian Ocean. This time it took the ships 132 days, whereas the trip east had taken only 23 days. Their food ran out after the first month. But even though Da Gama sited land on January 2, 1499 and his crew were starving, he did not make land knowing the port would be hostile. He passed Mogadishu, “a city with houses four and five stories high,” but did not make land there either.

Finally they reached Malindi on January 7. Half the crew had died along the way and the rest suffered from scurvy.

Scurvy is a nasty physical condition. It is caused by insufficient intake of Vitamin C and the other vitamins and minerals supplied by fresh fruits and vegetables. Early symptoms include muscle cramps. The body feels achy all over. Hair and teeth begin to fall out. The gums in the mouth grow around the teeth, making it difficult to eat. The person looses weight and finally dies.

Da Gama did not have enough men left to sail all three ships home, so he scuttled the São Raphael off the coast of East Africa. That left him with the carrack, São Gabriel, and the caravel, Bérrio. By early March, the ships arrived back at Mossel Bay. They passed the Cape of Good Hope on March 20, and made land on the west coast of Africa on April 25.

The anonymously written diary ended at that point in time. Historians have pieced together other records to trace the remaining trip home.

The two ships made it to the Cape Verde Islands. By that time Paolo da Gama was “grievously ill.” So while Vasco da Gama attended to his brother on the São Gabriel, Nicolau Coelho sailed off to Lisbon in the Bérrio carrying half of the valuable spices. The caravel was much faster than the carrack would have been. Coelho reached Lisbon on July 10, 1499 and rushed to King Manoel’s castle in Sintra to report his news.

After several weeks on the São Gabriel, which was anchored near the Cape Verde Islands, Paolo da Gama did not improve. Vasco took him to shore [they must have been anchored near a trading port] and sent the São Gabriel back to Portugal under the command of his clerk, João de Sá. The São Gabriel reached Lisbon in late July or early August, where Captain Sá delivered the other half of the spices.

Finally, even though Paolo da Gama was still sick, Vasco found passage for both of them on a Portuguese merchant caravel headed for Lisbon. But before she reached the Azores, Paolo died. The caravel stopped at Terceira, where Vasco had his brother buried in the same monastery where João vas Corte Real was buried(3). Vasco finally reached Lisbon on either August 29, September 8, or September 18, 1499 [sources differ].

The trip from Lisbon to Calicut took ten months. The round trip – 30,000 miles – took two years and two months [plus or minus a few weeks]. The expedition traveled more than eight times the distance the Mayflower would travel across the Atlantic from England to Cape Cod. Only 55 of the 171 men made it home.

In December of 1498, King Manoel I , awarded Vasco da Gama a hereditary pension of 300,000 reis and the title of Don [Lord]. The title applied to Vasco’s siblings, to his descendants, and to his siblings’ descendants. Later, on January 30, 1502, to give Vasco an edge over Christopher Columbus’s title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, King Manoel dubbed Vasco Da Gama Admiral of the Seas of Arabia, Persia, India and all the Orient. [In Portuguese, that would read: Almirante dos Mares de Arabia, Persia, India e de todo o Oriente.]

Manoel also awarded Da Gama the commenda of Sines, for which his father had been the alcaide mor. However, Sines was part of the land holdings of the Order of São Tiago [who had captured it from the Moors]. Jorge de Lancaster was still the Grand Master of that order. He was angry that his rival, Manoel, who, as you will recall, usurped his place as king, was giving away lands over which he had no sovereignty. Manoel was Grand Master of the Order of Christ. He had no rights over São Tiago lands. So, even though Vasco da Gama was a Knight of São Tiago, Jorge refused to grant him the commenda.

The tug of war went on for several years. Vasco da Gama never received the commenda of Sines and ended up switching his allegiance to the Order of Christ. That leads us back to the question, “Which symbol did Vasco da Gama display on his sails when he first sailed to India?

In our article about the Carrack, we included a photo of the model of the São Gabriel gifted to the Dighton Rock Museum near Fall River, Massachusetts, by the Portuguese Prime Minister, Admiral Pinheiro de Azevedo in 1977. The Portuguese believe Vasco da Gama flew the banner of the Order of Christ.

A model of the São Gabriel built in the workshop of the Maritime Museum in Lisbon in 1977. It is on a scale of 1:30. The actual ship was 85 feet long and weighted 50 tons.

The following illustration shows Calicut [Kozhikode] in 1572, seventy-four years after the Portuguese reached the market town.

From the Civitates Orbis Terrarum Atlas. Illustrated by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenbergs.(4)


  1. The room in today’s Palácio de Dom Manoel, where King Manoel commissioned Vasco da Gama to head the expedition, is now a tourist site
  2. Also known by the Latin signature of his name, Joseph Vizinus
  3. Paulo da Gama was buried in the Church of St. Francis Convent built by the Franciscans on Terceira Island in the Azores along with João vaz Corte-Real, his wife Maria Abarca, explorer Afonso Gonçalves Baldaia, Joanna vaz Corte-Real [João and Maria’s daughter] and Joanna’s husband Guilherme Moniz Barreto [son of Henry Moniz, Alcaide of Silves].
  4. Calicut [Kozhikode] in 1572, seventy-four years after the Portuguese reached the market town. From the Civitates Orbis Terrarum Atlas. Illustrated by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenbergs. <> Public Domain. Image from wikimedia. Source url: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calicut_1572.jpg

Second Voyage

When da Gama returned to Lisbon, he was greeted as a hero. In an effort to secure the trade route with India and usurp Muslim traders, Portugal dispatched another team of vessels, headed by Pedro Álvares Cabral. The crew reached India in just six months, and the voyage included a firefight with Muslim merchants, where Cabral&aposs crew killed 600 men on Muslim cargo vessels. More important for his home country, Cabral established the first Portuguese trading post in India.

In 1502, da Gama helmed another journey to India that included 20 ships. Ten of the ships were directly under his command, with his uncle and nephew helming the others. In the wake of Cabral&aposs success and battles, the king charged da Gama to further secure Portugal&aposs dominance in the region.

To do so, da Gama embarked on one of the most gruesome massacres of the exploration age. He and his crew terrorized Muslim ports up and down the African east coast, and at one point, set ablaze a Muslim ship returning from Mecca, killing the several hundreds of people (including women and children) who were on board. Next, the crew moved to Calicut, where they wrecked the city&aposs trade port and killed 38 hostages. From there, they moved to the city of Cochin, a city south of Calicut, where da Gama formed an alliance with the local ruler.

Finally, on February 20, 1503, da Gama and his crew began to make their way home. They reached Portugal on October 11 of that year.

The Success of Vasco da Gama’s Voyage Demands a Repeat

The success of Vasco da Gama’s voyage encouraged the king to send another fleet, this time consisting of 13 ships, to secure a trade treaty with Calicut. Although relations between the Zamorin and the Portuguese began much better this time round, it quickly went south. The Portuguese came into conflict with the Muslim merchants, who wanted to keep their monopoly on the city’s trade.

As a result, a riot broke out, which overran the Portuguese trading post and many Portuguese were slaughtered. The Zamorin was blamed for the incident and his city was bombarded, thus war was declared by the Portuguese on Calicut.

In 1502, another fleet was set out from Lisbon, under the command of da Gama, who was charged with exacting revenge on Calicut, and to force the Zamorin into submission. Raids were also carried out against Arab merchant ships, and, according to one story, da Gama had captured a pilgrim ship with 200-400 passengers, locked them up in the vessel after plundering its goods, and set fire to the ship.

The story, which may have been false, or at least exaggerated, caused Vasco da Gama to be reviled in that part of the world. Incidentally, one of da Gama’s ships from his second voyage has been found off the coast of Oman and excavated between 2013 and 2015.

Vasco da Gama failed to force the Zamorin to submit and seems to have lost the favor of Manuel when he returned. For the next two decades of his life, da Gama retired to the town of Évora and lived a quiet life with his wife and six sons. He was only sent on his third and last voyage in 1524 by John III, Manuel’s successor.

This time, Vasco da Gama was sent to serve as the Portuguese viceroy in India. In September 1524, da Gama arrived in Goa and began combating the corruption that was plaguing the Portuguese administration in India.

Three months later, however, da Gama died in Cochin as a result of illness, either due to overwork or some other reason. His remains were first buried in St. Francis Church in Cochin, and then brought back to Portugal in 1539 and laid to rest Vidigueira before being transferred to the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon during the late 19th century, where they have remained till today.

Tomb of Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon. (Christine und Hagen Graf / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Top image: Portuguese caravel of the 15th century. Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese sailor and explorer. Credit: Michael Rosskothen / Adobe Stock

519 Years Ago, Today, Vasco Da Gama Set Foot In India. Here Is How He Discovered India

Many sailors from the Western world sailed to discover the land in the Far East called India - a land fabled to be richer than all the known worlds put combined.

But none succeeded except for Vasco Da Gama, a Portuguese sailor who became the first European to land in India on 17 May 1498 when he landed on the shores of Calicut in Kerala with four vessels.

Christopher Columbus who had started his voyage in 1492, five years before Da Gama too wanted to discover the sea route to India, but instead reached the Americas, the world completely unheard before then.

By then India had already seen many foreign invaders in the form of Alexander -The Great, the Arabs, and the Mongols. But they all came through the land route or precisely via the infamous Khyber Pass.

Vasco Da Gama, The Royal Museum Greenwich

But the sea route to India was still unknown. That was until Da Gama discovered a route sailing adjacent to the western coast of Africa, reaching the last point of Africa which the Portuguese garrulously called ‘Cape of Good Hope’ and then sailed along the eastern coast of Africa till Mozambique and then sailed through the Arabian sea to reach Calicut.

Discovery of India by Da Gama is considered to be the milestone in the field of navigation and riches of Silk and Spices of Far East lands like India and China turned the otherwise curiosity of Western countries into greed and lust for wealth.

Vasco Da Gama voyaged to India thrice (1497-98, 1502-03, and 1524) before he died in India in 1524.

Here is the story of Vasco Da Gama, how he discovered the sea route to India and how his discovery paved way for the arrival of Dutch, French, Danish, and the British.

Born in 1460

Vasco Da Gama was born in 1460 to a family of nobles in Sines, Portugal. His father, Estevao, was also an explorer. Da Gama joined the Portuguese navy in the 1480s where he learnt how to navigate.

His predecessor navigators helped him understand sea routes

Henry of Portugal, aka Henry - The Navigator who was the Duke of Viseu had patronised several successful voyages in North and West Africa. The voyages funded by him were first steps in making Portugal, a maritime and colonial power. In 1487, Bartolomeu Dias discovered that the Indian and Atlantic Oceans were connected.

Da Gama who was keenly interested in navigation knew that if Indian and Atlantic Oceans connect at the end of Africa, he could find the way to reach India through the last point of land in Africa. And that’s why later when he reached the last point of Africa, known as “Cape of Good Hope”, he felt that his dream could turn into reality.

In 1597, Da Gama started his first Voyage

On July 8th, Da Gama began his voyage from Portugal with four vessels. Da Gama himself rode in the 200-ton St. Gabriel and his younger brother Paulo led the St. Rafael. Passing through the Canary Islands near present-day Morocco, the fleet reached Cape Verde islands and remained there until August 3. He carried Padrao, the pillar to mark the route and installed Padrao at various important halts.

Da Gama took detour and reached South Africa

In order to avoid the current of Gulf of Guinea, Da Gama took a long detour in Atlantic ocean before he took a turn toward East to round the Cape of Good Hope, his first major destination on the discovery of India.

The fleet reached Santa Helena Bay (Yes, where Napoleon was imprisoned) in modern South Africa on November 7. Unfavourable winds and the adverse current delayed the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope until November 22.

Left ‘Cape of Good Hope’ after installing another Padrao

Padrao, the pillar to mark the route (Padrao at Cape of Good Hope)

Da Gama started the voyage on December 8 and his fleet reached the coast of Natal on Christmas Day. By crossing various rivers inward and outward, the fleet head towards Mozambique, another mainstay of the journey. In between, the fleet took rest at one place where the fleet took rest there for one month. Meanwhile, ships were repaired. On March 2 the fleet reached the Island of Mozambique, the inhabitants of which believed the Portuguese to be Muslims like themselves.

There Da Gama learned that they traded with Arabs and he also found four vessels laden with gold, jewels, silver and spices were there on the port. Da Gama knew he was heading in the right direction as during the course he met local people who frequently had travelled to Indian coasts.

The interaction with them helped Da Gama to understand the direction in which he had to head.

Stopped at Mombasa, Kenya and met a Gujarati pilot

On April 7, 1598, the fleet reached another important stoppage Mombasa (present day Kenya).dropped the anchor at Malindi (also in Kenya) on April 14. Here he met a Gujarati pilot who knew the route to Calicut, on the South-West coast of India. He was taken aboard.

And he reached Calicut

After a 20 day run across the Indian Ocean, Da Gama could see the ghats and mountains of India. On 17 May 1498, the first European landed on India’s Calicut port.

He returned with Spices and silk

When Da Gama returned to Portugal with spices and silk, the legend says that he earned four times the money he spent on voyage just by selling the spices. This lucrative trade made Da Gama instant sensation back home and the king of Portugal again sent him to India in 1502-03. He died in 1524 in Calicut when he was on his third voyage of India.

He paved way for other European traders

Once the sea-route to India was discovered, Da Gama’s fame reached to whole Europe and other countries too sent expedition India via the same route. After Portuguese, the Dutch, the Danish, the British and the French came to India. And the rest is history.

Finding India: Vasco da Gama

Go to Kappakadavu, a small town in Kerala and you will find an easy-to-miss memorial, marking a milestone that changed the history of the Indian subcontinent.

On the 20th of May 1498, after thousands of lives and dozens of ships had been lost – in various attempts to find the sea route to India, Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese adventurer landed here. Vasco, was the first European to ride on the winds – quite literally the South Westerly Monsoons, loop around the coast of Africa and land on Indian soil, through the sea route.

Vasco Da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India was significant in establishing a permanent route from Europe to India. This ocean route, gave the Portuguese a strategic advantage, allowing them to avoid the volatile old trade routes that went through the Mediterranean and Arab world. Vasco’s first mover advantage also ensured that Portugal had unopposed monopoly to the precious Indian spices making them the undisputed lords of trade, in Europe for some time.

Tracing the journey from Lisbon to Calicut

Vasco Da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India ensured that Portugal had unopposed monopoly to the precious Indian spices

In the year 1497, King Manuel I of Portugal appointed Vasco da Gama to command a voyage with ‘any ship he desired’ and discover the sea route to India. On 8th July 1497, Vasco set sail on the Sao Gabriel with a fleet of three ships named after the archangels Gabriel, Rafael and Michael and a crew of 170 men from Lisbon, in search of India. The crew was a motley group that included carpenters, blacksmiths, rope makers and other such skilled workers.

The voyage started on a high. Guns were fired, anchors were heaved and the sails were loosened, but it was a tough sail. Storms ripped through, the sailors were distraught and wanted to turn back but Vasco da Gama was determined to go on. Some of the men even conspired to kill him but were unsuccessful he simply put the mutineers in iron bars and continued on his quest.

Storms ripped through, the sailors were distraught and wanted to turn back but Vasco da Gama was determined to go on

The ships had been greatly damaged by the storms. There were leaks for which the sailors had to work hard, pumping out the water day and night. Vasco realized the need to repair the ships and since they were all in need of drinking water as well, he steered towards land. The Portuguese navigator sighted the coast of South Africa on Christmas Day in 1497 and so named the point of landing, Natalis – from the Portuguese word Natal for Christmas. It is interesting to note that in Indian languages like Hindi and Marathi the word Natal is used for Christmas even today.

After the pit stop, Vasco da Gama along with his fleet, reached Mozambique on the East African coast. Records claim that the Portuguese Commander, impersonated a Muslim to gain favour with the Emperor. He was however, unable to provide suitable gifts to the local ruler and was forced to flee, firing cannons into the city, on his way out. He later sailed to Mombasa, now in Kenya and met the same fate.

Records claim that the Portuguese Commander, impersonated a Muslim to gain favour with the Emperor

Undeterred, Vasco da Gama continued north, landing at the port of Malindi, where he got a friendly welcome. It was here that he came across Ibn Majid, an Arab navigator and cartographer, whose knowledge of the monsoon winds guided the expedition all the way to Calicut on the southwest coast of India.

The fleet arrived in Kappakadavu near Calicut, India, on May 20, 1498. Here the navigator was received with traditional hospitality by Hindu King Manavikrama, famed across the trading world as the Zamorin of Calicut.

The fleet arrived in Kappakadavu near Calicut, India, on May 20, 1498 and was welcomed by the Zamorin of Calicut

On reaching the court of Zamorin King Manavikrama, Vasco da Gama presented him with gifts, which were clearly recorded. They included – twelve pieces of striped cloth, four scarlet hoods, six hats, four strings of coral, a case of six wash-hand basins, a case of sugar, two casks of oil, and two of honey. The Zamorin was not impressed, in fact to the contrary he seems to have taken pity on his Portuguese visitor. Keeping in mind his long arduous journey, he even granted the Portuguese permission to trade in spices and the local calico textile ( Calico traces its roots to Calicut).

Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India marked a milestone and few apart from the shrewd adventurer would have guessed how the favour the Zamorin granted, could turn the tide against India, over the next 450 years!

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Calvert, Patricia. Vasco Da Gama: So Strong a Spirit. Tarrytown: Benchmark Books, 2005.

Gallagher, Aileen. Prince Henry, the Navigator: Pioneer of Modern Exploration. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2003.

Pletcher, Kenneth ed. The Britannica Guide to Explorers and Explorations That Changed the Modern World. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2009.


Portrait of Vasco da Gama by artist Antonio Manuel da Fonseca in 1838. Vasco da Gama, (c.1469 – 1524) was a Portuguese explorer, one of the most successful in the European Age of Discovery and the commander of the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India. (Credit: National Maritime Museum) “D. Vasco de Gama,” Histoire de la Conquete de La Floride: ou Relation de Ce Qui S’est Passé Dans La D’ecouverte de Païs Par Ferdinand de Soto Composee en Espagnol Par L’Inca Garcillasso de la Vega & Traduite en François Par Sr. Pierre Richelet, 1735, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E123.C5 rare. “Vasco de Gama,” Histoire des Déouvertes et Conquestes des Portugais dans le Nouveau Monde: Avec des Figures en Taille-Douce, 1733-34, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, DP583.L16 rare.
Portuguese navigator and explorer, Vasco da Gama By Charles Legrand. <> Vasco da Gama in India in 1497 By Alfredo Roque Gameiro (1864-1935). (Credit: National Library of Portugal) “A Chart Illustrating the First Voyage of Vasco Da Gama, 1497-1499,” A journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, 1898, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G401.G2.V45.1898.

Watch the video: 2nd History Series - Part 3: 1498 Vasco da Gama reaches India! (May 2022).