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On this day in 1498: Vasco da Gama discovers sea route to India from Europe

On this day in 1498: Vasco da Gama discovers sea route to India from Europe

On this day in 1498: Vasco da Gama discovers sea route to India from Europe

Mangalore Today News Network/News18

May 20, 2024: Vasco da Gama arrived in Kozhikode (then Calicut), Kerala on May 20, 1498, two years after setting sail from Lisbon, Portugal. He was the first person from Europe to sail through the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa on a direct route to India. While the Spanish were concentrating on exploring the New World, the Portuguese turned their sights eastward. Their focus was mostly on southern and eastern Asia as these regions were the source of lucrative trade products including gold, precious spices, silk and other valuables.


Vasco da Gama

However, the trade route was an arduous and risky venture for those who travelled it, stretching over land from Portugal, on the very border of Western Europe, all the way through to the Orient. The Portuguese next searched for an alternative.

Vasco da Gama, the navigator, was the one to discover a new trading route. As a matter of fact, only one official record exists to support the claims: the Roteiro, a log book created by an anonymous author (perhaps Alvaro Velho or Joao de Sa) and published in 1838.

The first recorded circumnavigation of the southernmost point of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, was accomplished in 1488 by Portuguese explorer and mariner Bartolomeu Dias, who travelled along the coast of West Africa (now South Africa). To locate a straight sea route to India, Dias organised a second, bigger expedition. Vasco da Gama, however, was given charge of this second mission. When asked ‘Why are you here’ after finally arriving in India, he reportedly said that the expedition’s primary objective was to find Christians and spices.

On July 8, 1497, the Portuguese explorer sailed from the Tagus River mouth near Lisbon to the Portuguese settlement of the Cape Verde Islands, where he repaired and restocked his ships.

On August 3, he departed Cape Verde and, in an attempt to catch favourable winds, sailed in a broad loop westward into the mid-Atlantic rather than following the African coast.

Consequently, the sailors were at sea for an astounding three months without seeing land. But Dias had pressed hard against the dominant winds and currents, near the West African shore.

After a few weeks, the fleet turned east again and arrived at the southern point of Africa on November 7, arriving many weeks earlier than Dias predicted. At a harbour they called St. Helena Bay, the ships were mended, cleaned and restocked. An otherwise cordial meeting with Africans became violent, leaving many men wounded, including Vasco da Gama, who was struck in the leg by an arrow.

On November 22, while round the Cape of Good Hope, Vasco da Gama made another stop at Mossel Bay to restock his supplies. The decision was made to dismantle the biggest ship, and divide the crew and provisions among the three surviving ships in his fleet.

After that, the navigator skipped up the East African coast, making stops at several locations, including Quelimane, an Islamic trade station. By this point, a large number of da Gama’s crew had contracted scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency), an uncommon disease for European sailors whose source and treatment were unknown.

After arriving at Mombasa, East Africa, on April 7, Arab sailors understood how to handle their situation by giving oranges to certain crew members, who recovered quickly. Unfortunately, as the journey continued, little could be done to stop the disease from resurfacing.

On April 15, Vasco Da Gama finally reached the Kingdom of Malindi, where he was given a map and a pilot to aid in his journey across India. Although it has long been believed that this pilot was the renowned navigator Ahmad Ibn Masdjid, often known as Majid, scholars have lately refuted this claim.

After departing from Malindi on April 24, 1498, and travelling across the Indian Ocean, the explorers arrived on May 18 close to Calicut on the Malabar coast. It had taken 10 months to sail straight from Portugal to India.

The Portuguese engaged in some tourism, including a visit to Hindu temples, but they misunderstood Hinduism as an exotic subset of Eastern Christianity.

Vasco Da Gama’s company included numerous proficient Arabic speakers who worked with local Malayalam translators to facilitate communication between them and the king of Calicut.

The Indians’ apparent contentment with their current trading relationships and their scepticism towards these newcomers dressed strangely caused them disappointment.

Although it was just a sampling compared to future trips, the ships brought a significant amount of priceless spices, including pepper, ginger, cloves and cinnamon.

In his function as envoy, Vasco Da Gama attempted to woo the monarch of Calicut by misrepresenting King Manuel’s vast might and providing some gifts. However, these gifts fell well short of the extravagant standards that prevailed in this region.

Many Portuguese, who were on land, were taken into custody, maybe due to a miscommunication over the port’s exit charge. Vasco Da Gama abducted several captives on his own out of concern for the security of his ships. These captives served as helpful proof that Vasco da Gama had indeed travelled to India to the authorities back home.

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