Facts About Vasco da Gama

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Meeting between Vasco da Gama and Zamorin

Best known for his expedition that first explored the East beyond the Cape of Good Hope, Vasco da Gama is celebrated as one of the greatest pioneers of modern maritime travel and trade. Here are a few little-known facts about this legend and his historic expedition.

Comparisons have been drawn across history, favoring the Portuguese discovery of India over the much celebrated discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Vasco da Gama’s exploration is lauded as being a systematic and technically thorough exploration of the Indian Ocean, compared to Columbus’ “ill-conceived ventures”.

According to historians, da Gama is said to have named “Christians and spices” as the goal of his expedition. This voyage was not meant only for economic gain – it was a partly missionary expedition as well. In fact, on landing at the coast of Calicut, the natives were mistaken for Christians, since da Gama and his men had never heard of the Hindu religion. The Hindu temple was considered a local variation of a chapel and the goddess enshrined in the temple was mistaken for the local interpretation of “Our Lady”. Da Gama and his retinue are believed to have prayed in this place.

The Portuguese explorer and his crew greatly underestimated the trading-capacity of the places they were set to explore. They were scorned by the rulers and the local people of the port cities they landed in because of the lack of richness in their goods. It was only on the second expedition that da Gama was able to fully satisfy their expectations of trade.

The Moors, or Muslim traders, who monopolized Eastern spice trade at the time opposed the establishment of Portuguese trade centers. This led to da Gama’s second expedition, one of vengeance and great violence, at the end of which the Zamorin (the local ruler) was forced to establish peace and open trading relations with the Portuguese. This expedition has therefore been labelled as the most ruthless and violent in the history of maritime exploration.

Following his discovery of India, King Manuel I of Portugal bestowed on Vasco da Gama, titles of Admiral of the Indian Ocean, Viceroy of Portugal to India, as well as the court title of Dom, or Count, among other accolades and presents of wealth. These were engraved upon his epitaph when he was buried in his final resting place in Portugal.

Da Gama’s maiden voyage records the first occurrence of an epidemic known as “sea scurvy”. Two years after he set sail from Lisbon, da Gama returned, loaded with the rich spices of the East, but also having lost more than half his crew to the dreaded disease.

After his death in Cochin, Vasco da Gama was first buried with honours in Cochin, in the monastery of Santo Antonio in 1524. Several years later in 1538, one of his sons, Dom Pedreo da Silva Gama, exhumed the body and returned it to Portugal where it found its final resting place the Jazigo dos Gama.

Several decades after his pioneering expedition, da Gama was made a divine legend in the Portuguese national epic “Lusiad” by Luis de Camoes. The voyage is dramatized and filled with elements of mysticism in the epic and da Gama himself is portrayed as a grandiose orator and divinely inspired captain.

It was a Portuguese custom to build a marble pillar as proof of a discovery. A pillar erected by Vasco da Gama can still be seen today in the port city of Malinde, where he landed and replenished his resources on his way to India.

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