Vasco da Gama: Where are you now?

Peter Kingdon Booker March 2013

In the game of nominating as many famous Portuguese as you can, it is certain that Gama will be one of the few remembered, along with Henry the Navigator and perhaps the Marquês de Pombal, Salazar, Magellan, Eusébio and Christiano Ronaldo. Yet Gama is known for one event only, that of his command of the pioneering sea voyage between Europe and India in 1497 -1499. So what was so special about him and the voyage?

His voyage has become a part of the Portuguese national consciousness mainly because of the fame of Os Lusíadas by Camões. This epic poem was written and published only in 1578, some 70 years after the voyage, and just as Portugal entered the dark age of the Habsburg monarchy. Os Lusíadas has become a defining monument of Portuguese national identity. It is not too much to maintain that without Gama´s voyage, the long-lived Portuguese Empire in Asia would not have been born. His voyage was certainly a turning point and the development of world history would have been quite different without it. On the other hand, this voyage would have taken place even without Gama´s command.

Paradoxically, few figures in world history are at once so well known and so obscure as Vasco da Gama. Most of us know only of his first expedition of 1497-1499, yet he returned twice more to India, in 1502-3 as Admiral of the Seas of Arabia, Persia and India and in 1524 as Viceroy, Admiral and titled nobleman, the Conde da Vidigueira.

Gama´s Background

Gama was born in Sines on the Alentejo coast. He was the son of Estêvão da Gama, alcaide-mor (civil governor) of Sines, a post he held until 1478. Estêvão was also a comendador (property owner) of the military Order of Santiago. Like Pombal later, Gama was a member of the gentry, rather than the nobility. Vasco´s mother Isobel Sodré was descended from Frederick Sudley, who had come to Portugal with the Earl of Cambridge in 1381 and had chosen to stay. Gama and his brothers and sister thus had some English blood in his veins; they were in order; Paulo, João, Vasco, Pedro, Aires, Teresa. Vasco also joined the Order of Santiago in 1480, and as the new king, D João II was Master of the Order, the fortunes of the Gama family prospered.

Statue  of Vasco da Gama in Sines
Statue of Vasco da Gama in Sines

Gama´s Character

Disguised in a cloak one night in Setúbal in 1492, Vasco crossed an officer of the law and in his quick temper, displayed his reactions to perceived insults. He was pardoned, but his companion had to pay a fine. Throughout his life, there were reports on his actions and character. It would appear from reports that he was irascible, unreasonable, violent, arrogant and overbearing. He was cruel and insensitive, often putting his own interests before the lives even of others. Many characters in the early Portuguese empire were larger than life, but it is significant that even contemporaries were moved to remark on his quick temper and his predilection for violence.

Early Career and Choice of Commander for 1497

In 1492, the king sent Vasco to seize French ships near Setúbal, in retaliation for the French capture of a Portuguese caravel bearing gold from São Jorge da Mina and in view of his later career, it is fair to assume that he must have done the job well. São Jorge da Mina was the Portuguese fort on the Gold Coast (now Ghana), which supplied Portugal with the gold mined in West Africa.

When D Manuel I came to the throne in 1495, he was in a position of weakness, and did not enjoy universal support. In particular, D Jorge de Lencastre, the bastard son of D João II, resented that he was not able to take the crown and as the Master of the Order of Santiago, he favoured Gama with extra land grants in 1495.

Although Gama was from among D Jorge´s opposition group, he may have been the compromise choice as commander for the India fleet. It was possible, probable even, that such a small fleet might fail, and so, from the king´s point of view, it would be better to allow a non-noble opposition figure to lead the fleet. It might be, however, that Gama was chosen because of this character: his energy and violent temper may have been considered an asset. We do not really know why he was chosen.

The India Fleet 1497

The India Fleet consisted of 5 boats: the São Gabriel (captained by Vasco da Gama); the São Rafael (captained by his older brother Paulo da Gama); the Bérrio (Nicolau Coelho); a supply ship (Gonçalo Nunes); and a caravel bound for São Jorge da Mina (Bartolomeu Dias). The fleet left the Tagus on 8 July 1497 with 170 men aboard and it was out of touch with Lisbon for more than two years. They passed the Canaries and restocked at Santiago Island in the Cape Verde Islands. During the outward and inbound voyages, Vasco lost 2 ships and more than 85 men. The supply ship was broken up on the coast of Africa on the outward voyage; the São Rafael was fired on the return leg because of the lack of men to sail her.

The route followed by the fleet was south to Sierra Leone and then south west into the Atlantic, looking for the southwesterlies discovered by Bartolomeu Dias in 1487. They arrived at St Helena Bay, north of the Cape, on 4 November and at Mossel Bay on 25 November, where they dismantled the supply ship. On 16 December they passed the last padrão to be erected by Bartolomeu Dias in his voyage of 1487 and arrived at Mozambique Island on 2 March.

Gama and his captains quickly realised that they were dealing with Muslims at Mozambique Island and left on 29 March and moved on to Mombasa, where their Mozambiquan pilots jumped overboard, then on to Malindi, where Gama sought a pilot for Calecut. All of these cities on the east coast of Africa had been used to Muslim trade for 300 years. The experiences of the Portuguese in East Africa were important in determining their attitude to the Indians at Calecut. Because the Portuguese were suspicious of everyone, none of the ship captains risked their lives or commands by going ashore.

Gama in India

They arrived at Calecut after 23 days sailing and sent ashore João Nunes, a degradado (convict). Here begins the major misapprehension of the Portuguese. They knew that some Indians were not Muslim, and made the assumption that the non-Muslim Hindus must be Christians.

Vasco da Gama himself went ashore only on 28 May. The meeting beween Gama and the Zamorin of Calecut is a scene from Portuguese national mythology, the gallant bearded captain meets the sinister and even half naked ruler surrounded by even more sinister and possibly Muslim henchmen. The gifts proposed by Gama for the Zamorin were laughable aand laughed at, but he was told to sell his goods as best he could. Gama was distrustful that they would allow him back to his ships, and there was a delay before he was permitted to re-embark. Having told the Zamorin that he would like to leave 5 Portuguese and take some Indians back to Portugal, Gama abruptly and one-sidedly broke off negotiations about trade, and left Calecut on 29 August.

Gama´s actions at Calecut appear to confirm his reputation for unreasonableness and violent temper. On 19 September the Portuguese fleet was at Anjediva, where they were approached by a man spying on behalf of the Zamorin. He turned out to be a Jew, and asked to be taken to Portugal. He was baptised as Gaspar da Gama, taking on the name of his godfather.

Return of the Fleet

The crossing back to Africa took 3 months, and 30 men died of scurvy on this leg of the voyage and they arrived at Malindi on 7 January 1499, and on 16 January they burned the São Rafael because there were too few men to sail her. On 20 March they rounded the Cape and the first ship to return to Lisbon was the Bérrio in July 1499. São Gabriel arrived in the Tagus in August. D Manuel accepted the tremendous news from Nicolau Coelho and wrote to his fellow monarchs of the success of the voyage. At this time Vasco da Gama was at Terceira in the Azores where he was burying his brother Paulo, and did not arrive in Lisbon until September. In total 2 ships and about 85 men had been lost over the two years that the voyage had taken. But the historic voyage had been made.

The mood of the Portuguese court in July - August 1499 was triumphal. Against the detractors in his council, D Manuel now commanded forceful arguments: there were Christian allies in India (the Hindus); India was only a month sailing from East Africa; and there was no major naval opposition in the Indian Ocean. D Manuel took the title Lord of the conquest, navigation and commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India. The king continued in his belief that the Indians were Christians, partly because he wanted to believe in their existence to help in his aim of a crusade on Jerusalem.

Rewards for Gama

Gama might have expected rewards for his successful trip and they were certainly promised to him. On 24 December 1499 an alvará was signed by which the king granted him the vila of Sines, his birthplace. Sines belonged however not to the king but to the Order of Santiago, whose Master D Jorge de Lencastre refused to give it up. By 1501, Gama had still not received Sines and was awarded instead a pension of 1000 cruzados a year by the king. By 1500, Gama also had the titles of Dom (an hereditary and aristocratic title) and Admiral of the Ocean-Sea and was admitted to the royal council. He was awarded various incomes from the fisheries at Sines and other incomes to 300 00 reis per annum. The title Admiral is a mirror image of the title awarded to Christopher Columbus. It was awarded to confirm Portugal´s status and discoveries - at least equivalent to those of Castile.

The 1500 Fleet

The 1500 India fleet of 13 ships under Pedro Álvares Cabral sailed even further westwards than had Gama´s fleet and discovered Brazil. History still does not know whether the Portuguese knew that Brazil was there before Cabral “discovered” it, or whether as Portugal would have us believe, that discovery was a complete accident. Cabral´s instruction was to establish a factory at Calecut, and to impede Muslim trade. Cabral failed to establish the factory, broke off relations with Calecut and lost half his fleet. Only 6 of his fleet reached the Malabar coast, and only 5 returned to Lisbon. The others were wrecked or lost at sea. His voyage was not a triumph.

The 1502 Fleet

D Manuel had suffered a loss of face as the chimera of Christians in India was exposed. Royal councillors were opposed to a continuation of the voyages, because they thought that the India venture would never be a paying proposition. But the king persisted. The command of the fleet of 1502 was given to Gama and two of his uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré were captains in the fleet. It may be that D Manuel was embarrassed that he could not finalise the gift of Sines and would be less embarrassed if Gama were out of Portugal for a year. On 30 January 1502 at the Cathedral in Lisbon, Gama was formally invested with the title of Admiral of the 1502 fleet and his second voyage weighed anchor on 10 February 1502. It called to get gold at Sofala and arrived at Kilwa on 12 July, where Gama demanded and received a gold tribute, and arrived off Cannanore in early September, prepared for hostilities with Calecut.

Off the coast of Malabar, the Portuguese captured a great ship called Miri. It was full of Muslim pilgrims going on their way to Mecca on their hajj. The ship was looted and at Gama´s insistence burned with its 400 passengers, including the women and children. Even Gama´s contemporaries, with their loathing for Muslims, found this atrocity truly shocking. The more so since there was extra profit (from the ransom of the ship and captives) now at the bottom of the sea.

At Cannanore, the Muslims refused to sell spices at a price Gama liked and he withdrew in a huff. Off Calecut, Gama demanded the expulsion of the entire Moslem settlement. After a bombardment and execution of prisoners, he expected Calecut to surrender. The Zamorin tried to deceive and ambush him and his Calecut envoys ended their lives hanging from the spars of Portuguese ships. Gama finished loading at Cannanore and Cochin and set up factories at both locations.

Leaving his uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré to patrol the Malabar coast and to blockade Muslim shipping entering the Red Sea, Gama´s returning fleet reached the Tagus in October 1503. Gama´s second voyage was successful because it returned with a large and valuable cargo. Strategically, he had exposed the enmity of Calecut but his dispositions had failed to protect the factory at Cochin (see next paragraph). D Manuel made two additional grants to Gama in February 1504, citing his attacks on the Moors of Mecca.

The Sodré Brothers

The squadron of the Sodrés was instructed to take Muslim prizes and to protect the factories at Cochin and Cannanore. Ignoring the second part of their remit, they raided Muslim shipping off the coast of Arabia. Anchored near Muscat, they ignored the urgent warnings of the locals of a dangerous wind, and lost two ships and their lives in a natural disaster. Having failed in their duty the Sodré brothers were not well remembered and their poor decisions reflected on their nephew and fleet commander, Gama himself. His career went into decline. Gama was enthusiastic about profit for the crews going to India and much less so about the monarch´s capitalism. This opinion was to open a rift between him and his monarch and between Gama and the supporters of a land based Empire in India.

The Wilderness Years

From 1504 to 1523, Gama struggled to protect his career. He personally had made a trading profit and received grants from the king. He invested heavily in the town of Sines, but was unable to gain the control of the town and castle as he had been promised by the king. In order to gain royal favour, Gama transferred from the Order of Santiago to the Order of Christ in early 1507, and was therefore ejected from the Santiago comendas of Mougelas and Chouparria. In 1507, the king ordered Gama and his family to leave the Santiago town of Sines, and not to return, even on business. He went to live in Évora.

The arrival of Viceroy D Francisco de Almeida 1505 - 1509 saw the beginning of a continuous Portuguese government in India. Closely allied with Almeida as he was, Gama had to bear royal disfavour for Almeida´s lack of ardour in pursuing royal instructions. Almeida and Gama had agreed that the best way to exploit the new Portuguese Empire in Asia was for the Crown to ship men and materials to the East, and take the profit of the spice trade to Lisbon. If private individuals profitted by the interport trade in the Indian Ocean, they would not then require royal or state support.

From 1509 – 1515, Afonso de Albuquerque as Governor of India opposed private trade and supported the royal monopoly. He was on exactly the opposite side from Gama. Albuquerque wanted a string of forts from Kerala to East Africa to protect Portuguese interests, whereas Gama thought that there should only be two, Goa and Cochin. A change of Governor in 1515 brought Gama back from the wilderness. He was allowed to trade to India in royal ships and by 1518 he was again living in Lisbon.

The Admiral Strikes Back

Gama wrote to the king to ask that he fulfil his promise to grant him the title of count; if he refused Gama threatened to leave the country and to work for Castile, as Magellan had. If Gama left, royal councillor and Admiral of the Ocean-Sea, it would be a major blow to Portuguese prestige. This threat apparently worked. In 1519, he arranged to buy some of the property of the Duke of Bragança to make up the territorial base of the County of Vidigueira, and he was created Count of Vidigueira on 29 December 1519. By the time D Manuel died in December 1521 there were only 19 Portuguese titled noblemen, of whom eighteen were of royal blood. D Vasco da Gama had come a long way from the backwoods of Sines to the pinnacles of Portuguese society.

In 1523 the new king, D João III, nominated D Vasco to the post of Viceroy of Índia and Admiral of the Fleet. His fleet of 1524 consisted of 15 ships and 3000 men, and he left Lisbon on 8 April 1524. His main task was to reduce royal expenses in the running of the Estado da Índia. Off Chaul they took a Muslim ship and looted it of 260 000 cruzados. Much to the general astonishment, Gama allowed the ship to go free, which was in great contrast to his treatment of the Miri. At Cochin in October 1524 D Vasco´s position was unassailable. He had enormous personal prestige together with extensive powers from D João III plus his own brutal and violent energy. But the picture we have of Portuguese India at this time is one of simmering resentment at his capricious and severe judgements. By late November D Vasco was seriously ill with malaria, and he died in Cochin on 24 December and was buried with full honours in the church of Santo António.

His Legacy

Gama´s greatest achievement was the first journey around the Cape. Through Gama, Portugal had changed the entire course of world history and for 500 years afterwards, European powers dominated the world´s sealanes. Portuguese histories tend to give Gama a huge role in the story of Portugal and the creation of the Gama legend was begun by D Manuel, if only as a counterweight to that of Columbus. But it was Camões who set the Gama legend in the Lusíadas. This epic has had an immense effect on Portuguese historiography and on the Portuguese national psyche. In the 430 tears since Os Lusíadas was published Gama has occupied a starring role in Portuguese history books and in Portuguese literature and he even features in fado. In 1988, a national survey found that the most admired person in Portuguese history was Gama (58%) followed by Henry the Navigator (45%).

Postscript: Gama´s bones

D Vasco da Gama made his last sea voyage in 1538, when his coffin was repatriated, and he was laid to rest in the family jazigo (vault) at the Quinta do Carmo in Vidigueira. In 1880, plans were laid to transfer the mortal remains of Camões to a resting place in keeping with his status in Portuguese literature – he was to be reburied at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém on the 300th anniversary of his death, 10 June 1880. Someone thought that it would be fitting if the star of Os Lusíadas could also rest at Belém, and at the last minute a committee journeyed to Vidigueira. A hurried disinterment was followed by a rail journey across the Alentejo to Barreiro, where the cortège joined that of Camões for the final voyage down the Tagus to Belém and a grand reburial before the King and Queen. Camões and his inspiration, Gama, occupied twin tombs in the monastery founded to celebrate the original India voyage.

It is not clear why the tomb was opened yet again, but it was discovered that Gama´s tomb contained no less than eight femurs and two crania, and inquiries showed that none of these bones had belonged to the great Gama himself. Eventually in 1898 (during the tricentennial celebrations of the great voyage) another attempt was made to bury his bones at Belém. This time, the committee was certain that it had only one complete skeleton, and the reburial was completed with marginally less pomp and circumstance. But even now, the family which owns the Quinta do Carmo has a different story. They maintain that the second committee was also duped, and took the skeleton of another Gama. Perhaps the great Gama rests still in the Alentejo countryside of Vidigueira, and perhaps it is his descendant who occupies the splendid tomb in Belém.


Vasco da Gama´s Tomb in the National Pantheon in Lisbon
Vasco da Gama´s Tomb in the National Pantheon in Lisbon
Vasco da Gama's Tomb in the Jéronimos Monastery , Lisbon
Vasco da Gama's Tomb in the Jéronimos Monastery , Lisbon