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Vasco da Gamma Seeks Sea Route to India

by Richard Sheppard
Soon after he ascended the throne of Portugal in 1495, King Manuel I commissioned a fleet of four ships to attempt a voyage around Africa to the fabled land of India.
King Manuel knew that India was the source of many spices which were scarce and costly in Europe. He knew that Muslim merchants carried these spices by caravan across the deserts of Arabia to the markets of Mediterranean ports. The king hoped that, by discovering a new sea route to India, he could import spices directly, bypassing the Muslim merchants who controlled the caravan routes.
King Manuel believed old legends which described India as a rich Christian kingdom on the eastern rim of the Muslim world. Manuel hoped to contact the Christian King of India, and to negotiate with him an anti-Muslim military alliance.
It was not easy for King Manuel to choose a leader for the planned expedition to India. The most experienced man available was Captain Bartholomew Diaz, who had sailed all the way down the west coast of Africa in 1488, reaching the southern tip of that continent. Unfortunately, Diaz had proved incapable of suppressing a mutiny. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Diaz had ordered his sick and starving men to sail on to India, but they had refused to obey him, and he had reluctantly agreed to turn back.
King Manuel, feeling that a more forceful commander was needed for his new expedition around Africa, selected Captain-Major Vasco da Gama, who seemed unlikely to tolerate any mutinies. Vasco da Gama was a grim, cynical man, notoriously merciless, an expert at torturing prisoners.
To make use of the experience of Bartholomew Diaz, King Manuel put him in charge of organizing and planning the new expedition. He ordered Diaz to spare no expense to make sure that Vasco da Gama would be properly equipped.
Diaz oversaw the building of two new ships for the expedition to India, and he had two older ships refurbished. All the ships were armed with the improved cannon that had recently been developed in western Europe.
Diaz made certain that the ships of the new expedition carried enough food to supply their crews for three years with generous rations of wine, salt beef, biscuits, lentils, sardines, plums, almonds, onions, garlic, mustard, salt, sugar, and honey.
Diaz also made sure that the ships were supplied with the sort of goods that had proved useful to him in trading with the primitive natives who lived on the West Coast of Africa. These goods included glass beads, copper bowls, tin bells, tin rings, striped cotton cloth, olive oil, and sugar. Diaz apparently neglected to consider that such common items might not appeal to the rich and sophisticated people who were supposed to live in India. No gold, no silver, and no expensive trade goods were loaded aboard the expedition's four ships.
When Vasco da Gama took command of the ships, he failed to notice Diaz's oversight. Vasco da Gama was a swordsman, not a merchant. It never occurred to him that his expedition, which was supposed to promote trade, ought to carry something worth trading in a civilized country.
Although Bartholomew Diaz prepared the ships, Vasco da Gama personally recruited his crews for the expedition. His one hundred and seventy crewmen included ten convicted killers, whose death sentences were commuted so that Vasco da Gama could use them for suicidally dangerous missions. He also signed up translators who spoke Arabic and the Bantu languages of Africa's west coast.
The expedition set sail from Lisbon, amid parades and pageantry, on July 8, 1497. Trumpets sounded fanfares, monks chanted prayers, cannon boomed salutes, and "the wails of the women saddened all the coast."
To avoid unfavorable winds and currents near shore, Vasco da Gama set a course so far out to sea that his men did not see land for three months. Scurvy broke out on the ships, causing the men to suffer extreme weakness, bleeding gums and tooth loss. The disease, which is actually caused by lack of vitamin C in the diet, was then thought to be caused by excessive exposure to salty sea air. Hoping to force the expedition to turn back, some of the men mutinied, but they were quickly beaten into obedience. The ringleaders were confined in chains.
Vasco da Gama finally turned toward the coast of Africa and landed near the southern tip of that continent. There the explorers met natives who wore no clothing at all. These natives were happy to trade an ox for glass beads and copper bracelets.
Finding limited varieties of fresh food ashore, the Portuguese seamen gained only temporary relief from scurvy. Men began to die of the disease when the expedition rounded the Cape of Good Hope in November of 1497. So many perished that, when one ship had to be abandoned after being damaged in a storm, there was plenty of room for the survivors on the remaining three ships.
As the sickly explorers sailed north up the east coast of Africa, they entered unknown territory. Suddenly they met civilization at Mozambique, where they found seagoing ships moored before stone warehouses.
Although the people of the town were black, the ships in the harbor were manned by light-skinned Arabs from the north. Like the Arabs, the local black people were Muslims.
Assuming that the natives would be hostile to Christians like himself, Vasco da Gama pretended to be a Muslim from Morocco. In this guise he introduced himself to the Sultan of Mozambique, and asked permission to trade there.
One Portuguese chronicle described the Sultan of Mozambique as follows: "He was dark, handsome, and well-built...He was wrapped in a knee-length blue cloak, ornamented with braid and gold thread. His trousers were white cloth, reaching to his ankles...Around his waist he wore a silk sash, into which was thrust a silver-mounted dagger, and in his hand he carried a silver-mounted sword. On his head...he wore a many-colored silk turban, embroidered with braid and fringes of gold thread."
Vasco da Gama learned that this magnificently dressed aristocrat customarily received gifts from visiting merchants. Having nothing better to offer, Vasco da Gama gave him a red hood, tin bells and copper bracelets. After that, relations between the Sultan and the explorers deteriorated quickly. The Sultan, one sailor wrote in his diary, "treated all that we gave him with contempt, and asked for scarlet cloth, of which we had none."
The merchants of Mozambique sold baskets of pearls, heaps of ivory, stacks of tropical hardwoods, and bars of gold. They wanted to buy Chinese porcelain, Persian rubies, Indian spices, or fine textiles.
With their glass beads and tin bells the Portuguese could afford to buy only fruits, vegetables, and pigeons to eat. This fresh food cured their scurvy, but the Portuguese mistakenly credited the "very good air" of Mozambique for their recovery from the disease.
After the Portuguese had been in Mozambique for a few days, the natives began muttering that the newcomers were not really Muslims, but a gang of Christian pirates. Natives brawled in the marketplace with Portuguese seamen, and the Sultan ordered Vasco da Gama to leave the port. Before departing, Vasco da Gama vengefully fired several cannonballs into the town.
Sailing north to what is now Kenya, the explorers began attacking and looting Arab merchant ships. Unlike Vasco da Gama's ships, the Arab dhows of the Indian Ocean were not armed with heavy cannon. The explorers were delighted to discover that they could easily intimidate and rob any ship they could outrun.
After fighting a battle against the natives of Mombasa, the explorers sailed north to Malindi. This was another Muslim town, but among the Arab ships in the harbor were four ships of a different, exotic design. Aboard these unusual-looking ships were "strange, tawny men with long hair" who wore nothing but loincloths.
Hoping that these tawny men might be the Indian Christians he was seeking, Vasco da Gama tried to make friends with them. He invited their officers aboard his ship, where he showed them an altar piece with a figure of the Virgin Mary. The tawny men bowed before the image and made an offering of cloves and pepper.
Vasco da Gama then confidently announced that these men must be Indian Christians. In reality, they were Indian Hindus.
"These Indian Christians are very odd," one explorer wrote in his diary. "They do not eat beef."
The Portuguese managed to avoid getting into a fight with the Muslims of Malindi. The local sultan offered to form an alliance with the Portuguese, and he provided a pilot to guide Vasco da Gama across the Indian Ocean to Calicut.
With the pilot's help, the Portuguese crossed the Indian Ocean in only twenty-seven days. On May 18, 1498, they reached the city of Calicut on the Malabar Coast of India. Small native boats came out to offer the Portuguese transportation to shore, but Vasco da Gama did not trust the native boatmen.
Vasco da Gama ordered one of his convicted criminals, João Nunes, to make the first trip to shore. Nunes entered one of the small native boats and was taken directly to the house of two Muslim Arabs from North Africa, who could speak Spanish and Italian.
"Where did you come from?" the Arabs asked.
"From Portugal," said Nunes.
"The devil take you!" said the Arabs. "What brought you here?"
"We come in search of Christians and spices," Nunes said.
Although the two Arabs were clearly not pleased by the prospect of Portuguese competition, they politely offered Nunes a snack of wheat bread and honey. They admitted, "You owe thanks to God for bringing you to this rich country. You are lucky. This place has plenty of rubies, plenty of emeralds."
Then Nunes began asking questions. He discovered that Muslims were a minority in Calicut, but they controlled most of the city's export trade. The Hindu ruler of Calicut, called the Zamorin, tolerated all religions.
The next day, João Nunes, the condemned criminal, had an audience with the Zamorin of Calicut. The Zamorin, sitting on his throne, was naked from the waist up, except for an astonishing weight of jewelry. His long hair was knotted with strings of pearls, "each the size of a hazelnut." On his fingers were "diamonds as thick as his thumb." Giant rubies and emeralds hung from gold chains around his neck. He constantly chewed narcotic betel, and spit his red-stained saliva into a jeweled cup held by an attendant.
The Zamorin welcomed Nunes to Calicut and invited the Portuguese to trade there. He asked only that they offer him the customary presents, and pay the customary duties.
When Nunes returned to the fleet with this invitation, Vasco da Gama decided to risk going ashore with thirteen men. He ordered that, if the natives prevented his return, the ships were to immediately sail home to Portugal to report on the voyage and its outcome.
Ashore, Vasco da Gama was greeted by an honor guard of two hundred Indians holding muskets and unsheathed swords. They lifted him onto a palanquin and set off, with trumpets playing and muskets firing into the air, on a tour of the city.
The Portuguese were impressed by this extravagant welcome. "They treated us more respectfully than kings are treated in Europe," one wrote.
The procession stopped at a Hindu temple that was "as tall as a mast," according to one Portuguese explorer. Vasco da Gama said that this temple must be a Christian cathedral.
Inside the temple was an idol which, Vasco da Gama said, must be the Virgin. Indians pointed to the statue and repeated something that sounded like "Maria, Maria." Probably the idol represented Mari, a Hindu goddess.
Painted on the temple walls were many images of Hindu gods and goddesses, which Vasco da Gama identified as Christian saints. The explorers observed, "Some of these saints had four or five arms."
The first meeting between Vasco da Gama and the Zamorin went well. Vasco da Gama described the great power and wealth of King Manuel I of Portugal. The Zamorin said, "I regard your king as my friend and brother, and I will send ambassadors to Portugal."
The atmosphere became less brotherly the next day, when Vasco da Gama laid out some presents for the Zamorin: "twelve pieces of striped cloth, four scarlet hoods, six hats, four strings of coral, six basins for washing the hands, two casks of oil, and two of honey." An Arab officer laughed at the gifts and refused to forward them to the Zamorin, saying, "That is not fit to offer a king. The poorest merchant from Mecca, or from any part of India gives more. If you want to make a present, give gold. The Zamorin will not accept this trash."
Suddenly the Zamorin lost interest in Vasco da Gama. Unable to arrange another meeting with the Zamorin, Vasco da Gama finally burst into the throne room unannounced to demand that he be allowed to unload his goods and trade. The Zamorin, calmly chewing his betel, agreed to allow this.
The shoddy goods of the Portuguese were landed, but nobody would buy them. The Muslim merchants of Calicut, who had been planning to organize a boycott against their newly-arrived competitors, found that they had nothing to fear from the inept Portuguese traders.
During the three months that Vasco da Gama stayed in Calicut, he failed to buy more than a few handfuls of spices. Relations between him and the Zamorin became increasingly strained.
Finally, the Zamorin's men arrested some of the Portuguese for failure to pay harbor tolls. In retaliation, Vasco da Gama took some Hindus hostage. After winning the release of his men, Vasco da Gama abandoned his attempts to trade and set sail for Portugal.
During their homeward passage the explorers suffered another deadly outbreak of scurvy. Of the one hundred and seventy Portuguese who had set sail for Indian in 1497, only fifty-four were still alive when Vasco da Gama's two surviving ships returned to Lisbon in 1499.
Although the expedition had been a financial disaster, bringing home only tiny quantities of spices, King Manuel of Portugal was delighted by Vasco da Gama's claim that he had made contact with the "the Christians of India." The king built a new cathedral as a thanksgiving for Vasco da Gama's success, and struck new coins commemorating the voyage.
King Manuel immediately organized a second expedition to Calicut under a new commander, Pedro Alvares Cabral.
Thirteen ships set out from Portugal on March 9, 1500. Trying to follow Vasco da Gama's route to India, Cabral sailed so far west of the coast of Africa that he accidentally crossed the Atlantic and discovered Brazil. Cabral claimed the new land for Portugal, then he sailed on to India.
Although Cabral carried gold and appropriate trade goods, he was unable to do business with the Muslim merchants of Calicut. He was finally driven out of the city when many of his men were killed in an anti-Portuguese riot by local Muslims.
Cabral managed to buy spices at another Indian city. He returned to Portugal on June 23, 1501, with only four of his original 13 ships, but with a very valuable cargo of spices.
Although King Manuel was pleased, he decided not to send Cabral back to India. Instead, the king promoted Vasco da Gama to the rank of admiral, and put him in charge of the next Portuguese expedition to India, which departed from Portugal in February of 1502.
When Vasco da Gama reached India, he immediately launched a campaign of terror to avenge Cabral's men who had been killed by Muslim rioters in Calicut. Vasco da Gama's first act was to capture a passenger ship carrying Muslim families home to Calicut from a pilgrimage to Mecca. After looting the ship, Vasco da Gama set fire to it, deliberately burning to death hundreds of women and children.
He next sent an ultimatum to the Zamorin of Calicut, ordering him to kill all the Muslims in his city, or face retaliation. When the Zamorin offered to negotiate a compromise, Vasco da Gama began capturing Hindu fishermen from Calicut, and chopping off their hands, feet, and heads. He then bombarded the city, aiming to kill as many civilians as possible.
By his aggressive actions, Vasco da Gama demonstrated that Portuguese ships, with their superior cannon, were able to dominate their competitors, the traditional Arab merchant ships of the Indian Ocean. Muslim merchant ships were frightened away from Calicut, disrupting the city's trade.
Although Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal in 1503, other Portuguese commanders in India imitated his tactics of seaborne terror, with devastating results for the economy of Calicut. In 1513 the Zamorin of Calicut negotiated a trade agreement with the Portuguese.
Portugal established an empire in India, and Vasco da Gama became viceroy of the Indian colonies. He was enormously rich when he died in Cochin, India, on Dec. 24, 1524.

The Sea Road to the Indies. by Henry H. Hart. MacMillan Company. New York. 1950.
The Portuguese in India. by Frederick Charles Danvers. Octagon Books. New York. 1966.
The Discovery of the Sea. by J.H. Parry. The Dial Press. New York. 1974.
The Explorers. by Richard Humble. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Va. 1978.

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