Many lives of Vasco da Gama

Many lives of Vasco da Gama

Many lives of Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama’s unprecedented feat of navigating from Lisbon in Portugal to Calicut in India, connecting Europe with Asia through sea route, was an event that came to have momentous, long-term consequences for the modern world. SALIL MISRA attempts to analyse the Portuguese sailor who also evoked  contrasting and extraordinary responses


Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese sailor who came to India in 1498, lived many lives. One was his individual life as he lived it, about which we know very little. The other lives have been constructed for him by historians from different parts of the world. Given the mist surrounding da Gama, it is quite likely that he will go on living these many lives. Different records and data speak very differently about him. The Portuguese records praise him to the sky. In a survey done in Portugal in the 1980s, on the most admired person in Portuguese history, Vasco da Gama topped the list, getting nearly 60 per cent of the votes.

In the Arab records, he is clearly a villain, for good reasons. Before Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the European route to India, the Arab merchants enjoyed a monopoly of trade in the Indian Ocean. After da Gama’s arrival, the Portuguese destroyed the Arab navigation and eliminated their trade. The Indian records are generally silent on him. Many Europeans still look upon him as “one of the chief saviour of our modern civilisation... It was he who taught Europe how to conquer and how to hold the East.”

The same European source goes on to credit da Gama for undertaking to save Europe from barbarism. “This undertaking Vasco da Gama faithfully carried out, and to this day we enjoy the fruits of his labour.”

These multiple and contrasting perspectives can only be explained by the fact that Vasco da Gama left his stamp on four different histories — of Portugal, of modern Europe, of modern India, and also of modern world. In all these four histories, he is bound to figure in very important roles. Leading 18th century economist and philosopher Adam Smith looked upon his voyage as one of the two most important events that shaped the modern world: “The discovery of America and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.” Indian historian K M Panikkar called the period 1497-1947 as the Vasco Da Gama epoch of Asian history. So, what is the story of Vasco da Gama? What did he do to arouse such contrasting and extraordinary responses?

Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) was a Portuguese sailor and he performed the rare, unprecedented feat of navigating from Lisbon in Portugal to Calicut in India, the entire journey lasting over ten months. In the process, he connected Europe with Asia through sea route. This event came to have momentous, long-term consequences for modern world.

Sea journey during the medieval times was extremely hazardous. Sailors liked to stay close to the shore and generally would not like to venture too far into the unknown. They had to live on a strict diet of biscuits and fish and extremely rationed supply of water. There was always the danger of running out of drinking water. Total speed of a ship did not exceed 12 kilometre an hour if the wind and weather were favourable, which were often not. Life was tough and deaths were common and frequent. Vasco da Gama had started his voyage with 130 people and returned to Portugal with only 59. More than half the people died during the journey.

The sae faring technology in the 15th century was primitive. But even so, Europeans in general and Portuguese in particular had certain advantages. New navigational aids such as rudder, magnetic needle and superior cartography helped in making long journeys possible. Portugal also had some natural advantages. It had a long coastline that extended from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. It also had a developed ship manufacturing. It had acquired a navy by the late 13th century. Huge pine forests were sowed to provide wood for ship building. Ship building was encouraged and promoted by the State.

Wealth of the East

Europeans had heard stories of the riches of the East. Since the 2nd century BC, there was a flourishing trade through land route from China to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Europe. This was called the silk route. European travellers like Marco Polo had come to India and China and carried back tales of the wealth of the East. This smooth East-West traffic was interrupted by the establishment of the Ottoman Empire by the Turks with its centre in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul in Turkey). The Islam-Christianity conflict had solidified since the days of Crusades during 11th-13th centuries, and the two emerged as great rivals. This rivalry was as much religious as commercial. The Arabs had a flourishing trade with India.

The blockade of the land route, symbolised by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, made it necessary to search for an alternative sea route to the East. It was this single imperative which created two of the greatest voyages — by Columbus and Vasco Da Gama — with tremendous long-term consequences for the world. It is interesting that the two voyages heading in the opposite directions — Columbus to the West through the Atlantic Ocean, and Vasco Da Gama to the East through the Indian Ocean — were originally meant for the same destination. Columbus knew that the earth was round and thought it should be possible to reach India — in the East — by travelling westwards, going round the world. Both Columbus and Vasco da Gama wanted to explore the alternative sea route to the East. Columbus found America instead and thought he had come to India. Ha called the inhabitants of the new land Indians. Subsequently, they came to be called Red Indians by Europeans. Interestingly, Columbus lived all his life with the belief that the land he had reached was India.

Of course, Columbus had not found India. He had found America. The route to India was found six years later by Vasco da Gama. He did it by rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the African continent. No navigator till then had gone beyond the Cape. It was both a physical and psychological barrier. All kinds of myths flourished about what lay beyond the Cape, that there was a sea of total darkness, or a boiling sea, or that there was a devil waiting to devour the sailors. Yet, very powerful motives existed to find a sea route to India, and through India to the rest of East.

The emperor of Portugal had heard of India and believed, for some inexplicable reason, that there was a rich and powerful Christian king in India by the name of Prester John. He told two of his trusted courtiers to travel towards India by land and find the Christian king in India. The two men went as far as Alexandria (in present-day Egypt) but could not go beyond and nothing was heard of them after that. This motivated the next emperor of Portugal, Emmanuel, to send Vasco da Gama on an expedition to find a sea route to India. Da Gama started in the spring of 1497 in three vessels with three captains and a crew of around 130 members. After a stormy and adventurous journey of over ten months, the crew landed at Calicut in 1498. After a troublesome and uneasy start, soon a diplomatic relationship was struck between Vasco da Gama and the king of Calicut, called the Zamorin.

This discovery turned out to be extremely profitable for Portugal. On the return journey, da Gama filled his vessels with India pepper that sold in the European market for 60 times the cost of his voyage. It did not take long for commerce to be followed by political control. In a decade’s time the Portuguese had established their colonies in Cochin, Daman and Diu and Goa on the Western coast of India. Vasco da Gama came to India twice after that, the last time coming as the Viceroy of India. He died in Cochin in 1524. During his lifetime, he may not have realised the kind of transformation his journey was to bring to Portugal, to Europe and to the world.

Secret of the spices

The discovery had immediate implications for Portugal. It acquired a monopoly over spice trade with the East. Lisbon replaced Venice as the European Mart of the riches produced from Asia. It nearly brought to an end the spice trade through land in which Turkey and Egypt had the advantage. Vasco da Gama’s discovery resulted in the diversion of spice cargoes from the land route via Alexandria to sea route via Lisbon. At the beginning of the 15th century, Portugal was a small country with a population of around one million. By the end of 16th century, Portugal had acquired a large overseas empire which extended to Brazil in the West, part of East and West Africa, Goa, Cochin and Colombo in South Asia, and far Eastern posts of Java and Malacca. By mid-16th century, Portuguese merchants had reached China and Japan. The emperor of Portugal in the early 16th century actually dreamt of a single universal global empire, which would be led by Portugal. This was indeed a dream and a fantasy, and died out soon. But the dream itself was created by the discovery made by da Gama.

Vasco da Gama’s discovery also provided Europe an access to India. After the Americas, India became the second fountainhead of wealth for Europe. In fact, the advantages da Gama’s discovery brought to Portugal soon got exhausted by the 17th century. The discovery no doubt created the early empires of the modern world — Spain and Portugal. But these were mainly commercial empires. The Industrial revolution in England transformed this scenario. The world came to be dominated by the imperialism of the newly industrial nations such as England and France with Germany, USA and Japan joining later. The commercial empires faded before the industrial ones. Not all modern imperialisms are alike. The trading ones are not half as powerful as the industrial ones. After the 18th century, Portugal was not the driver of the modern economic engine; England and France were. But there is no doubt that the new industrial imperialism was crucially dependent on the opportunities created by the two discoveries.

The two discoveries started a new chain of interconnected global commerce from which Europe reaped the most benefits. Columbus’s discovery of the new world resulted in a process of mining of gold and silver — in short supply in Europe. This import of bullion gave Europe a huge advantage in its trade with the East. Vasco da Gama’s discovery created a new route that exposed the whole of East for exploration and exploitation by the West. The spice obtained from the East (paid for by the bullion extracted from the Americas) went straight to Europe for consumption by the Europeans. The silk obtained from the East also went to the African shores where it was exchanged with African slaves. These slaves were taken to Americas and deployed in the mines for the extraction of bullion. Thus it was the connected chain of silk-spice-slave-silver-silk that transformed not just Europe, but the world.

The European interest in the East was not just confined to commerce. It soon developed into a grand project of political domination in which Portuguese, Dutch, French and the British were the main contenders. The earliest colony in India was built by the Portuguese on the Western coast but the largest industrial empire in India was created by the British. The Portuguese only showed the way of political domination; the British actually captured India. This had huge implications for both England and India.

The capture of state power, first in Bengal, and soon in all of India, meant that England did not have to pay for the Indian products with the European bullion. The Indian products could now be bought by the ‘tribute’ extracted from India. This resulted in the accumulation of the wealth of the world in a few European countries. It should therefore be no surprise that the ‘miracle’ of the industrial revolution happened first in England. Once the European powers dominated the entire world, they justified this domination in terms of some innate a priori European superiority — racial, religious and civilisational. It began to be argued that the rest of the world was fit to be dominated and that the Europeans were the natural rulers. This brutal and exploitative project of imperialism was referred to as the “White Man’s Burden” and a civilising mission.

So, a domination that was achieved with the help of a mixture of luck, diplomacy, discoveries, better technology and violence began to be projected as natural, just, fair and in the interests of the people of Asia and Africa. The chain of events that led up to European imperialism and global domination actually began with the two discoveries of Columbus and Vasco Da Gama.

It is generally agreed that the world as it stood around the end of the second world war in 1945, could be broadly characterised by three main features — integration, affluence and domination. The world was fully connected like never before. It was affluent like never before, even though the affluence was distributed most unevenly. And it had a domination profile in which some European countries (plus USA and Japan) were clearly at the apex. It was a connected world, but vertically connected. The world, prior to 16th century, by contrast, was a flat world. It did not have a centre. It was also a plural world. Between the 16th and the 19th centuries the world was transformed, for better or for worse. This process of integration, affluence and domination had its beginnings in the voyages undertaken by Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

(The writer teaches history at the Ambedkar University, Delhi)

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