The Portuguese navigator and conquistador, Vasco da Gama, was the first European to discover a sea route to India. Dom Vasco da Gama was born to a noble family circa 1469 at Sines, Province of Alemtejo, and very little is known about him before his appointment as Capitao-Mor (Captain-General) of the fleet sent to find the sea route to India. As the son of the town’s governor, da Gama was educated as a nobleman and served in the court of King Joao II. He also served as a naval officer, and in 1492 he commanded a defence of Portuguese colonies from the French on the coast of Guinea.
In 1497, when he was a 38-year old bachelor, da Gama was selected by King Manuel I of Portugal to follow up the discovery of Bartholomew Diaz of a great ocean east off the Cape of Good Hope. As commander-in-chief he set sail on 8 July 1497 with his expedition consisting of 4 ships – the Sao Gabriel on which da Gama sailed, the other nau was the Sao Rafael, the Berrio was a caravel, and then there was a store ship. He departed from the Tower of Belem in Lissabon.
Da Gama saw the African coastline on 4 November, went past the Cape Verde Islands and landed three days north of St Helena Bay on 8 November. They collected water and firewood during the eight days that the spent here. His fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope on 22 November 1497, and as a result of their depleted stores, the transferred all stock to the other ships, and then broke the sore-ship up.
He then sailed up the east coast of Africa and after many stops, and problems with Muslim traders who did not want interference in their profitable trade routes he continued across the Indian Ocean to the Malabar coast and, after 23 days, reached Calicut on 20 May 1498. He returned home in 1499 with a rich cargo of spices. After this trip he was promoted to the rank of admiral of the Indiesand was made a Dom (Lord). In 1519, the Admiral was granted the coveted title of Count of Vidigueira
A force left by a second expedition under Cabral (who discovered Brazil by sailing too far west), left behind some men in a “factory” or trading station, but these were killed by the Moors in revenge for Cabral’s attacks on Arab shipping in the Indian Ocean. He was given command of a punitive expedition of revenge in 1502/3. da Gama took 20 armed ships and he bombarded the town of Calicut before he sailed on to Cochin for another cargo of spices. On his return da Gama settled in Portugal, got married, and raised a family. It is possible that he may have served as an advisor to the Portuguese crown.
After King Manuel’s death, King John III sent da Gama to India in 1524 as a Portuguese viceroy (the King’s representative in India) to restore Portuguese authority in the east. Although da Gama was living in retirement with his wife and six sons, he agreed to his king’s request. Unfortunately he fell ill shortly after his arrival at Goa and died on Christmas Eve of 1524 at Cochin, India. He had only been the viceroy three months. His remains were returned to Portugal for the funeral.
Da Gama was instrumental in breaking the monopoly of trade with India and other eastern states, which the Muslims had enjoyed, and he succeeded in establishing Portugal as a world power. His feats were celebrated in the great epic poem, the Lusiads (1572), by Luis de Camoens.