Finding India: Vasco da Gama



Go to Kappakadavu, a small town in Kerala and you will find an easy-to-miss memorial, marking a milestone that changed the history of the Indian subcontinent.

On the 20th of May 1498, after thousands of lives and dozens of ships had been lost - in various attempts to find the sea route to India, Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese adventurer landed here. Vasco, was the first European to ride on the winds - quite literally the South Westerly Monsoons, loop around the coast of Africa and land on Indian soil, through the sea route.



‘Vasco da Gama landed here’ - the memorial marking the moment 
‘Vasco da Gama landed here’ - the memorial marking the moment |Wikimedia Commons

Vasco Da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India was significant in establishing a permanent route from Europe to India. This ocean route, gave the Portuguese a strategic advantage, allowing them to avoid the volatile old trade routes that went through the Mediterranean and Arab world. Vasco’s first mover advantage also ensured that Portugal had unopposed monopoly to the precious Indian spices making them the undisputed lords of trade, in Europe for some time.

Tracing the journey from Lisbon to Calicut


Vasco Da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India ensured that Portugal had unopposed monopoly to the precious Indian spices

In the year 1497, King Manuel I of Portugal appointed Vasco da Gama to command a voyage with ‘any ship he desired’ and discover the sea route to India. On 8th July 1497, Vasco set sail on the Sao Gabriel with a fleet of three ships named after the archangels Gabriel, Rafael and Michael and a crew of 170 men from Lisbon, in search of India. The crew was a motley group that included carpenters, blacksmiths, rope makers and other such skilled workers.

Vasco da Gama leaving the port of Libson, Portugal
Vasco da Gama leaving the port of Libson, Portugal| Wikimedia Commons

The voyage started on a high. Guns were fired, anchors were heaved and the sails were loosened, but it was a tough sail. Storms ripped through, the sailors were distraught and wanted to turn back but Vasco da Gama was determined to go on. Some of the men even conspired to kill him but were unsuccessful; he simply put the mutineers in iron bars and continued on his quest.


Storms ripped through, the sailors were distraught and wanted to turn back but Vasco da Gama was determined to go on

The ships had been greatly damaged by the storms. There were leaks for which the sailors had to work hard, pumping out the water day and night. Vasco realized the need to repair the ships and since they were all in need of drinking water as well, he steered towards land. The Portuguese navigator sighted the coast of South Africa on Christmas Day in 1497 and so named the point of landing, Natalis - from the Portuguese word Natal for Christmas. It is interesting to note that in Indian languages like Hindi and Marathi the word Natal is used for Christmas even today.

Vasco da Gama’s route on his first voyage
Vasco da Gama’s route on his first voyage| Wikimedia Commons

After the pit stop, Vasco da Gama along with his fleet, reached Mozambique on the East African coast. Records claim that the Portuguese Commander, impersonated a Muslim to gain favour with the Emperor. He was however, unable to provide suitable gifts to the local ruler and was forced to flee, firing cannons into the city, on his way out. He later sailed to Mombasa, now in Kenya and met the same fate.


Records claim that the Portuguese Commander, impersonated a Muslim to gain favour with the Emperor

Undeterred, Vasco da Gama continued north, landing at the port of Malindi, where he got a friendly welcome. It was here that he came across Ibn Majid, an Arab navigator and cartographer, whose knowledge of the monsoon winds guided the expedition all the way to Calicut on the southwest coast of India.

The Empire of the Zamorin of Calicut
The Empire of the Zamorin of Calicut| Wikimedia Commons

The fleet arrived in Kappakadavu near Calicut, India, on May 20, 1498. Here the navigator was received with traditional hospitality by Hindu King Manavikrama, famed across the trading world as the Zamorin of Calicut.


The fleet arrived in Kappakadavu near Calicut, India, on May 20, 1498 and was welcomed by the Zamorin of Calicut

On reaching the court of Zamorin King Manavikrama, Vasco da Gama presented him with gifts, which were clearly recorded. They included - twelve pieces of striped cloth, four scarlet hoods, six hats, four strings of coral, a case of six wash-hand basins, a case of sugar, two casks of oil, and two of honey. The Zamorin was not impressed, in fact to the contrary he seems to have taken pity on his Portuguese visitor. Keeping in mind his long arduous journey, he even granted the Portuguese permission to trade in spices and the local calico textile ( Calico traces its roots to Calicut).

Painting of Vasco da Gama at the court of the Zamorin 
Painting of Vasco da Gama at the court of the Zamorin | Wikimedia Commons

Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India marked a milestone and few apart from the shrewd adventurer would have guessed how the favour the Zamorin granted, could turn the tide against India, over the next 450 years!

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