In the late 15th century, King Manuel I of Portugal wanted to discover a maritime route to India, longing to secure the trade of valuable Asian spices and textiles. The expedition was led by explorer Vasco da Gama, who would have to overcome the treacherous task of being the first captain to sail around Africa and beyond, into unchartered and hostile waters.
The fleet sets sail
On July 8, 1497, a fleet of four ships carrying around 170 sailors sets sail from the port of Lisbon in Portugal. Led by Vasco da Gama, with the help of his brother Paulo, the expedition heads south down the west coast of Africa. Da Gama follows a similar route that was plotted by the great Portuguese sailor Bartolomeu Dias, but instead of closely following the west coast, da Gama heads out into the open Atlantic Ocean.
After four months at sea and using the Atlantic’s strong prevailing winds and currents, da Gama passes the Cape of Good Hope, rounds the tip of southern Africa, and sails into the unknown waters of the Indian Ocean beyond.
In December 1497, da Gama’s fleet heads north along the east coast of Africa, and makes landfall in Mozambique. Da Gama and his men are met with hostility from the local Muslim sultan. After fleeing to his ship and bombarding the port, da Gama then heads north along the coast to Mombasa.
Da Gama loots several unarmed Arab trading vessels and angers the local Mombasa people. After torturing several Muslim sailors, da Gama learns of a plot to avenge his actions in Mozambique, so he flees north to continue his search for India.
In April 1498, da Gama keeps heading north and finally makes an ally at the port of Malindi on April 14. Malindi is at war with Mombasa, and its leader offers to help da Gama with his expedition. Da Gama and Malindi sign a trade treaty and, as a sign of friendship, the east Africans give da Gama a local navigator to help the Portuguese fleet through the unchartered and treacherous waters of the Indian Ocean.
On May 20, after several weeks crossing the Indian Ocean and more than 10 months at sea, Vasco da Gama and his fleet sail into the port of Calicut (modern-day Kallicote) on the southwest coast of India. Da Gama meets the Zamorin (ruler) of Calicut and offers a selection of gifts. The Zamorin is unimpressed with the presents and, as tensions rise between the local Muslim traders and the Christian explorers, the Hindu ruler becomes less receptive to da Gama’s trade offerings.
After three months, in August 1498, da Gama and his men leave without a trade agreement, but carrying cargo worth nearly 60 times the cost of the expedition.
The journey home is ill-fated as monsoons, scurvy, and exhaustion take their toll on da Gama’s crew. Paulo da Gama and 117 of the 170-man crew die on the journey.
In September 1499, two years and 24,000 miles (38,500 km) after he first left home, Vasco da Gama sails into the port of Lisbon. To celebrate his historic achievement, the king of Portugal honors Vasco da Gama with the title "Admiral of the Indian Seas".
A return to India
After Vasco da Gama’s first expedition, Pedro Alvares Cabral, a Portuguese navigator and explorer, is immediately sent to establish a trading post in India. However, an uprising by local Muslim traders destroys the encampment and Cabral is forced to leave.
In 1502, da Gama sets sail for India for a second time to re-establish Portugal’s trading post in the region. This time da Gama uses excessive force to persuade the Zamorin of Calicut to sign a trade treaty. Da Gama is seen as a villain in the Indian Ocean, but when he returns home once again with more precious cargo, he is celebrated as a hero.
Twenty-two years later, in 1524, Vasco da Gama makes his final journey to India, which also happens to be his last-ever voyage. During the journey, da Gama contracts malaria and gets sick. He arrives at Cochin in India, but eventually dies on December 24, 1524.