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Influential people who pushed forward exploration: Vasco da Gama

Supposed portrait of Vasco da Gama


Image: António Manuel da Fonseca, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Though less popular than his other contemporaries, Vasco da Gama nevertheless had a huge impact on exploration of the world. While Columbus and Vespucci were busy exploring the new world, Vasco da Gama was credited with connecting the European world with the East Indies through the sea, creating new opportunities for wealth and trade. His trip past the western coast of Africa to India sparked the discovery and instantiation of an entirely new trade route starting from Europe, past the Cape of Good Hope to India.


This new trade route fundamentally broke the hold that the different empires had on land-based trade with the East Indies while simultaneously becoming part of the route that would fully connect the entire world through trade. 


However, it is worth noting that the possibility of this trade route goes to Bartolomeu Dias who proved that the Indian and Atlantic Ocean flowed into each other by sailing to the Cape of Good Hope or modern day South Africa to confirm sea currents. Thus, though Vasco da Gama was the one who proved it is possible to fully traverse to India, the discovery of the route went to Bartolomeu Dias instead.


developed trade routes between Portugal and India 




From humble beginnings

Little is known about why Vasco da Gama, a yet inexperienced explorer, was chosen to lead the exploration in India. Despite his inexperience, he still managed the journey and returned home with news of the possible new trade route. It was not without its problems however as his inexperience clearly showed on multiple occasions. From inadequate gifts for local rulers, to being unaware and not accounting for the local traditions in Calicut, India, Vasco da Gama’s journey was definitely not a smooth sailing one.


His greatest mistake was not acquiring information about the local area on his return trip. His return coincided with the monsoon season which significantly increased the time it took for his travel back to the Cape of Good Hope. This caused much of his crew, including his brother, to perish along the way from diseases such as scurvy.


vasco da gama arrival in Calicut 


Image: Roque Gameiro, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The start of a new Era

Despite his failings, Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal greeted as a hero. With much of the spice trade at the time dominated by the Muslims due to their geographic location, this new trade route fundamentally changed the way wealth was transferred within the European region. 


His second trip to secure the Portuguese dominance in the region marked the beginning of Portuguese colonies within the East Indies. Much blood was shed over those years with some factions friendly to the Portuguese’s desire for trade while others hostile. Many other European countries would arrive in the East Indies soon after and use India as a starting point to set up colonies in the surrounding region.


 European ships at the port of Calicut, India


Image: BRAUN AND HOGENBERG,, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



Lesson to be learnt

Other than some details of his 3 trips to India, not much is known about Vasco da Gama. It may be just pure coincidence that he was chosen by the Portuguese ruler at the time to lead the expedition to India, or his prestige may have been lost to the passage of time due to a lack of documentation. Regardless, Vasco da Gama has his place in history as the discoverer of the trade route between Portugal and India. He set out on such an unsure journey and finally connected the European world with the East Indies through the sea. 


He was reckless and inexperienced but also lucky in his voyages and that may just be exactly what the inexperienced explorer needs to get out of their comfort zone. Sometimes a little bit of bravado and a little bit of luck is all you need to start exploring and go off on a journey of a lifetime.



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