The search for trade routes
Vasco da Gama's pioneering sea voyage to India is one of the defining moments in the history of exploration. Apart from being one the greatest pieces of European seamanship of that time - a far greater achievement than Christopher Columbus's crossing of the Atlantic - his journey acted as a catalyst for a series of events that changed the world.
By the middle of the 15th century, Portugal was the leading maritime nation in Europe, thanks largely to the legacy of Prince Henry the Navigator, who had brought together a talented group of mapmakers, geographers, astronomers and navigators at his school of seamanship at Sagres, in southern Portugal.
Henry's intention had been to find a sea route to India that would give Portugal access to the lucrative trade in spices from the Far East. He had hoped to be aided by an alliance with the elusive Prester John, whose Christian empire was thought to exist somewhere in Africa and who might have provided assistance to Christians in any fight to overcome Muslim dominance of the Indian Ocean trade. For 40 years, Henry sponsored voyages of exploration south along the west African coast, resulting in a lucrative trade in slaves and gold - but the southern extent of the continent remained unknown to Europeans, and the Prince's dream was not realised.
It was not until 1487 that Bartholomew Diaz set off on the voyage that finally reached the southern tip of Africa. By rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Diaz proved that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans were not landlocked, as many European geographers of the time thought, and rekindled the idea that a sea route to India might indeed be feasible.
To complement the sea voyages of Diaz, the Portuguese monarch King John II also sent Pedro da Covilha, a fluent Arabic speaker, out on a dangerous overland journey to India. Disguised as an Arab, Covilha gathered vital information on the ports of the east African and Indian coasts during his three-year journey.
It would, however, be a further ten years before the Portuguese were able to organise a voyage to exploit the discoveries of these two explorers. In the meantime, Christopher Columbus, sponsored by the Spanish, had returned to Europe in 1493 to announce that he had successfully found a route to the Orient by sailing west across the Atlantic.
A 16th-century Portuguese ship used in the Indian Ocean trade routes
The rivalry between Portugal and Spain for the control of trade with the Orient intensified. The Pope stepped in to arbitrate and in 1494, after year-long negotiations, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed. This in effect drew an imaginary north-south dividing line through the Atlantic, some 1,770km (1,100 miles) west of Cape Verde, giving all the newly discovered lands to the west of the line to Spain and everything to the east of the line to Portugal. King John was delighted. The treaty meant that Portugal retained its control of the west African coastal trade and of the possible sea route to India.
In 1497 King John's successor, Manuel I, appointed Vasco da Gama to lead a pioneering voyage to India. Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, a small port in southern Portugal, in 1460 - the same year that Henry the Navigator died. His mother was of English ancestry. His father, Estevao da Gama, was head of one of Portugal's most noble families, had a distinguished military history, and was the provincial governor. When Vasco grew up he joined the navy, where he learned navigational skills and served with distinction in the war against Castille.
Bartholomew Diaz personally supervised preparations for da Gama's voyage. The ordinary caravel used by Diaz was not considered sufficient - it was not robust enough, and had insufficient cargo capacity. The crew would also need better protection for the long journey ahead.
The fleet consisted of four ships, two of which had been specially constructed. These were naos: square-rigged ships of shallow draught weighing about 200 tons. The flagship, St Gabriel, was captained by Vasco da Gama, and the St Raphael was under the command of his brother Paolo da Gama. Berrio Nicolau Coelho commanded a lanteen-rigged caravel of about 100 tons, and the fourth ship was a store ship.
The crew of 170 included three experienced pilots: Pedro de Alemquer, the pilot who had sailed with Diaz in 1487, Joao de Coimbra and Pero de Escolar.
The first voyage to India
Vasco da Gama and his fleet sailed from Lisbon on 8 July 1497. Bartholomew Diaz himself acted as pilot to the Canary Islands, which they reached on 15 July, and on to the Cape Verde islands. On board were the latest maps and navigational instruments. Between 26 July and 3 August the crew prepared for the next stage of their voyage without Diaz, who advised them to take an unusual course: west-south west in a huge loop out into the Atlantic to avoid the doldrums in the Gulf of Guinea. They were 965km (600 miles) from Brazil before the south-westerly winds blew them back towards southern Africa.
Vaco da Gama's passage to India
On 7 November they landed at St Helena Bay, 200km (125 miles) north of the Cape of Good Hope. They had been out of sight of land for 13 weeks - much longer than Columbus on his trans-Atlantic voyage - and had travelled a distance of more than 7,200km (4,500 miles) from Cape Verde.
Two days later, after leaving St Helena Bay, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and landed at Mossel Bay, where they traded trinkets with local people in exchange for an ox. The store ship was burnt, and the supplies re-distributed among the other ships. They would now be sailing in unknown waters, having almost reached the farthest extent of Diaz's explorations.
On Christmas Day 1497 the three remaining ships were sailing northwards along the east coast of what is now South Africa and called the country 'Natal'. By 11 January 1498 they were exploring the mouth of Copper River ('Rio Cobre'), named after the copper ornaments worn by the local population.
Moving slowly north east against a strong south-westerly current, they travelled 2,700km (1,700 miles) up the coast until, on 2 March 1498, they sailed into the port of Mozambique. This was one of a chain of Muslim city states, at the southernmost point of Muslim influence on the east African coast. When da Gama tried to trade with the ruling Sultan his paltry gifts were scorned. Despite sparing no expense to equip the expedition, the Portuguese had totally underestimated the quality of goods being traded in this part of the world - cotton, ivory, gold and pearls. They sailed on to Mombassa, 1,300km (800 miles) north, in the hope of more lucrative trade, but fared no better there. Fortunately the ruler of Malindi was more welcoming, and during his stay there da Gama recruited a knowledgeable and efficient pilot, possibly the great Arab navigator Ahmed Ibn Majid, to show the explorers the route to India.
Secondary voyages to India
Vasco da Gama arrived in Lisbon on 18 September and rode in triumph through the city. He had been away for more than two years, travelled 38,600km (24,000 miles) and spent 300 days at sea. Only 54 of the original crew of 170 had survived, but King Manuel was very pleased. What had been done once could be done again.
A second voyage, involving 13 ships and 1,200 men, was immediately dispatched under Pedro Alvares Cabral to secure the sea route to India, and the fleet reached Calicut in under six months. This time the Portuguese were better prepared and brought lavish goods with which to tempt the Zamorin into a trade agreement. The Muslim merchants were outraged at this attempt to steal their trade, and killed 50 of Cabral's men.
Cabral retaliated by burning ten Muslim cargo vessels and killing nearly 600 on board, and setting light to the wooden houses of Calicut in revenge. He then moved on to Cochin, where he established the first Portuguese trading post in India. He returned home in the summer of 1501. Only seven ships and half his men survived the journey, but their cargo of spices was sufficient to break the monopoly on the European spice trade previously held by Arab and Venetian merchants.
The following year, Vasco da Gama commanded Portugal's third major voyage to India. He set out with a fleet of 20 ships, including ten of his own and five each under the command of his uncle and nephew. Their task was to consolidate Portuguese dominance of the route to India, but it was to lead to one of the worst maritime massacres in history.
After raids on several Muslim ports along the east African coast, da Gama began a campaign of terror against Muslim shipping off the Malabar Coast. Here he captured the Meri, a ship with 200 Muslim pilgrims on the return journey from Mecca, and set it alight. With some 400 men, women and children aboard, da Gama fuelled the fires for four days until all had died. He then moved on to Calicut, where he captured and dismembered 30 fishermen and let their bodies float in with the tide for their families to find.
Feared and hated, he left behind the first European naval force in Asian waters. Upon his return home in September 1503, da Gama was richly rewarded by the Portuguese for his efforts and was eventually appointed Viceroy of India.