The Europeans No 21: Vasco da Gama

The Portuguese explorer discovered a sea route to India and laid the foundations for his country’s empire

The path a nation will take – its destiny, some might say – can be strongly suggested, if not entirely dictated, by its geography. Thus Portugal, with its back to the continent to which it culturally belonged, cut off from access to the Mediterranean by Spain but facing out on to a vast sea, might seem to have been almost inevitably cast in the role of explorer nation and trading empire.

“God gave the Portuguese a small country as cradle,” wrote the Jesuit António Vieira, “but all the world as their grave.”

Vasco da Gama was born in the 1460s in the small port of Sines, where his father was civil governor. He may have studied mathematics and navigation in the ancient town of Évora.

At this time Portugal was engaged in an attempt to break Venice’s virtual monopoly of the valuable spice trade with the East. The country’s seafarers had been gradually pushing further and further down the west coast of Africa throughout the 15th century and had developed a profitable commerce in gold and slaves.


After Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and discovered that the African coast turned there to the northeast, the next step was to join that knowledge with what was already known of east African ports, thus marking out a route to the East that avoided the Mediterranean and an overland route.

Route to India
Vasco da Gama set out for India from Lisbon in 1497 with four ships and a crew of 170 men. His expedition arrived near Kozhikode, also known as Calicut, on India's Malabar coast in May 1498, where its reception was at best lukewarm: the voyagers seem to have underestimated the sophistication of the civilisation with which they were entering into contact; the cheap goods they had brought as gifts did not impress. Established Muslim traders also spoke against the European interlopers.

The Portuguese returned to India in 1500 and in 1502, the latter expedition again led by Vasco da Gama, who was on this occasion to show himself a particularly cruel and ruthless commander. Responding to any obstruction or provocation with overwhelming force, he routinely ordered the crews of trading vessels he captured to be mutilated. As supposed revenge for an attack on a Portuguese colony, he massacred 300 Muslim pilgrims (women and children included) on the vessel Miri , burning the ship.

In the short term Vasco da Gama’s expeditions were not a major commercial success, but in the longer term Portugal was to establish an important maritime trading empire on the back of its African and Asian discoveries: another Portuguese man, Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) led the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe 20 years later.

The term discovery should be qualified: the territories in question were of course well known to the people who lived there, and also to Arab sailors and to the Chinese, notably the great admiral Zheng He (1371-1433); these were purely European “discoveries”.

The encounter with new lands outside the familiar continent helped construct Europeans’ image of themselves, which was normally – though not always, Michel de Montaigne being one exception – based on the notion that “we” are civilised while “they” are savages. And if they are savages, well, anything can be done to them.

The Portuguese and the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, the English and the Belgians over the following centuries all extended their power overseas, multiplying their domestic wealth and luxury, largely at the expense of those who came to be known as “native peoples”.

European civilisation may have continued to flourish at home, but the historical crimes of imperialism and colonialism constitute a blot that is hard to remove.