1487-1488 – Vasco da Gama Reaches India

Vasco da Gama’s flagship, the San Rafael.

By the time King Manoel I of Portugal was ready to follow up on Bartolomeu Dias’ discoveries from 1488, the knight King João II had hired to lead the expedition, Estêvão da Gama, had died. [He died in July of 1497.] From his palácio [palace] in Évora(1), Manoel offered the admiral position to Estêvão’s third son, Vasco da Gama. The oldest of Estêvão’s five sons, Paulo, did not want to take the lead, but he would serve as the captain of one of Vasco’s ships.

Vasco Da Gama and his siblings had been born at their father’s comenda in Sines a hundred miles south of Lisbon. They had an older, illegitimate brother, also named Vasco, whom their father had conceived with a mistress before marrying their mother, Isabel Sodré. Both Vasco da Gamas were named after their grandfather, a Portuguese noble. Some of Isabel’s ancestors were English [possibly Lancaster/Lencaster] and she was also related to Fernando and Diogo of Viseu. Her father and brother were Knights of the Order of Christ, rivals to her husband’s order, the Order of São Tiago.

Vasco’s parents probably sent him to Évora for his education. Like his father, he became a Knight of the Order of São Tiago. During his training, he was taught to navigate the Ocean Sea by Portugal’s royal astronomer and historian, Abraham Zacuto (1452-1515).

We met Zacuto in the article about Diogo Cão. In 1492, after Ferdinand and Isabella took possession of Granada and expelled all Jews who would not convert to Christianity from Spain, Zacuto moved to Lisbon. When Manoel became king in 1495, he appointed Zacuto to be his royal astronomer. By that time, Zacuto’s protégé, Master José Vizinho(2) had translated Zacuto’s Great Book from Castilian into Latin. The Latin version [printed on one of Portugal’s first presses using moveable and reusable type] was published in 1496, the year before Vasco Da Gama’s departure. When, in 1446, King Manoel complied with his Castilian bride’s request to expel Jews from Portugal, Manoel made an exception for Zacuto.

Abraham Zacuto made additional improvements to the astrolabe so that it was more useful below the equator. [Possibly he and Martin Behaim worked together on that project. Behaim would have added the knowledge he learned while apprenticing with Regiomontanus.]

Having no idea how long Vasco da Gama’s trip would be, King Manoel issued him a tiny fleet of four ships to carry 170 men. Bartolomeu Dias helped supervise the construction of two 178-ton carracks about 86 feet in length. They were named after the two archangels featured in the Bible: Gabriel and Raphael. The São Gabriel was to serve as Vasco Da Gama’s flagship. Paulo da Gama was to command the São Rafael.

The Da Gamas drafted experienced seamen to accompany them. They chose Pêro Escobar to pilot the caravel named Bérrio, which would be under the command of Nicolau Coelho. Escobar had accompanied Bartolomeu Dias in 1487 and helped discover the islands of St. Tome, Annobon, and Principe. The Bérrio was only slightly smaller than the São Gabriel and São Rafael. The fourth ship in the fleet, commanded by Gonçalo Nunes, was for hauling provisions,. She would not make it back to Portugal, so her name has been lost to history. Bartolomeu Dias would sail with the expedition as far as the Cape Verde Islands.

Drawing from his experience sailing past the equator with Diogo Cão, Abraham Zacuto helped prepare and train the crew. Until the last minute of their departure, he was on board the São Gabriel giving Vasco Da Gama final tips on navigation and warning him about dangers to avoid.

The principal source of information we have for this expedition is an anonymously written diary.

The fleet departed from Lisbon on July 8, 1497, and coasted to Tenerife in the Canaries, where they stopped for water and wood. They then sailed to the Cape Verde Islands. After passing Serra Leone, Da Gama veered away from the coast and pointed the fleet directly south into the open ocean. After crossing the equator, he sought and found the westerly winds Bartolomeu Dias had discovered. On November 4 he made landfall on the west coast of Africa near the southern tip.

After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the fleet stopped in the Bay of São Brás, which was part of Mossel Bay. During their stay, their supply ship caught fire and was lost. On December 16, they passed the Great Fish River, the point where Dias had turned back. From there they sailed into new territory. It was close to Christmas, so they named the land they were sailing past Natal [Birth of Christ].

Da Gama followed the coast of East Africa looking for Sofala, referring to the coordinates sent to King João II by Pedro of Corvilhã in 1487. Sofola was located inside the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and the mainland, not where Fra Mauro had placed it on his planisphere in 1450 at the eastern tip of Madagascar. The fleet reached the trading port of Mozambique on March 2. [Evidently the ports between the Cape of Good Hope and the Mozambique Channel were relatively quiet and unpopulated, with no trading markets.]

After a couple of weeks, the local Arab residents and merchants figured out that the Portuguese were of a different religion and had arrived to compete with their trade. The relations became so bad that on March 29, the Portuguese were forced to flee. They tried trading in ports north of Mozambique but were received with the same hostility. Using their slightly more sophisticated bombards, the Portuguese resorted to brutal force and piracy. From April 7 to April 13 they plied the waters off the coast of Mombasa [near today’s Kenya] raiding Arabian ships.

The Portuguese finally found a friendly reception in Malindi, which they reached on April 14. The Muslim Arabs there were at war with Mombasa, so they were willing to ally with the Portuguese. In Malindi, Vasco da Gama met his first Indian traders [traders from India, not American Indian natives]. He learned more about the trading port that Pedro of Corvilhã had called Calicut [actually Kozhikode] on what we today call the Malabar Coast. Corvilhã wrote that in the market of Calicut “everything, including pepper and cinnamon could be had except cloves.”

Sailing to Calicut was not easy. The Portuguese had to cross the treacherous Indian Ocean and deal with the seasonal monsoons that Marco Polo spoke of. The winds hit twice a year. To help with the passage, Da Gama hired an Indian pilot who was familiar with the dangers. The ships departed from Malindi on April 24 and arrived in Calicut on May 20.

Calicut was the main port of the ruling kingdom of Samoothiri, which had been in power for several centuries. Their king was known as the Zamorin. When the Zamorin heard about the Portuguese arrival, he rushed from his palace in Ponnani and greeted them with a procession of 3000 armed soldiers, called Nairs. Vasco da Gama presented the gifts he had brought from King Manoel I, “four cloaks of scarlet cloth, six hats, four branches of corals, twelve almasares [we do not know what those were], a box with seven brass vessels, a chest of sugar, two barrels of oil, and a cask of honey.” The Zamorin and his court roared with laughter. The gifts paled compared to the riches of India.

Muslim merchants in Calicut learned about Da Gama’s arrival and told the Zamorin that the Portuguese were pirates. The Portuguese reputation had crossed the Indian Ocean quickly. It took some very fancy footwork for Da Gama to wiggle out of paying the import tax that the Zamorin demanded of him – to be paid in gold. Da Gama ended up kidnapping some of the Nairs and using them as hostages to force his way out of Calicut.

Somehow – probably by stealing it – the Portuguese filled their holds with loot, mostly spices, that would be worth sixty times the expense of their expedition. But the trip home went badly. Da Gama had lost his guide. The ships departed August 29 and ran into the monsoons. The winds blew them to Anjediva Island. From there, on October 3, they tried again to cross the Indian Ocean. This time it took the ships 132 days, whereas the trip east had taken only 23 days. Their food ran out after the first month. But even though Da Gama sited land on January 2, 1499 and his crew were starving, he did not make land knowing the port would be hostile. He passed Mogadishu, “a city with houses four and five stories high,” but did not make land there either.

Finally they reached Malindi on January 7. Half the crew had died along the way and the rest suffered from scurvy.

Scurvy is a nasty physical condition. It is caused by insufficient intake of Vitamin C and the other vitamins and minerals supplied by fresh fruits and vegetables. Early symptoms include muscle cramps. The body feels achy all over. Hair and teeth begin to fall out. The gums in the mouth grow around the teeth, making it difficult to eat. The person looses weight and finally dies.

Da Gama did not have enough men left to sail all three ships home, so he scuttled the São Raphael off the coast of East Africa. That left him with the carrack, São Gabriel, and the caravel, Bérrio. By early March, the ships arrived back at Mossel Bay. They passed the Cape of Good Hope on March 20, and made land on the west coast of Africa on April 25.

The anonymously written diary ended at that point in time. Historians have pieced together other records to trace the remaining trip home.

The two ships made it to the Cape Verde Islands. By that time Paolo da Gama was “grievously ill.” So while Vasco da Gama attended to his brother on the São Gabriel, Nicolau Coelho sailed off to Lisbon in the Bérrio carrying half of the valuable spices. The caravel was much faster than the carrack would have been. Coelho reached Lisbon on July 10, 1499 and rushed to King Manoel’s castle in Sintra to report his news.

After several weeks on the São Gabriel, which was anchored near the Cape Verde Islands, Paolo da Gama did not improve. Vasco took him to shore [they must have been anchored near a trading port] and sent the São Gabriel back to Portugal under the command of his clerk, João de Sá. The São Gabriel reached Lisbon in late July or early August, where Captain Sá delivered the other half of the spices.

Finally, even though Paolo da Gama was still sick, Vasco found passage for both of them on a Portuguese merchant caravel headed for Lisbon. But before she reached the Azores, Paolo died. The caravel stopped at Terceira, where Vasco had his brother buried in the same monastery where João vas Corte Real was buried(3). Vasco finally reached Lisbon on either August 29, September 8, or September 18, 1499 [sources differ].

The trip from Lisbon to Calicut took ten months. The round trip – 30,000 miles – took two years and two months [plus or minus a few weeks]. The expedition traveled more than eight times the distance the Mayflower would travel across the Atlantic from England to Cape Cod. Only 55 of the 171 men made it home.

In December of 1498, King Manoel I, awarded Vasco da Gama a hereditary pension of 300,000 reis and the title of Don [Lord]. The title applied to Vasco’s siblings, to his descendants, and to his siblings’ descendants. Later, on January 30, 1502, to give Vasco an edge over Christopher Columbus’s title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, King Manoel dubbed Vasco Da Gama Admiral of the Seas of Arabia, Persia, India and all the Orient. [In Portuguese, that would read: Almirante dos Mares de Arabia, Persia, India e de todo o Oriente.]

Manoel also awarded Da Gama the commenda of Sines, for which his father had been the alcaide mor. However, Sines was part of the land holdings of the Order of São Tiago [who had captured it from the Moors]. Jorge de Lancaster was still the Grand Master of that order. He was angry that his rival, Manoel, who, as you will recall, usurped his place as king, was giving away lands over which he had no sovereignty. Manoel was Grand Master of the Order of Christ. He had no rights over São Tiago lands. So, even though Vasco da Gama was a Knight of São Tiago, Jorge refused to grant him the commenda.

The tug of war went on for several years. Vasco da Gama never received the commenda of Sines and ended up switching his allegiance to the Order of Christ. That leads us back to the question, “Which symbol did Vasco da Gama display on his sails when he first sailed to India?

In our article about the Carrack, we included a photo of the model of the São Gabriel gifted to the Dighton Rock Museum near Fall River, Massachusetts, by the Portuguese Prime Minister, Admiral Pinheiro de Azevedo in 1977. The Portuguese believe Vasco da Gama flew the banner of the Order of Christ.

A model of the São Gabriel built in the workshop of the Maritime Museum in Lisbon  in 1977. It is on a scale of 1:30. The actual ship was 85 feet long and weighted 50 tons.

The following illustration shows Calicut [Kozhikode] in 1572, seventy-four years after the Portuguese reached the market town.

From the Civitates Orbis Terrarum Atlas. Illustrated by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenbergs.(4)


  1. The room in today’s Palácio de Dom Manoel, where King Manoel commissioned Vasco da Gama to head the expedition, is now a tourist site
  2. Also known by the Latin signature of his name, Joseph Vizinus
  3. Paulo da Gama was buried in the Church of St. Francis Convent built by the Franciscans on Terceira Island in the Azores along with João vaz Corte-Real, his wife Maria Abarca, explorer Afonso Gonçalves Baldaia, Joanna vaz Corte-Real [João and Maria’s daughter] and Joanna’s husband Guilherme Moniz Barreto [son of Henry Moniz, Alcaide of Silves].
  4. Calicut [Kozhikode] in 1572, seventy-four years after the Portuguese reached the market town. From the Civitates Orbis Terrarum Atlas. Illustrated by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenbergs. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image from wikimedia. Source url: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calicut_1572.jpg

Next Article: John Cabot Returns from his Second Expedition