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de Gama

Vasco De Gama: The Early Years

Vasco De Gama was one of the more famous explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. His story began when he was born in Portugal around the year 1460 (we say “around” because record-keeping was sloppy back then and there is no official record of his birth) to a noble family. His dad – Estvo De Gama – had an important position as the commander of the fortress in Sines, Portugal.

Vasco wanted to explore more than anything else. As soon as he was old enough to join the navy, he did so. This is where he learned his great navigation skills that would come in handy in just a few years. But because of his father’s position, young Vasco also got a well-rounded education, including learning about geometry, astronomy, mathematics, physics and a variety of languages. This helped him in his career as an explorer and navigator later in life.


One of Vasco’s first orders was given to him by King John II in 1492. The king wanted Vasco to seize French ships along the Lisbon coast and in the Algarve region because France had been disrupting shipping for Portugal and making it more difficult for the nation to trade. De Gama set out with a purpose and accomplished this goal for his king, which helped his reputation as a great sailor in the region.

Vasco’s Big Break

But Vasco had bigger fish to fry if he wanted to be a notable explorer. His big break came in 1495 when King Manual took over the throne of Portugal. For years, Portugal wanted to find a direct trading route to India. In fact, that’s exactly what Columbus was looking for when he set out on his famous journey in 1492. Many people thought that finding a direct route was impossible because they didn’t think the Indian Ocean was connected to any other waterways. But Vasco had an idea in mind. He shipped out with his crew and his two brothers – Paulo and Nicolao -  in July of 1497.

Vasco De Gama wasn’t just the chief navigator. He oversaw the building of the ships that he was to take on his expedition. Three of the main ships were the Berrio, the Saint Gabriel, and the Saint Raphael. They were small ships that weighed about 80 tons each with an overall length of about 80 feet (the Saint Gabriel, which was his flagship, was probably much longer and weighed about 200 tons) . They carried the basics – bread, fish, salted meats and, of course, beer. On July 7, 1497, the crews set sail for India along with a total of four ships and about 200 men going with him. Fortunately for him, many of these men went to the Navigational Academy in Portugal. They majored in underwater basket weaving, but De Gama took them anyways.
De Gama and his men set sail for a three-hour tour. But when the weather started getting rough, their tiny ships were tossed. Wait…that’s a different crew.

Anyways, Vasco and his crew spent several months navigating the uncharted waters in search of a maritime trade route to India. In November, about five months after setting sail from Portugal, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. But it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. While they were making stops in Africa (parts of what is known today as Kenya), Vasco and his crew ran into troubles with the area’s Muslim traders. They didn’t like the idea that their trade routes were being interfered with by a bunch of outsiders, especially since that could negatively affect their profits. Eventually, the crews were able to escape too much trouble and sailed on to Calicut, India. They reached the shores of this eastern nation on May 20, 1948 – nearly 11 months after they left their homes in Portugal.

For the first few months, De Gama and his men were popular in Calicut. They were trading goods like nobody’s business at first. But this blissful time didn’t last. In August, Vasco and his crew decided to leave India. But he was told that he would have to leave all of his goods behind and he’d have to pay a huge tax on his products. Not being one to follow the rules, Vasco gathered all of his goods and took them with him, along with a few Indian hostages as well.

After leaving India on bad terms, Vasco and his crew returned to Lisbon, Portugal. They arrived in September of 1499 with fewer crew members than when he set sail. That’s because many of them died from scurvy, which is obviously a fatal illness and it is caused by not getting enough Vitamin C. So the next time your parents want you to eat your vegetables, they want you to do it so you don’t die of scurvy. Or at least that’s one of the reasons you should do it.


Vasco Sails into the Sunset

Vasco De Gama’s discovery of a route to India gave him national fame in his home country. He was considered a hero and he received rewards from the king. He was also made an Admiral. In 1502, King Manual I sent De Gama on another trip to India. This time, he took 20 ships complete with weapons because he knew he would run into problems with Muslim traders along the way. He was right. But since he was prepared this time, he was able to kill hundreds of them in brutal fashion so he could gain respect throughout the route and give everybody a taste of his power.
In 1524, just five years after receiving the title of Count, Vasco De Gama set sail on his final trip. King Manual I was dead and King John III took his place. He sent the experienced Vasco to India as his viceroy, or official representative. But on December 24, 1524, Vasco De Gama succumbed to an illness while on the Malabar coast in India and he passed away. He left behind a wife with whom he had six sons. His remains were sent back to his home country where they were buried  in Vidigueria in 1539 – about 15 years after his death.

While trying to trade with the people of East Africa, Vasco da Gama impersonated a Muslim to secure a meeting with a local sultan.

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