Of Vascos early history little is known. His descent, according to the Nobiliario of Antonio de Lima, is derived from a noble family which is mentioned in the year 1166; but the line cannot be traced without interruption farther back than the year 1280, to one Alvaro da Gama, from whom was descended Estevao da Gama, Alcaide Mor of Sines, whose third son, the subject of this notice, was born probably about the year 1460.
About this period died Prince Henry, the Navigator, son of Joao I, who had spent his life in fostering the study of navigation, and to whose intelligence and foresight must be traced back all the fame that Portugal gained on the seas in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Explorers sent out at his instigation discovered the Western isles, and unknown regions on the African coast, whence continually came reports (which by and by affected Da Gamas history) of a great monarch, "who lived east of Benin, 350 leagues in the interior, and who held both temporal and spiritual dominion over all the neighbouring kings," a story which tallied so remarkably with the accounts of "Prester John" which had been brought to the Peninsula by Abyssinian priests, that Joao II steadfastly resolved that both by sea and by land the attempt should be made to reach the country of this potentate.
In the hope of making this discovery, Pedro Covilham and Affonso de Payva were dispatched eastward by land; while Bartholomeu Dias, in command of two vessels, was sent westward by sea. Neither of the landward travelers ever returned to his country; but Covilham, who, in his fruitless search for a mythical sovereign, reached the Malabar coast and the eastern shores of Africa, sent back to Lisbon, along with the tales of the rich lands he had visited, this intelligence, "that the ships which sailed down the coast of Guinea ought to be sure of reaching the termination of the continent by persevering in a course to the south." King Joao was now seized with an ardent desire of reaching these eastern countries by the route indicated by Covilham.
That there was in truth such an ocean highway was confirmed by Dias, who shortly after returned (in 1487) with the report that when sailing southward he was carried far to the east by a succession fierce storms, past -- as he discovered only on his return voyage -- what he perceived to be the southern extremity of the African continent, and to which, on account of the fearful weather he had encountered, he gave the name of the Cape of Storms, an appellation which to the king, who was then elated with high hopes of enriching his kingdom by the addition of eastern possessions, appeared so inauspicious that he changed it to that of Cape of Good Hope. The state of Joaos health, however, and concerns of state, prevented the fitting out of the intended expedition; and it was not till ten years later, when Manoel had succeeded to the throne, that the preparations for the great voyage were completed, -- hastened, doubtless, by Columbuss discovery of America in the meanwhile.
For the supreme command of this expedition the king selected Vasco de Gama, who had in his youth fought in the wars against Castile, and in his riper years gained distinction as an intrepid mariner. The fleet, consisting of four vessels specially built for this mission, sailed down the Tagus on the 8th July 1497, after prayers and confession made by the officers and crews in the presence of the king and court, in a small chapel on the site where now stands the church of S. Maria de Belem, afterwards built to commemorable the event.
Four months later it cast anchor in St Helena Bay, South Africa, rounded the Cape in safety, and in the beginning of the next year reached Melinda. Thence, steering eastward, under the direction of a pilot obtained from Indian merchants met with at this port, Gama arrived at Calicut, on the Malabar coast, on the 20th May 1498, and set up, according to the custom of his country, a marble pillar as a mark of conquest and a proof of his discovery of India. His reception by the zamorin, or ruler of Calicut, would have in all probability been favorable enough, had it not been for the jealousy of the Moorish traders who, fearing for their gains, so incited the Hindus against the new comers that Gama, after escaping from enforced detention on shore, was obliged to fight his way out of the harbour.
Having seen enough to assure him of the great resources of this new country, he returned home in September 1499 with a glowing description of it. The king received him with every mark of distinction, created him a noble, and ordered magnificent fetes to be held in his honour in the principal towns of the kingdom, "for he had brought back (not without severe loss in ships and in men) the solution of a great problem, which was destined to raise his country to the acme of prosperity."
In prosecution of Gamas discoveries another fleet of 13 ships was immediately sent out to India by Manoel, under Alvarez Cabral, who, in sailing too far westward, by accident discovered Brazil, and on reaching his destination established a factory at Calicut. The natives, again instigated by the Moorish merchants, rose up in arms, and murdered all whom Cabral had left behind. To avenge this outrage a powerful armament of ten ships was fitted out at Lisbon, the command of which was at first given to Cabral, but was afterwards transferred to Gama on his urgent petition; for "Sire," he said, "the king of Calicut arrested me and treated me with contumely, and because I did not return to avenge myself of that injury he has again committed a greater one, on which account I feel in my heart a great desire and inclination to go and make great havoc of him."
In the beginning of 1502 the fleet sailed, and on reaching Calicut Gama immediately bombarded the town, enacting deeds of inhumanity and savagery too horrible to detail, and equalled only by the tortures of the Inquisition. Gama was naturally "very disdainful, ready to anger, and very rash," but no peculiarities of disposition -- nothing whatever -- can excuse such acts as his, which have justly left a stain on his character that neither time nor the brightness of his fame as a navigator can in the slightest degree obliterate.
From Calicut he proceeded in November to Cochin, "doing all the harm, he could on the way to all that he found at sea, and having made favourable trading terms with it and with other towns on the coast, he returned to Lisbon in September 1503, with richly laden ships. He and his captains were welcomed with great rejoicings; "but to Dom Vasco the king gave great favours, and all his goods free and exempt; he granted him the anchorage dues of India, made him admiral of its seas for ever, and one of the principal men of his kingdom."
Soon after his return Vasco retired to his residence in Evora, and for twenty years took no part in public affairs, either from pique at not obtaining, as is supposed by some, so high rewards as he expected, or because he had in some way offended Manoel. During this time the Portuguese conquests increased in the East, and were presided over by successive viceroys. The fifth of these was so unfortunate that Gama was recalled from his seclusion by Manoels successor, Joao III, created count of Vidigueira, and nominated viceroy of India, an honour which in April 1524 he left Lisbon to fill.
Arriving at Goa in September of the same year, he immediately set himself to correct, with vigour and firmness, the many abuses and evil practices which had crept in under the rule of his predecessors. He was not destined, however, to prosecute far the reforms he had inaugurated, for, on the Christmas-eve following his arrival he died, while at Cochin, after a short illness, and was buried in the Franciscan monastery there. In 1538 his body was conveyed to Portugal and entombed in the town of Vidigueira, of which he was count, with all the pomp and honour due to one who had been the kings representative.
The important discoveries of Vasco da Gama had the immediate result of enriching Portugal, and raising her to one of the foremost places among the nations of Europe, and by degrees the far greater one of hastening the colonization and civilization of the East by opening its commerce to the great Western powers.
For further information the following works may be consulted:-- The Three Voyages of Vasco da Gama and his Viceroyalty, by Gaspar Correa (Hakluyt Society); Calcoen (i.e. Calicut), A Dutch Narrative of the Third Voyage of Vasco da Gama, written by some unknown seaman of the expedition, printed at Antwerp about 1504, reprinted in facsimile, with introduction and translation, by J. Ph. Berjeau, London, 1875; Discoveries of Prince Henry of Portugal, by R.H. Major; The Lusiads of Camoen; Cooley, History of Maritime Discovery; Barros, Decades; Alvaro Velho, Roteiro da viagem que em descobrimento da India pelo cabo de Boa Esperanza fez dom Vasco da Gama em 1479, the manuscript of which is preserved at Coimbra, and a translation of which by Ferdinand Denis may be found in E. Chartons Voyageurs Anciens et Modernes, vol. iii., 1855; Castan Leda, Historia do Descobrimento da India, Coimnra, 1551 (largely based on Alvaro Velhos MSS.). (H. O. F.)
The above article was written by Dr. Henry O. Forbes, LL.D., F.R.G.S., Director of Museums, Liverpool; author of A Naturalist's Wanderings in the Eastern Archipelago; etc.
See also: more details on Vasco da Gama, his explorations, and the Portguese in the East.