Lesson 13: Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama (1460 – 1524) was a Portuguese explorer. He was born in a small coastal town in Portugal named Sines. His father was a knight and an explorer. He followed in his father’s footsteps and soon commanded ships in the king’s name. Spices from India were very popular in Europe. However, the only way to travel from Europe to India was over land. This was a long and expensive journey.

The King of Portugal wanted to discover a sea route to India so that he could become rich by trading in spices. Vasco da Gama was given a fleet of ships by the king and told to find a trade route around Africa to India. He left on his first voyage from Lisbon, Portugal on July 8, 1497. He had one hundred and seventy men and four ships. The expedition rounded the southern tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. In Africa, they found a local navigator. With his knowledge and the help of the monsoon winds, they were able to cross the Indian Ocean and arrive in Calicut, India in less than a month.

At Calicut, Vasco ran into problems with the local traders: He had brought little of value in his ships and soon he had to leave. The voyage back to Portugal was a disaster. Around half of his crew died from scurvy as the trip back took much longer. However, he was a hero when he returned home. He had found the much needed trade route to India. Vasco da Gama commanded two more fleets to India. The second voyage was a military expedition where he captured Arab ships and tried to show the might of the Portuguese navy. He died of malaria in Cochin on December 24, 1524.

The Indian Connection
Vasco is the largest city in the state of Goa on the west coast of India. It is named after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. The city was founded in 1543 and remained in Portuguese hands until 1961, when Goa ceased to be a Portuguese territory, and was handed back to India. The Mormugao port remains a busy shipping route in Asia. Even today it is one of the major ports of independent India and around one-third of India’s ore (any mineral or rock from which a metal is obtained) exports leave from here. The Indian Navy has a large presence here, and ships for the Navy and Coast Guard vessels are built in Vasco.

Please trace the journey of the first European expedition to reach India as shown in the map below.

 Fun Facts about Vasco da Gama

  • Originally Vasco’s father was going to be given the command of the exploration fleet, but the trip was delayed for many years. Eventually, the command was given to his son, Vasco instead.
  • There is a crater named Vasco da Gama on the Moon.
  • His fleet on the second voyage consisted of twenty armed ships.
  • He had six sons and one daughter. His second son became governor of Portuguese India.

Vocabulary: Please make your own sentences with the following words:
Knight – In earlier times, a man trained to fight
Explorer – A person who travels for the purpose of discovery
Expedition – a journey or trip undertaken for a specific purpose (as war or exploring)
Commanded – to issue orders by right of authority
Popular – commonly liked or approved
Voyage – a journey especially by water from one place or country to another
Navigator – A guide who shows the route/direction to a destination.
Value – a fair return in goods, services, or money for something exchanged
Scurvy – a disease caused by lack of vitamin C