Vasco da Gama and the Gateway to India
Part 1: Looking for Fame
Vasco da Gama gained everlasting fame as the first European explorer to reach India. He lived in an exciting time of exploration and fulfilled the promise begun by several of his predecessors. He also realized the dream of the famed Prince Henry the Navigator.
Vasco was born at Sines, in Portugal, in 1469. He grew up the son of an important man, Estevao da Gama, and learned the life of a sailor and soldier. He played an important role in the defense of Portuguese colonies on the coast of Guinea, and this brought him recognition from many people, including the Portuguese king. Bartolomeu Dias had recently returned from his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, and the Portuguese crown wanted more. Though he was young, Vasco was granted the honor of commanding the next great expedition, with the goal being establishing a trade route to India by sailing around the southern tip of Africa.
The goal was to bring back spices and jewels. Portugal also wanted to be considered a powerful nation. For many years, Portuguese sailors had sailed the high seas, following in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus. Portugal was one of Europe's leading countries in exploration, led for many years by Prince Henry the Navigator, a very rich man who had a passion for broadening the boundaries of the known world. Once Dias had returned, the table was set for someone else to achieve even more greatness for Portugal.
Vasco left on July 8, 1497, with a fleet of four ships and a crew of 150 men. They made their way around the tip of Africa, stopping at several ports along the way. On December 16, they sailed past the stopping point of Dias, the furthest-known area to Europeans. They also named the nearby coastline Natal (Christmas in Portuguese). It is called that to this day. They sailed up the eastern coast of Africa and then on to India, arriving in Calicut on May 20.
Da Gama and his men stayed several weeks, negotiating with the local ruler on terms for a trade agreement. Satisfied that he had it, da Gama left for home on October 5. He didn't exactly set any sea speed records on the way home, stopping at several ports in Arabia and Africa to set up still more trade agreements and then finally reaching Lisbon the following September. A huge reception awaited him. He was famous with both the king and the people and was given the title "Admiral of the Indian Ocean."