The Portuguese nobleman Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) sailed from Lisbon in 1497 on a mission to reach India and open a sea route from Europe to the East. After sailing down the western coast of Africa and rounding the Cape of Good Hope, his expedition made numerous stops in Africa before reaching the trading post of Calicut, India, in May 1498. Da Gama received a hero’s welcome back in Portugal, and was sent on a second expedition to India in 1502, during which he brutally clashed with Muslim traders in the region. Two decades later, da Gama again returned to India, this time as Portuguese viceroy; he died there of an illness in late 1524.

Vasco da Gama’s Early Life and First Voyage to India

Born circa 1460, Vasco da Gama was the son of a minor nobleman who commanded the fortress at Sines, located on the coast of the Alentejo province in southwestern Portugal. Little else is known about his early life, but in 1492 King John II sent da Gama to the port city of Setubal (south of Lisbon) and to the Algarve region to seize French ships in retaliation for French attacks on Portuguese shipping interests.

Did you know? By the time Vasco da Gama returned from his first voyage to India in 1499, he had spent more than two years away from home, including 300 days at sea, and had traveled some 24,000 miles. Only 54 of his original crew of 170 men returned with him; the majority (including da Gama's brother Paolo) had died of illnesses such as scurvy.

In 1497, John’s successor, King Manuel I (crowned in 1495), chose da Gama to lead a Portuguese fleet to India in search of a maritime route from Western Europe to the East. At the time, the Muslims held a monopoly of trade with India and other Eastern nations, thanks to their geographical position. Da Gama sailed from Lisbon that July with four vessels, traveling south along the coast of Africa before veering far off into the southern Atlantic in order to avoid unfavorable currents. The fleet was finally able to round the Cape of Good Hope at Africa’s southern tip in late November, and headed north along Africa’s eastern coast, making stops at what is now Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi (both now in Kenya). With the help of a local navigator, da Gama was able to cross the Indian Ocean and reach the coast of India at Calicut (now Kozhikode) in May 1498.

Relations with Local Population & Rival Traders

Though the local Hindu population of Calicut initially welcomed the arrival of the Portuguese sailors (who mistook them for Christians), tensions quickly flared after da Gama offered their ruler a collection of relatively cheap goods as an arrival gift. This conflict, along with hostility from Muslim traders, led Da Gama to leave without concluding a treaty and return to Portugal. A much larger fleet, commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral, was dispatched to capitalize on da Gama’s discoveries and secure a trading post at Calicut.

After Muslim traders killed 50 of his men, Cabral retaliated by burning 10 Muslim cargo vessels and killing the nearly 600 sailors aboard. He then moved on to Cochin, where he established the first Portuguese trading post in India. In 1502, King Manuel put da Gama in charge of another Indian expedition, which sailed that February. On this voyage, da Gama attacked Arab shipping interests in the region and used force to reach an agreement with Calicut’s ruler. For these brutal demonstrations of power, da Gama was vilified throughout India and the region. Upon his return to Portugal, by contrast, he was richly rewarded for another successful voyage.

Da Gama’s Later Life and Last Voyage to India

Da Gama had married a well-born woman sometime after returning from his first voyage to India; the couple would have six sons. For the next 20 years, da Gama continued to advise the Portuguese ruler on Indian affairs, but he was not sent back to the region until 1524, when King John III appointed him as Portuguese viceroy in India.

Da Gama arrived in Goa with the task of combating the growing corruption that had tainted the Portuguese government in India. He soon fell ill, and in December 1524 he died in Cochin. His body was later taken back to Portugal for burial there.