HISTORY: Vasco Da Gama, the first European who found the way to India by sea
In the age of Titans, Vasco da Gama was one. He was driven by zeal and goal and his goal helped in immortalizing him. He proved his preference for an enduring legacy over wealth when during a sea voyage and faced with a difficult storm, which terrified his men and wanting to abandon the goal for which they had set sail, Vasco da Gama had remarked: “Even if l see a hundred deaths in front of me or if my ship is full of gold, l will not turn back till I have found what l am seeking.” This is a great lesson in unwavering.
The significance of the ocean route he found afforded the Portuguese to avoid sailing across the highly disputed Mediterranean and traversing the dangerous Arabian Peninsula.
Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese sailor; he, it was who discovered the way to India by sea. And he set the stage for the early colonizing power of Portugal.
He lived between 1460 and 1524.
He was the man who completed the work begun by Bartholomew Diaz, an earlier explorer, and this feat earned him greatness.
The King of Portugal had spurned the request by Columbus to give him ship and sponsorship to sail the ocean. When Columbus could not convince the King of Portugal he had turned to the King of Spain who obliged him. The result was the discovery of America dubbed the New World which were claimed for the King of Spain.
This successful exploration by Columbus filled the King of Portugal with regrets and so, he desired honour and glory for his land as well. His best bet was finding a new seaway to the east specifically India round the south of Africa.
Several years previously Bartholomew Diaz had sailed to reach a place where the land turned eastwards. But he was faced with a terrible storms that made him name the nearby lands the Cape of Storms. He aborted the goal as his sailors got frightened to go on. They persuaded him to return home.
At Portugal he narrated his experience to the King. But while Daiz saw failure, his King saw success. The King as a starter rejected the idea of naming the land discovered by Diaz Cape of Storms and demanded it be renamed Cape of Good Hope, hinging his enthusiasm on the prospect of now finding the seaway to India. After all it was reported the land turned east.
At last the King of Portugal heard about Vasco da Gama.
The man da Gama had been born in Portugal at a little sea-coast town called Sines where his father was governor. He became a soldier, participating with bravery in the wars between Portugal and Spain at the time.
A lover of the sea he went to sea at the cessation of hostilities. Within a short time he was able to prove his mettle as a brave and skillful captain in the same manner. His fame grew wings, getting to the ears of the King of Portugal, Manoel. The King had found the new man to drive his obsession and so, chose Vasco da Gama to be at the head of an expedition to find the new way by sea to the land of India.
Da Gama set out. But when they got to Africa, fear got the best of his men and so they wanted to keep close to the land. But da Gama would not subscribe to this. Having read and drawn courage from Columbus voyage, he charged his men to leave the coast area and plunge deep into the high sea, south-eastward straight for the Cape of Good Hope. This terrified his men and some of them actually tended towards mutiny. But he put the rebels in chains and motivated the more pliable ones with the above quote: “Even if l see a hundred deaths in front of me,” he said, “or if my ship is full of gold, l will not turn back till l have found what l am seeking.”
They were soon on the sea again and after four long months reached the Cape of Good Hope and sailed round it to the east coast of Africa an area never reached before by any European.
Da Gama named the little bay they landed ‘Natal.’ Natal is a word which means ‘birthday’ in Portuguese and because they had arrived there on Christmas day (the day which commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ) he so named the place.
He continued his journey until he got to the island of Mozambique. Here, he came across Arab traders from among whom he hired sailors familiar with the route. Four months later he landed in India, in the port of Calicut. He gave presents to the King of Calicut and sought permission to trade with his people. He started trading but the Arab traders out of jealousy soon incited the hihertho friendly Indians to rise against da Gama and his men. The Arabs had filled the minds of the natives with lies and untrue tales. And so conflict broke out. The Portuguese escaped by the whiskers after fighting precipitately for their lives in the streets of Calicut. They made it eventually into their ship and returned home.
King Manoel of Portugal received him with great honour, made him a noble and ordered he be celebrated throughout the country.
Three years later he was on another expedition to India but this time solely for reprisal, to revenge the treachery meted out to him and his men. He attacked Calicut with his ships’ guns killing many people in the process. This action was widely criticized and condemned as a dose of cruelty. However he made new friends at Cochin reaching a trade agreement with the people of the town. He thus returned to Portugal with great treasure.
Thereafter, he disappeared from circulation, perhaps he had a row with the King over his cruelty at Calicut. He lived quietly for 20 years.
By now many Portuguese were settling in India, their chief city being Goa. The King of Portugal appointed governors to run the affairs of Goa however they were not overtly successful and after the third governor had failed he called out da Gama again to sail down to Goa and take control as governor to try to restore order while conferring the title of viceroy on him.
Da Gama did not disappoint; he firmly and severely punished the wrongdoers, most of whom were Portuguese. But he was growing frail, and three months after he fell ill and died in the Christmas Eve of 1524. His corpse was taken home and buried with great honours.
Many monuments have been erected in eternal memory of his services. Songs and anthems were composed in his honour, he has been used as character in several plays and films, a church is named after him, as many as three football clubs bear his name in Brazil and elsewhere; bridges, places, residences now share his name as mark of honour, there is a Vasco da Gama Tower in Portugal, coins bore his name in his native country (at the 500th anniversary of his birth), the Portuguese Navy has a class of frigates named after him (there are three Vasco da Gama class frigates in total, of which the first one also bears his name). The Portuguese government erected two navigational beacons, Dias Cross and da Gama Cross, to commemorate da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias who were the first modern European explorers to reach the Cape of Good Hope. When lined up, these crosses point to Whittle Rock, a large, permanently submerged shipping hazard in False Bay.
His life lucidly portrays the maxim of nothing ventures, nothing gained. Risk, danger, hardship meant nothing to him, no wonder over 500 years after he lived, his name has refused to be blotted out of memory.