Another facet in this equation was the intensely hostile relationship between the Iberians and the Muslims ever since the Muslim Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711. Portugal as we know it now was founded in 1140. And even though there remains Moorish influence on Portuguese life, music, food, genetics and names ( e.g. Fatima), there was no love lost between the Portuguese and the Muslims. Striking Arab features are to be found in a significant number of Portuguese people.

The port of Calicut was already known to the Portuguese. The land explorer Pero de Covilhã had visited it in 1487. The task was now to find the sea-route to it. A year later, in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa in an attempt to get to India. It is only a mutiny on board that forced Dias to turn around.

A corollary to this is a query regarding the Christopher Columbus trip to '' reach India via the West'' in 1492. The various land travelers including Marco Polo had described the land extending from India to the east. The Portuguese already knew in 1488, at least that the West Coast of India was on the other side of the Arabian Sea from East Africa. So, why then would Columbus try to reach India via the West ? This would take him to the East Coast of India ! Unless of course, Columbus (Colon) was not really intent on reaching India !

VASCO da GAMA and the historic Voyage !
Vasco da Gama was born in 1469 in Sines, Alemtejo, Portugal. His father Estevao da Gama was the Alcaide of Sines who also held a post in the court of King Afonso V. Little is known of the early childhood or adolescence of Vasco da Gama, except that he grew up in a maritime environment learning very early in life to fish, swim and sail. At age 15 he became a sailor, studied astronomy and navigation at Evora, and became a naval officer in 1492 at the age of 23. Vasco da Gama played a role in the defence of the Portuguese-held territories on the West African coast as well as in the Algarve and Setubal coastal area against the French incursions.

It is Bartolomeu Dias who was first chosen to chart the sea-route to India. But with the rigors of the journey and scurvy at the time a fatal mystery illness, Bartolomeu faced a mutiny from his sailors. His fleet had already rounded the Cape and had a short distance ahead, but the mutiny forced him to return.
After this aborted attempt by Bartolomeu Dias, the mantle to lead the expedition to India would fall on Estevao da Gama ( Vasco's father ). But as fate would have it, Estevao died before the project details could be finalized. A replacement was sought. It would have to be a leader more capable in controlling any future mutinies on the high seas. The grim and cynical bachelor Vasco da Gama was the forceful individual the King was looking for. He was of medium height, extremely hardworking and full of the spirit of challenge. Vasco da Gama had the reputation of being firm with little tolerance of revolt. He was known to be inflexible in his decision to punish the delinquent. He was also a minor 'nobleman' in the Royal Court and hence known to the King.

After an interview, King Manuel of Portugal commissioned Vasco da Gama to reach India by sea. Vasco was the person in whom the King '' could have confidence to serve the fleet in matters of the sea ''.

The King also commissioned the experienced Bartolomeu Dias to oversee the planning of the trip. Two new ships were built and two previously used ones refitted for the journey. All four ships were fitted with the best cannons available at the time in Europe. The ships were loaded with rations of food and wine to last for three years. Also stocked were items thought to be useful for purposes of trading like olive oil, cotton cloth, bacalhao, tin bells and the sort. No gold, silver or luxury goods, ideal for trading in India were carried on board. The Portuguese were perhaps quite oblivious to the level of luxury that the Indian princes and Arab traders were accustomed to.

Vasco da Gama personally recruited the crew to accompany him on this maiden voyage. It was not very easy to find recruits for this journey. Many promised to join the mission but few actually dared to show up. The voyage to India was seen as being fraught with immense dangers. Many were keen but few were willing. Eventually an assortment of individuals was put together for this voyage. Among the crew were 10 convicted killers whose sentences had been specially commuted. They were to be used for the suicidally dangerous missions anticipated en route.

Four ships were readied for this voyage. The 'Sao Gabriel' under the command of Vasco da Gama, The 'Sao Rafael' with Paulo da Gama ( Vasco's brother ) in command, The 'Berrio' under Nicolao Coelho and a supply ship under Gonçalo Nunes. In all there were 160 soldiers and sailors.

The Vasco da Gama fleet set sail from Lisbon on July 8, 1497. Voyages along the West African coast were both treacherous and long. The ships had to often sail against the winds and faced the almost inevitable danger of being shipwrecked. Vasco da Gama calculated that it would be a safer and quicker route to the South African tip if he stayed off the West African Coast.

Accordingly after the stops at the Açores and the Cabo Verde Islands, he veered south-west into the mid-Atlantic and reached the Cape of Good Hope on November 22, 1497. After rounding the Cape, the supply ship was set afire and the men and supplies were redistributed to the other three ships.

The east African coast was governed by various Sultanates. There were Sultanates at Querimbo, Quiloa, Sofala, Melindi and Mombassa. As expected, there were inter-Sultanate rivalries. This turned out to be fortuitous for Vasco da Gama fleet. They were forced out of Moçambique but welcomed in rival Melindi. The Sultan of Melindi saw the advantage of aligning himself with the Portuguese.

At Melindi, Vasco da Gama was able to observe the intricacies of the ongoing trade which had made the East African Sultans wealthy. A flourishing trade existed in gold, ivory and slaves which were being exported from East Africa to the Red Sea Towns, cities around the Arabian Gulf and to the various kingdoms on the Indian subcontinent. Vasco da Gama was no businessman and for him this was an excellent opportunity to learn the ropes of trade and commerce.

Melindi and Portugal signed the first ever treaty of peace and friendship between an East African territory and an European nation. The Sultan of Melindi assisted Vasco da Gama by providing him with an Arab pilot for the onward journey to India. The Arabs were well versed with the route from Africa to India as well as the monsoons.

On May 18, 1498, after a month at sea Vasco da Gama and his fleet, now under the guidance of the Arab pilot from Melindi, sighted the Malabar coast. There were quite a few Arab trading vessels in the coastal area, some more hostile than others. The owners of these boats were quite disturbed by the new presence in their midst. But even so, the better armed Vasco da Gama fleet was able to drop anchor at Calicut on May 22, 1498.

The Portuguese were interested in setting up a trading post in Calicut. Their primary intent was to buy spices which they could ship back to Portugal and resell to Europe. Also in Calicut at that time were Chinese and the Arabs traders who appeared to have a comfortable relationship. It may have been more than just a trading relationship. The famed Chinese explorer Admiral Zheng He who had helped set up the Chinese trading interests in South India was himself a Muslim. The hindu ruler of Calicut was Samudra-Raja ( Samudrin, Zamorin, Samorim). He had two major problems to contend with. The first problem was that he was the puppet of the rich and powerful Arab muslim traders. The Arab administrators were the effective bosses of the port of Calicut. The second was that he faced strong opposition from his mortal enemy, the Raja of Cochin.

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  • Updated:
    November 18, 2011