Vasco da Gama

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Vasco da Gama is Portugal’s most popular historical figure who confirmed Portugal’s seafaring brilliance during the early 16th century. His voyages of discovery around the Cape of Good Hope, that discovered the oceanic trading route to India, rightfully earned him a reputation as one of the worlds greatest pioneer explores. Vasco da Gama's adventures were popularised and promoted during the Salazar dictatorship era to encourage Portugal’s self belief and still today his name stirs patriotism within the Portuguese.

Vasco da Gama almost single handily altered Portugal’s status from a minor Europe state into the most respected of sea faring nations which flourished as the vast wealth from trade flooded through Lisbon, this was Portugal’s Golden era. Sadly Vasco da Gama momentous voyages and discoveries are masked by the heavy enforcement of imperial views on colonial states, which Vasco da Gama duly acted out.

Vasco da Gama's Early Life

Vasco da Gama was born in 1469 into a large land owning family in the small fishing town of Sines. His parent’s wealth was able to provide an extensive education and Vasco da Gama studied at the university Evora. It is believed during this time Vasco da Gama gained his proficiency in astronomy and mathematics.

After his studies he joined the Duke of Viseu household and became a respect knight. His progression lead him to become the governor of his home town, Sines. The district of Sines included the soap producing town of Estremoz, of which Vasco da Gama was able to skim a portion of the taxes for his own adventures. During this time he married Dona Isabel Sodré who was of English descendant and close ties to the Portuguese royal family, these connections and his increasing wealth brought him closer to the royal court of Lisbon.

The real break for Vasco da Gama came when the King John II commanded that Vasco da Gama command a small raiding flotilla to avenge the attacks by French sailors. The naval raids were conducted at Setubal and the Algarve, Vasco da Gama was able to seize French trading ships which brought respect and ransom from the French government and admiration for Vasco.

Portugal had be exploring and postulating for many years prior to Vasco da Gama ascension to the Lisbon court about the possibility of a sea route to the lucrative spice regions of India. The Republic of Venice during the 15th century had held the monopoly on the land based route to India.

Vasco Da Gama was selected as the commander for the exploratory voyage to establish if a route was possible around Africa to the wealth of India. Surprisingly the commission was firstly offered to Vasco da Gama father who turned down the expedition. The size of the initial voyage was relatively small just 4 boats with an approximate crew of 170.

Three of the ships were propose built Caravel class with lateen sails, these ships were the pinochle of ship design of the later 15th century as they were highly manoeuvrable and could sail much nearer the wind and the large square Atlantic-type sails attached made the ship very fast. The Caravel main drawback was the limited cargo capacity so the fourth ship was a large and slower storage ship.

The ships were constructed in Belem harbour and completed 1497. The voyage left on the 8 July 1497 and Vasco da Gama spent his last night before praying at the small chapel now the site of Jeronimos Monastery. The expedition followed the route identified by earlier explorers along the coast of Africa via Tenerife and the Cape Verde Islands.

At Sierra Leone, Gama choose a course south into the open ocean, seeking the South Atlantic westerly winds south of the Equator that would drive the ships to the southern end of the African continent. This route took 3 month and over 6000 miles, before land was sighted and was the longest journey of the era without land sight.

There were ferocious storms as the voyage passed the Cape of Good Hope. The expedition passed the eastern side of South Africa during the Christmas of 1497, so the uncharted coast line was named Christmas (or Natal in Portuguese) this region of South Africa is still called Natal - KwaZulu-Natal.

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