Vasco da Gama

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Vasco da Gama. Portrait of Gregorio Lopes (1490–1550)
Signature of Vasco da Gamas:
ho comde almirante
("the Count and Admiral")

Dom Vasco da Gama [ ˈvaʃku ðɐ ˈɣɐmɐ ], Count of Vidigueira (* around 1469 in Sines , Portugal ; † December 24, 1524 in Cochin , India ) was a Portuguese navigator and discoverer of the sea ​​route around the Cape of Good Hope to India and the 2nd Viceroy of Portuguese India .


Historians have different versions of the historical origin of the name Gama. One theory says that this name goes back to the knight Lopo Rodrigues de Olhoa, who was the companion of the Portuguese national hero and "counterpart" to the Cid , Geraldo Sem Pavor , when the city of Évora was recaptured from the Moors in 1166 by a tame doe ( Portuguese: gama ) was accompanied. From the nickname for the knight, Gama is said to have later become the family name of his descendants.

Childhood and youth

Little is known about Vasco da Gama's youth and life before his great voyage of discovery. He comes from the Portuguese nobility. His parents were Estêvão da Gama (governor of Sines and Silves) and Isabel Sodré, whose family originally came from England and had good family connections with the Order of the Knights of Christ . Both had at least five children together, some authors assume seven or eight.

His father belonged to the Order of Santiago and was Commander of Cercal and administrator (alcaide-mor) of the city of Sines , which also belonged to the Order of Santiago . His father's family came from the southern Alentejo , was originally associated with the Order of Avis and only later switched to the Order of Santiago. Estêvão da Gama belonged to the house of Prince Dom Fernando, who was also Grand Master of the (Portuguese) Order of Santiago. Estêvão da Gama later joined his son, Dom Diogo, Duke of Viseu and administrator of the Order of the Knights of Christ . He fought with both in North Africa and Castile . In 1484 Dom Diogo was accused of conspiracy against the king, his uncle John II , and murdered, and his followers were persecuted.

The first historical evidence for the life of Vasco da Gama comes from the year 1480. In that year he entered the knightly order of Santiago. This was the prerequisite for later personal income from the administration and management of the goods of the order, but did not automatically mean the later ordination as a priest. A novitiate in the knightly order of this time usually began at the age of 11 or 12, so that the year of birth of Vasco da Gama, which is not clearly documented, can be inferred: probably 1468 or 1469.

In 1492, Johann II instructed Vasco da Gama to take retaliatory measures against French merchant ships in the port of Setúbal and in ports in the Algarve in order to respond to the attacks by French pirates on Portuguese ships off the West African coast. In 1495 da Gama was appointed commander of the two commanderies of the Order of Santiago, Mouguelas and Chouparia , in recognition of services rendered .

Nomination for Vasco da Gamas

Why Vasco da Gama was chosen as commander in chief for the trip to India is still not clear. The two contemporaries and chroniclers João de Barros and Damião de Góis point out that he succeeded his father, who under John II was one of the most important advocates of the search for the sea ​​route to India around Africa. In any case, it is certain that da Gama had very good relations with King Manuel I of Portugal , who had ruled since 1495 , and was considered a man who enjoyed the king's trust. Manuel I also made it possible for Vasco da Gama to join the order of the Knights of Christ.

The possibly missing maritime knowledge of Vasco da Gama was compensated by the best pilots and helmsmen in Portugal who knew the waters to be navigated - as far as they were known to the Portuguese at all. In addition, Bartolomeu Diaz , the conqueror of the Cape of Good Hope , accompanied the small fleet to the Cape Verde Islands.

In contrast to this position, however, various authors assume that Vasco da Gama must have distinguished himself early on as a capable sailor and captain. Because although Bartolomeu Diaz was the first European to sail around the southern tip of Africa as early as the turn of the year 1487/88, King Manuel I of Portugal commissioned da Gama, not him, to explore the last remaining section of the spice route to India.

Heinrich the Seafarer had already started this search 80 years earlier . The aim of the expedition was to eliminate the Arab , Persian , Turkish and Venetian middlemen, which made spices such as pepper extremely expensive in Europe .

The discovery of the southern sea route to India

The route of the first da Gamas journey to India (black) and the journeys of Pêro da Covilhã (green and orange) and Afonso de Paiva (green and blue)

Vasco da Gama left the Restelo port in Lisbon on July 8, 1497 with his flagship, the Nao São Gabriel (120 tons) and the Nao São Rafael under the command of his brother Paulo da Gama , the Nao Bérrio (in some sources also Santa Fé ) (100 tons) under Nicolao Coelho as captain and a transport ship under the command of Gonçalo Nunes. A total of between 150 and 170 men took part in the voyage. The fleet included the best pilots (helmsmen and navigators) in Portugal, who were largely familiar with the current and wind conditions, especially in the South Atlantic. For the flagship it was Pêro de Alenquer , on the São Rafael João de Coimbra drove as a pilot and on the Bérrio this office was carried out by the experienced Pêro Escobar . The sailing master of the small fleet sailed the São Gabriel Gonçalo Álvares , who had already taken part in Diogo Cão's second voyage .

Vasco da Gama sailed through the Atlantic on a far westward stretching course and clearly detached himself from the coast in order to take advantage of better wind conditions. On November 4, the small fleet reached Saint Helena Bay on the west coast of South Africa. Then he circled the Cape of Good Hope in a wide arc and landed on November 25th in the Mosselbaai . Following the East African coast, he reached Mombasa on April 7, 1498 , where Arab merchants tried to prevent him from continuing. Vasco da Gama sailed on to the East African city of Malindi , a commercial competitor of Mombasa. Their sultan provided him with a navigator for the crossing to India.

On May 20, 1498, Vasco da Gama landed near Calicut on the Malabar coast. For the first time a European ship had reached India by sea around Africa. The negotiations with the Zamorin of Calicut did not go as hoped, but Vasco da Gama was able to return home on October 8th, fully laden with precious spices. The first ship of his fleet under Nicolao Coelho reached home on July 10, 1499. Vasco da Gama himself, who had stayed in the Azores for a few weeks because of his fatally ill brother, arrived back in Lisbon on September 9, where he arrived was given a triumphant reception.

At Christmas 1499 the royal family gave Vasco da Gama the rule over the city of Sines, which his father had already exercised. This began a long-lasting conflict between the king and da Gama on the one hand and the superiors of the Santiago Knights and the local authorities of the noble de Noronha family, who were influential in the Santiago Order, on the other hand, who did not recognize this award as an interference in the rights of the order.

Further honors by the king followed. So da Gama was allowed to use the title Dom , which was also granted to his brothers and descendants. In 1502 he was then awarded the title of Almirante do Mar das Índias (" Admiral of the Indian Sea"). This was certainly also in response to the appointment of Christopher Columbus as Admiral of the Ocean by the Spanish royal couple a few years earlier.

The logbook of his first trip to India, which is now kept in the Biblioteca Pública Municipal do Porto , was declared World Document Heritage in 2013 .

The second trip to India

The second Portuguese expedition to India was led by Pedro Álvares Cabral , who discovered Brazil on this occasion in 1500 . In 1501 João da Nova commanded the third voyage with four naus.

The fourth voyage in 1502 was again under the command of Vasco da Gamas after he protested to his childhood friend, King Manuel I , against a renewed appointment of Pedro Álvares Cabral as commander in chief of the fleet. This time he left with 21 heavily armed ships. The first squadron (9 Naos) he led himself, the second commanded his uncle Vicente Sodré and the third squadron was under the command of his cousin Estêvão da Gama. Due to his good relations with the royal family, other relatives also took part in the trip. B. Another uncle, Brás Sodré, and his brother-in-law Lopo Mendes de Vasconcelos. Vasco da Gama set up bases in East Africa on the outward journey, including in Sofala .

The Malabar coast of India around 1500. Purple: the way of the fleet.

The appearance of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and their attack on the monopoly of Arab and Indian traders in India trade quickly led to a latent state of war. For example, in 1502, immediately after his arrival in Indian waters off Calicut, Vasco da Gama had to face battle with 15 of his own ships from a fleet of more than 100 Indian and Arab, mostly smaller ships that the Portuguese squadron wanted to intercept. Avoiding the boarding battle, the Portuguese were able to almost completely destroy the enemy fleet with their effective gunfire.

Negotiations, the exploitation of rivalries among the Indian princes and the ruthless use of force succeeded in breaking the first resistance of the Indian princes, which was promoted by the Arab traders against the new competition from Europe. Vasco da Gama consolidated Portugal's position on the Indian Malabar coast by further expanding and strengthening the Portuguese factories in Cannanore and Cochin . In 1503 the Portuguese built Fort Emmanuel in Cochin, the first European fortress on the Indian subcontinent.

With partly enforced trade agreements, privileges vis-à-vis allied Indian princes and a permanent fleet presence, Vasco da Gama Portugal quickly began to secure the monopoly in the European spice trade and laid the foundation for the Portuguese colonial empire in Asia. Within a few years, Portugal achieved a hegemonic position as a sea power in the western part of the Indian Ocean. The merciless sinking of an Arab pilgrim ship by Vasco da Gama has also come down to us from this time.

Vasco da Gama left India again and returned to Portugal in September 1503.

Honorable aristocratic life

After his successful return, Vasco da Gama received an annual pension of 400,000 reais from King Manuel and became a member of his court.

In 1507 he lost the dispute with the Order of Santiago. On March 21, 1507, the king ordered him and his family to cease all activities in Sines and to leave the city. He was only allowed to enter the area with the permission of the order superior. Then Vasco da Gama settled in Évora . He resigned all offices of the Santiago Knights , resigned the two commanderies of the Order of Santiago, Mouguelas and Chouparia , and with the support of the king joined the Order of the Knights of Christ a short time later.

The king's favor remained with him. As early as 1508, Manuel supported Vasco da Gama in his purchase of the governorship of Vila Franca de Xira . In 1511 the king decreed that da Gama could continue to draw his income from the estates of Santiago do Cacém , Vila Nova de Milfontes and Sines . In 1513 he was exempted from all fees and taxes on merchandise from India. Two years later he received the Fiefdom of Nisa , where he lived until 1519. His close relationship with the royal family is evidenced by his invitation to the wedding of King Manuel with Dona Leonor ( Eleanor of Austria ) in 1519.

But in 1518 Vasco da Gama also applied to the king to be allowed to leave Portugal with his family, which was interpreted by many of his contemporaries as a transfer to the side of Castile . In the same letter, Vasco da Gama asked the king to award the title of conde (count) and the associated income because of his services . The king refused to allow the family to leave the country immediately, but offered one at the end of the year.

At the same time, however, the conditions were created so that Vasco da Gama could rise to the high nobility. It was negotiated with the fourth Duque (Duke) D. Jaime (Jacob) de Bragança to exchange the annual pension of 400,000 reais for the dominions of Vila da Vidigueira and Vila de Frades as well as all income, rights and privileges associated with these properties. At the end of 1519 the king confirmed this transaction and gave Vasco da Gama the title of Conde de Vidigueira (Count of Vidigueira).

Third journey and death

King Manuel died in December 1521. His son and successor Johann III. (João III.) Intended to take action against the spreading mismanagement and corruption in the Estado da Índia under the then governor Duarte de Menezes . The court decided to use Vasco da Gama’s rich diplomatic and military experience as well as his name, which is particularly well-known in Portuguese India, for this task in order to restore authority in Goa.

The Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai and other ships

On April 5, 1524, Vasco da Gama, appointed Viceroy of India , left Lisbon on his flagship, the large carrack Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai , accompanied by his two sons Estêvão and Paulo , heading for India. He had been given special powers for this trip; his son Estêvão was appointed Capitão-mor do Mar da Índia (Captain of the Indian Ocean and the Indian Fleet). After his arrival, da Gama began a series of measures to reorganize the civil administration and the military structure. So (almost) all commanders of the Portuguese fortifications in Asia were exchanged and regular payment of the soldiers was enforced.

Vasco da Gama's grave in the Franciscan Church in Kochi
Honorary grave in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

But the viceroy da Gama was sick. He died of an "neck infection" just three months after arriving on Christmas Eve in Kochi, southwest India. First he was buried in Kochi in the Convento Santo António in the vestments of the Christ Knights. In 1538 his son Pedro da Silva da Gama had the bones transferred to the chapel of the monastery of Nossa Senhora das Relíquias in his native Vidigueira .

After the dissolution of all orders and monasteries in Portugal in 1834, the graves of the da Gama family in Vidigueira were no longer tended and they were neglected. It was not until 1880 that the Portuguese state intervened and had the remains of Vasco da Gamas buried in a grave of honor in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jeronimos Monastery) in the Lisbon suburb of Belém . His grave is now only a few meters from the tombs of Kings Manuel I and Johann III. removed, whom he served as explorer and viceroy. In addition, the grave of Luís de Camões is in the immediate vicinity , who in his Lusiaden processed da Gama's first journey in literature.

The Museu Naval (Maritime Museum ) in Faro exhibits models of historically significant ships, including a model of the flagship Vasco da Gamas on its first trip to India - the Nau São Gabriel .


Vasco da Gama married Catarina de Ataíde (* 1470; † 1st half of the 16th century), a daughter of the royal governor of Alvor, Afonso de Ataíde, and his wife Maria da Silva , in 1500 or 1501 . With Catarina de Ataíde, Vasco da Gama had six sons and a daughter:

  • Francisco da Gama, main heir and successor as the second Conde of Vidigueira
  • Estêvão da Gama (around 1505–1576), among other things from 1529 to before 1534 royal governor ( capitão mor ) of Elmina , 1534–1538 royal governor ( capitão mor ) of Malacca , 1540–1542 eleventh governor of the Estado da Índia with seat in Goa
  • Paulo da Gama, including 1533–1534 royal governor ( capitão mor ) of Malacca
  • Cristóvão da Gama (around 1516–1542), took part in an expedition to Ethiopia on the orders of his brother Estêvão and was killed in the process
  • Pedro da Silva da Gama, among other things from 1548–1552 royal governor ( capitão mor ) of Malacca
  • Álvaro de Ataíde da Gama, including 1552–1554 royal governor ( capitão mor ) of Malacca
  • Isabel de Ataíde da Gama

Contemporary reports

A report by a participant of the first trip to India is preserved in a copy made at the beginning of the 16th century, traditionally the so-called Diário da viagem de Vasco da Gama is ascribed to a sailor named Álvaro Velho. Furthermore, the anthology Paesi novamente retrovati (Vicenza, 1507) published by Fracanzano da Montalboddo contains a letter from the Florentine merchant Girolamo Sernigi from 1499, in which he reports on the first trip to India. The anthology also contains a letter from some merchants from Spain or Portugal, in which events from da Gama's second trip to India and the Albuquerques trip to India are described. The travel description of his second journey was published in German in 1505/1506 under the title The right way to travel from Liszbona to Kallakuth , printed by Georg Stuchs in Nuremberg.


Vasco da Gama, Hamburger Kornhausbrücke
Postage stamp from 1898 from Portuguese Timor commemorating the voyage of Vasco da Gama



Vasco da Gama as namesake


The composer Saverio Mercadante dealt with Vasco da Gama in his now-forgotten opera Il Vascello de Gama (1845). Giacomo Meyerbeer created a musical memorial to Vasco da Gama in the opera Die Afrikanerin, which premiered in 1865, on a libretto by Eugène Scribe .

The South African musician Hugh Masekela recorded the song Vasco da Gama (The sailor Man) , but with the line of text "Vasco da Gama was no friend of mine". He later re-recorded the song, more appropriately titled Colonial Man .

See also


  • Norbert Ankenbauer: "That I wanted to experience meer newer dyng". The language of the new in the Paesi novamente retrovati (Vicenza, 1507) and in its German translation (Nuremberg, 1508). Frank & Timme, Berlin 2010.
  • Maria de Deus Beites Manso: O Gama e os Gamas na História do Alentejo , in: CNPCDP (Ed.): Da Ocidental Praia Lusitana, Vasco da Gama eo seu Tempo . Lisbon 1998. pp. 66-81, ISBN 972-8325-62-2 . (Portuguese)
  • Oswald Dreyer-Eimbcke : Vasco da Gama's sea voyage to India 500 years ago: Historical significance and cartographic aspects. In: Cartographica Helvetica Heft 18 (1998) pp. 41–49, full text .
  • Luís Adão da Fonseca: Vasco da Gama. O Homem, a Viagem, a Epoca. Expo 98, Lisbon 1998, ISBN 972-8396-99-6 . (Portuguese)
  • Dirk Friedrich (ed.): Vasco da Gama's first trip to India 1497–1499. An eyewitness report. Minifanal, Bonn 2014, ISBN 978-3-95421-049-7 .
  • Gernot Giertz (Ed.): Vasco da Gama. The discovery of the sea route to India. An eyewitness account from 1497–1499 . Thienemann, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-522-61070-9 .
  • Fernand Salentiny: The Spice Route. The discovery of the sea route to Asia; Portugal's rise to become the first European sea and trading power . DuMont, Cologne 1991, ISBN 3-7701-2743-9 .
  • Dierk Suhr: Small story of the great explorers . Thorbecke, Ostfildern 2006, ISBN 978-3-7995-0171-2 .
  • Sanjay Subrahmanyam: The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama , New Delhi a. a., 1997.

Web links

Commons : Vasco da Gama  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama to India, 1497-1499. UNESCO / Memory of the World - Register, 2013, accessed July 30, 2013 .
  2. ^ Franz Hümmerich: Vasco da Gama and the discovery of the sea route to the East Indies, Olms, p. 77.
  3. See Ankenbauer (2010), p. 122.
  4. See Ankenbauer (2010), pp. 87–91.
  5. See Ankenbauer (2010), pp. 116–118.
  6. Lotte Burkhardt: Directory of eponymous plant names - Extended Edition. Part I and II. Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin , Freie Universität Berlin , Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-946292-26-5 doi: 10.3372 / epolist2018 .