Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May 18, 1498 – Da Gama Expedition Ambushed

The Portuguese attempt at securing a trade route to the wealth of India failed as the expeditionary fleet under Vasco da Gama was caught in an Arab ambush. It had been the climax of a plan concocted two generations before when Prince Henry the Navigator established his navigation school. Henry, the third son of King John I, became fascinated with the luxuries of the east as well as the legend of Prester John, a powerful Christian king believed to be somewhere in India. He urged his father to conquer the port of Ceuta, where Saharan trade culminated at the Straits of Gibraltar. Garnering a key foothold into Africa, Henry built his school to train navigators and extend Portuguese control across the sea, ultimately to India itself.

The establishment of trade towns and domination of existing ports allowed Portugal to move southward along the Gold Coast of Africa. While the wealth from trade accumulated, it became the target of piracy, particularly French privateers breaking treaties of non-depredation between the two countries. A young captain, Vasco da Gama, was charged in 1492 with seizing French ships in retaliation. When he proved himself able and speedy about the captures, the task of sailing to India that had been to assigned to his father Estêvão da Gama in 1488 was given to him.

Encouragement for the expedition had come in 1487, when explorer Bartolomeu Dias crossed the Cape of Good Hope and named the Natal region, assuring that the African coast turned northward and would allow for a sea route to India. Estêvão da Gama had worked toward building up the fleet and supplies necessary for the travel, but he was too old to see it completed, dying in 1497. Vasco took up where his father left off immediately after mourning and sailed in July of 1497, just two months after the English explorer John Cabot had sailed for a Northwest Passage in the opposite direction.

With four ships and some 170 men, da Gama followed the West African coast until it turned eastward and then sailed directly south in the open sea. Using Dias’s discovery of the South Atlantic westerlies, the fleet traveled more than 6,000 miles out of sight of land, setting a record for human achievement, though a mutiny had to be put down due to scurvy. He rounded the Cape, and then his seemingly lucky expedition began to sour. In Mozambique, he pretended to be a Muslim in order to secure an audience with the sultan, but his gifts proved unimpressive, and he was chased from the city by a mob. The fleet escaped, firing cannons in retaliation as he went.

In Malindi, da Gama came into contact with Indian traders, proving the route-by-sea theory correct. He took up a pilot to make use of the monsoon winds, but the move would be his undoing. Texts are not clear on the person of the pilot, naming him Christian, Muslim, or Gujarti depending upon the source, which might be indicative of his shady background. He directed the fleet to the southwestern coast of India, still two days short of the Kappad, the beach outside of the wealthy city of Calicut. There, a fleet of Arab pirates sprang upon them, capturing two of da Gama’s ships (another had sunk that November). The surviving ship, The São Gabriel, retreated with what survivors it could pull from the water. Da Gama was listed in the log as killed in the battle, but the entry had been edited, and rumors abounded that he felt such shame at failing in his mission that he either drowned himself or went into exile in Italy.

The ragged ship returned to Portuguese lands commanded by Gonçalo Nunes, and it was proclaimed that Henry the Navigator’s dream of reaching India had ended. The Muslim stronghold on trade would be too difficult to break, and Portugal would instead focus on building up colonial empires in its holdings in Africa and Brazil. Not bothering to fight England and the Dutch over later successful colonies in India, Portugal instead built up huge claims in Morocco and South Africa as well as along major rivers, such as the Congo, Amazon, Niger, and Senegal. They exploited natural resources such as ivory, gold, diamonds, and, most significantly, slaves. Portugal held its golden age for more than a century, defeating French incursions on their colonies and defending against Spanish encroachment upon Iberian Union, all the while maintaining a healthy alliance with Britain. The golden age ended on November 1, 1755, when an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale struck its capital of Lisbon. Decades later, it would fall to its old enemy of France after the Republican Wars turned to European empire-building.

The many colonies of Portugal would take the opportunity to rebel, creating a slew of new republics and kingdoms around the world. Although politically independent, they have established a socio-economic commonwealth of Portuguese-speakers that forms one of the strongest cores of world trade to this day.


In reality, da Gama’s expedition successfully reached Calicut. His gifts of clothes, coral, and trinkets hardly wowed the ruling Zamorin and caused the Muslim traders of the city to label the Portuguese as nothing of an economic threat, hardly more than pirates. While da Gama’s request to leave a trading station with unsold goods was denied, he did return with cargo that sold at sixty times what the expedition had cost. They embarked on trade with India, but gradually they would come under the shadow of Spain as its empires in America grew.

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