Vasco da Gama Research Paper

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Vasco da Gama was among a handful of explorers who reshaped trade and labor among Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas. His three voyages between 1497 and 1524 opened an ocean route for trade between Europe and Asia; his three landings on the east coast of Africa in 1498, the first by a European, furthered the Portuguese goal of using Africans as a source of labor. His voyages led Portugal to dictate the terms of trade in the Indian Ocean and to enslave Africans for shipment to plantations first in the Mediterranean and islands off the African coast, then around the globe.

The early days of Vasco da Gama remain a mystery. He was the third son of Estevao da Gama, a nobleman from Alentejo, a town in southwestern Portugal. Some historians cite 1460 as the year of Vasco da Gama’s birth, whereas others cite 1469. A third group of historians rejects both years, and controversy continues. Da Gama may have studied mathematics and navigation at Evora, Portugal, although again the matter is in doubt. What is clear is that da Gama might have remained a minor nobleman in Portugal. Instead ambition led him to seek fortune overseas. He distinguished himself in command against a French fleet in 1492, and three years later King Manuel of Portugal chose da Gama to lead four ships to India, a Portuguese goal since the 1420s.

Economics and religion led Portugal to persist for nearly eighty years in its quest for an ocean route to India. At the western end of Europe, Portugal bristled at the price of pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices after they had changed hands several times, with an increase in price at each exchange, along the land route west from India. Worse, many of the middlemen in these exchanges were Jews and Muslims, the enemies of Christendom whom the Portuguese and Spanish had banished from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. God, country, and king, da Gama believed, had appointed him to circumvent by water this spice route controlled by infidels. After the Portuguese— devout Catholics—had the spice trade, they, rather than nonbelievers, would dictate the price of spices.

But the Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus complicated matters. In 1492 Spain had tried to beat Portugal to India by sending Columbus west across the Atlantic rather than east around Africa. Columbus believed he had reached India and was at sea again in 1495 when da Gama began to amass supplies for his voyage east. His compatriot Bartolomeu Dias had in 1488 rounded the southern tip of Africa, opening the way to India, but no one knew the distance between the two. Nor did anyone have an accurate map of the east coast of Africa. As had Columbus, da Gama sailed into uncharted waters upon leaving Lisbon, Portugal, on 8 July 1497. After more than 7,500 kilometers and ten months, the longest ocean voyage to that date, da Gama reached Calicut, India, on 22 May 1498. Da Gama led two more expeditions to India—one in 1502 and his final voyage in 1524. That September he reached Cochin, India, as viceroy of India. He died on 24 December 1524, and only in 1538 was his body returned to Portugal for burial.

By then Portugal had established ports in Asia from Diu on the western tip of India to Malacca near the southern tip of Malaysia, giving the Portuguese control of the Indian Ocean. This control enabled Portugal to capture half the spice trade between Europe and Asia. Merchants who once sailed the Indian Ocean at will now had to hire Portuguese ships for transit or pay a 6 to 10 percent duty to sail their own ships through the ocean.

The wealth from the trade that da Gama’s voyages had made possible returned to Portugal both as money to establish sugar plantations in Portugal and on islands that Portugal controlled off the African coast and as slaves to work these plantations. Between 1450 and 1500 Portugal enslaved 150,000 Africans as plantation workers. By 1800 Portuguese, Dutch, and English traders shipped more than 20 million African slaves around the globe, many of them to the Americas. In the United States racism and poverty remain the consequences of slavery and the legacy of Vasco da Gama.


  1. Cuyvers, L. (1999). Into the rising sun: Vasco da Gama and the search for the sea route to the East. New York: TV Books.
  2. Kratoville, B. L. (2001). Vasco da Gama. Novato, CA: High Noon Press.
  3. Stefoff, R. (1993). Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese explorers. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.
  4. Subrahmanyam, S. (1997). The career and legend of Vasco da Gama. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Watkins, R. (2003). Unknown seas: How Vasco da Gama opened the East. London: John Murray.

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