Tracking down one of Portugal’s best known heroes
Every single nation has its own set of historical personalities that people look upon. Men and women that over the course of history made significant contributions and helped shape the World with their deeds and charisma.
With its rich nautical and military history, it’s no wonder Portugal has a huge portfolio of famous characters. Everything started with the conquest of Ceuta (Northern Africa) in 1415 when the kingdom of Portugal decided that being a small country on the tip of Europe wasn’t enough for its ambitions. From then on, a rabble of sailors, adventurers and explorers set to sail and conquer the World. Perhaps the two most famous characters of this period are Fernão Magalhães (known as Ferdinand Magellan) and Vasco da Gama. While the first is probably best known, it was the latter that actually made a bigger impact on the World as he was the first European to connect Europe with Asia by sea, thus initiating a new era of European colonialism.
Vasco da Gama – Painting from 1850
The urge to get to India was something on the mind of Portuguese leaders for some time. The reason for this was simple: spice trade was big and valuable but was mostly done via the Persian Gulf with Arabs and Ottoman Turks collecting most of the profits. As such, some years before Vasco da Gama, Portugal sent two spies to gather information on the spice trade. At the same time, another famous navigator named Bartolomeu Dias managed to round the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, thus proving the existence of land and connecting the Indian and Atlantic Ocean.
The road was cleared for Vasco da Gama and his explorations. Son of a minor nobility family, he was the man that Portuguese King John II and later Manuel I needed for their ventures. On 8 July 1497, he departed from Lisbon with a fleet of four ships and close to 170 men. Almost a year later on May 1498, and after a series of adventures on the Eastern African coast (then unknown to Europeans), he reached the Indian Shore in Calicut. His presence there wasn’t heartily felt by the ruling King and his vassals. Suspecting of more aggressive intentions, they turned him around but not before demanding him to pay customs tax for this commercial trades there. The expedition’s objective failed.
Vasco da Gama route – source: Encyclopaedia Britannica
His return journey was far harsher on the crew as it took a significantly larger amount of time. When the fleet reached the Portuguese coast on August 29 of the year 1499 (two year after his departure), two of the initial 4 ships were lost and half of the crew members died due to starvations and diseases, scurvy in particular. The expedition’s main goal of setting a Portuguese commercial outpost in India, with a trade treaty in place failed miserably. However, his journey managed to produce crucial information on navigation in the Indian Ocean and proved that it was possible to establish a commercial connection between Portugal and India thus opening a new era for commercial exploration by the Portuguese India Armadas.
Vasco da Gama arrives in Calecut, India and meets the Samudiri (King)
Of course, like most people, he’s not immune to criticism. The truth is that while his accomplishment is outstanding, he was also known for this stubbornness and impish personality. A fine example of his aggressive trait took place during his second voyage to India. He looted and burned down a ship with Muslim pilgrims, and shortly after mangled a supposed spy by cutting off his ears and sewing a pair of dog’s ears in replacement.
Destiny or not, he died with malaria in 1524 during his third voyage to India. He left a strong legacy and was responsible for Portugal’s success as an early colonizing power…. Ok, you enjoyed this story but mimicking da Gama’s journey is out of the question (understandably). So where can you “find” traces of Vasco da Gama in Portugal? Luckily, since this is mostly a travel blog about Portugal, so we know a few spots that you can visit and get immersed in his story:
Located in Lisbon in Belém district, there’s a statue of Vasco da Gama in the garden that holds his name as well. This district’s attractions are mostly dedicated to the age of discoveries: Jerónimos Monastery, Belém Tower, Discoveries monument among others…So is there a better place to see him than in Belém, also the place where most ships departed to India?
Vasco da Gama – Statue in Belém
While he died in India, his remains where eventually brought to Portugal and are currently buried in the Jerónimos Monastery, not far from those of celebrated poet Luís de Camões and the kings he served: Manuel I and John III.
Another proof of his importance for Portugal’s history is his presence in multiple literary works. The most famous is, of course, the epic poem “Os Lusiadas” by Luis de Camões. First published in 1572, Vasco da Gama is a central figure throughout the book and helped transform it into one the most important works of Portuguese literature.
WHERE HE PREPARED HIS VOYAGE
The village of Montemor is best known for its countryside aura and Alentejano spirit. That being said, it was also an important town during the middle ages, its castle proving it. It was also in this small town, that Vasco da Gama finalized his plans for his voyage to India, more precisely in the town castle.
HIS BIRTHPLACE: SINES (ALENTEJO)
Ironically, nowadays his birthplace is one of Portugal’s busiest harbors. There isn’t much to see there besides the castle and of course the statue that celebrates Vasco da Gama. Despite this, the coast south of Sines (known as Vicentine coast) is beautiful and probably one of the best places in Portugal to go to the beach.
Authentic experiences for authentic travelers.