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Da Gama reaches Calicut, India

This Day in World History

May 20, 1498

Da Gama reaches Calicut, India


On May 20, 1498, sailing for the Portuguese crown, Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, India. Having successfully sailed around the southern tip of Africa, da Gama had pioneered a sea route from Europe to Asia that bypassed the Muslim nations that controlled the overland spice trade.

In his late thirties at the time of his voyage, da Gama was the son of a minor Portuguese nobleman. Why he was chosen by Portugal’s King Manuel to lead the expedition to India is unknown; his only achievement to date had been carrying out a mission for Manuel’s predecessor a few years earlier. Nevertheless, he was named to head the historic voyage.

Vasco da Gama's ship with gods above by Ernesto Casanova (ca. 1880). Source: Library of Congress.

At the head of four ships (one a floating warehouse) and 170 men, da Gama began his journey on July 8, 1497. He carried with him priests to see to the crews’ souls, interpreters to help communicate with Bantu and Arabic speakers, and a store of gifts the king intended for him to use to attract Indian rulers to trade.

The voyage posed many challenges. The trip across the southern Atlantic left the ships a worrying three months without sight of land, and the expedition met hostile natives in southern Africa — who gave da Gama an arrow wound — and Muslims in eastern Africa. The long voyage also took a serious toll of the crew; around two-thirds died during the voyage, most of disease.

Once he reached Calicut, da Gama’s reception was not very warm. The goods Manuel had sent as gifts were of poor value, infuriating Calicut’s ruler. Still, da Gama was able to leave India with some spices. After a long and harrowing return trip — which included the death of his brother — da Gama reached Portugal in September of 1499, more than two years after having set out.

He was greeted as a hero and richly rewarded by the king. With his voyage, the Portuguese overseas empire was born.

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