Da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal, around 1460. His father was Estêvão da Gama, commander of the local fort. In 1492, Vasco da Gama was sent by King John II to the south of the country to take revenge against the French, who had been seizing Portuguese ships. Meanwhile, Estêvão da Gama was chosen by the king to lead a Portuguese fleet to India in search of lucrative trade routes. However, both the king and Estêvão da Gama died, and the mission was handed to Vasco de Gama by the new King Manuel.
In 1497, da Gama sailed from Lisbon with four ships; he rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and, with the aid of a pilot found on the east coast of Africa, sailed to the west coast of India, stopping at various ports, before reaching Calicut (now Kozhikode) on the Malabar coast. Unable to establish a colony because of opposition from the local Muslims, da Gama returned to Portugal, with a cargo of very profitable spices and the certain knowledge of a potential trade route. The mission was, thus, celebrated as a great success. Around 1500, he married Catarina de Ataíde who bore him six sons.
Vasco da Gama, by this time ranked as an admiral, undertook a second journey, in 1502, to try and secure the trading colony established in the interim by Pedro Carbal, but which had been wiped out in a massacre. He successfully laid siege to Calicut, and concluded favourable peace treaties with the native rulers. However, on his return, he felt inadequately rewarded, and became embroiled in an ongoing dispute concerning his ownership of the town of Sines (given him by the king in 1499, but still claimed by the Military Order of Santiago).
For some years after, da Gama lived a relatively quiet life. In 1519, he was appointed Count of Vidigueira; and, in 1524, after Manuel’s death, King John III appointed him as Portuguese Viceroy in India. He set sail for a third time, to try and restore administrative order to the Portuguese holdings. However, he fell ill at Cochin and died on 23 December 1524. Further information is available from Wikipedia, or from various out-of-copyright biographies available at Internet Archive, such as Vasco da Gama and his successors 1460-1580 by K. G. Jayne.
A diary account of da Gama’s first voyage - named Roteiro - survived over 300 years, and was first published in 1838. This was edited by Diogo Kopke and Dr. Antonio da Costa Paiva, both teachers at the Academia Polytechnica of Oporto, and funded by subscription. Only 392 copies were printed then, but a second edition appeared in Lisbon in 1861. A few years later, in 1869, the Hakluyt Society published Lord Stanley of Alderley’s translation of the Three Voyages of Vasco da Gama, and intended to bring out an English translation of the Roteiro, but this latter was left in abeyance for another three decades, until the Society published, in 1898, A journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama in 1497-99 as translated and edited by E. G. Ravenstein. The book is freely available online at Internet Archive or Googlebooks.
Ravenstein notes, in his introduction, that the extant manuscript is not the original, but only a copy, and that the author of the original remains unknown. He explains: ‘The manuscript originally belonged to the famous Convent of Santa Cruz at Coimbra, whence it was transferred, together with other precious manuscripts, to the public library of Oporto. [. . .] This copy, however, was taken in the beginning of the sixteenth century, as may be seen from the style of the writing. [. . .] It is quite possible, as suggested by Prof. Kopke, that the title by which the Roteiro was known at the convent of Santa Cruz misled certain bibliographers into a belief that Vasco da Gama himself had written this account of his voyage. [. . .] No one has yet succeeded in discovering the author of the Roteiro.’ Ravenstein adds that his translation is ‘literal and complete’. Here are a few extracts.
8 April 1497
‘On Palm Sunday the King of Mombaça sent the captain-major a sheep and large quantities of oranges, lemons and sugar-cane, together with a ring, as a pledge of safety, letting him know that in case of his entering the port he would be supplied with all he stood in need of. This present was conveyed to us by two men, almost white, who said they were Christians, which appeared to be the fact. The captain-major sent the king a string of coral-beads as a return present, and let him know that he purposed entering the port on the following day. On the same day the captain-major’s vessel was visited by four Moors of distinction.
Two men were sent by the captain-major to the king, still further to confirm these peaceful assurances. When these landed they were followed by a crowd as far as the gates of the palace. Before reaching the king they passed through four doors, each guarded by a doorkeeper with a drawn cutlass. The king received them hospitably, and ordered that they should be shown over the city. They stopped on their way at the house of two Christian merchants, who showed them a paper (carta), an object of their adoration, on which was a sketch of the Holy Ghost. When they had seen all, the king sent them back with samples of cloves, pepper and corn, with which articles he would allow us to load our ships.’
10 April 1497
‘On Tuesday, when weighing anchor to enter the port, the captain-major’s vessel would not pay off, and struck the vessel which followed astern. We therefore again cast anchor. When the Moors who were in our ship saw that we did not go on, they scrambled into a zavra attached to our stern; whilst the two pilots whom we had brought from Moçambique jumped into the water, and were picked up by the men in the zavra. At night the captain-major “questioned” two Moors whom we had on board, by dropping boiling oil upon their skin, so that they might confess any treachery intended against us. They said that orders had been given to capture us as soon as we entered the port, and thus to avenge what we had done at Moçambique. And when this torture was being applied a second time, one of the Moors, although his hands were tied, threw himself into the sea, whilst the other did so during the morning watch.
About midnight two almadias, with many men in them, approached. The almadias stood off whilst the men entered the water, some swimming in the direction of the Berrio others in that of the Raphael. Those who swam to the Berrio began to cut the cable. The men on watch thought at first that they were tunny fish, but when they perceived their mistake they shouted to the other vessels. The other swimmers had already got hold of the rigging of the mizzen-mast. Seeing themselves discovered, they silently slipped down and fled. These and other wicked tricks were practised upon us by these dogs, but our Lord did not allow them to succeed, because they were unbelievers.
Mombaça is a large city seated upon an eminence washed by the sea. Its port is entered daily by numerous vessels. At its entrance stands a pillar, and by the sea a low-lying fortress.Those who had gone on shore told us that in the town they had seen many men in irons; and it seemed to us that these must be Christians, as the Christians in that country are at war with the Moors.
The Christian merchants in the town are only temporary residents, and are held in much subjection, they not being allowed to do anything except by the order of the Moorish King.
It pleased God in his mercy that on arriving at this city all our sick recovered their health, for the climate (“air”) of this place is very good.
After the malice and treachery planned by these dogs had been discovered, we still remained on Wednesday and Thursday.’
17 April 1497
‘We approached nearer to the town [Malindi]. The king sent the captain-major six sheep, besides quantities of cloves, cumin, ginger, nutmeg and pepper, as also a message, telling him that if he desired to have an interview with him he (the king) would come out in his zavra when the captain-major could meet him in a boat.’
18 April 1497
‘On Wednesday, after dinner, when the king came up close to the ships in a zavra, the captain-major at once entered one of his boats, which had been well furnished, and many friendly words were exchanged when they lay side by side. The king having invited the captain-major to come to his house to rest, after which he (the king) would visit him on board his ship, the captain-major said that he was not permitted by his master to go on land, and if he were to do so a bad report would be given of him. The king wanted to know what would be said of himself by his people if he were to visit the ships, and what account could he render them? He then asked for the name of our king, which was written down for him, and said that on our return he would send an ambassador with us, or a letter.
When both had said all they desired, the captain-major sent for the Moors whom he had taken prisoner, and surrendered them all. This gave much satisfaction to the king, who said that he valued this act more highly than if he had been presented with a town. And the king, much pleased, made the circuit of our ships, the bombards of which fired a salute. About three hours were spent in this way. When the king went away he left in the ship one of his sons and a sharif, and took two of us away with him, to whom he desired to show his palace. He, moreover, told the captain that as he would not go ashore he would himself return on the following day to the beach, and would order his horsemen to go through some exercises.
The king wore a robe (royal cloak) of damask trimmed with green satin, and a rich touca. He was seated on two cushioned chairs of bronze, beneath a round sunshade of crimson satin attached to a pole. An old man, who attended him as page, carried a short sword in a silver sheath. There were many players on anafils, and two trumpets of ivory, richly carved, and of the size of a man, which were blown from a hole in the side, and made sweet harmony with the anafils.’
19 April 1497
‘On Thursday the captain-major and Nicolau Coelho rowed along the front of the town, bombards having been placed in the poops of their long-boats. Many people were along the shore, and among them two horsemen, who appeared to take much delight in a sham-fight. The king was carried in a palanquin from the stone steps of his palace to the side of the captain-major’s boats. He again begged the captain to come ashore, as he had a helpless father who wanted to see him, and that he and his sons would go on board the ships as hostages. The captain, however, excused himself.’
The Diary Junction