“Let Fame with wonder name the Greek no more" - Vasco da Gama rounding the Cape of Good Hope

16 December 1497, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and became the first European to sail the Indian Ocean.
“Let Fame with wonder name the Greek no more, What lands he saw, what toils at sea he bore; No more the Trojan's wandering voyage boast, What storms he brav'd on many a per'lous coast: No more let Rome exult in Trajan's name, Nor Eastern conquests Ammon's pride proclaim; A nobler hero's deeds demand my lays Than e'er adorn'd the song of ancient days; Illustrious GAMA, whom the waves obey'd, And whose dread sword the fate of empire sway'd.“ (Luís Vaz de Camões, “Os Lusíadas”)

John Henry Amshewitz: "Vasco da Gama leaving the port of Lisbon" (1936)

The fact that Herodotus knew that the sun appears to the right when travelling westward in the southern hemisphere might lend some truth to the story he hands down about an expedition the pharaoh equipped around 600 BCE. Allegedly, Necho II hired the Phoenicians, back then the best sailors in the world, to sail around Africa to explore and build new trade routes. And they sailed on a westerly course from the Red Sea, around the Horn of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, up north again and back into the Mediterranean until they arrived, after three years, at the mouth of the Nile. The tale was met with general disbelief throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was usually believed that Africa was, more or less, an appendix of Asia and the reports of Arab traders, who sailed for centuries on the trade routes of the Indian Ocean were, as a general rule, ignored. And then, around 1300, a few harsh economical and political realities brought the Europeans to a point to set sail and explore the lay of the land for themselves.

Phoenician voyages to West Africa*

It all began when the Crusader states in the Near East fell and the Ottoman Turks began to roll up Asia Minor, ganging up on Constantinople and, for the first time since the Arab conquest more than 700 years before, Muslim forces threatened Europe itself. Probably far worse than the ideological conflict between Orient and Occident was the fact that a decidedly hostile power controlled the last leagues of the Silk Road and all the other trade channels with the Far East. A sea route to India and China seemed the only feasible solution to meet the latter challenge. And during the 1430s, with Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal gathered map- and instrument makers as well as ship builders in his seafarers’ academy, the escola náutica, at Sagres on the Algarve near Cape St Vincent. The first new ships, the caravels, able to defy the heavy seas of the broad Atlantic and tack against the wind, were developed and launched there on Henry’s instigation and sailed beyond Cape Bojador and towards the west of Africa. The caravels reached the Gulf of Guinea in 1435, sailed on the rivers Senegal and Gambia by 1445, and discovered the Cape Verdes in the Central Atlantic in 1455 and even a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean seemed possible. The Age of Exploration and Portugal’s rise as a major colonial and naval power had begun in earnest. 30 years after the death of Henry the Navigator, Bartolomeu Dias sailed his carrack São Cristóvão to the southern tip of Africa and aptly named the place Cabo das Tormentas, Cape of Storms. But there was, quite obviously, a sea route to India right to the east of the cape. And when the explorer returned to Lisbon, after his scurvy-ridden crew refused to sail any further, his principal King John II of Portugal renamed Dias’ discovery “Cape of Good Hope“. 

Vasco da Gama’s ships at sea**

John II’s successor Manuel finally gave the order to Vasco da Gama to sail further into the Indian Ocean and the expedition left Lisbon with four ships in July 1497 and at the height of Sierra Leone, far west of the Gulf of Guinea, the little armada turned  straight to the south with the South Atlantic westerlies Dias had discovered, out of sight of land for 6,000 miles. On November 6th, da Gama made landfall on the African coast again after three months on the open seas, a masterly nautical performance no one had achieved before him. Four weeks later, the ships passed beyond the point where Dias was forced to turn back in 1488, the mouth of the Great Fish River. From here, the Portuguese sailed up northeast, named the coast on their port side Natal on Christmas Day, reached Arab-controlled Mozambique in March 1498 and Calicut in May and the first thing the local ruler, the Samoodiri or Zamorin of Calicut, asked was whether the foreigners had anything to declare. A legitimate question, since Vasco da Gama had behaved indeed like a pirate en route towards the ships of the Arab princes and merchants in the Indian Ocean. He almost ruined the possible trade relations with the Samooridi as well, but managed to cram his holds full with valuable goods and returned to Lisbon on July 10th 1499. The direct sea route to Asia was opened and Vasco da Gama had become a national hero overnight.

* The Phoenician  image above was found on http://www.egyptsearch.com/forums/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=next_topic;f=8;t=008760;go=older

** Depicted above is a rather fanciful imagination (1880) by Ernesto Casanova of Vasco da Gama’s ships at sea with the antique gods watching from above, an illustration of the Portuguese national epic “Os Lusíadas” by Luís de Camões, written in honour of the great sailor, explorer, pirate and colonialist. 

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