Written by Alex Robinson
Columbus is remembered for beginning the age of discoveries which heralded the birth of the Renaissance. But in contemporaneous Europe his voyage was of considerably less significance than the voyage made by a sailor from Sines five years later. In 1497 Vasco da Gama achieved what Columbus had failed to achieve – the establishment of a maritime passage to the Indian Ocean. In doing so he opened up the world’s most coveted trade route, wresting control of the spice trade from Muslim hands. This would mark a shift in the balance of power away from the Arabian and Ottoman Muslims, who had dominated the Silk Road and Red Sea spice routes, and establish Europe as the new global superpower, with tiny Portugal at its helm, ahead of its rival, Venice.
Anchored boats sit protected by a harbour in Alentejo © Sergio Stakhnyk, Shutterstock
Da Gama’s voyage was an astonishing and perilous achievement. Of the 170 crew members who sailed with him on his two-year quest, only 54 survived the 38,000km journey. But he was heralded as a hero by King Manuel when he returned in 1499. And the monarch wasted no time in seizing the opportunity da Gama had created, dispatching another explorer, Pedro Álvares Cabral, to secure the trade route, carrying the finest European goods. Cabral founded the first European trading connection with the Zamorin of Calicut (modern Kozhikode) on India’s Keralan coast and the first trading port at Cochin (modern Kochi). This outraged the Muslim traders, who attacked and murdered 50 of his men. In retaliation, Cabral set fire to their ships, killing some 600. On his journeys, while drifting too far west to avoid the Atlantic doldrums, he discovered Brazil.
In 1502 da Gama set out on his second expedition, this time with a large military fleet of 20 vessels armed with the latest technology, including those firearms that the Portuguese had used to dispel the Moors from the Alentejo. Da Gama literally bombarded his way into Asian ports, destroying Muslim forts and ships and forcing rulers in India to switch their trade to Portugal. In 1511 his compatriot Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca – the strategic centre of the spice routes – for Portugal. Luxury goods like black pepper, cloves, tea, sandalwood, ebony and silk flowed into Europe through Portuguese ports, and through their eastern ports the Portuguese forced the Ottomans and Arabs out of Asia, completely capturing the spice routes for tiny Portugal.
On his return to Portugal from his second trip he retired in Évora, disgruntled at not having received the promised recompense for his voyages from King Manuel. In 1524, at the age of 64, he was dispatched to Goa to serve as the first viceroy of the Indies and to combat the corruption that had overtaken the nascent colony. This time he didn’t return, dying in Cochin in December of that year.
Discover more about Portugal’s history by reading our guide to Alentejo: