Four ships and 170 men caught a gentle Portuguese breeze, floating majestically out of the Lisbon harbor in search of a new route to India. The Sao Gabriel, under the command of Vasco da Gama, led the envoy out into the Atlantic Ocean on July 8th, 1497. Only two of the boats and less than half the crew would return from the voyage east.
For much of the early part of the journey, da Gama and his men sailed along known routes hugging the western coast of Africa. As the expedition crossed the equator, he directed the crew on a southerly course which had been discovered just ten years before by Bartolomeu Dias. Approximately four months after leaving home in Portugal, the team had covered more than 6,000 miles without being able to see land, the farthest journey of its kind in history up to that point.
Six weeks later, the ships rounded the mouth of the Great Fish River on Eastern Cape, South Africa. With each mile they covered from this point on, da Gama and his men would now be making European history. Having gone further than anyone before them, the Portuguese sailors were strangers in a strange land – much of it occupied by Arab merchants and hostile tribes. After being repelled by locals in Mozambique and Mombasa, da Gama found a hospitable port in Malindi, Kenya.
The fortunes of the European expedition had taken a decidedly positive turn. Noticing a fair amount of Indian goods in the markets, da Gama and his officers went in search of a man with knowledge of the sea between Malindi and the southwestern town of Calicut, India. Leaving the African coast in February 1498, the Portuguese fleet made landfall in Kapadu on May 20th. The local ruler soon returned early from Ponnani, eager to see what lay in the capital.
Greeted in the traditional manner, with a large parade and customary Indian hospitality, da Gama found it difficult to impress Zamorin, the king. (The gifts arriving from Europe did not include any gold or silver, much to the Indians’ surprise.) Unable to sell a portion of his merchandise and frustrated with the king, the Portuguese explorer left in a huff in late August 1498.
Without knowledge of the seasonal winds on the Indian Ocean, da Gama and crew faced an extremely difficult trip home. Crossing the sea to Africa took four times as long on the way home, with the men who did survive suffering from scurvy and devastated by the loss of their fellow sailors. The rest of the journey went relatively smoothly, but for the loss of da Gama’s brother Paulo.
Late in August or early in September 1499, he arrived to a hero’s welcome. Despite being unable to secure a trading relationship, the spices da Gama returned with generated a 60-fold profit.