On this date in 1497 Dom Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira, a Portuguese explorer, set out on his first voyage to India thus becoming the first European to reach India by sea, linking Europe and Asia for the first time by ocean route, as well as the Atlantic and the Indian oceans entirely and definitively, and in this way, the West and the Orient.
Da Gama’s discovery was of major significance and opened the way for an age of global imperialism and for the Portuguese and others to establish long-lasting colonial empires in Asia (which you may consider fortunate or unfortunate). The route meant that the Portuguese would not need to cross the highly disputed Mediterranean nor the dangerous Arabian Peninsula, because the whole voyage could be made by sea. The sum of the distances covered in the outward and return voyages made this expedition the longest ocean voyage ever made until then, far longer than a full voyage around the world by way of the Equator.
One century after the discovery, European powers such as England, the Netherlands and France were finally able to challenge and break Portugal’s monopoly and naval supremacy in the Cape Route around Africa, the Indian Ocean and in the Far East, opening a new era of European imperialism in the East.
After decades of sailors trying to reach the Indies with thousands of lives and dozens of vessels lost in shipwrecks and attacks, da Gama landed in Calicut on 20 May 1498. Reaching the legendary Indian spice routes unopposed helped the Portuguese Empire improve its economy that, until da Gama’s discovery, was based mainly on trading along northern and coastal West Africa. The spices obtained were mostly pepper and cinnamon at first, but soon included other products, all new to Europe and leading to a commercial monopoly for several decades.
Da Gama’s fleet of four ships had a crew of 170 men when it set out from Lisbon. The navigators included Portugal’s most experienced, Pero de Alenquer, Pedro Escobar, João de Coimbra, and Afonso Gonçalves. It is not known for certain how many people were in each ship’s crew but approximately 55 returned, and two ships were lost. Two of the vessels were newly built for the voyage, possibly a caravel and a supply boat.
The four ships were:
The São Gabriel, commanded by Vasco da Gama; a carrack of 178 tons, length 27 m, width 8.5 m, draft 2.3 m, sails of 372 m²
The São Rafael, whose commander was his brother Paulo da Gama; similar dimensions to the São Gabriel
The caravel Berrio, slightly smaller than the former two (later renamed São Miguel), commanded by Nicolau Coelho
A storage ship of unknown name, commanded by Gonçalo Nunes, later lost near the Bay of São Brás, along the east coast of Africa.
It is astonishing to imagine the small size of these vessels for a journey of such magnitude and danger. You wouldn’t get me to set sail in one, except maybe on a calm lake in June.
The expedition set sail from Lisbon on 8 July 1497. It followed the route pioneered by earlier explorers along the coast of Africa via Tenerife and the Cape Verde Islands. After reaching the coast of present day Sierra Leone, da Gama took a course south into the open ocean, crossing the Equator and seeking the South Atlantic westerlies that Bartolomeu Dias had discovered in 1487. This course proved successful and on 4 November 1497, the expedition made landfall on the African coast. For over three months the ships had sailed more than 10,000 kilometres (6,000 mi) of open ocean, by far the longest journey out of sight of land made by that time by Europeans.
By 16 December, the fleet had passed the Great Fish River (Eastern Cape, South Africa) – where Dias had turned back – and sailed into waters previously unknown to Europeans. With Christmas pending, da Gama and his crew gave the coast they were passing the name Natal, which carried the connotation of “birth of Christ” in Portuguese.
Vasco da Gama spent 2 to 29 March 1498 in the vicinity of Mozambique Island. Arab-controlled territory on the East African coast was an integral part of the network of trade in the Indian Ocean. Fearing the local population would be hostile to Christians, da Gama impersonated a Muslim and gained audience with the Sultan of Mozambique. With the paltry trade goods he had to offer, da Gama was unable to provide a suitable gift to the ruler and soon the local populace became suspicious of da Gama and his men. Forced by a hostile crowd to flee Mozambique, da Gama departed the harbor, firing his cannons into the city in retaliation.
In the vicinity of modern Kenya, the expedition resorted to piracy, looting Arab merchant ships – generally unarmed trading vessels without heavy cannons. The Portuguese became the first known Europeans to visit the port of Mombasa 7th to 13 April 1498, but were met with hostility and soon departed.
Da Gama continued north, arriving at the friendlier port of Malindi on 14 April 1498 – whose leaders were then in conflict with those of Mombasa – and there the expedition first noted evidence of Indian traders. Da Gama and his crew contracted the services of a pilot whose knowledge of the monsoon winds allowed him to bring the expedition the rest of the way to Calicut, located on the southwest coast of India. Sources differ over the identity of the pilot, calling him variously a Christian, a Muslim, and a Gujarati. One traditional story describes the pilot as the famous Arab navigator Ibn Majid, but other contemporaneous accounts place Majid elsewhere, and it is now believed he could not have been near the vicinity at the time. Also, none of the Portuguese historians of the time mention Ibn Majid. Vasco da Gama left Malindi for India on 24 April 1498.
The fleet arrived in Kappadu near Calicut, India, on 20 May 1498. The King of Calicut, the Samudiri (Zamorin), who was at that time staying in his second capital at Ponnani, returned to Calicut on hearing the news of the foreign fleet’s arrival. The navigator was received with traditional hospitality, including a grand procession of at least 3,000 armed Nairs, but an interview with the Zamorin failed to produce any concrete results. The presents that da Gama sent to the Zamorin as gifts from Dom Manuel—four cloaks of scarlet cloth, six hats, four branches of corals, twelve almasares, a box with seven brass vessels, a chest of sugar, two barrels of oil and a cask of honey—were trivial, and failed to impress. While Zamorin’s officials wondered at why there was no gold or silver, the Muslim merchants who considered da Gama their rival suggested that the latter was only an ordinary pirate and not a royal ambassador.
Da Gama’s request for permission to leave a factor behind him in charge of the merchandise he could not sell was turned down by the King, who insisted that da Gama pay customs duty—preferably in gold—like any other trader, which strained the relation between the two. Annoyed by this, da Gama carried a few Nairs and sixteen fishermen (mukkuva) off with him by force. Nevertheless, da Gama’s expedition was successful beyond all reasonable expectation, bringing back cargo that was worth sixty times the cost of the expedition. His path would be followed up thereafter by yearly Portuguese India Armadas. The spice trade would prove to be a major asset to the Portuguese royal treasury and the sea route broke the monopoly of Asian Silk Road traders.
Vindaloo is an Indian curry, popular in the region of Goa (and now worldwide), which evolved under many influences from a popular Portuguese pork stew made with wine and garlic, imported by Portuguese sailors. The word “vindaloo” is a corruption of the Portuguese “carne de vinha d’alhos” (meat in wine and garlic). The dish was adapted in India to local ingredients and tastes. There was no wine in India, but Franciscan priests fermented wine vinegar from local palm wine. Local ingredients like tamarind, black pepper, cinnamon, and cardamom were also incorporated along with chile peppers – a legacy of Portugal’s global empire – imported to India from the Americas.
Nowadays vindaloo is well known across Europe and the Western world but has become a rather generic curry with a little more heat than most, but otherwise undistinguished. I prefer to make mine with the sourness of vinegar and tamarind prominent, although I will admit to using commercial vindaloo pastes suitably doctored. Pork is still common in Goa because the Goanese were converted to Christianity and, therefore, had no prohibitions against it.
I suggest the following recipe from memory. Vary the spices as you see fit but make sure you include tamarind.
Place in a food processor 1 cup of white wine vinegar, a 2″ piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped, 1 teaspoon of lightly roasted cumin seeds, 1 teaspoon of poppy seeds, 10 whole black peppercorns, 6 red chiles (fresh or dried), 4 whole cloves, 1 tablespoon of tamarind paste, 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric, 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped, ½ cup of vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon of black mustard seeds, and 1 stick of cinnamon (Malabar if you can get it) broken in pieces. Pulse until you have a smooth paste.
Place the paste in a sealable bag along with 1 kg of pork cut into cubes. Boneless pork shoulder is cheap and works well. It can be reasonably, but not too, fatty. Seal up the bag leaving a small air hole. Squeeze out as much air as possible and then seal completely. Shake the bag around so that the pork is fully coated with the marinade and refrigerate over night.