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3. Sea Route to India
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July 8th, 1497. The date is historic and marks the beginning of the great expedition that left Lisbon, led by Vasco da Gama, towards India, “by seas never before navigated,” as written by Luís de Camões in the epic poem Os Lusíadas. The journey aimed to discover the maritime route to India, as a way to directly access the supply of spices that had extraordinary economic value in the 15th century, such as cinnamon, ginger, saffron, nutmeg, and cloves. Despite being increasingly appreciated by royalty and the upper bourgeoisie, either for the cuisine or for medicinal purposes, spices arrived in the kingdom in small quantities via Venice, where Portugal obtained its supplies. After years of maritime exploration – in 1487, Bartolomeu Dias had already made history by becoming the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope – the Portuguese crown’s desire to intensify efforts to find the eastern route to India grew. Having served King João II as an experienced sailor, Vasco da Gama was eventually chosen by King Manuel I to lead the epic journey in 1497. The navigator, who left Lisbon on July 8th, 1497, was the captain of four vessels: the São Gabriel, commanded by Vasco da Gama himself and whose pilot was the experienced Pêro de Alenquer; the São Rafael, under the orders of his brother Paulo da Gama; the caravel Berrio, commanded by Nicolau Coelho; and finally, the supply ship called Redonda, commanded by Gonçalo Nunes.

Initially, along the Moroccan coast, following the usual route towards the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde archipelago, everything was quite familiar to the Portuguese navigators. It would be rounding the African continent that a long and unknown oceanic crossing would follow. After three hundred and twelve days since leaving Lisbon, covering a surprising 25,386 kilometers with various stops for refueling and maintenance, Vasco da Gama first saw Indian land. Heading south, the fleet arrived at Calicut on May 17th, a destination that the navigator carried in his instructions due to the importance of this city as a major trading post for oriental commerce on the Malabar coast. Vasco da Gama then became the first navigator to link Europe to India by sea and establish a new route in the spice trade to Europe, an absolutely remarkable and unprecedented milestone that would change the world. However, the Portuguese entourage was not well received, and negotiations did not go well. According to Álvaro Velho’s account in the diary he made of the trip, when the Samorim’s representatives – the king of Calicut – saw that Vasco da Gama’s gifts consisted of scraps, woolen hoods, hats, coral strings, basins, sugar, oil, and honey, they began to laugh, saying that it was not a worthy present. The Samorim would only accept gold. Vasco da Gama tried to justify the insignificance of the offer, stating that he was not a merchant but an ambassador and that such goods were his and not the King of Portugal’s. He said that when the king sent him back to Calicut, he would offer many other valuable things. In the growing tension, permission was eventually granted to the Portuguese to trade in the city.

The return journey to Lisbon took place in October of the same year, with the navigator arriving in Lisbon in the summer of 1499. Vasco da Gama commanded a second expedition to India in 1502 and was appointed Governor of India in 1524 and sent back to that country, where he would eventually die.