Vasco da Gama's Historic Voyage

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The amazing voyages of Vasco da Gama. The man who found the Indies when Columbus did not and brought Europe face-to-face again with Islam.

"A chegada de Vasco da Gama a Calicute em 1498," by Alfredo Roque Gameiro (1864-1935).
"A chegada de Vasco da Gama a Calicute em 1498," by Alfredo Roque Gameiro (1864-1935).

Christopher Columbus sailed west, looking for the Indies. Vasco da Gama sailed south and east. Da Gama found what they were looking for.

Around the tip of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea. India. And much more. A new history takes the pittance we learn in grade school and gives us the whole, amazing saga of Vasco da Gama.

The ships, the voyages, the mystery, the confusing Hindus for Christians. The ambition and glory and cruelty. The face-to-face meeting, again, with Islam.

This hour On Point: the epic voyages and long echoes of Vasco da Gama.
-Tom Ashbrook


Nigel Cliff, author of Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations.

From Tom's Reading List

The New York Times "He possessed a visionary cast of mind bordering on derangement; he saw himself spearheading a holy war to topple Islam, recover Jerusalem from “the infidels” and establish himself as the “King of Jerusalem.” "


P r o l o g u e

The light was fading when the three strange ships appeared off the coast of India, but the fishermen on the shore could still make out their shapes. The two biggest were fat-bellied as whales, with bulging sides that swept up to support sturdy wooden towers in the bows and stern. The wooden hulls were weathered a streaky gray, and long iron guns poked over the sides, like the barbels on a monstrous catfish. Huge square sails billowed toward the darkening sky, each vaster than the last and each surmounted by a bonnetshaped topsail that made the whole rig resemble a family of ghostly giants. There was something at once thrillingly modern and hulkingly primeval about these alien arrivals, but for sure nothing like them had been seen before.

The alarm was raised on the beach, and groups of men dragged four long, narrow boats into the water. As they rowed closer they could see that great crimson crosses were emblazoned on every stretch of canvas.

“What nation are you from?” the Indians’ leader shouted when they were under the side of the nearest ship.

“We are from Portugal,” one of the sailors called back.

Both spoke in Arabic, the language of international trade. The visitors, though, had the advantage over their hosts. The Indians had never heard of Portugal, a sliver of a country on the far western fringe of Europe. The Portuguese certainly knew about India, and to reach it they had embarked on the longest and most dangerous voyage known to history.

The year was 1498. Ten months earlier, the little fleet had set sail from Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, on a mission to change the world. The 170 men on board carried instructions to open a sea route from Europe to Asia, to unlock the age-old secrets of the spice trade, and to locate a long-lost Christian king who ruled over a magical Eastern realm. Behind that catalog of improbability lay a truly apocalyptic agenda: to link up with the Eastern Christians, deal a crushing blow to the power of Islam, and prepare the way for the conquest of Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world. Even that was not the ultimate end—but if they succeeded it would be the beginning of the end, the clarion call for the Second Coming and the Last Judgment that would surely follow.

Time would tell whether this quest for the Promised Land would end at anything more than a castle in the air. For now, bare survival was uppermost in the crews’ minds. The men who had signed up to sail off the edge of the known world were an odd assortment. Among them were hardened adventurers, chivalric knights, African slaves, bookish scribes, and convicts working off their sentences. Already they had rubbed uncomfortably close against each other for 317 days. As they swept in a great arc around the Atlantic, they had seen nothing but the bounding main for months on end. When they finally reached the southern tip of Africa they had been shot at, ambushed, and boarded in the dead of night. They had run out of food and water, and they had been ravaged by mystifying diseases. They had wrestled with heavy currents and storms that battered their ships and tattered their sails. They were assured they were doing God’s work and that, in return, their sins would be wiped clean. Yet even the most seasoned mariner’s skin crawled with morbid superstitions and forebodings of doom. Death, they knew, was just a swollen gum or an unseen reef away, and death was not the worst conceivable fate. As they slept under unknown stars and plunged into uncharted waters that mapmakers enlivened with toothy sea monsters, it was not their lives they feared to lose but their very souls.

To the watching Indians, the newcomers, with their long, filthy hair and their bronzed, unwashed faces, looked like the rougher species of sea dog. Their scruples were soon overcome when they found they could sell the strangers cucumbers and coconuts at handsome prices, and the next day the four boats returned to lead the fleet into port.
It was a moment to make the most stoic seaman stand and gape.

For Christians, the East was the wellspring of the world. The Bible was its history book, Jerusalem its capital of faith suspended between heaven and earth, and the Garden of Eden—which was firmly believed to be flowering somewhere in Asia—its fount of marvels. Its palaces were reportedly roofed with gold, while fireproof salamanders, self-immolating phoenixes, and solitary unicorns roamed its forests. Precious stones floated down its rivers, and rare spices that cured any ailment dropped from its trees. People with dog’s heads ambled by, while others hopped past on their single leg or sat down and used their single giant foot as a sunshade. Diamonds littered its gorges, where they were guarded by snakes and could be retrieved only by vultures. Mortal dangers lurked everywhere, which put the glittering treasures all the more tantalizingly out of reach.

At least so they said: no one knew for sure. For centuries Islam had all but blocked Europe’s access to the East; for centuries a heady mix of rumor and fable had swirled in place of sober fact. Many had died to discover the truth, and now the moment was suddenly at hand. The mighty port of Calicut, an international emporium bursting with oriental riches, the hub of the busiest trade network in the world, sprawled in front of the sailors’ eyes.

There was no rush to be the first ashore. The anticipation—or the apprehension—was too much. In the end, the task was given to one of the men who had been taken on board to do the dangerous work.

The first European to sail all the way to India and step on its shores was a convicted criminal.

From HOLY WAR by Nigel Cliff. Copyright © 2011 by Nigel Cliff. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

This program aired on September 13, 2011.


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