The European Voyages of Exploration

THE SEA-ROUTE TO INDIA & VASCO DA GAMA

Upon Prince Henry's death in 1460, the mantle of sponsoring exploration came to rest on a new monarch, King John II. King John II was not satisfied with the revenues he was receiving from trading voyages and he was determined to establish a Christian Empire in West Africa. In 1481 he charged Diogo d'Azambuja with forming the first permanent settlement in Africa. To mark the philosophical change in Portugal's voyages from trade missions to settlement, a series of granite pillars were commissioned for subsequent voyages. On each pillar could be found the royal arms of King John II as well as a Christian cross. When explorers reached a previously uncharted region, they were to place the pillar ashore to claim the land in the name of Christendom and Portugal. By 1487, Portuguese explorers had placed granite pillars as far south as Cape Cross.

Under Diogo's command were two different captains, Bartolomeu Dias and Christopher Columbus, who would soon attain notoriety in their own right. Bartolomeu Dias (1457-1500) was to continue the work of previous Portuguese explorers and to conduct advance reconnaissance about the African coast, but to him goes the credit of circumnavigating the Cape of Good Hope. Sailing from Tagus in 1487, Dias coasted south and placed a pillar at a headland now known as Dias Point. When the voyage resumed, a favouring wind turned into a gale. For thirteen days, the gale blew from the north and carried the Portuguese ships far beyond the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic where no previous European had been. As the wind finally died down, Dias steered east and north until he found land again at Mossel Bay. Unaware that he had passed beyond the southern tip of Africa, Dias continued his voyage past Algo Bay. It was at this point where the coastline changes from east to north-east that it became clear that the southernmost point of the continent had been passed. This was uncharted territory for European sailors and rather than risk certain mutiny, Dias yielded to the demands of his crew and charted a course back to Europe. As they rounded the tip again, Dias named the location the Cape of Good Hope. The name "Good Hope" was designed as an optimistic reminder that the overall objective was to find a sea-route to Asia. Dias returned home having travelled a remarkable 11,000 kilometres south.

Predominant Winds and Explorers' Routes
Sailing along the coast, Dias circumnavigates the southernmost point of Africa


© 2000 The Applied History Research Group and The Learning Commons, University of Calgary
This is an animated map. Click on the play button to begin.

If it can be said that Bartolomeu Dias found the gates to the sea-route to India, it would remain for another explorer to force them open. In the interim, successive wars with Castile and Spain (the latter of which was fuelled by competing claims between Portugal and Spain for a division of spoils in the New World of North America) delayed further exploration. Furthermore, a serious shortage of funds jeopardised the future of exploration by the Portuguese. Only the death of King John II in 1495 and the succession of King Manuel I (1495-1521) would renew the Portuguese quest to find a sea-route to India.

Early in the summer of 1497, Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) was granted an audience with King Manuel at Montemóro-o-Novo where the captain took an oath of fealty to the Portuguese Crown and was presented with a silken banner displaying the Cross of the Order of Christ. Da Gama was not commissioned to conquer new lands, but rather to seek out Christian kingdoms in the East and to secure for Portugal access to the great markets of Asia.

Predominant Winds and Explorers' Routes
Vasco da Gama navigates the Atlantic and Indian Oceans to reach Asia


© 2000 The Applied History Research Group and The Learning Commons, University of Calgary
This is an animated map. Click on the play button to begin.

Da Gama set sail from Lisbon and then called at the Cape Verde Islands. Because da Gama was familiar with the wind patterns of the Atlantic, he worked his ships on a south by south-east course before making a wide sweep westwards to reach the currents and winds he would need to round the Cape of Good Hope - or so he thought. Unfortunately, da Gama miscalculated and after travelling over 6,000 kilometres in ninety-three days - all of which occurred out of the sight of land - his ships barely reached the Cape of Good Hope. The sheer distance covered by da Gama was three times the distance travelled by Christopher Columbus during his first voyage to Hispaniola in 1492. There were numerous disappointments on this voyage: da Gama's progress up the south-eastern coast of Africa was tediously slow and encounters with indigenous populations revealed that conversion to Christianity would not be as easy as hoped. Finally, however, the Portuguese captain reached the tip of the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese were finally on the edge of the Asian markets they had searched many years to find. Thus began, as the historian K.M. Panikar noted, the Vasco da Gama epoch of Asian history. That is, the era of history when European nations alone controlled the seas - until the emergence of Japan and the United States as major naval powers at the end of the nineteenth century.

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The European Voyages of Exploration / The Applied History Research Group / The University of Calgary
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