Barthlomeu Dias, a former superintendent of the royal warehouses in Lisbon and captain of a caravel that went down the African coast, was the first man to round the Cape of Good Hope at southern tip of Africa.

Dias had been selected to head an expedition to India by King John II and was seen somewhat as a failure even though he surmounted the biggest obstacle between Europe and Asia. According to Boorstin, "Dias was never properly rewarded by his sovereign, and he became the forgotten man of Portugal's Age of Discovery. He supervised the building of Vasco de Gama's ships but he was not on de Gama's historic voyage to India. He died in 1500 on an expedition to Brazil when his ship was trapped by a hurricane "casting them into the abyss of that great ocean sea...human bodies as food for the fish of those waters, which bodies we can believe were the first, since they were navigating in unknown regions."

Partly because of Dias's success the Portuguese king decided not finance Christopher Columbus's voyage to the west. When Dias returned, Columbus was in Lisbon trying to convince King John II into bankrolling his expedition across the Atlantic. Dias's success made Columbus's project seem superfluous.

Bartolomeu Dias’s Expedition Around Africa

Dias's expedition consisted of two 50-ton caravals and a store ship. With him he brought six Africans dressed in European clothes and samples of gold, silver, spices and other desired African products so that the natives would know what the Europeans wanted. Some historians credit Dias with being one of the first navigators to intentionally stay away from the coast. In 1487 ," wrote historian Merle Severy, "checked by wind and current, he took a great leap southwesterly into the unknown in hope of favorable winds. Then turned east. Only empty sea. North. Finally, fighting fearsome tempests, he raised land. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

After dropping off the last of his African emissaries, Dias's expedition was caught in a storm that carried his ships southwards for thirteen days in the rough open sea. "And as the ships were tiny, and the seas colder and not such as they were in the land of Guinea...they gave themselves up for dead." After the storm Dias headed west but failed to sight land for several days. He then turned north and after traveling about 450 miles north he spotted high mountains and anchored in what is now Mossel Bay, about 230 miles east of present-day Capetown, on February 5, 1488.

Following the African coast, which now trended northeastward, Dias he realized he had rounded Africa and traveled another 300 miles up the southeast coast of Africa to the mouth of the Great Fish River and Algoa Bay. Dias wanted to continue into the Indian Ocean, but his crew forced him to turn back after a traveling only a short distance past the Cape of Good Hope. "Weary, and terrified by the great seas through which they had passed, all with one voice began to murmur, and demand that they proceed no further."

After turning around Dias left a note on the stone cross that marked their discovery. It read: "With as much sorrow and feeling as though he were taking his last leave of a son condemned to exile forever, recalling with what danger to his own person and to all his men they had come such a long distance with this sole aim, and then God would not grant it to him to reach his goal."

On the way back the Portuguese went ashore at Mossel Bay and were attacked by natives with stones. The skirmish ended after Dias himself killed one of the natives with an arrow from his crossbow. Later Dias rendezvoused with his supply ship, left behind nine months before with nine men. Only three men were still alive and one of these "was so overcome with joy at seeing his companions that he died all of a sudden, being very weak through illness." The supply ship was burned and two caravels made there way back to Portugal, returning 16 months and seventeen days after they departed.

Vasco De Gama

Vasco de Gama sailed his four ships into the Indian Ocean and reached India and Asia by sea, the initial goal of the Age of Discovery. His voyage took place almost a decade after Dias’s 1487-88 voyage partly because of Columbus's voyage to the New World in 1492 diverted attention away from the eastward route to India. At that time it made more sense for Portugal to stake its claim against Spain in America and then make an expedition to the east, then to voyage east first and miss out on the action in the west.

De Gama's expedition was financed by King John II's successor, King Manuel I "The Fortunate," who inherited the throne in 1495 when he was 26 years old. The son of a minor official, De Gama was selected because he was a member of the king's court and he had distinguished himself as a seaman and diplomat. "Events proved Vasco da Gama to be brilliantly qualified," wrote Boorstin. "Though ruthless and of a violent temper, he would show the courage, the firmness, and the broad vision required for dealing with humble seamen and arrogant sultans."

"The immediate effects of Vasco da Gama's voyage were incomparably more fulfilling than those of Columbus," wrote Boorstin. "Columbus promised the fabled cities of Japan and India, but he reached only uncertain savage shores...Gama proposed to reach the trading capitals of India and to initiate profitable trade—which he did...His voyage, which finally proved a feasible sea route between West and East, changed the course of both Western and Eastern history.”

“The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama” by Sanjay Subrahmanyam described the first European imperialists in India as a cross between Christ and Alexander the Great.

De Gama's Voyage

Commanding two 100-ton square rigged ships, a 50-ton lanteen sailed caravel and a 200-ton supply ship, da Gama sailed from Lisbon on July 8, 1497. The ships carried three years worth of supplies, maps, the latest astronomical instruments and a crew of 170 men, including a priest and convicts. To trade Vaso de Gama brought bolts of striped cloth, washbasins, strings of beads and lumps of sugar which made some traders in the Orient laugh with contempt. To avoid unfavorable winds in West Africa de Gama stayed out of sight of land for a terrifying 95 days. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope he stayed close to the east African coast until he found an Arab pilot in present-day Kenya to guide him the final 2,000 miles across the Indian Ocean to Calicut on the southwestern coast India in 23 days.

The 12,000-mile round-trip journey from Portugal to India and back was fraught with danger. De Gama had to negotiate tricky currents that ran in the opposite direction of the winds and secure his trust in Arab pilots that were often incompetent or devious. After restocking in the Cape Verde Islands west of present-day Senegal he spent 93 days out of sight of land and traveled 3,700 miles before reaching South Africa. In comparison Columbus followed a fair wind on the 2,600-mile, 33 day voyage between the Canaries and the Bahamas in 1492.

De Gama in India

De Gama and the first European mariners in Asia landed Calicut on May 22, 1498, 10½ months after they left Lisbon. Calicut was a trading center with no port on the Malibar coast in western India. Describing their first encounter with the people of India, one of de Gama's crew members reported: de Gama "sent one of the convicts to Calicut, and those with whom he went took him to two Moors from Tunis, who could speak Castilian and Genoese. The first greeting that he received was in these words: 'May the Devil take thee! What brought you hither?' They asked what he sought so far away from home, and he told them that we came in search of Christians and of spices."

"...After this conversation they took him to their lodging and gave him wheaten bread and honey. When he had eaten he returned to the ship accompanied by one of the Moors, who was no sooner on board, than he said the words: "A lucky venture, a lucky venture! Plenty of rubies, plenty of emeralds. You owe great thanks to God, for having brought you to a country holding such riches!" We were greatly astonished to hear his talk for we never expected to hear our language spoken so far away from Portugal."

De Gama spent three months with the King, or Samuri, of Calicut. He tried to convince the king he was primarily searching for Christian kings like Prester John "not because they sought gold or silver, for this they had such abundance that they needed not what was to found in this country."

The Malabar king was disappointed by the Portuguese gifts of trinkets and washbasins which served the Portuguese well on the African coast. Gama told the Samuri his ships had come "merely to make discoveries...The King then asked what is was he had come to discover: stones or men? If he came to discover men, as he said, why had he brought nothing."

De Gama's Voyage Home and His Savage Second Voyage to India

De Gama's left Calicut in August 1498, "greatly rejoicing their good fortune in having made so great a discovery...having agreed that, inasmuch that we had discovered the country we had come in search of, as also spices and precious stones, and it appeared impossible to establish cordial relations with the people, it would be as well to take our departure.” After clashes with Muslim rulers and bouts of scurvy, two of de Gama's four ships made it back to Lisbon in September 1499. Only 55 members of the original 160 man crew returned to Lisbon alive.

Da Gama set out on his second voyage to India in February 1502 with a fleet of ten vessels, most of them under 200 tons. Upon arriving on the Malibar coast he encountered a ship loaded with pilgrims returning from Mecca and demanded that pilgrims turn over all treasure on board. "We took a Mecca ship on board," one of de Gama's crew members wrote, "of which were 380 men and many women and children, and we took from it fully 12,000 ducats, and goods worth at least another 10,000. And we burned the ship and all the people on board with gunpowder, on the first day of October."

After the Sanauri in Calicut refused de Gama's request to surrender the city and expel every Muslim, de Gama captured several fisherman and traders in the harbor and then hung them and cut off their hands, feet and heads, tossing them in a boat with a note in Arabic that the Samuri use the body parts to make a curry. When de Gama embarked for Lisbon with a cargo of treasure he left behind five ships commanded by his uncle. These ships were "the first naval force stationed by Europeans in Asiatic waters. When da Gama died in 1524 he had attained the title of Viceroy of Portuguese Asia.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.