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On July 8, 1497, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set sail from Lisbon (Portugal) with four ships in search of a new route to reach the Indies, which is how the Asian continent was known at the time. From there came spices and other exotic products that were very valuable in Europe at that time.
When the Eastern Roman Empire fell in 1453, the Ottoman Empire took control of the trade routes to the Indies: its empire extended throughout Turkey, North Africa, the Near East and part of the Middle East. All the expeditions that tried to reach Asia by crossing Europe and the Mediterranean ran into the Ottomans, who made them pay for part of their goods or did not let them pass.
At the same time, the navigator Bartolomé Díaz tried a sea route. In early 1488 he had already managed to reach the Cape of Good Hope but had to turn back because the crew rebelled and refused to continue the voyage. After several months of sailing, provisions were becoming scarce and they did not want to enter unknown waters without knowing when they would set foot on land again.
The figure of Vasco da Gama must be placed in the context of a Portugal that was heading towards the conquest of the Atlantic. The privileged geographical situation of the country, oriented towards the Atlantic and with good ports, such as Lisbon – the best in the peninsula even at that time – predisposed the country towards Atlantic expansion. The subsequent conquests were favored to a great extent by the booming Portuguese bourgeoisie, to whom the powerful Castile was forbidding other peninsular interests and who needed new spaces for their enterprises. Once the tasks of reconquest were completed, the house of Avís (represented for the first time on the throne by John I) began to direct the expansion towards the north of Europe, where it established factories such as the one in Flanders, and later towards the north of Africa, with the Portuguese navy seizing the city of Ceuta on August 21, 1415. This was intended to prevent the passage of Muslims to the Atlantic, although subsequent events demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the measure: piracy found new refuges and Moghrebi traffic was diverted to other ports. Subsequent explorations of the African continent in search of gold mines yielded excellent results (as in Guinea, a country that the Portuguese named Mina) and turned this area of the Atlantic into a territory violently disputed with Castile.
Vasco de gama short biography
BEFORE Vasco da Gama was born, the foundations of this voyage had already been laid by Prince Henry of Portugal, who is often called the Navigator. Thanks to his patronage, his nation made great nautical and commercial progress overseas. Like the explorers who followed in his wake, the prince saw discovery, trade and religion as intertwined. Thus, his objectives were to enrich Portugal and promote Catholicism. Not in vain was he master of the largest military and religious order in Portugal: the Order of Christ, which was sponsored by the Pope and largely financed his projects, which is why all his ships had a red cross on their sails.
When Henry died in 1460, what is now Sierra Leone was the furthest south that the Portuguese had reached in their exploration of the west coast of Africa. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias sailed along the southern tip of the continent. King John II confidently ordered an expedition to India to be prepared. His successor, Manuel I, continued the preparations. In those days, Europe could only obtain spices from India through an overland network of Italians and Arabs. The Indian trade was in the hands of Arab merchants, of Muslim religion. Don Manuel knew that the head of the expedition had to be, in the words of a historian, “a man who combined the bravery of a soldier, the cunning of a merchant and the tact of a diplomat”. Perhaps that is why he chose Vasco da Gama.
Painting of Vasco da Gama on his arrival in India, carrying the flag used in the Discoveries: The arms of Portugal and the Cross of Christ, sponsors of the expansion movement initiated by Henry the Navigator.
The project to find the sea route to India was devised by John II of Portugal as a measure to reduce the costs of trade with Asia, in an attempt to monopolize the spice trade. With Portugal’s maritime presence becoming more and more solid, John II longed for the domination of trade routes and the expansion of his kingdom, which was beginning to transform into an empire, but after having rejected the project of Christopher Columbus, and after the discovery of America by Castile, his interests were endangered despite the successive treaties of Alcaçovas and Tordesillas. Although John II was the main promoter of the project, the enterprise would not be carried out during his reign, but during that of his successor Manuel I, who would designate Vasco da Gama for this expedition, maintaining as far as possible the original plan of his predecessor.