Today on May 20, 1498, Portuguese-explorer Vasco da Gama and his crew arrive at Calicut, India.
Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira, was a famous explorer who became the first European to reach India by sea. Before da Gama, there were many failed attempts made by Europeans to reach the East Indies. Dozens of ships were wrecked, and thousands of lives were lost at sea. During his first expedition, he found a sea route connecting the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. This discovery played a critical role in establishing reliable shipping between Western Europe and the Orient. Moreover, this new direct access to India paved the way for centuries of imperialism and subjugation throughout Asia-Pacific. Portugal subsequently transitioned into a colonial empire capable of contending with the other great powers of Europe.
On July 8, 1497, da Gama departed from Lisbon at the head of four ships and a crew of 170 sailors. The fleet sailed along the west coast of Africa and looped around the cape. Along the way, they stopped at Mozambique, Mombasa (present-day Kenya), and Malindi. After traveling for ten months, da Gama finally reached the shores of India, near the Malabar Coast. The King of Calicut promptly returned to the capital city to greet the mysterious foreigners. The Portuguese were welcomed with warm hospitality and exchanged gifts of clothing, honey, and oil. However, the king was not impressed as he expected gold and silver. Nevertheless, da Gama still managed to trade with the local Muslim merchants, eventually returning with a cargo worth sixty times the cost of the expedition.
For his contributions, Vasco da Gama was appointed as the Governor of India and granted the title of Viceroy. He later commanded two major trading expedition back to India. The Portuguese Empire maintained a strong monopoly over these essential commercial routes for nearly a century before the English, French, and Dutch navies began to challenge them. Vasco da Gama undoubtedly remains a controversial figure, as he was known for being cruel to other traders and local inhabitants. His name was despised and hated across many overseas territories, especially in India.