Vasco da Gama’s ships left Portugal on 8 July 1497, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed up the east coast of Africa to Malindi. He took the help of a guide given by a local ruler and headed towards southern India. It took them only twenty-three days to cross from Africa to Malabar.
On 20 May 1498, Vasco da Gama anchored his vessels just north of Calicut on the Malabar Coast. Calicut was an important spice centre and had thriving trade relations with ships of many nations. Spices, especially pepper from India was well-known in Europe and very much in demand.
Vasco da Gama commanded a flotilla of three ships and a store ship with about one hundred and seventy men onboard. The fleet had a few convicts, one of whom was a converted Jew who knew Arabic. This man was chosen to step ashore to seek information about the land. He met two Muslim traders who were surprised that their fleet had made its way from Europe through the treacherous waters.
The Portuguese, a largely Catholic nation had a long history of conflict with Islam as early as the 13th century. Rumours of rich Christian nations in the east made their way to Portugal towards the 12th century, instigating the king of Portugal to send his men to visit these lands.
The Hindu ruler of Calicut, the Zamorin was away from the port city when the Portuguese arrived, but agreed to meet Vasco da Gama on his return. He sent his man to take the flotilla to a safe anchorage at Pantalayini Kollam, a few miles to the north. Vasco da Gama stepped ashore to meet the Zamorin along with his companions after a week.
They were received with great pomp and show, with the locals looking at the foreigners with great interest. They were taken to a temple which Vasco da Gama and his men thought to be a deviant Christian establishment.
They took some vibhuti thinking that the Christians of this country believe this to be sacred and smear it on their body. Interestingly, they reported the same to their own king on their return.
They arrived at the opulent palatial quarters of the Zamorin and after the traditional offering of betel nut from a huge gold basin, were offered bananas and jackfruit. On being questioned the purpose of their visit, Vasco da Gama said he was the ambassador of the king of Portugal and wished to deal with the Zamorin directly.
The ministers of the Zamorin were amused with the gifts offered by the Portuguese which comprised of washbasins, hats, casks of oil, honey and cloth. These gifts were deemed as unacceptable and gold was demanded.
Vasco da Gama continued to seek permission to sell his goods using flattery and sweet words to convince the Zamorin. The Portuguese returned to Pantalayini Kollam where they were not allowed to leave till they paid their port dues.
The Portuguese fearing that they would be held hostage began negotiating with the officials of the Zamorin. The matter was resolved with the Portuguese handing over some merchandise as surety and da Gama and his companions allowed to return to their ships.
Now, Calicut was predominantly Hindu with many Muslim merchants coming from Arabia who had a good relation with the Zamorin and the locals. There was no love lost between the Muslims and the Christians with the Muslim traders refusing to buy from the Portuguese resulting in several clashes between the two.
Vasco da Gama protested to the Zamorin, who sent some merchants to inspect the goods. They found them to be of inferior quality and did not offer anything for them. The Zamorin then had the merchandise brought to Calicut at his own expense and left it to the locals to buy anything if they wished to.
Sales were poor but enough money was raised to purchase some cloves, cinnamon and precious stones. On 13 August 1498, Vasco da Gama announced his desire to leave for Portugal and sent some presents to the Zamorin. The Zamorin demanded the mandatory port dues fearing that the Portuguese will abscond without paying. He put guards on the Portuguese men ashore and prohibited any movement of boats from going out to the Portuguese ships.
However, some eighteen merchants ignored the edict and went out to trade with the Portuguese only to find themselves taken as hostages. At the end of complicated negotiations, an exchange of hostages and the return of Portuguese goods were agreed upon.
The Zamorin wrote a pleasant letter requesting for a lengthy trade partnership of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper and precious stones in exchange for gold, silver, corals and scarlet cloth. The Portuguese paid no heed to this request and left some merchandise behind setting sail for Portugal on 29 August 1498 with six hostages with them.
The following day, about seventy of the Zamorin‘s boats came out to attack the fleeing fleet. The Portuguese kept them at bay with a cannon until a fortuitous thunderstorm erupted allowing them to escape.
After a tumultuous journey during which many sailors died of scurvy, Vasco da Gama managed to reach Portugal with only a third of his original sailors.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
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* Information about The Portuguese Invasion and Inquisition is taken from archives