On May 20th 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed into Calicut, the centre of the Indian spice trade. His long and epic voyage had begun the previous year, taking him far out into the Atlantic Ocean, before he turned east and reached the South African coast at St Helena Bay. From there, he sailed around the Cape to Mossel Bay, stopping at a place he called Natal at Christmas time. He travelled north east through Mozambique and Mombasa, before picking up a pilot to cross the Arabian Sea to the Indian coast.
It was a great feat of seamanship, although the long, illness-afflicted return journey meant only a minority of his crew made it back to Portugal to report their triumph. Two of his fleet of four ships were burned during the course of the expedition and their stores and crews placed on the remaining vessels.
Subsequent voyages, by da Gama and others, established Portuguese naval supremacy along the east African and Arabian coast en route to the Indies, at the price of many being killed and ships being plundered and destroyed. The Portuguese decided to wrestle some of the spice trade away from Arabian traders and Venetian merchants, into the hulls of their better-armed ships.
Even then, five hundred years ago, the Indian trade was important. Spain was pressing around the world from the West, crossing the Atlantic and rounding Cape Horn. Portugal, by Treaty arranged by the Pope in 1494 between the rival Iberian imperialists, could exploit the route around the Cape of Good Hope. On his first voyage, da Gama underestimated the sophistication of the places he wanted to trade with, and found his trinkets unacceptable to many. The Portuguese improved their offer when they went back.
Today, the Indian trade is many times more valuable, to be undertaken by all peaceful merchants who appreciate the power-house which is the new India. We should remember the pioneers of the sea route, the tradition of enterprise and brave adventure they represented, while regretting the way their actions soon came to blows