510 years ago the Portuguese reached India by sea

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


  1. Donitz
    May 20, 2008

    Why is it that when I think of trade with India, tea, curry and irritating call centres spring to mind.

  2. DBC Reed
    May 21, 2008

    The arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean is hardly an unmixed blessing. The ocean had been developed for trade and transport for centuries before their arrival and their incursion into the area was often devastating .
    There had been a large Christian community around Kerala since AD 50-ish having been established by St Thomas in the first wave of Christian evangelism by one of the original apostles .
    The Portuguse found these Indian Christians practising in non-Catholic ways,accused them of heresy and killed as many as possible.
    My own response to reading of Portuguese colonialism is repulsion at the quite sadistic violence that seems so prevalent .

  3. Freeborn John
    May 21, 2008

    I was in the church in Kochi a few years ago where Vasco de Gama was buried. The Portuguese have left quite a heritage in what is perhaps India’s most beautiful city. The legacy of British colonial architecture in India might pale in comparison to the Portuguese (not to mention the Mughals) but our influence can be felt in other ways.

    I was in India in January at the time of Gordon Brown’s visit the country. I was struck by the televised “UK-India” debate attended by government and business leaders (e.g. Richard Branson, Arun Sarin of Vodafone, Karan Bilimoria of Cobra Beer, etc) and academics. What struck me most was the almost unquestioned assumption by both Britons and Indians of what might be called the Anglo-Saxon orthodoxy of open markets and individual entrepreneurship. Richard Branson made a strong case for the British and Indian governments dismantling precisely the kind of protectionist measures that president Sarkozy of France still seems to believe in 250 years after their debunking by Adam Smith. That no one on the Indian side seemed to question the liberal economic orthodoxy is quite a change in a country once famed for its ‘permit economy’ where more entrepreneurial activity was devoted to obtaining the license from officialdom necessary to be in business than was devoted to actually producing goods or services that people might want to buy. The rise of
    India however seems to date from precisely the point in time at which these practices were abandoned and they opened up to the globalising world. Following this televised “UK – India” debate I was left with the strong impression that the UK shares more of a common political and economic culture with far-away India than it does with all those European countries that still bang-on about their ‘social model’.

  4. mikestallard
    May 22, 2008

    I was taught at school that it was the Europeans who discovered the world and that before people like Magellan and Da Gama, large parts were completely unknown!
    More recently, I had the great pleasure of reading 1421. The Chinese, of course, got there first with Junks that dwarfed our little European ships.
    I have been in a magnificent Arab Dhow, too – unforgettable!
    And even today, in Dubai harbour, the Indian wooden ships come in – nowadays under internal combustion.
    When I was drawing sketches of people in the Malls, I noticed that compared to the Africans, Chinese and Arabs, the Indians are the people who most resemble us English.

  5. william s
    May 23, 2008

    John, stop bigging up India and Indians. They love doing that themselves. Even though the basis of their new wealth is technologies invented by the US and UK.

    The UK must stop importing doctors, IT workers and other skilled professionals. Fix the education system and Britain is more than capable of meeting its own needs in these and other areas – as well as astonishing the world with it's innovation.

    Given the resource squeeze in food and energy is importing masses amounts of people who really feel no alliance to Britain – or Europe – a good idea.

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