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Christopher Columbus Vs. Vasco da Gama

In the history of globalization, what was more successful — Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, or Vasco da Gama’s discovery of India?

October 8, 2018

Outside his native Portugal, where past glories live long in the memory, Vasco da Gama has generally been remembered as a less eminent contemporary of Christopher Columbus.

It is a somewhat unfair assessment, for in a number of senses da Gama brought about what Columbus left undone. In sailing to India five years after Columbus sailed to America, da Gama found what Columbus had sought in vain — a new route to an old world.

One man might best be thought of as the complement to the other. This is true as much in terms of their objectives as the achievements of their missions. Between the two of them — however dimly sensed at the time — they united the continents.

Columbus’s journey

The greatest difficulty of Columbus's voyage was that it was unprecedented. In navigational terms, the outward crossing was uncomplicated.

Barely out of sight of Spanish territory in the Canary Islands, his small flotilla picked up the northeasterly trade winds that carried them across the Atlantic in little over a month.

In comparison, da Gama's voyage lasted more than two years, covering some 24,000 miles of ocean — a distance four times greater than Columbus had sailed. When Columbus sailed to America, he had to chivvy his men through 33 days without sight of land. Da Gama's crew endured 90.

An epic tale

Da Gama’s voyage was, in every sense, an epic — literally so. It provided the inspiration for and subject matter of Portugal's national poem, the magnificent, sprawling "Lusiads" by Luís Vaz de Camões. It has 1,102 stanzas, an appropriately monumental and meandering tribute.

As tends to be the way with epics, the drama was supplied by a combination of heroism, foolishness and cruelty.

After saying their last prayers in the chapel of the Torre do Bélem, the crew bade farewell to wives and family before setting out on their "doubtful way" (caminho duvidoso), directing their three small caravels and one supply vessel down the Tagus on July 8, 1497.

Passing the Canaries, they headed south down the African coast, skirting the western bulge of the continent toward the Cape Verde Islands.

Da Gama — Bettering the oceans

Next they turned their prows south and west into the open ocean, hoping thereby to avoid the calms of the Gulf of Guinea — so much they already knew from the many earlier Portuguese expeditions that had sought African gold and slaves for decades.

Dropping below the equator, they passed from a northern summer into a southern winter whose gales, now deep in the southern latitudes, slung them back east to Africa.

They were still far to the north of the Cape of Good Hope, and they had to fight a torturous battle against adverse currents and winds before they could finally round the bottom of the continent.

When they finally left the Atlantic for the Indian Ocean, they were already six months from home. Thus far, their course had been scouted by the exploratory voyage of Bartolomeu Dias a decade earlier. Now they were entering uncharted waters.

With scurvy starting to grip his exhausted crew, da Gama cautiously worked his way north along the continent's east coast in an atmosphere of steadily mounting tension.

Stopping for supplies and intelligence at various ports along the way, the Portuguese met with mixed receptions, ranging from wary cooperation to bewilderment and outright hostility.

Reaching today’s Kenya

A lucky break came at the port of Malindi, in present-day Kenya, where they had the immense good fortune to pick up an Arab pilot familiar with the crossing of the Indian Ocean.

By now it was April. The first gatherings of the summer monsoon, blowing wet and blustery out of the southwest, propelled them across the ocean in a mere 23 days. On May 17, ten months after leaving Portugal, a lookout smelled vegetation on the sea air.

The following day, through steam and sheets of scudding monsoon rain, the mountains of the Indian hinterland at last rose into view. They had reached Malabar, India's Spice Coast.

Thanks to good fortune and the skill of their pilot, they were no more than a day's sailing from Calicut, the principal port of the coast.

Though they naturally had little idea of what to expect, the newcomers were not wholly unprepared. With their long experience of voyages down the west coast of Africa, the Portuguese were accustomed to dealing with unfamiliar places and peoples.

On this as on earlier voyages, they followed the unsavory but prudent custom of bringing along an individual known as a degredado, generally a felon or an outcast such as a converted Jew, whose role it was to be sent ashore to handle the first contacts with strange peoples.

Doomed arrival?

In the not unlikely event of a hostile reception, the degredado was considered expendable. And so, while the rest of the crew remained safely on board, on May 21, an anonymous criminal from the Algarve was put ashore to take his chances.

A crowd rapidly formed around the exotic, pale-faced stranger. To the bemused Indians, little was clear other than that he was not Chinese or Malay, regular visitors in Calicut's cosmopolitan marketplace.

The most reasonable assumption was that he came from somewhere in the Islamic world, though he showed no signs of comprehending the few words of Arabic addressed to him.

For want of a better option, he was escorted to the house of two resident Tunisian merchants, who were, naturally enough, stunned to see a European march through the door.

Fortunately, the Tunisians spoke basic Genoese and Castilian, so some rudimentary communication was possible. A famous dialogue ensued:

Tunisian: "What the devil brought you here?" Degredado: "We came in search of Christians and spices."

Christians and spices

The answer would not have pleased the Tunisians, but as summaries go, this was an admirably succinct account of the expedition's aims.

Spices figured no less prominently in da Gama's motivation than they had in Columbus's voyage five years earlier. The Christians, too, were more than a matter of lip service.

To some extent, commercial and religious interests went together. Yet, of the two, the spices offered richer pickings, and there could be little doubt which mattered more in the minds of the crew and those who came after them.

Whereas Columbus was an entire hemisphere off track, the Portuguese had hit the mother load. When da Gama's degredado splashed dazedly ashore in May 1498, the Malabar Coast was the epicenter of the global spice trade and to some extent, it still is.

Located in the extreme southwest of the subcontinent, Malabar takes its name from the mountains that sailors see long before the shore comes into view, a suitably international hybrid of a Dravidian head (mala, "hill") grafted onto an Arabic suffix (barr, "continent"), the latter supplied by the Arab traders who dominated the westward trade from ancient times through to the end of the Middle Ages.

The mountains are the Western Ghats, whose bluffs and escarpments form the western limit of the Deccan plateau. The coast — a low-lying, fish-shaped band of land squeezed between sea and mountains — was, and is, a center of both spice production and distribution.

The spice trade

Calicut was the largest — but not the only — entrepôt of the coast. A string of lesser ports received fine spices from further east for resale and reshipment west onward across the Indian Ocean to Arabia and Europe.

From the jungles of the Ghats, merchants brought ginger, cardamom and a local variety of cinnamon down from the hills, punting their goods through the rivers and backwaters that maze across the plain to the sea. Above all, they brought pepper.

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  • Takeaways

    Vasco da Gama is generally remembered as a less eminent contemporary of Christopher Columbus.

    Columbus crossed the Atlantic in little over a month. Da Gama's voyage lasted more than two years and covered 24,000 miles of ocean.

    When da Gama's ship reached India's shores in May 1498, the Malabar Coast was the epicenter of the global spice trade and to some extent, it still is.

    In sailing to India five years after Columbus sailed to America, da Gama found what Columbus had sought in vain — a new route to an old world.

    Columbus and da Gama might best be thought of as complementing each other. Between the two of them they united the continents.