December 16 1497 – Vasco da Gama Becomes the First European to Round the Tip of Africa

December 16 1497 – Vasco da Gama Becomes the First European to Round the Tip of Africa
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*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Five months after leaving Lisbon, Vasco da Gama made a turn that ensured European trade and the Indian subcontinent would never be the same. As he directed his fleet east around the Cape of Good Hope on December 16, 1497, he and his crew entered the history books as the first of many expeditions to sail along the eastern coast of Africa for a journey across the Indian Ocean.

Determined to push beyond the limits set by countryman Bartolomeu Dias, da Gama gathered 170 Portuguese sailors for a roundtrip to India in early July 1497. Hand-picking the best crew he could, da Gama secured the services of the most accomplished navigators his homeland had to offer, placing one each onto the four ships under his command. Leaving on July 8th, the group started off sailing along established trade routes before plotting a course for the open ocean in the first week of August.

When da Gama’s four ships reached southwestern Africa on November 4th, they had traveled farther over the water without a land mass to guide them than any European voyage up to that point — well over 6,000 miles. Six weeks later, on December 16, 1497, the crew pushed past modern Eastern Cape, South Africa and turned north along the eastern coast of the continent. Down to three ships, the Portuguese explorers pressed forward with little in the way of goods to trade with whomever they might encounter.

Desperate to make complete his task, da Gama left no stone unturned in order to pacify those he came across. After being thrown out of Mozambique when the local Muslims became suspicious, the expedition found similar trouble in the Kenyan port of Mombasa before meeting with some success in Malindi, the chief rival harbor of Mombasa.

By finding an experienced navigator in Malindi, it seemed as if things were beginning to fall into place for da Gama and his remaining men. Within weeks, the group made it to Calicut, India on May 20, 1498 and opened trade negotiations with the local king. Though unable to secure a solid business partnership — da Gama’s Muslim competition is said to have convinced the leader the Portuguese sailor was merely a pirate — the explorers managed to gather a wealth of goods that would fetch a pretty penny back in Europe.

Leaving near the end of August 1498, the trip back would be even more difficult than the voyage to India. By the time the crew pulled into Malindi after a four-month trip across the Indian Ocean — six times as long as it had taken to go the opposite direction the previous April and May — half of da Gama’s men were dead. Unable to staff three ships, the men sank one and spread those who survived in the Sao Gabriel and the Berrio in January 1499.

After another six or seven months’ sailing, the two ships returned to Lisbon without their commander. (Records claim the Berrio arrived on July 10th, yet there is no official date for the Sao Gabriel.) Forced to bury his brother Paulo on Santiago Island, da Gama had to wait until September to receive the applause of his king for the profitable trip.

Also On This Day:

1707 – Last recorded eruption of Japanese volcano Mount Fuji

1770 – German composer Ludwig van Beethoven is born in Bonn

1773 – The Boston Tea Party sees the Sons of Liberty dress up as members of the Mohawk Native American tribe and dump tea into the harbor in protest of the Tea Act

1920 – A magnitude 8.5 earthquake hits Gansu province in China, killing an estimated 200,000 people

1944 – The German Army launches an offensive in the Ardennes forest, later known as the Battle of the Bulge

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