On coming to the Portuguese throne in 1495, the bold twenty-six-year-old King Manuel I was nicknamed “The Fortunate” because he inherited so many grand enterprises. He set in motion a scheme to follow up Dias’ discoveries with a new voyage of discovery that would take the sea route all the way to India, would open the way for trade, and possibly too for conquest. The Young King’s cautious advisers warned against the enterprise. How could so small a country succeed in conquest at so great a distance? And would not this enterprise excite the enmity of all the great powers – the Spanish, the Genoese, the Venetians, and, of course, the Muslims – whose commercial interests would be threatened? The King, overruling objections, chose for leader of the expedition a gentleman of his household, Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524), son of a minor official from the south coast. Gama had proven himself to be both a sailor and a diplomat. As King Manuel foresaw, the expertise of a sailor, though perhaps enough for coasting down the sparsely inhabited west African seaboard, would not suffice for dealing with sophisticated Indian potentates. Events proved Vasco da Gama to be brilliantly qualified. Though ruthless and of violent temper, he would show the courage, the firmness, and the broad vision required for dealing with humble seamen and arrogant sultans.

After two years of preparation, Gama’s fleet of four vessels – two squarerigged ships of shallow draft, each about 100 tons, a lateen-rigged caravel of about 50 tons, and a store ship of some 200 tons – sailed out of Lisbon harbor on July 8, 1497. The ships carried provisions for three years. They were well supplied, too, with maps, with astronomical instruments and tables of declination prepared by Zacuto, and they carried carved stone pillars to mark Portuguese claims. There was of course a priest and the customary number of convicts who, being considered expendable, could be used whenever there was mortal risk. Altogether the crew numbered some 170.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987