Columbus’ dazzling fame, at least from the American perspective, has blinded us to other achievements of seafaring discovery as great or even greater in that first Age of the Sea. The immediate effects of Vasco da Gama’s voyage were incomparably more fulfilling than those of Columbus. Columbus promised the fabled cities of Japan and India, but he reached only uncertain savage shores. When after decades his enterprise finally paid off, it was in the most unexpected ways. Gama proposed to reach the trading capitals of India and to initiate a profitable trade – which he did. He promised to circumvent the Asian trade monopolies of the Muslims of the Levant and of the merchants of Genoa and Venice – which he did.

Columbus took the initiative, promised a gold mine, and only found a wilderness. The initiative for Vasco da Gama’s voyage was not his own but that of his King. Not for qualities of character but for the magnitude of seafaring achievement, Vasco da Gama must overshadow Columbus. Columbus’ first voyage went due westward before a fair wind, twenty-six hundred miles from Gomera in the Canaries to the Bahamas, remaining at sea for thirty-six days. Gama’s course, which required subtle navigation, took him in a wide circle nearly all the way across the south Atlantic, then against opposite currents and contrary winds. He made the dangerous decision not to hug the African coast, but to swing around through the mid-Atlantic from the Cape Verde Islands to the Cape of Good Hope, a distance of more than thirty-seven hundred miles, before reaching the Bay of St. Helena just above the present Cape Town, remaining at sea for ninety-three days. From there, his skill in navigation, in managing his crew, and in dealing with the hostile Muslim rulers at Mozambique, Mombasa, and Malindi, finally took him and his fleet across the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, to arrive at Calicut, his intended destination on the southwestern coast of the Indian peninsula on May 22, 1498. Until then, there had been no seafaring achievement of equal scope.

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

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