The legacy of Henry the Navigator continues as the Portuguese creep tentatively down the west coast of Africa during the latter half of the 15th century.
But the year 1497 marks a turning point. This is the year Vasco de Gama departs Lisbon with a fleet of four ships, a crew of 170 men and an ambition to reach the Indian ocean and India itself.
After several months of sailing he pulls wide and south, gets favorable winds and passes around the Cape. In this part of the voyage he undertakes one of the longest trips out of sight of land. Some three months. However, with determination and perseverance he finally enters the Indian ocean.
But in these waters he is not alone.
Whilst these waters are new to Europeans, a complex set of Muslim trading routes crisscross the Indian ocean. And so, inevitably, old habits and prejudices ebb into these waters. De Gama is barely into the Indian ocean when he undertakes blatant acts of piracy against unarmed Muslim traders as he passes up the East Coast of Africa. He also comes into conflict with the natives of Mozambique and Mombassa in his search for stores and supplies. De Gama’s conduct from here on in is closer to the behavior of pirates and corsairs, as opposed to glorious explorers.
In May 1498 de Gama reaches Calicut in India with the aid of a local pilot. Here he comes into conflict with the Zamorin of Calicut and the intrigues of local Moorish traders, the latter being threatened by the Portuguese trade ambitions. A tenuous trading outpost is established before he departs for Portugal (all the men left behind to man this post are destined to be murdered).
It takes some two years for de Gama to return to Lisbon where the King hails him a hero. But in truth he arrives with many of his crew lost to the hardships of the voyage, few goods of value and further acts of piracy under his belt (on the return voyage he attacks, burns and sinks the Miri – a ship transporting wealthy Muslin merchants).
So, despite the inglorious nature of their advances, the Portuguese & Europe is one step closer to discovering the “land down under”… the only question is who would be first?
The race has begun…