In the last years of the fifteenth century, an explorer set off from the Iberian Peninsula, full of grand illusions and hoping to reach India by going where no European had ever gone before. Though that statement would seem to describe the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) to the New World, it is equally true of a less famous expeditionfrom an American perspective, at leastthat set sail five years later. This one was led by Vasco da Gama, who sailed under the Portuguese flag and rounded the southern tip of Africa to become the first European to reach the Indian subcontinent by sea.
Da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal, where his father was governor. As a member of the nobility, he led a Portuguese attack on French ships in 1492, and later served as a gentleman at the court of King Manuel I. Under the leadership of Manuel, the Portuguese continued the tradition, begun by Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) and maintained sporadically ever since, of exploring the African coast. This had been done by bits and pieces, with each subsequent probe venturing just a bit further south, until Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500) had rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the continent's southern tip in 1487-1488. Now Manuel was prepared to take the bold step of passing the Cape by and sailing across thousands of miles of open sea to India. Therefore on July 7, 1498, da Gama and his crew set sail from Lisbon aboard four ships.
Their goal was the city of Calicut (not to be confused with Calcutta) on the Malabar, or southwestern, coast of India, and da Gama took with him letters of introduction both to the ruler of Calicut and to Prester John. The latter, supposedly the ruler of a Christian kingdom, is now known to have been an utterly fictitious character, created by a sort of early urban legend around 1150; but people in da Gama's time did not know that, and Manuel was convinced that Christian Portugal would...