S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Da Gama, Captain Vasco (geographical exploration)

Born: 1460, Sines, Portugal.
Died: 24 December 1524, Kochi, India.

Vasco da Gama grew up in Portugal and was chosen by King Manuel I of that country as Commander-in-Chief of an expedition to complete the discovery of the sea route to India, following the voyage of Bartholomeu Dias* in 1488. Meanwhile Pedro de Covilha, travelling via Egypt, had visited commercial centres on the west coast of India and Arab settlements on the east coast of Africa as far south as Sofala (20 degrees 8 minutes south) between 1488 and 1490. Da Gama was put in charge of four ships, the S. Gabriel and the S. Rafael, both about 100 tons, a smaller ship of about 50 tons, and a supply ship. Da Gama sailed on the S. Gabriel, accompanied by Pedro de Alenquer, who had sailed with Dias, as pilot. The S. Rafael was captained by his brother, Paulo da Gama. Also on the S. Rafael was Alvaro Velho, whose first-hand account of the voyage, Diario da viagem de Vasco da Gama (Diary of the voyage of Vasco da Game, published in various editions) is the only one known to have survived. The expedition left Portugal on 8 July 1497. After following a looping course through the western and southern Atlantic ocean they reached and named St. Helena Bay on 7 November. They stayed there for eight days, during which they discovered the Berg River, explored the vicinity of the Bay, and met the local Khoi.

During their stay de Alenquer made the first recorded measurement of latitude on South African soil. According to the Portuguese historian Barros, who wrote in the middle of the sixteenth century, the instrument used was a wooden astrolabe "of three spans diameter" (probably about 500 mm), "mounted on three poles in the manner of shears, the better to make sure of and ascertain the solar line" (Mackenzie, 1941). Barros added that the expedition also used small astrolabes made of brass, but did not put much trust in their use on board, owing to the movements of the ships. The simplified form of the astrolabe used at sea by the Portuguese from about 1480 consisted of a circular metal frame graduated at the rim; a metal bar pivoted on the centre of the frame and had each end turned up at right angles and perforated. While suspending the instrument from a ring the bar was adjusted at local noon until the sun's rays passed through one of the holes to the other. The altitude of the sun so obtained was used to determine the latitude using solar tables.

The expedition sighted Table Mountain on 18 November, and on 25 November entered present Mossel Bay. Here they stayed for thirteen days and dismantled their supply ship. Along the Eastern Cape coast, after passing the cross planted by Dias at present Kwaaihoek, they were driven back to Algoa Bay by sea currents, and could make further progress eastwards only when the wind became more favourable. The description of this event constitutes the first known written reference to what was later named the Agulhas Current (Lutheharms, 2006). Passing along the Pondoland coast on Christmas day 1497, they named it Natal. They landed on the Mozambique coast, probably at about 24degrees 53 minutes south, and subsequently at present Quelimane. At the harbour Mozambique they found large vessels with Arabic-speaking crew. On 7 April they reached Mombasa. At Malindi they engaged one of the most distinguished Indian Ocean pilots of the time, ibn Majid, and reached Calicut (now Kozhikode), on the south-east coast of India, on 20 May 1498. On the return journey the expedition's remaining two ships put into Mossel Bay on 3 March 1499, and Da Gama reached Portugal in August that year.

The report of the expedition, of which an English translation was published by Ravenstein (1898), described for the first time several coastal features of southern Africa, as well as some local animals such as the jackass penguin. It also provided the earliest surviving first-hand account of the Khoi inhabitants of the South African west and south coasts. These possessed domestic dogs, cattle (some used as riding oxen and pack animals), sheep, copper ear ornaments, ivory bracelets, and flutes played harmoniously by several persons together. The Bantu-speaking inhabitants of the Mozambique coast were found to possess iron implements, grow millet, and raise chickens. Maps reflecting the geographical observations made during Da Gama's voyage became available from 1502, but the Portuguese did their best to keep the new knowledge from their competitors in other European countries.

Da Gama again sailed for India in February 1502 to impose a Portuguese monopoly on the spice trade. He visited Sofala and Mozambique on the outward journey, paving the way for Portuguese forts there a few years later - the first European settlements in southern Africa. However, his brutal behaviour provoked the opposition of the Arabs on the east coast, and hindered the establishment of diplomatic and commercial relations. In 1524 he returned to India as viceroy, but died soon after his arrival at Cochin (now Kochi). The South African marine mollusc Cythara dagama was named in his honour by K.H. Barnard.

List of sources:
Axelson, E. (ed.) Dias and his successors. Cape Town: Saayman & Weber, 1988.

Barnard, K.H. Personal names in South African conchology. Cape Town: Conchological Society of Southern Africa, 1965.

De Kock, W.J. Portugese ontdekkers om die Kaap. Kaapstad: Balkema, 1957.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 1, 1968.

Liebenberg, E.C. Portolaankaarte en die Portugese ontdekking van die seeweg na Indie. South African Journal of Cultural History, 1988, Vol. 2(3), pp. 170-184.

Lutheharms, J.R.E. The Agulhas Current. Berlin: Springer, 2006.

Mackenzie, T. Early astronomical observations in South Africa. Monthly Notes of the Astronomical Society of South Africa, 1941, No. 19, 2 p. (not numbered).

Raven-Hart, R. Before van Riebeeck: Callers at South Africa from 1488 to 1652 (pp. 2-8). Cape Town: Struik, 1967.

Ravenstein, E.G. (translator and editor). A journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499. London: Hakluyt Society, Works No. 99, 1898.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979 (vols 1-4) and Cape Town: South African Library, 1991 (vol. 5).

Theal, G.M. History of Africa south of the Zambesi... (Vol. 1, 3rd ed.) London: Allen & Unwin, 1916.

Compiled by: C. Plug