Vasco da Gama was born to a Portuguese noble family in the 1460’s. On this day in 1497, he set-out from Lisbon with 170 men in four ships—seeking an all-water route to Asia. Prior to this, no European seamen had navigated successfully the treacherous waters of South Africa’s “Cape of Good Hope.” An all-water route would allow traders to avoid treacherous territories in the Mediterranean and the subsequent overland route through Arab lands. The journey was long, however—da Gama’s roundtrip voyage would be longer than circumnavigating the globe at the Equator.
When da Gama successfully landed in India, the consequences were enormous—both for Portugal and for the East. First, the wealth that Portugal amassed, bringing-back exotic spices like pepper and cinnamon (previously unknown in Europe) allowed the country to become the world’s most powerful naval force. Secondly, it allowed Portugal to establish outposts and colonies in Asian ports, giving Lisbon long-lasting, worldwide influence. For one hundred years, Portugal was able to defend its trade route around Africa’s cape, a monopoly eventually broken by England, France and The Netherlands.
Vasco da Gama’s brave exploration and achievement also ushered-in a race amongst Europeans to colonize Asia (and other parts of the developing world)—the benefits and harms of which are vigorously debated to this day.
The bookends, shown above, are modeled on ships of the Spanish Armada—not those of the Portuguese (and 90 years after da Gama’s feat). Nevertheless, they capture a bit of the romantic and rollicking adventure of the Portuguese explorer and his crew of fearless sailors. Please click on the photo above to learn more about them.
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