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  • Spencer Low

When the Portuguese first arrived in India...

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

Vasco da Gama led the first Portuguese expedition to India, setting sail from Lisbon on July 8, 1497 and arriving in Calicut only on May 21, 1498. There was a four-month stay on the African east coast, which accounts for the journey taking over 300 days. The time spent on Moçambique Island, Mombasa and then Malindi was fruitful as Gama was able to take on board a Gujarati pilot who was experienced with the well-established Indian Ocean trade routes. Leaving on April 24, 1498, it took the fleet less than a month to reach the west coast of India.

Fleet of the 2nd India Armada (Cabral, 1500), from the Memória das Armadas

Due to altercations with the local rulers in east Africa, Gama was initially extremely cautious and waited to be approached by local boats who were curious about the sudden appearance of these strangers. Gama first sent on land someone relatively junior, possibly a certain João Nunes, who had the following encounter:

And he was taken to a place where there were two Moors from Tunis, who knew how to speak Castilian [i.e. Spanish] and Genoese. And the first greeting that they gave him was the following:
What the Devil! What brought you here?
And they asked him what he had come to seek from so far, and he replied:
We came to seek Christians and spices.
And they said to him:
Why do the King of Castile and the King of France and the Seignory of Venice no send men here?
And he replied that the King of Portugal did not permit them to do so. And they said that he did well.
(Álvaro Velho, Roteiro da Primeira Viagem de Vasco da Gama (1987 pp. 54-5), ed. Neves Águas. Lisbon. Europe-América)

While the Portuguese certainly innovated in terms of how they reached India, they were merely inserting themselves into existing networks that knew of the Europe they came from. But I imagine they must have been surprised to speak their neighbours' language in such faraway lands...

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