Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India in 1497-1498. Actually, an unnamed Indian navigator he hired in Kenya directed the journey from the east coast of Africa to what is now Kozhikode, India. That arrival is romanticized in this 1880 watercolor.

Painting by Ernesto Casanova, courtesy Library of Congress

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    On May 20, 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in what is now Kozhikode, India. Da Gama was the first European to reach the lucrative trade centers of India by sea.
    Portugal and other European empires had been trading with communities in India and throughout Southeast Asia for centuries. The legendary Silk Road was an overland trade route that linked the fabled spice markets of the east with the bustling commerce of the west. However, traveling through disputed territories in the Mediterranean Sea and Arabian Peninsula was dangerous and time-consuming.
    Da Gama and his fleet used well-traveled routes to navigate down the western coast of Africa. After re-supplying in the Canary Islands, da Gama took a chance and sailed west into the Atlantic Ocean—the opposite direction of where he wanted to go. He took advantage of the strong, reliable winds called Westerlies to quickly steer him to the southern coast of Africa. Da Gama and his fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope in December 1497, and named the nearby coast Natal, after the Portuguese word for Christmas. (The South African province of KwaZulu-Natal retains this name today.) Da Gama established poor relations with leaders in what are now the coasts of Mozambique and southern Kenya—the Europeans became pirates of Arab trading ships in the region. 
    In what is now the port of Malindi, Kenya, da Gama met and interacted with Indian merchants and sailors. They advised him on the favorable monsoon winds of the western Indian Ocean. In fact, da Gama actually hired an experienced Indian navigator to guide his fleet to the trade center of Calicut (now known as Kozhikode). 
    Da Gama’s sea route to India allowed Portugal to establish a rich trade with India and southeast Asia. Portugal was also able to expand its empire to include provinces from India (centered around the state of Goa, whose largest city is Vasco da Gama) to China (the island of Macau).
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    bustling Adjective


    coast Noun

    edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    commerce Noun

    trade, or the exchange of goods and services.

    dispute Noun

    debate or argument.

    empire Noun

    group of nations, territories or other groups of people controlled by a single, more powerful authority.

    establish Verb

    to form or officially organize.

    explorer Noun

    person who studies unknown areas.

    fable Noun

    traditional short story that usually has a moral lesson.

    favorable Adjective

    positive or encouraging.

    fleet Noun

    group of ships, usually organized for military purposes.

    legendary Adjective

    famous, heroic, or celebrated.

    lucrative Adjective

    profitable or money-making.

    market Noun

    central place for the sale of goods.

    merchant Noun

    person who sells goods and services.

    monsoon Noun

    seasonal change in the direction of the prevailing winds of a region. Monsoon usually refers to the winds of the Indian Ocean and South Asia, which often bring heavy rains.

    Encyclopedic Entry: monsoon
    navigate Verb

    to plan and direct the course of a journey.

    pirate Noun

    thief who steals from ships or ships' crews while at sea.

    port Noun

    place on a body of water where ships can tie up or dock and load and unload cargo.

    Encyclopedic Entry: port
    province Noun

    division of a country larger than a town or county.

    Encyclopedic Entry: province
    reliable Adjective

    dependable or consistent.

    Silk Road Noun

    ancient trade route through Central Asia linking China and the Mediterranean Sea.

    spice Noun

    tasty and aromatic plant substances used in cooking.

    steer Verb

    to guide or direct.

    trade Noun

    buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.

    trade route Noun

    path followed by merchants or explorers to exchange goods and services.

    Westerlies Plural Noun

    winds blowing from the west across the mid-latitudes.