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May 20: Vasco da Gama and Gaspar da Gama

May 20, 2014
gaspar_da_gamaChristian Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Calcutta on this date in 1498 and thereby established a sea route from Europe to the spice lands of India. Months later, while harboring his fleet in Anjediva, a small archipelago of five islands, he was greeted by a Jewish man of about 40 who said he been born in Posen, Poland and had been taken prisoner en route to Jerusalem and sold as a slave in India. Yusuf ‘Adil, as he was known, had eventually obtained his freedom and now worked for a local ruler and lived as a Muslim. Da Gama suspected him (correctly) to be a spy, took him prisoner, brought him to Portugal, forcibly baptized him, and named him Gaspar da Gama. Gaspar became the pilot of Vasco’s fleet in Indian waters, and also served the Portuguese king as a linguist on other naval expeditions. He accompanied explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral on the mission on which Brazil was “discovered,” and also accompanied Nicolau Coelho, the first European to step ashore in Brazil. Da Gama also was consulted by Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the Americas are named, when they met at Cape Verde. “He could speak Venetian with utmost proficiency . . . He further stated that he was now serving a powerful prince who had an army of 40,000 men on horse. . . . [He had come] to offer on behalf of his ruler all the help in terms of ships and food which they might require. . . . At first Vasco da Gama did believe him but the general behavior of this stranger created suspicion among his crew. Vasco da Gama’s brother Paulo tried to enquire about this person from some Indians, and it was then known that he was a spy. Arrested and beaten, he confessed that his mission was to study the Portuguese fleet . . .” -Francisco S. d’Abreu