He is known as one of the great explorers of all time and is perhaps Portugal’s most celebrated citizen. Vasco Da Gama brought great wealth to the Portuguese crown through his maritime endeavours and his legacy is alive and well almost 500 years since his death. You can find bridges, football clubs, churches and even cities named in his honour around the former Portguese colonies of the world. But who was this man and what did he actually do to achieve such long-lasting fame?
Vasco da Gama was born in a castle in the town of Sines on the coast of the Alentejo region of Portugal in 1460 or 1469 (no-one is quite sure which). His father was a local administrator and lived within the castle with his family. Vasco da Gama impressed in his early years at sea (helping to seize a number of French ships) and soon won the favour of the King Manuel I. Manuel wanted to start making money from the spice trade that had, up to that point, been monopolised by the Venetians. He sent Vasco da Gama to find a sea route around the bottom of Africa that would allow them to trade with the Indians.
Da Gama’s journey started in 1497 and it would be two years before he returned home as a hero. In that time he managed to find a new route that opened up great opportunities for Portugal to establish itself as a global superpower and set foot on several territories that would later become colonies of the Portuguese crown. Da Gama made three journeys in total to India during which time he built a reputation as a fearsome and merciless leader who would sanction the most horrible acts to achieve his plans.
He fell in and out of favour with the Portuguese crown, with honours bestowed on him far later than he would have expected given his achievements for the King. He was eventually made Count of Vidigueira, a small town in the central Alentejo close to the modern town of Beja, with the ceremony taking place at Evora Cathedral.
He was dispatched on his final mission in 1524 to sort out the mess made by a group of corrupt officials in southern India. No sooner had he cleared out the incumbent rulers and installed his own men in charge than he was struck down by malaria. He died on Christmas Eve in 1524 and his body was brought back to Portugal for burial.
While there is no clear Vasco da Gama tourist trail in Portugal it is quite easy to find links to his story as you pass through the Alentejo region. In Evora and Vidigueira you’ll also find references to Vasco da Gama and his triumphant moments in the city. Take a walk through the modern Parque de las Naciones district of Lisbon and Da Gama’s name is everywhere; the longest bridge in Europe is seen from here and is named after him.
As for his birthplace Sines, it merely has a statue in honour of Da Gama in front of the parish church – there is little other reason to spend much time in this modern town, dominated by its oil refinery. The coastal towns north and south of Sines offers far more pleasing alternatives, with Troia, Porto Covo, Zambujeira do Mar and Vila Nova de Milfontes all offering decent options for bases to explore the attractive and peaceful Alentejo coastline.