Gaspar Da Gama

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Gaspar Da India, Gaspara Da Almeida, Gaspar Rodriguez, Gaspar de las Indias, Gaspar Perriera

There are certainly many colorful persons in the murky grey depths of medieval history. One such person is Gaspar. He is a typical example of one who seized every opportunity he got to better his existence. Such an extraordinary varied life is rare for a person of the time and how he handled himself in these difficult situations is exemplary. This then is the story of a Polish Jew who lived in India. Originally I was not too keen on the issue, but as I read a little about his travails, I was quite interested. His life is connected in a way to another colorful character Timoja whom I will introduce some another day. But for now, let us meet the Polish Jew in Malabar who has no face, for no portrait of his could be located, but a huge presence.

 Gaspar Da Gama was born in Poland sometime around 1444 (Barros thinks he was born in Alexandria in 1458, some others believe he was from Bosnia), but virtually nothing is known about his early years. At some point he began traveling and ended up in Jerusalem and later at Alexandria. Eventually he was taken prisoner and sold into slavery, winding up in India. Soon he won his freedom and began to work for the ruler of Goa - Abdul Muzaffar Yusuf Adil Shah of Bijapur, who possessed a powerful army of 40,000 horsemen. Gaspar had by converted to Islam, taking the name Yusuf 'Adil, and rose to the rank of Admiral or Shahbandar. The Portuguese chronicler Gaspar Correia, in his work Lendas da India (Legends of India), refers to Gaspar da Gama as a Castilian whose real name was Alonso Perez.

 Whether by intent or not, Gaspar was the person who provided Gama with large doses of misinformation, he explained that most of India was ruled by Christian kings (see CHF blog on this subject) including the Vijayanagar kingdom. He was later to become the person who arranged the meeting of Cabral with the King of Cochin and thus become the primary reason for the later problems of Malabar after the Portuguese were welcomed at Cochin. But let us see how this interesting meeting came about. I would assume that he was thus the reason for the Gama to fall somewhat out of favor with King Manual some years after he got back. But let us check out the story in more detail.

 As we know, Vasco da Gama arrived in India in 1498 and after his tumultuous reception (actually rejection) at Calicut, went to Anjediva to repair the damages to his ego and ships, remaining there during the winter months. His ships had to be re-caulked for the journey home. The first person to check the scene out was Timoja with his boats, and later the responsibility was given to the Yusus Adil (Gaspar) to sail out and see what was going on with the foreigners on the island. The intent was to take the white men prisoners, and so Yusuf Adil docked his ships a little farther and ventured out nearer to the Gama’s ships on a boat, hailing them in Castilian. What happened of course was typical of Gama and atypical of Malabar courtesy & hospitality, for life was certainly civil until then. But in fairness to Gama, it must be said that he got a tip from the local fishermen that the people from the mainland in the fustas coming near were having an attack plan in their minds.

 Gaspar a tall European with a long white beard now approached his ship, in a boat with a small crew and was caught by surprise. Gaspar Correa’s words (Voyages …) go thus - When he was near their sterns within hearing, he hailed the ships in Castilian, saying, "God preserve the ships and the Christian captains, and the crews who sail with them;" and the rowers gave a shout, which was answered from the ships with the trumpets. All the crews were much excited and pleased at hearing the Castilian language; and the Jew, coming up nearer, said, "Gentlemen, captains, give me a safe conduct and I will come on board of your ships to learn the news of my country, and from me you also may learn whatever you please, since God has brought you hither for your good and for mine; for it is now forty years that I have been a captive, and now God has shown me ships from Spain, which is my country, therefore may it be your pleasure to give me the safe conduct which I request, for without it I should not dare to come on board." They answered him from the ship that he might safely come on board with peace, and that they would do him all honour, because they much rejoiced at hearing him speak, and that in the ships there was no one who would do harm to anybody. The Jew, trusting to these words, approached and came on board, and they received and welcomed him, and bade him sit down, and questioned him as to the country he came from, and how it was that he was at such distance from his native land, and many other things which the Jew answered; and the captains showed that they were much pleased to hear him. Of the rowers of the small fusta several also came on board, and were much surprised at what they saw and in great security as they saw their captain sitting down thus and conversing with so much satisfaction. The captain-major ordered Nicolas Coelho to be called to come and see the new guest who had come to visit them. Nicolas Coelho came to the ship in his boat with a few men, and as he approached the ship the captain-major ordered him to come alongside on the side where the fusta was, and when they arrived to board the fusta. The captain major then rose up and at once ordered the Jew to be bound by men who were ready for that purpose; and on seeing that, the sailors of the fusta threw themselves into the sea, and the boat came up and gathered them all in so that none escaped. The Jew, seeing himself bound in that manner, said, “Oh, gentlemen, noble Christians, God protect me and you; for having trusted myself to your words I am now bound hand and foot." The captain-major answered him, "Jew, it was with treachery that you asked for a safe conduct, and on that account it shall not avail you." Then they put heavy irons upon his feet, and sent all the rowers down below decks. Afterwards the captain-major ordered the Jew to be stripped, and two ship-boys to give him many stripes with cords; and he said to the Jew that he well knew of the treachery with which he had come with the fustas which were concealed amongst the islets, and therefore he swore, by the life of the King of Portugal his sovereign, that he would put him to death by flogging and torturing him with drops of hot fat, until he confessed the truth out of his mouth. The Jew, finding himself in such straits, and that he was already questioned about the fustas which were at the islets, said, " Sir, I confess that I am worthy of death, but have pity on me and on this white beard, and I will tell you the whole truth." Then the captain-major ordered him to be unbound and dressed, and he related all that I have mentioned above.

 As the story goes, Gaspar took Gama to his fustas and his sailors, lying to them that he was bringing some of his white relatives and allowed Gama to capture, and destroy his boats, maim and kill his people, and the remains of his boats were gifted to the fishermen.

 According to Barros, Gaspar was the Shahbandar of Goa. He also says that Gaspar originally deceived the Gama by showing a wooden cross, before asking to be invited to come on board. It was then that the local fisherman stated that Gaspar the ‘moor’ was actually a soldier of the king. Barros then explains all the rubbish Gaspar fed to Gama (after seeing his interest in the religion) about the country being heathen waiting to be led in the right path and all that. Anyway the Gama was about to sail for Lisbon and realizing the man would be useful to him as he spoke various languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean (Caldeu) and Italian mixed with Spanish, Gaspar was to accompany Gama back to Portugal. Initially he was vexed about leaving Goa since he had a wife and son there, but Gama convinced him that the king would not do anything to them. Then he was baptized and provided the name Gaspar Da Gama and taken to Lisbon.

 He quickly became a favorite of the King of Portugal, whom it was said he would dazzle with tales of the Far East. He was indeed a grand story teller, befitting a king’s court…the King spoke to this Jew frequently, and took pleasure in listening to what he related, on which account the King did him many favours, and gave him many dresses from his own wardrobe, and horses from his stables, and servants from among those who became Christians whom Dom Vasco gave to him; and all the people used to call him Gaspar of the Indies, for so he wished them to name him. And thus Gaspar Gama became Gaspar Da Indies.

He told them in Portugal that his name was Gaspar and that he had been born in Posen, Poland. A local persecution compelled his parents to take refuge in Granada in Spain, whence they had migrated to Alexandria. As a young man Gaspar crossed the Red Sea to Mecca and travelled to India. Captured by slavers on the way, he remained in captivity for many years, eventually gaining his release by feigning conversion to Islam. He settled in Goa as a shipowner, marrying a woman and rearing a family. Entering Sambajo's service he had gained much experience at seafaring, becoming in time Sambajo's admiral.

 That was how the Jewish boy who ran away from his motherland during a persecuting period became a Muslim slave in Arabia, came to Goa and became a trusted Moorish officer of the king, then converted to Chritianity, sailed all the way across to Lisbon, met the king Manuel and became his trusted friend and later an official guide, pilot and advisor of the Portuguese admirals traveling to India. He was soon employed as a pilot, interpreter, and negotiator for subsequent voyages of Vasco de Gama as well as explorers Francisco d'Almeida and Pedro Alvares Cabral.

 Gaspar served King Manuel II well. He sailed in 1500 with Cabral, who had been appointed as a leader of an expedition and who, on Gaspar's advice, shipped west on a voyage which led to the discovery of Brazil. He had by now become renowned, one captain writing of him as "a trustworthy man who speaks many languages and knows the names of many cities and provinces, who made two voyages from Portugal to the Indies Ocean and journeyed from Cairo to Malacca, a province on the East of that Ocean. He also visited the island of Sumatra, and he told me he knew of a great kingdom in the interior of India which was rich in gold, pearls and other precious stones." Historians believe Gaspar da Gama was the first European to set foot on the new land of Brazil when he accompanied Cabral on a voyage to India. Thinking they had landed in India, da Gama went ashore to talk to the "Indians", but discovered his knowledge of the language was of no use. He was with Nicolau Coelho when he first stepped ashore in Brazil. On the return voyage he met Amerigo Vespucci, the Tuscan explorer after whom America is named, at Cabo Verde and was consulted by him.

 Within a few years, Gaspar had sailed round the Cape of Good Hope on a number of voyages. He sailed with Vasco da Gama to the Indies, with Francisco d'Almeida when he went to take possession of India as the first Viceroy, and with Cabral to Calicut and then to Cochin. Cabral had got into trouble with the Zamorin at Calicut and had bombed the place. But then he had no cargo or spices to take back. Enters Gaspar to the rescue - As the account goes - The Portuguese position was now very serious, the season had nearly passed, only two of the ships had any cargo at all, and they knew of no port on the Indian coast where they could safely pass the monsoon. In one of the councils, Gaspar da India suggested Cochin as a place where they might possibly get cargo. They were off that port on December 24th, a message elicited a promise of help; prices were arranged without any formal treaty or meeting with the Raja, and in less than a fortnight the ships were laden. And thus the Portuguese had a place to park themselves for the next few decades.

 In 1502 he was reunited with his wife (Some say he had another wife in Goa and now married the Cochin Jewess) who is now explained to be a Jewess from Cochin. So as one can infer, Gaspar did know the Malabar terrain well and had been in touch with the Jews of Cochin, As accounts go, she was from a wealthy family. In spite of his fame, Gaspar was possibly not altogether a happy man in the service of Manuel II. He was very insecure about his Jewish past. King Manuel was always wary of Jews and it was perhaps out of this fear and the risk of losing a good life that Gaspar tried hard to induce her to convert to Christianity. She had remained true to him and to Judaism since he was carried away by the Portuguese, but probably both of them considered it unsafe for her to join him. Gaspar again journeyed to Cochin in 1505 in the retinue of the first Viceroy of India, which also included the son of Dr. Martin Pinheiro, the Judge of the Supreme Court of Lisbon. The young Pinheiro carried along a chest filled with "Torah" scrolls which were taken from the recently destroyed synagogues of Portugal. Gaspar's wife negotiated the sale in Cochin, "where there were many Jews and synagogues." obtaining four thousand parados for thirteen scrolls. D'Almeida heard of the transaction, confiscated the money, and after severely admonishing Pinheiro, reported the matter to the King.

 After the murder of d'Almeida by the Hottentots on Table Bay, Gaspar served the next governor of India, Albuquerque. With him Gaspar made an attack on Calicut. The assault proved disastrous. Albuquerque was wounded and Gaspar was probably killed, for no more references to him are found after 1510. Nevertheless, his contribution to the rise of Portugal as a maritime power, in the few years he served King Manuel II, proved invaluable.

 As you have seen, he was certainly a colorful and resourceful character who survived all his life with his well endowed gift of the gab. He talked himself out of any situation, served many master and travelled back and forth across continents. Not only that he had wives and children in most of the places he lived in and as mystery would have it, vanished at Calicut in 1510. Why was his death not accounted if he died with Coutinho in Calicut? (Of that event, please check out my article written earlier). His lesser actions were always reported in Lisbon. What really happened in Calicut? But of course, the mysterious Jew with the long white beard would be never too far from intrigue. Others believe that he returned to Portugal where he died (he had a wife there too). Some say that his death occurred between 1510 and 1515, or even by about 1520 after nearly eighty years. Certainly a specimen of resilient humanity, to have survived as long as he did!

Gaspar Gama’s son Baltazar also served Almeida’s court in Cochin as an interpreter and figures for his work in Cannanore and also in the well accounted spying mission to Vijayanagar in 1506. Of his wife, there is no further information, but I assume that a good search can turn up something.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam – Vasco Da Gama
The rise of Portuguese power in India, 1497-1550 – R S Whiteway
Penumbral visions: making polities in early modern South India - Sanjay Subrahmanyam
A journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499 - Alvaro Velho, João de Sá
Travel and ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European - Joan-Pau Rubiés
The last Jews of India – Nathan Katz


Osorius calls him a Sanuate by nation and Jew by religion; Barros says a Polish Jew; Castanheda says he announced himself as a Levantine Christian, and that at a distance of two hundred leagues from Anchediva he confessed he was a Moor, and later he was converted, and it was said afterwards that he was a Jew, because it was found that he was married to a Jewess who lived in Cochim. Correa's account is the most probable.
  1. Quotes from A journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama - By Alvaro Velho, João de Sá
  2. Correa (Lendas da India) usually refers to him as Gaspar da Gama, but also calls him Gaspar de las Indias, or Gaspar d'Almeida. King Manuel, in his letter to the Cardinal Protector, calls him a "Jew, who turned Christian, a merchant and lapidary".
  3. Sernigi held a conversation with him at Lisbon. He speaks of him as a Sclavonian Jew, born at Alexandria.
  4. According to the information given by Barros and Goes, the parents of Caspar fled from Posen, in Poland, at the time when King Casimir cruelly persecuted the Jews (about 1456). After a short residence in Palestine they removed to Alexandria, where Gaspar was born
  5. Vespucci (He accompanied Cabral as interpreter) met him on his homeward voyage at Cape Verde, and in his letter of June 4, 1501, published by Baldelli (II Milione, 1827), he speaks highly of Gaspar's linguistic attainments, and refers to his extensive travels in Asia.
  6. Lunardo da Cha Masser, who came to Lisbon in 1504 as ambassador of the Signoria, in a letter written about 1506 and first published in the Archivio Storico Italiano (Florence, 1846), says that Gaspar married a Portuguese lady, and was granted a pension of 170 ducats annually, in recognition of the valuable information which he furnished respecting the Oriental trade.
  7. Moncaide, who came on board Vasco da Gama's vessel at Calecut, is stated by Barros and Goes to have been a native of Tunis, who, in the time of King John II had done business with the Portuguese at Oran, and spoke Castilian. He accompanied Vasco da Gama to Portugal and was baptised. In King Manuel's letter to the Cardinal Protector he is referred to as a " Moor of Tunis". The author of the Roteiro calls him a "Moor of Tunis" whom the Moors of Calecut suspected of being a Christian and emissary of the King of Portugal
  8. Correa savs that he was a native of Seville, who, having been captured when five years old, turned Moslem, although "in his soul he was still a Christian". He generally refers to this man as "the Castilian", and says that his true name was Alonso Perez.
  9. If Correa can be trusted, he still had a wife at Cochin in 1506. Sernigi (see p. 136) credits him with a wife and children at Calecut.
  10. Lipiner his biographer mentions a wife and family in Brazil - Bento Teixeira, who is considered the first Brazilian poet, had been consulted by Lianor da Rosa "if the said niece of his had married the said Gaspar de Almeida formerly, in the tempo dos judeus, if the children of such a marriage would be legitimate.”



  1. Nidhin Olikara

    Another well researched article. Shows how the Portuguese never missed an opportunity and our man Gaspar always rose to the occasion.

    He had to have the gift of the gab as it was his tongue that would have saved him all his life. Imagine him living as a Jew in Poland, as a slave among the Arabs, a 'neo' Muslim in Bijapur and a 'neo' Christian among the Portuguese.

    Hats off to Gaspar Da Gama.

  1. Maddy

    thanks Olikara..
    much appreciated..her was certainly an interesting chap, was he not!! Guess he died at Calicut in the SMS street vicinity..just imagine..


    Fascinating information about a man whoo was probabaly the first Jew ever to set foot on the soil of the Cape of Good Hoope.

    Best wishes!

  1. Omar

    Correction: I think you meant Manuel I instead of Manuel II.

    Great information on Gaspar and very interesting that he called him self Yusuf Adil, after the name of the sultan Bijapur himself.