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Vasco Da Gama - Voyage to Calicut - 1498

Posted by Maddy

Where and when? Doubts remain.

At the tail end of the 15th century, an event occurred which opened the Indian subcontinent to the West, and ushered a plethora of changes. Internationalism, wars, expanded trade, profiting, rivalry, monopolism, greed, subjugation, and finally, colonialism arrived. Even though there were many visitors from the west coming and going, and of course drifting towards the parts of the south in search of spices and Christians, it was the arrival of Portugal’s Vasco Da Gama in 1498 which brought about these huge changes and ended free trade. This article will dwell on just the arrival of the first fleet from Lisbon and its Admiral Vasco Da Gama at Calicut. Most people are content to record that he arrived at Calicut in 1498. Do we need to correct history books on the when and where after over 520 years? Perhaps! As they say, the devil is in the details.

If one were to dig a little bit into this topic, they will read that Gama arrived at a place called Kappad near Calicut, on 20th May 1498. In reality, both the location and the date are debatable, and that is the topic we will study. The alternate location being discussed is a place a little further north, Pantalayani Kollam and the landing date is 26th August 1498, 3 months later. Is there any truth to this? Let’s check.

As such, there is only one official record – based on the roteiro or log book compiled by an anonymous author (possibly Alvaro Velho or João de Sá) officially published in 1838. The unpublished versions were used by Castenheda, Barros and Gois to prepare accounts of Vasco Da Gama’s voyage. A second account, or fragments from it, written by Figueira, was apparently used by Gasper Correa in his Lendas. While the Roteiro states an arrival at Calicut on 20th May 1498, Correa’s account states an arrival on 26th August 1498. The latter has been discounted by historians on the reasoning that Correa is in general, unreliable. But was that so?

Let’s first check out the Ravenstein translation (Castenheda) where he adds at the outset, the following disclaimer – The only available account written by a member of the expedition is the Roteiro or Journal, a translation of which fills the bulk of this volume…. He expands - Apart from these, our chief authorities regarding this voyage are still the Decades of Joao de Barros and the Chronicle of King Manuel, by Damiao de Goes. Both these authors held official positions which gave them access to the records preserved in the India House. Castanheda relied almost wholly upon the Roteiro, but a few additional statements of interest may be found in his pages. As to the Lendas of Gaspar Correa, we are unable to look upon his account of Vasco da Gama's first voyage as anything but a jumble of truth and fiction, notwithstanding that he claims to have made use of the diary of a priest, Figueiro, who is stated to have sailed in Vasco's fleet.

Castenheda - We left Malindi (they had arrived on or before Easter Sunday - April 14th) on Tuesday, the 24th of the month [of April] for a city called Qualecut [Calecut], with the pilot whom the king had given us…On Friday, the 18th of May, after having seen no land for twenty-three days, we sighted lofty mountains (Mount Eli), and having all this time sailed before the wind we could not have made less than 600 leagues. On the following day [May 19] we again approached the land, but owing to the heavy rain and a thunderstorm, which prevailed whilst we were sailing along the coast, our pilot was unable to identify the exact locality. On Sunday [May 20] we found ourselves close to some mountains, and when we were near enough for the pilot to recognize them, he told us that they were above Calecut, and that this was the country we desired to go to. That night [May 20] we anchored two leagues from the city of Calecut, and we did so because our pilot mistook Capua, (Kappad) a town ' at that place, for Calecut. Still further there is another town called Pandarani. We anchored about a league and a half from the shore. After we were at anchor, four boats approached us from the land, who asked of what nation we were. We told them, and they then pointed out Calecut to us.

Ravenstein adds an erroneous foot note about the rains - The rains in Malabar begin about April or May, and continue until September or October. They are synchronous with the S.W. monsoon, and are heaviest in June, July, and August.

GJ Ames explains - Gaspar Correia (1495–1561?) was the only one from among the main 16th century Portuguese chroniclers who actually witnessed part of Vasco da Gama’s career in India. He had traveled to India in ca. 1513 and for a time served as secretary to Afonso de Albuquerque during the final years of his governorship (1509–1515).  Correia later compiled materials for and wrote his Lendas da India between 1540 and his death in the early 1560s.

Correa's account - The Three Voyages of Vasco da Gama, was translated by Lord Stanley in 1869. According to the Correa’s chronology, the armada stayed at Melinde for 3 months between April 29th and Aug 6th, sailed out to sight Mt Eli on Aug 26th stay in Calicut for 70-74 days and leave Calicut in Nov and after a few stops reach back in Melinde on Jan 8th 1499. The sailing period of 22-24 days is mentioned in all accounts, a speed which required strong winds.

So, the first question is the time spent by Gama at Malindi. According to Castenheda, it was 10 days, whereas, it was more than 3 months according to Correa. Stanley in a footnote clarifies that Correa’s date is more dependable since the Portuguese and Moors ate together (He says -the probability is great that Gama arrived, as Correa says, at the end of April, when the Ramazan and Bairam would be entirely over, meaning that it was after Ramzan which ended April 23rd). The interesting aspect is the demand for special food and biscuits (explained in quite some detail) at Melinde for the continued voyage, which could be provided by the local cooks only by the end of May. So, we see that a month has already elapsed.

Ibn Majid’s sailing calendar is clear that sailing to Malabar should commence only in August due to favorable winds and the fact that Malabar markets are closed from May to August. We should also take note that Vasco da Gama took 24 days to cross from Melinde to India, while Cabral, João da Nova, Estevão da Gama and Affonso de Albuquerque effected this passage in 15 to 18 days. They all crossed in August, when the SW. monsoon blow's freely and on the dates recommended by Arab pilots.

Also at this point, the Melinde king states clearly - The captain major said that he would have it (biscuts) made, and that he wanted it soon, because he wanted to go away at once, for this was at the end of May of the year 1498. The King replied that the ship would not have weather for the voyage till three months hence, that it would have to be in the month of August, which was the time of the monsoon for the navigation. The King said to him that on leaving this place he had to cross the sea for the coast of India, and they could not voyage except with the monsoon, because it was winter on the opposite coast, and there were great storms in which they would be lost, and therefore they could not do anything more than wait for the monsoon; and that they should rest themselves whilst they prepared what they had need of.

The Portuguese were not content with the waiting period, but Correa explains that the frustrated lot remained in Malindi. His explanations are solid and cannot in my opinion be written off, also he had no reason to change the dates. Correa certainly did not expect to gain by making submissions at Lisbon, writing 16 years after the event, then again, he remained and died in India, never going back home.

Continuing - They then called the masters and pilots, and told them that , they would have to remain there till August, when it would be the monsoon in which they would depart, and of the good state in which affairs stood , and that meantime they would equip and refit the ships with what was necessary, all which was discussed among them, and they took measures for heeling over the ships, laden just as they were, and they caulked the sides as much as they could, and the decks and upper works, and pitched it all over with pitch of the country.. The time having now arrived to start planning for the departure of the ships, which was with the new moon of July of 1498 (~15th) and a marble memorial column was erected, the pilot Malemo Cana has previously joined them. Finally, the armada left out on August 6th.

According to Correa the ships first cast anchor at Kappad (Capocate). The meetings with the Zamorin and descriptions of Calicut follow and according to the writers Barros, Castenheda and Camoens, Gama sails back home via Anjediva in Oct. But only Correa correctly states that Gama went to Cannanore in November 1948, leaving Calicut, to get a better reception from the Kolathiri Raja. They then departed for Anjediva further North of the Western shores on 10th Dec. They sailed for Melinde on 8th Jan 1499 and headed back home on 20th Jan 1499. Comparing this to the Roteiro, what took 20-30 days with NW monsoon winds, took 4 months (lack of wind, sickness, lack of water etc) according to Barros’s & Castenheda’s accounts!

According to the Roteiro, the meeting with the Zamorin was on May 28th. A second meeting took place on the 30th. Between June 2nd and 23rd, they were at Pantalayani. Merchandise was moved to Calicut on May 23rd. There is no detail of the Portuguese doing much in a shuttered Calicut, between June and August when it is time to depart. Eventually the ships sail away on Aug 23rd after about 100 days, after a week or two of reported activity. Did Vasco exaggerate the stay at Calicut and his grip and knowledge of the new lands? Ravenstein opines – From that time to the day of his final departure, in the afternoon of August 30th, he hovered about that city, standing off and on, as the state of the weather or the exigencies of his relations with the Zamorin required.

Regarding the trip back, Ravenstein adds that they departed ahead of the monsoon winds (an experienced pilot would not recommend it and they had one)- The passage across the gulf proved a fearful trial for the Portuguese. Foul winds and calms impeded their progress, whilst a renewed outbreak of scurvy carried off thirty victims and prostrated the remaining men, so that only seven or eight were fit to do duty in each vessel. Vasco da Gama had left Anjediva on October 5th, although the N.E. monsoon only sets in at the end of the month, and ninety days elapsed before the African coast came within sight.

 It is interesting to note the anomalies between the two accounts, showing wide disparities in the dates spent at Melinde and Calicut. So, we have Barros, Castaneda, and Gois stating a longer stay at Calicut and a long voyage back, whereas we have Correa sticking to a longer stay at Melinde and a short voyage back.

Let’s see what Logan has to say (Innes mentions 20th May in the Malabar Gazetteers, but Logan differs in the Malabar Manual and maintains his opinion when consulted by others). He states- On 21st April the squadron reached Mombasa, and on Sunday, 29th April, Melinde. Their stay at Melinde extended to three months, for the “new moon of July” was the beginning of the season for departure from Melinde for India. The king of Melinde most hospitably entertained the strangers, and provided them with pilots and with a broker to help them in their trade. And it was by his advice that the expedition eventually sailed for Calicut instead of for Cambay whither the broker wished to take them. Leaving Melinde on 6th August 1498, the two ships ran across with the south-west monsoon and sighted the coast of Malabar on 26th August.

The Vencatikotta Ola which we talked about some years ago, provides confirmation: "In the year of the Taliha 904, or the sixth of Karkadom 672, three of the Feringhee's ships came to Pandarani Kollam. It being in the monsoon, they anchored there and came on shore. They went to Karikate, where they learnt all the news of Malibar. At this time, they did not trade, but returned again to their own country - Portugal. It is supposed the motive of their coining was for pepper. Two years afterwards they returned from Portugal with six ships, and came to Karikote."

The Italian friar Fr Maffei pointed out this anomaly during his speech on the 400th anniversary of the landing in 1898, at Calicut, he certainly had excellent knowledge about Calicut, since he had lived and preached there for years, and was considered quite an authority on Portuguese matters. Following him, another Goan scholar JB Amancio Gracias presented an elaborate article, touching on the V Ola and another source in his O Oriente Portuguez dated 1904 (page 310-326). This was reiterated by D Ferroli writing about the Jesuits in Malabar in 1939.

The second source which three Evangelical scholars point out, based on inputs collected by Fr Maffei is an extract from a Calicut Granthavari obtained from a Zamorin, which I have not been able to locate or place. They quote as follows. 1497 Manani (Meenam or Medam?) Gama Bilam nagarattil ninnu purapettu – Gama left the town of Belem in March 1497. 1498 Chingam 26 tiyadi – Malayalate Ely Malaye adyam Kandu – Gama saw Mt Eli on 26th August 1498. Of course, it is not possible that the Granthavari had Gregorian dates, it must have been transcribed by Fr Maffei and since I could not source his paper or find the document so mentioned, I have to let it pass.

The Vencatakotta Ola otherwise known as the Kerala Varthamanam (derived perhaps from Zainuddin Makhdoom’s Tuhfat al Mujahideen or yet another source which both the Zamorin’s scribe and the Muslim cleric borrowed from), is dated 1792, just after the British acquired Malabar from Tipu, according to recent studies by Prange and Kooria. The Ravenstein translation is dated 1898 and the Stanley translation of Portuguese sources dated 1869. So, the Malayalam account Kerala Varthamanam or V Ola predates the roteiro published 1838, other studies made by British scholars. The dates mentioning karkidagom and Chingom point to August, not May.

The next dispute is regarding the port at which Da Gama first landed. According to early accounts, it was mentioned as Kappatt. Correa mentions Kappad, but other chroniclers mention the eventual docking at Pandarani Kollam. Let’s see what Logan has to say - “Following Correa, I think it is clear that da Gama's fleet first shored at kappatt "(the Capogatto of the Portuguese writers; see Yule, Gloss., 8. v. “Capucat”. Ed.], " the position of which is well known, about ten or eleven miles north of Calicut. Correa does not say that the fleet was moved after thus casting anchor at Kappatt, but the fact is mentioned by other writers, who, moreover, give the name of the place to which it was moved, viz., Pandarane. Now Pandarane is undoubtedly Pantalayini, one of the Desums (small hamlets) of the Amsam (parish) in which Kollam is situated. It is the Fandarina of Edrisi, the Fandaraina of ibn Batuta and Rashiduddin, the Fundaraina of the Tohfat, the Flandrina of Friar Odoric, etc.” (see Yule, Gloss., $. V. “Pandarāni”]; “and to go further back, it is probably the Patale of Pliny.

Logan continues - The place has long been known because of its trade facilities. Off it, is one of those curious mud-banks, as at Calicut, Narakal, and Alpey, which protect shipping under shelter. Even at the present day, ships from the Red Sea and the Gulf almost invariably make for it when running over to India at the close of the south-west monsoon. The tradition, that da Gama's ships spent the monsoon season of 1498 at this place, has been current on the coast from the very commencement of the British administration. Da Gama sighted Mount Deli on the 26th August, and even at that time of year a country vessel would nowadays make for North Kollam for protection against occasional squalls. In 1793 the cruiser Morning Star, used by the settlement commissioners, took shelter here during the monsoon, they reporting, among their reasons for so doing, that da Gama's fleet had sheltered there. The tradition had probably come from the Portuguese themselves, and as it is consistent with all the accounts, I have little hesitation in accepting it.”

So, we can deduct that the May 20th arrival date could be erroneous and the mention of Kappad as the place where the ships docked and people got off, needs correction to Pantalayani Kollam. Further questions arise as to where the Gama met the Zamorin and the exact palace at which the Zamorin received him. We will get to this in another discussion.

A question may arise – what about the Diary of Dom John Figueira, or Joao Figueiro, a person who sailed with Gama and whose accounts Correas used as his base? An incomplete copy of a diary kept by the priest, Vasco da Gama's chaplain, João Figueira, containing an account of the return voyage from India to Portugal in 1499, was found by Corrêa among other papers in the possession of Albuquerque. Quoting Correa - Of what this clerk wrote, many copies were then made, and I saw some fragments of one of the copies in the possession of Afonso d'Albuquerque, amongst other old papers, when I, Gaspar Correa, served him for three years as his scribe, so that on seeing such delightful things as to make one rejoice on hearing and knowing them, I gathered up this notebook that was already in fragments, and tattered in parts: and thus I took the decision to write down everything that I could find out and see of the deeds done in India. He adds that his only purpose is to write 'without any attention to greed, vanity or envy', and with the intention of 'solely satisfying my own desire, and to content my own will'. Correa also adds that he took into account, inputs from Moors and Gentiles of Cannanore.

Correa’s “Lendas da India” is not generally held in high esteem by historians, although the author’s many years of life in India would particularly qualify him to describe the manners at the Zamorin’s court. The “Roteiro,” or Journal, on the contrary, as is emphasized by Ravenstein in his translation for the Hakluyt Society, has the highest value. But Fr Maffei was emphatic when he said in 1898 that these kinds of things should not be taken for granted.

Danvers in his ‘Portuguese in India’ also concurs - Vasco da Gama set sail from Melinde on the 6th August, and in twenty days’ time Mount Dely, in the kingdom of Cananor, was sighted; and thence, coasting along within sight of the land, the pilots cast anchor off the town of Capucad, or Capocate, two league from the city of Calicut.

But it is still curious that the Tuhfat al-Mujahideen does not mention the landing or departure dates using the Hijra calendar, whereas the V Ola written later provides the Kollam Era dates, closer to Correa’s dating.

Some final words can be added about the purported mutiny, death of 30 (or 55) sailors and disease on the 4-month journey (according to the Roteiro, Castenheda) between Anjediva and Melinde on the return leg. Castaneda mentions lack of wind, sailors suffering from scurvy and ulcers in their arms and legs, lack of water and their mutiny, wishing to go back to Calicut. Correa does not mention any of this, and maintains that the ships sailed back in good weather and without misfortune. Nevertheless, we note that only one ship arrived back at Lisbon, the other being scuttled according to Gama, due to lack of sailors.

So, what can we make of all this? That the dates in the Kerala Varthamanam (V Ola) concur with Correa in that Gama arrived in August, not May. Is it sufficient to alter history? I doubt it, at this stage. In fact, the original Ola is not available, and having been transcribed in 1792, may not be considered factual evidence of the August date, but it nevertheless casts doubt on the May dates. The roteiro has always been considered factual, so perhaps that is how it will remain!!


The Three Voyages of Vasco Da Gama, and His Viceroyalty -Gaspar Corrêa
A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499 - Ed E.G. Ravenstein
The Voyage of François Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, Harry Charles Purvis Bell – Page 360, Logan’s footnote
Calcutta Review 1903, Vol 116-117– Imperial Calicut (pp182-189)
Vasco da Gama na India pela primeira vez – J.B. Armancio Gracias (O Oriente Portuguez)
The Pagan King Replies: An Indian Perspective on the Portuguese Arrival in India – Sebastian Prange
Does the Pagan King Reply? Malayalam Documents on the Portuguese Arrival in India – Mahmood Kooria
The Fourth Centenary of Vasco de Gama's Landing at Calicut- Fr. Maffei, S.J. (I have not been able to source this, but the Gracias text follows Fr Maffei’s hypothesis)

Historic alleys – Venkaticota Ola - Part 1 & Part 2



  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    For one, the location of whose remains is also disputed (Sanjay Subrahmaniam), it is no wonder that the date and location of Vasco da Gama's landing on the Kerala coast is still a matter of debate. When the issue of the location was raised almost a decade ago by Calicut Heritage Forum and its President, Prof. M G S Narayanan, there were some murmurs from a few historians. For example, Prof. K N Panikkar gently deprecated such conclusions: 'You have to be careful when studying history using multiple sources', he said, adding that '...history is not a matter of opinion, but of fact'. He did not, however, say if he was in possession of facts. (The Hindu dated May 24, 2013) Bloggers are not often academic historians. It is only when there are gaps in our knowledge and when academic historians continue to maintain silence over ambiguities, that aficionados of history raise such questions. If it provokes fresh enquiry among serious researchers, their purpose is fulfilled.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF,

    There is so much mystery around this first voyage and Gama's actions, that one feels things may have been different from what they are presented as. The date of departure, the itinerary, the purpose, the initial reports, the durations, the fate of the ships and their crew, the return of Gama after going missing for a while, the lack of a proper report of the voyage, and the divided opinions of the dates, as above, are some of them. But all that is all based on the eurocentric reporting of the event.

    Here in this article, we also point out some Malabar records related to the event and express surprise at why they have been scoffed at even after they were pointed out as early as 1898 by Fr Maffei. The Venkatakotta Ola has been discussed by two more academics Prange and Kooria recently, so the Ola and its contents are no longer unknown (it was relatively obscure when I mentioned it in 2010.

    I hope as you mention, that this attempt at airing the aspects, stimulates a discussion on the date as well as the location of Gama's landing. It is more or less accepted already that the ships arrived at Kappad, but docked at P Kollam.