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Why did Gama risk his life to find the spice route to India

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

The Malabar coast of Kerala had very strong maritime trade relationship with many empires of the world. It was Chinese and Arab traders who primarily traded spices, ivory, cloth, gems & timber, they used to take it to the Persian gulf and the mediterranean, from there it was further distributed to the Roman Empire and European markets by Italians.

In the later part of the 13th century, it was Marco Polo – the first European to have visited Malabar, and in his travelogue he shares his experience about Malabar – Modern day South West Coast of India. Probably it was his travelogues that gave the very first idea about this beautiful and rich land to the navigators & sailors of the West. Pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon was by then already part of their lives, and they used to it for cooking, flavours, medicines, perfume and cosmetics.

During the mid fifteenth century Sultan Mahmud II, the Ottoman ruler conquered Constantinople – Which was like the heart of the world, both politically and in terms of trade. All of commodities from Malabar reached Europe either through the constantinople, and this political change from Constantine to Ottomans Changed everything. They levied heavy taxes and trade was drastically affected which made spices and other commodities very expensive and scarce. This gave way to new ideas to source spices from the Malabar.

This led way about finding a new route to India to source spices for Europe and it was an adventure even to think about it. You should imagine how could life be then, and what was the technology that was available for navigators. I am sure a lot of them might have thought and tired taking up this challenge, but might have not succeeded it. This plan was attractive, because if succeeded, it could have been a billion dollar deal then- finding the sea route to the Malabar!

This was a time when the Pope was not just a religious head, but had serious political power and capabilities. In 1450s the Portuguese king received the rights for marine trade with India and the East indies. The King of Portugal – John II wanted to utilize this opportunity and was ready to sponsor the expedition. It was during this period that Pero De Covilha, a portuguese traveller set his travel reversing the trade route. Essentially travel back the way the commodities arrived Portugal. Covilha was fluent in Arabic, and was well versed with their customs which was a great advantage for him. He arrived Cairo where he met some Arab traders who arrived from Kozhikode. He sailed with them to Kannur, and travelled to Kozhikode by land, along the Western India coastline to Goa and finally managed his way back to Portugal. Covilha’s reports for the King of Portugal was out of his imagination. This was 10 years before Vasco had set his sail to India.

It was a billion dollar deal for anyone to find the sea route to India from Europe and of course it was not just the Gama, there would have been many others from Spain and Venice who would have dreamt and tried their efforts to explore this route. But It was Gama who finally achieved this adventurous task of finding the sea route to India. The voyage itself is another story to tell, but this state sponsored expedition was not assigned to Vasco Da Gama, but someone else. I will put that link for you to read.

References for this blog – I got the context of this story from the book of Mr. Sathyan Edakkad named – Vasco Da Gama and the Unknown facts of History.

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