While all of Europe discussed Columbus’s discoveries with excitement, the Spanish began to regard Columbus as a failure. They were unimpressed by Columbus’s descrip tions of the gorgeous, unspoiled land. They wanted gold and spices, and even after four voyages, Columbus could only report of lush jungles and villages of mud huts.
While Spain concentrated on sailing west, a group of Portuguese explorers ventured south, feeling their way along the coast of Africa. Estevao da Gama was given command of an expedition but died before the voyage began. The commission passed to his son, Vasco da Gama, a captain who successfully had fought the French off the coast of Guinea. In 1497, da Gama led four ships around the stormy southern tip of the continent and into the Indian Ocean.
In May 1498, da Gama landed in Calicut, the richest and most powerful port near the southern tip of India. Da Gama had discovered a sea route to the Indies. To his delight, the warehouses of Calicut were filled with gold, silver, rubies, pearls, sapphires, fine silks, and sacks of spices. The king of Calicut received da Gama with great ceremony and wrote a message on a palm leaf for his journey back to Europe. “My country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, and precious stones,” he wrote. “That which I ask of you in exchange is gold, silver, corals, and scarlet cloth.”
Da Gama returned to Portugal with his ships crammed full of goods. His stores of pepper alone fetched 27 times the price he had paid in India. The Venetians and Arab traders were stunned, but their monopoly on spices was decisively broken. Da Gama, like Columbus in Spain, was hailed as a national hero. His navigation instruments, maps, and logs of the voyage were locked up and kept under close guard.
Portugal had no intention of sharing the riches of eastern trade with its European rivals. The other European powers would have to find the sea route to India for themselves.