Vasco da Gama (1460–1524) was one of Portugal’s greatest explorers – you’ll find places named after him all over the country as well as a town in India, a football team in Brazil and even a crater on the Moon. He was born in Sines, the son of the town governor. In the 1490s he worked for João II protecting trading stations along the African coast. His successes persuaded the next king, Manuel I, to commission him to find a potentially lucrative sea route to India. He left Lisbon in July 1497 with a fleet of four ships, reaching southern Africa in December – they named it Natal (“Christmas” in Portuguese). By the following May they reached Calicut in southwest India, and obtained trading terms there before departing in August 1498. The scale of their voyage can be gauged by the fact that Vasco da Gama did not return to Portugal until September 1499, and arrived with just two of his ships – half the crew had died. But Vasco da Gama was richly rewarded by the king, his journey inspiring Camões to write Os Lusiadas, Portugal’s most famous epic poem. Vasco da Gama returned to India twice more, the final time in 1524 when he contracted malaria and died in the town of Cochin. You can visit his birthplace in the otherwise missable industrial town of Sines, where the Casa de Vasco da Gama in Sines’ castle records his eventful life.

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