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Oswald Dreyer-Eimbcke:

Vasco da Gama's journey to India, 500 years ago

Cartographica Helvetica 18 (1998) 41–49


On May 20, 1598 the Portugese Vasco da Gama was the first European to successfully circumnavigate the African continent and to land in India. With the discovery of this sea route, Vasco da Gama laid the foundation for Portugal to become the superior seafaring nation for more than a century only to be challenged by Spain.

Prior to da Gama's journey, trade flourished between the Orient and the cities of northern Italy and southern Germany. After opening the sea route around Africa, the profitable trade monopoly moved to countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean, namely to Portugal and Spain. In 1505 the price for pepper in Lisbon was only one fifth of the price in Venice.

India was already shown on maps of the 15th century before Vasco da Gama's discovery:

  • on some Portolan charts, the southern tip of Africa is clearly recognizable,
  • on Ptolemy maps, no southern cape is shown, however the Indian Ocean appears as a huge land-locked sea,
  • on round World maps with a unproportionally short African continent.

The new findings by Vasco da Gama and later by Pedro Alvares Cabral had a direct influence on cartographers. The so-called Cantino map of 1502 is one of the first maps which represents the details of the Portuguese discoveries.

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