NDR (German TV broadcaster)
Vasco da Gama und Portugals Aufbruch ins Unbekannte
(Vasco da Gama and Portugal's departure into the unknown)

A TV series of the German broadcaster NDR

(in German)

Part 1

Advancing along the Western coast of Africa
In July 1497 the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama departed from Lisbon to one of the most adventurous voyages of world history. With four ships the 28-year-old captain wanted to find a sea route to India - on the eastern route around Africa.

Five years before his opponent Christopher Columbus had found the way to India in the west - in the service of the Spanish king. Today we know that he discovered America.

Luc Cuyvers depicts in four episodes Portugal's rise to a wealthy colonial, commercial and world power. The story began in the early 15th Century with the first ships going along the West African coast and ended on 31 December 1999 with the return of the last colony - Macau - to the People's Republic of China.

The history of Portugal at that time reads like a log of the pioneering work of the Infante Henry, known as "the Navigator", although he never went to great voyages of discovery himsself. Henry, made Governor of the extreme southern coast of Portugal by his father King John I, founded a maritime school in Sagres. This  was the nucleus of all subsequent journeys of discovery and conquest. The focus of the first episode is the conquest of Cape Bojador, a massive sandstone promontory on the north-western Atlantic coast of Africa. Cape Bojador was regarded until then as "the end of the world." Behind it was assumed a deep chasm, the entrance to hell.



Part 2

Around the Cape of Good Hope

The Portuguese navigator Gil Eanes was the first European to sail with his ships around the infamous Cape Bojador on the northwest coast of Africa in 1432. He paved the way for further exploration. Prince Henry of Portugal had given him the job.

He wanted to find the way to India, to the riches in the mysterious land of a thousand spices. Year after year, the Portuguese encountered further south - always at the extreme edge of the unknown continent of Africa. The bravery of the captains and their teams is legendary. The course of the coast was meticulously recorded by trained cartographers.

However, the Passage to India was still not found. Instead, the Portuguese found gold and ivory. The dark chapter in the history of the discovery of the sea route to India began. Prince Henry died in 1460. The Africa Travel faltered.

Then Bartholomew Diaz rounded the southern tip of Africa - and not even noticed it at first. On the way back - he had not found India - his ships were caught in heavy storms. Diaz gave the place the name "Cape of Storms". His king ordered to call the southern tip of Africa the "Cape of Good Hope." For now, that was what John II thought, the route to India was free - roughly 30 years after the death of Henry.


Part 3

The sea route to India

No one knows exactly when Vasco da Gama was born. Presumably, he came to the world at the end 1469 as son of the governor of Sines on the Portuguese Atlantic coast. The young man from a wealthy family quickly gained a reputation as a good captain. 1497, at the age of 28, Vasco da Gama was commissioned by his king to find the so long sought passage to India - on the route to the east around the southern tip of Africa.

A certain Christopher Columbus thought he had found the way on behalf of the Spanish king as early as 1492 - but on the route to the west. Today we know that Columbus discovered the continent of America. With four large and newly developed ships and 160 men da Gama set out. One of his soldiers, a certain Alvaro Velho, wrote the diary of this expedition. This remained the only written record of adventurous travel. The "route to the Spice countries" is using the sea route which was believed at that time to be considerably shorter than that followed by Marco Polo on land, it - and that justified any adventure and a lot of money.

As early as Christmas 1497 Vasco da Gama went ashore on the east coast of South Africa. He called it "Natal" - the Portuguese word for this festival. Five months and 2,000 miles later, the fleet went at anchor a few miles north of the city of Calicut. The sea route to India was found. When Vasco arrived in Lisbon after a journey of two years, of the once of the 160 men aboard the ships remained only 55.


Part 4

The Far East

In 1510 the Portuguese conquered the Indian port city of Goa and made it the capital of their new "kingdom". Vasco da Gama, who twelve years earlier had discovered the sea route to India, became viceroy of the colony. On 24 December 1524 the great navigator died in the "Golden Goa", which today is called Panaji.

From Goa the Portuguese invaded the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. Gold and spices, silver and silk-trade flourished and made conquerors and adventurers to rich people. Everywhere along the coast new cities were founded. One of the adventurers of those times was Fernao Mendes Pinto, who arrived in India in 1538. He was a merchant, pirate, slave, Jesuit, diplomat and writer. The fourth and final episode is based on his travel reports.

Pinto's life story seems to be the continuation of Vasco da Gama's. However, in his writings he mixes fantasy and reality, incredible adventures and crisp, realistic observations. But one has to admit: The discovery of the Middle and the Far East in the 16th and 17 Century by the Portuguese - and then later by Dutch and British - is undoubtedly rich in fairy tales and events hardly imaginable.

Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam and China - Europe became aware of other cultures, people and goods. In 1543 a terrible typhoon drove a Portuguese ship to a hitherto unknown shore to Europeans. A new country was discovered - Japan! The Portuguese brought with them valuable trade goods which were totally unknown in the "Land of the Rising Sun": rifles, cartridges and gun powder.