A Traveler Even After Death? The Two Tombs of Vasco da Gama
Vasco da Gama was a traveler and adventurer in the 15th century. However, his story did not end with his death. In fact, the afterlife of the explorer became an additional page in the history of the impressive Jerónimos Monastery located in Lisbon, Portugal and another famous church in Kochi, India as well.
Vasco da Gama died during his third visit to India, on December 24, 1524, in the city of Kochi. He was already known as one of the greatest explorers from the Age of Discovery and he had brought fame and lots of money to the Portuguese court. Moreover, many sailors wanted to follow his path and have similar experiences on the sea. However, while Europe was excited with the explorations, other continents suffered quite a lot due to their travels. Europeans brought the native people of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia immeasurable pain, death, diseases, and misery.
During their three travels, Vasco da Gama and his crews opened a new way for communication and changed sea trade forever. Moreover, it opened the market to many new goods, spices, and other things, which were unknown in Europe before then. The explorations also changed Asia forever. Following the arrival of the Portuguese crew, more and more Europeans headed to the east.
A steel engraving from the 1850s, with modern hand coloring showing the meeting of Vasco da Gama with Zamorin. (Public Domain)
Vasco was around 60 years old when he died, but this is only an estimate as his birthdate is uncertain. The explorer’s body was tired and he had as many followers and supporters as enemies. He is believed to have been buried twice…but nowadays it is debated who is really within his final tomb. Some old stories from India say that his bones could have been removed before he was apparently exhumed, so the person buried in Lisbon may be someone completely different. However, officially it is said that Vasco da Gama was exhumed and reburied in his homeland.
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First Tomb for the Explorer
Vasco da Gama was first buried in the St. Francis church located in Fort Kochi of the city of Kochi in Kerala, India. The history of the city reaches as far back as ancient times, but the church was built in 1503. It is the oldest European church in India and one of the oldest in Asia. However, due to the decision of the Portuguese king and a danger of vandalism in the tomb in India, fourteen years after his funeral, Vasco da Gama’s remains started a new adventure.
Thus, Vasco da Gama was exhumed and taken away by ship. After that, the burial in the church in Kochi was left as an empty grave with his tombstone. With that, the famous ‘sea wolf’ Vasco da Gama started his last journey – a travel back home to Lisbon. Despite the fact that it no longer contains the explorer’s body, the empty burial in India remains the biggest tourist attraction in the city where the explorer was once laid to rest.
New Burial, New Source of Income
The second funeral of Vasco da Gama took place in the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. By that time, the monastery was already a popular place in Lisbon. It was created in the 15th century, but became an important place due to an action taken by Vasco da Gama before he left into the unknown in 1497. This action was a significant moment, after which the king declared the site a very special place. The chapel was already dedicated to Santa Maria de Belem, but at the moment when Vasco da Gama took his crew there to pray before their first voyage, the history of this place was changed forever.
Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal, mural by John Henry Amshewitz, RBA (c. 1936). (Public Domain)
The modest chapel began to be replaced with a monastery and church at the beginning of 1501. The work took 100 years, so the founders didn't see the final result. It was built by the decision of King Manuel. The funds for the project came from taxes from Africa and the Orient. Costs to make the changes were more or less 70 kg (159 lb) of gold per year. The money mostly came from trade. It brought lots of gold to Portugal, but obviously made people who lived in the conquered lands very annoyed.
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However, an increasing number of people began to appreciate the church and monastery over time. The desire to visit the famous burial of Vasco da Gama inspired many people to visit this place. This interest continues to drive countless tourists (and their money) to the Church.
The tomb of Vasco da Gama in Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal. (Alvesgaspar/CC BY SA 4.0)
Echoes of a Legendary Man
Nowadays, the topic of exploration and explorers is quite controversial. It is obvious that many explorers and their supporters did horrible things, especially to the native tribes of the lands they went to. However, many of the adventurers didn't think of any of this when they started their journeys into the unknown. Furthermore, although his grave became a goldmine for both of the churches where he was buried, the story of Vasco da Gama still holds some secrets.
In March 2016, researchers reported the discovery of a ship which was a part of Vasco da Gama’s Portuguese fleet that reached India. It has been found close to Al Hallaniyah island, near the coast of Oman.
According to the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, the ship is believed to be the Esmeralda, a vessel from Vasco da Gama’s second voyage (1502-1503). It is possible that this discovery will be a source of more information about the period of da Gama's journeys.
Some of the underwater excavations of the Esmeralda. (Esmeralda Shipwreck)
It is also possible that in the near future researchers will decide to exhume the remains buried in Lisbon. It could be that there is another famous person (joining Cervantes and Columbus) who is eventually found to be buried in Spain. Vasco da Gama’s story after death could become a part of another fascinating research project.
M. Hancock, The Rough Guide to Lisbon, 2003.
G. J. Ames, Vasco da Gama: Renaissance Crusader, 2004
A.C. Teixeira de Aragão, Vasco da Gama e a Vidigueira: um estudo historico, 1887.
Go Lisbon, Jeronimos Monastery, A World Heritage monument; Vasco da Gama's resting place, available at: http://www.golisbon.com/sight-seeing/jeronimos.html