ON THE AFTERNOON OF 22 APRIL 1498, a few kilometres off the shore of the East African port of Malindi, Captain-Major Vasco da Gama was a happy man. After drifting for four frustrating months up the continent’s southeastern coast, from Mozambique to Mombasa, facing the hostility of local rulers and Arab and African merchants, the Portuguese captain had finally found a navigator who could take him to India.
The man who steered da Gama across the Indian Ocean to Calicut—and into the history books as the “discoverer” of the ocean route to Asia—was a Gujarati named Kanji Malam. A trader of cotton and indigo from Kutch, Malam made regular voyages to the African coast to barter his goods for gold and ivory.
That it was a Gujarati who led da Gama to India should come as no surprise. The Gujarati aptitude for navigation, seafaring and commerce was already legendary, and Gujarati merchants had established trading routes stretching from the Persian Gulf to present-day Malaysia and Indonesia.