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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

VASCO DA GAMA REACHES INDIA

[171] THUS the name of America was gradually adopted for the New World, though the honour and glory of its first discovery must always belong to Christopher Columbus.

But while all this wonderful development westwards was thrilling the minds of men, other great discoveries were being made to the East, whither the eyes of the Portuguese were still straining. Portugal had lost Columbus; she could lay no claim to the shores of America discovered by Spaniards, but the sea-route to India by the East was yet to be found by one of her explorers, Vasco da Gama. His achievement stands out brilliantly at this time; for, within a few years of the discovery of the New World, he had been able to tell the world that India and the East could be reached by the Cape of Good Hope!

The dream of Prince Henry the Navigator was fulfilled!

How Vasco da Gama was chosen for the great command has been graphically described by a Portuguese historian, whose words are received with caution by modern authorities. The King of Portugal—Dom Manuel having set his kingdom in order, "being inspired by the Lord, took the resolution to inform himself about the affairs of India." He knew that the province of India was very far away, inhabited by dark people who had great riches and merchandise, and there was much risk in crossing [172] the wide seas and land to reach it. But he felt it a sacred duty to try and reach it. He ordered ships to be built according to a design of Bartholomew Diaz, the Hero of the Cape, "low amidships, with high castles towering fore and aft; they rode the water like ducks." The ships ready, the King prayed the Lord "to show him the man whom it would please Him to send upon this voyage. Days passed. One day the King was sitting in his hall with his officers when he raised his eyes and saw a gentleman of his household crossing the hall. It suddenly occurred to the King that this was the man for his command, and, calling Vasco da Gama, he offered him the command at once. He was courageous, resolute, and firm of purpose. On his knees he accepted the great honour. A silken banner blazing with the Cross of the Order of Christ was bestowed upon him; he chose the S. Gabriel  for his flagship, appointed his brother to the S. Raphael, and prepared for his departure. Books and charts were supplied, Ptolemy's geography was on board, as well as the Book of Marco Polo. All being ready, Vasco da Gama and his captains spent the night in the little chapel by the sea at Belem, built for the mariners of Henry the Navigator.

Next morning—it was July—they walked in solemn procession to the shore, lighted candles in their hands, priests chanting a solemn litany as they walked. The beach was crowded with people. Under the blazing summer sun they knelt once more before taking leave of the weeping multitudes. Listen to the Portuguese poet, Camoens, who makes Vasco da Gama the hero of his "Lusiad"—

"The neighbouring mountains murmur'd back the sound,

As if to pity moved for human woe;

Uncounted as the grains of golden sand,

The tears of thousands fell on Belem's strand."

[173] So the Portuguese embarked, weighed anchor, and unfurled the sails that bore the red cross of the Order of Christ. The four little ships started on what was to be the longest and most momentous voyage on record, while crowds stood on the shore straining their eyes till the fleet, under full sail, vanished from their sight.


[Illustration]

VASCO DE GAMA.

After passing Cape Verde, in order to escape the currents of the Gulf of Guinea, Vasco da Gama steered south-west into an unknown part of the South Atlantic. He did not know that at one time he was within six hundred miles of the coast of South America. Day after day, week after week passed in dreary monotony as they sailed the wide ocean that surrounds St. Helena, "a lonely, dreary waste of seas and boundless sky." Everything ends at last, and, having spent ninety-six days out of sight of land and sailed some four thousand five hundred miles, they drifted on to the south-west coast of Africa. It was a record voyage, for even Columbus had only been two thousand six hundred miles without seeing land. November found them in a broad bay, "and," says the old log of the voyage, "we named it St. Helena," which name it still retains. After a skirmish with some tawny-coloured Hottentots the explorers sailed on, putting "their trust in the Lord to double the Cape."

[174] But the sea was all broken with storm, high rolled the waves, and so short were the days that darkness prevailed. The crews grew sick with fear and hardship, and all clamoured to put back to Portugal.

With angry words Vasco da Gama bade them be silent, though "he well saw how much reason they had at every moment to despair of their lives"; the ships were now letting in much water, and cold rains soaked them all to the skin.

"All cried out to God for mercy upon their souls, for now they no longer took heed of their lives." At last the storm ceased, the seas grew calm, and they knew that, without seeing it, they had doubled the dreaded Cape, "on which great joy fell upon them and they gave great praise to the Lord."

But their troubles were not yet over. The sea was still very rough, "for the winter of that country was setting in," and even the pilot suggested turning back to take refuge for a time. When Vasco da Gama heard of turning backward he cried that they should not speak such words, because as he was going out of the bar of Lisbon he had promised God in his heart not to turn back a single span's breadth of the way, and he would throw into the sea whosoever spoke such things. None could withstand such an iron will, and they struggled on to Mossel Bay, already discovered by Diaz. Here they landed "and bought a fat ox for three bracelets. This ox we dined off on Sunday; we found him very fat, and his meat nearly as toothsome as the beef of Portugal"—a pleasant meal, indeed, after three months of salted food. Here, too, they found "penguins as large as ducks, which had no feathers on their wings and which bray like asses."

But there was no time to linger here. They sailed onwards till they had passed and left behind the last [175] pillar erected by Diaz, near the mouth of the Great Fish River. All was new now. No European had sailed these seas, no European had passed this part of the African coast. On Christmas Day they found land to which, in commemoration of Christ's Nativity, they gave the name of Natal. Passing Delagoa Bay and Sofala without sighting them, Vasco da Gama at last reached the mouth of a broad river, now known as Quilimane River, but called by the weary mariners the River of Mercy or Good Tokens. Here they spent a month cleaning and repairing, [176] and here for the first time in the history of discovery the fell disease of scurvy broke out. The hands and feet of the men swelled, their gums grew over their teeth, which fell out so that they could not eat. This proved to be one of the scourges of early navigation—the result of too much salted food on the high seas, and no cure was found till the days of Captain Cook. Arrived at Mozambique—a low-lying coral island—they found no less than four ocean-going ships belonging to Arab traders laden with gold, silver, cloves, pepper, ginger, rubies, and pearls from the East.


[Illustration]

AFRICA AS IT WAS KNOWN AFTER DA GAMA'S EXPEDITIONS.

There were rumours, too, of a land belonging to Prester John where precious stones and spices were so plentiful that they could be collected in baskets. His land could only be reached by camels. "This information rendered us so happy that we cried with joy, and prayed God to grant us health that we might behold what we so desired," relates the faithful journal. But difficulties and delays prevented their reaching the ever-mythical land of Prester John. Their next landing-place was Mombasa. Here they were nearly killed by some treacherous Mohammedans, who hated these "dogs of Christians" as they called them. And the Portuguese were glad to sail on to Melindi, where the tall, white-washed houses standing round the bay, with their coco-palms, maize fields, and hop gardens, reminded them of one of their own cities on the Tagus. Here all was friendly. The King of Melindi sent three sheep and free leave for the strangers to enter the port. Vasco, in return, sent the King a cassock, two strings of coral, three washhand basins, a hat, and some bells. Whereupon the King, splendidly dressed in a damask robe with green satin and an embroidered turban, allowed himself to be rowed out to the flagship. He was protected from the sun by a crimson satin umbrella.

[177] Nine days were pleasantly passed in the port at Melindi, and then, with a Christian pilot provided by the King, the most thrilling part of the voyage began with a start across the Arabian Gulf to the west coast of India. For twenty-three days the ships sailed to the north-east, with no land visible. Suddenly the dim outline of land was sighted and the whole crew rushed on deck to catch the first glimpse of the unknown coast of India. They had just discerned the outline of lofty mountains, when a thunderstorm burst over the land and a downpour of heavy rain blotted out the view.


[Illustration]

CALICUT AND THE SOUTHERN INDIAN COAST.

At last on 21st May—nearly eleven months after the start from Portugal—the little Portuguese ships anchored off Calicut.

"What has brought you hither?" cried the natives, probably surprised at their foreign dress; "and what seek ye so far from home?"

[178] "We are in search of Christians and spice," was the ready answer.

"A lucky venture. Plenty of emeralds. You owe great thanks to God for having brought you to a country holding such riches," was the Mohammedan answer.

"The city of Calicut," runs the diary, "is inhabited by Christians. They are of a tawny complexion. Some of them have big beards and long hair, whilst others clip their hair short as a sign that they are Christians. They also wear moustaches."

Within the town, merchants lived in wooden houses thatched with palm leaves. It must have been a quaint sight to see Vasco da Gama, accompanied by thirteen of his Portuguese, waving the flag of their country, carried shoulder high through the densely crowded streets of Calicut on his way to the chief temple and on to the palace of the King. Roofs and windows were thronged with eager spectators anxious to see these Europeans from so far a country. Many a scuffle took place outside the palace gates; knives were brandished, and men were injured before the successful explorer reached the King of Calicut. The royal audience took place just before sunset on 28th May 1498. The King lay on a couch covered with green velvet under a gilt canopy, while Vasco da Gama related an account of Portugal and his King, the "lord of many countries and the possessor of great wealth exceeding that of any King of these parts, adding that for sixty years the Portuguese had been trying to find the sea-route to India. The King gave leave for the foreigners to barter their goods, but the Indians scoffed at their offer of hats, scarlet hoods, coral, sugar, and oil. "That which I ask of you is gold, silver, corals, and scarlet cloth," said the King, "for my country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, and precious stones."

[179] Vasco da Gama left India with a scant supply of Christians and spices, but with his great news he now hurried back to Portugal. What if he had lost his brother Paul and over one hundred of his men after his two years' absence, he had discovered the ocean-route to India—a discovery more far-reaching than he had any idea of at this time.

"And the King," relates the old historian, "overjoyed at his coming, sent a Nobleman and several Gentlemen to bring him to Court; where, being arrived through Crowds of Spectators, he was received with extraordinary honour. For this Glorious Price of Service, the Privilege of being called Don was annexed to his Family: To his Arms was added Part of the King's. He had a Pension of three thousand Ducats yearly, and he was afterwards presented to greater Honours for his Services in the Indies, where he will soon appear again."


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