Famous Men of Modern Times - John Haaren

Vasco da Gama


One day in the year 1497 King Manuel of Portugal was at work in his study. It was five years since Columbus had brought the news to Ferdinand of Aragon that a way to the Indies had been discovered by sailing westward; for Columbus, as we have learned, supposed that the islands on which he had landed were some of the East India islands. Manuel was busy planning an expedition which he hoped might discover a passage to the Indies by sailing eastward.

A nobleman entered the room where he was sitting. "Vasco da Gama," said the king when he saw him, "I make you captain of my expedition. Take any one of the ships you please, and let your brother command another. If it please God, you will discover India."

Three ships, not larger than the schooners which sail up and down our rivers, were lying at anchor in the harbor of Lisbon. They were named after the three archangels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. They were laden with everything which the king and Vasco thought might be useful on a voyage of discovery, and among the men who were to sail in them were carpenters, blacksmiths, rope makers, and such other skilled workmen as were likely to be of service.

When the vessels were ready to start, a solemn service was held in the great cathedral of Lisbon. All who were going on the expedition were there. The king and queen were also present; and when the bishop had pronounced the blessing, the king presented to Vasco da Gama the royal standard. "Let it fly," he said, "at the masthead of your ship."

From the cathedral, Vasco and his men marched to the harbor. The ships were decorated with flags, and the king's standard was run up at the masthead of the one which Vasco was to command. Guns were fired, the anchors were heaved, the sails were loosed, and the little fleet floated down to the mouth of the river.

There in the port of Belem they waited three days for a fair wind, and then the voyage began. A Portuguese writer says, "So many tears were shed when they were sailing away that the shore may well be named the shore of tears;" and Camoens, the great poet of Portugal wrote,

"Uncounted as the grains of golden sand,

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

The ships were so long sailing down the coast of Africa that the sailors became discouraged. They insisted that the land must extend entirely across the sea, and that it had no end.

Vasco da Gama knew that it had an end; for another great navigator, named Bartholomew Diaz, had already found the end and called it the "Cape of Storms," because of the very bad weather he had encountered there.

Near this cape Vasco also met with storms, and his men wished to turn back. But, like Columbus, Vasco was determined to go on. Some of the men formed a conspiracy to kill him, and he was obliged to put the mutineers in irons. At length, they doubled the cape, sailed to the north-eastward, and left the storms behind them.

The ships had been greatly damaged by the winds and waves. They were leaking badly, and the sailors had to work at the pumps night and day. Wearied and disheartened they again requested that the voyage might be given up, and that they might be allowed to return to their homes.

The Conspiracy


Vasco saw that the ships must be repaired, and, besides this, all were in need of water. He therefore steered toward the land and kept a sharp lookout for a safe harbor.

If you look at the map of Africa, you will see that part of the southeast coast is called Natal. (na tal'). This is the Portuguese name for Christmas Day. Vasco named this part of the coast Natal because he sailed past it on that day.

Farther on, the voyagers were delighted to see the mouth of a river. Steering into it, and sailing some distance up the stream, they found a place where they could land. There they stayed some time and repaired their ships. One, however, was so battered and broken that she could not be made seaworthy; they therefore took her to pieces and used the wood to repair the other two.

Vasco named this stream the "River of Mercy."

One day some of the natives came to visit them. The sailors offered them slices of bread with marmalade; but their visitors did not taste a morsel until they saw the Portuguese eating. When they had once tasted, it seemed as though they would never have enough.

Da Gama showed them a looking-glass, a thing they had never seen before. They were greatly amused, and laughed loudly when they saw their faces reflected in it.

Sailing from the River of Mercy, Vasco steered northward, keeping always in sight of land. After some days he saw a ship at anchor and at once sent a boat to find out where he was. But the native sailors were afraid, and jumping into a canoe paddled away as fast as they could.

The Portuguese boat soon overtook them, and then all but one of the natives threw themselves into the sea and swam to shore. The one man remaining in the canoe could not swim, and so the Portuguese took him on board one of their ships. He proved to be a Moor, and as he was able to act as an interpreter, he became very useful to them.

Not long after this another vessel was seen. She was under full sail, but Vasco's ship soon came up with her. Two negroes on board the strange vessel spoke a language that some of the negroes on the ships of the Portuguese understood; and from them they learned that she was on her way to a harbor of India called Cambay. This was good news to da Gama, and they followed her into an African harbor called Mozambique (mo zam beek').

It was now nearly a year since they had sailed from Lisbon; and all were delighted to enter a, port where they could see houses and people.

Soon after they came to anchor, the sheik or governor of the city of Mozambique paid them a visit. He came upon two canoes lashed together, poles and planks being placed upon them to make a floor, above which was stretched a large piece of matting. Under the matting sat the sheik and ten companions. The sheik wore a jacket of velvet; a blue cloth embroidered with threads of gold was wrapped round his body; and a silken sash was tied round his waist. A dagger was stuck in his sash, and he carried a sword in his hand.

When he reached the ships trumpets were sounded, and Vasco and his officers greeted him with the heartiest welcome. The Moor interpreted everything that they said, or that the Portuguese said to them.

The sheik asked the Portuguese of what merchandise they were in search. Thereupon they showed him some pepper, cinnamon and ginger. He then promised to send pilots who would steer their vessels to India; and after he left the ships two men came on board who said they had been sent for that purpose.

Before the Portuguese were ready to resume their voyage, the sheik invited Vasco to dine with him, and advised that all the sick men should be sent on shore.

Vasco learned from his Moor that this was a trick to get them into the sheik's power, and so he declined the invitation.

A boat was sent to get fresh water, and one of the sheik's pilots went to show the Portuguese where the spring was. He said that midnight was the only time at which they could row to the spring because of the tide. But from midnight until morning he kept them rowing about from place to place, and no water was found.

Seeing at length that the Portuguese were growing angry, he jumped overboard and swam a long distance under water, not rising till he was far away from the boat. In this way he escaped.

Vasco now sailed away, but he put the other pilot in irons. He could not trust him; for the Moor had found out that the sheik had ordered both the pilots to steer the ships upon the shoals and wreck them.

The next harbor Vasco reached was Mombasa (Mom bas' a). The sheik of Mozambique had sent word to the king, who was a friend of his, that two ships would soon arrive at Mombasa whose captains were great robbers—that they meant to bring a large fleet and take possession of Mombasa and Mozambique; and that the wisest thing to do was to make prisoners of the strangers and put them to death.

As soon as the king of Mombasa learned that the two ships had actually arrived outside the harbor he sent a kind message to Vasco, inviting him to land and make a treaty. He sent two pilots to take the vessels into the harbor because there were dangerous shoals at its entrance. He also sent a large boat loaded with sheep, sugar cane, citrons, lemons and oranges, as a present.

The sick men were delighted with the fruit. Vasco sent two men on shore to buy some other things that were needed; but the king said they might have whatever they wished without paying.

A guide was given to them who took them all over the city, and particularly to a part where, he said, Christians lived. The people there pretended to be Christians but were not. They treated the Portuguese kindly, and begged them to stop all night at their houses.

This kindness was only pretended. The truth was that the king had given orders to the pilots to run Vasco's vessels on the shoals of the harbor, and they tried to do it. Vasco's ship, however, did not obey the helm when they were turning to enter the harbor; but it went so close to the shoal, that the officer in command ordered the sailors to let go the anchor and haul down the sails. In a moment this was done, and the other ship did the same. The two pilots, thinking their plans were discovered, jumped into the water and swam to a boat and escaped.

Vasco determined to leave these treacherous people at once, but his anchor had become fixed so firmly in the rocks of the shoal that the crew could not raise it. They labored at this all night, and the cable parting in the morning, they had to leave the anchor and sail away without it.

The next port that they reached was Melinda. Here they were treated with real kindness; for a soothsayer, whom the king trusted, told him that the Portuguese would some day be lords of India, and that he had better make a treaty with them.

The king therefore invited Vasco and his brother to land and settle upon the terms of a treaty. The Portuguese, however, were distrustful. They proposed that the king and they should have their talk sitting in boats near the shore, and to this the king agreed. Vasco and his brother dressed themselves in their handsomest suits and went in their boats seated on chairs that were covered with crimson velvet. Each of the boats carried two small guns which were fired as a salute, and then the crews rowed toward the shore.

The king now came on board one of the boats, and sat on a seat prepared for him. He said that he wished to be always friendly with the king of Portugal. Vasco da Gama and his brother knelt to kiss the king's hand, but he made them rise. Then the trumpets sounded and the ships fired all their guns.

Vasco presented to the king a splendid sword in a case of gold, saying, "Sire, we give you this sword in the name of our king and promise to maintain peace and friendship with you forever." The king answered "I promise and swear by my religion to keep peace and friendship forever with my new brother the king of Portugal." Thousands of the king's people were gathered on the shore and witnessed all this.

After the treaty had been made Vasco wished at once to sail to India. But he had to cross the great Indian Ocean, and favorable winds would not blow until August, and it was now only May. So for three months the Portuguese remained at Melinda.

Just before they sailed Vasco erected, on a hill near the city, a white marble column on which was inscribed the name of King Manuel.

As a parting gift the king of Melinda sent to the Portuguese a large boatload of rice, butter, sugar, cocoanuts, sheep, fowls and vegetables.

Vasco de Gama


Sailing eastward now for about twenty days Vasco at length sighted land. It was the shore of Calicut, a city in India. The vessels were soon anchored in the harbor.

Thus, the great sea route to the land of silks and spices had been discovered. A factory, or trading house, was established at Calicut, and for the next hundred years little Portugal was the sovereign of the eastern seas, and the greatest commercial nation of Europe.

Da Gama died in 1524. The Portuguese honor him as we honor Columbus; and Camoens made him the hero of his "Lusiad," the greatest poem in the Portuguese language.