Discovery of New Worlds - M. B. Synge

Vasco da Gama's Great Voyage

"With such mad seas the daring Gama fought

For many a weary day and many a dreadful night;

Incessant labouring round the Stormy Cape,

By bold ambition led."


Ten years had passed away since Bartholomew Diaz had made his famous discovery with regard to the south of Africa, and still nothing further had been done. The King of Portugal had prepared three strong ships for an expedition, but he had not found a commander as yet. He was full of care both day and night as to whom he should entrust with so great an enterprise.

Vasco de Gama

One day he was sitting in his hall of business, busy giving orders, when he raised his eyes and saw one of the gentlemen of his household crossing the hall. It was Vasco da Gama, a nobleman of high birth and a well-known sailor. As soon as the king saw him he called him.

"I should rejoice if you would undertake a service which I require of you, in which you must labour much," he said, as his subject knelt before him.

"Sire," answered Vasco da Gama, kissing the king's hand, "I am a servant for any labour that may be, and since my service is required I will perform it so long as my life lasts."

At last, early in the month of July 1497, all was ready. Vasco da Gama on horseback, with all the men of his fleet on foot, richly dressed in liveries and accompanied by all the courtiers, went down to the riverside and embarked in their boats. Reaching their ships, they sailed to the mouth of the Tagus, where they waited for a wind to take them out to sea. Meanwhile an immense crowd gathered on the shore. Men and women were weeping, priests and monks were praying. All were filled with despair for those whom they never expected to see again. Surely they would be buried in the enormous sea-waves that broke around the Stormy Cape whither they were bound. It were better, they cried, to die on shore than so far away from home. The poet Camoens—called the Virgil of Portugal—tells us that the shining sands were wet with their tears; but the commanders resolutely turned their eyes away to the open sea, and soon, with the royal standard flying from the masthead, the three ships sailed away.

For four long months they sailed to the south, until one November day, at noon, Vasco da Gama sailed before a wind past the formidable Cape, to which the King of Portugal had given the undying name of Good Hope.

It is interesting to note that to-day the voyage from Lisbon to the Cape takes just over a fortnight.

After anchoring for a few days in a little port near the Cape, they again stood out to sea. And now the wind blew with renewed fury, the sea was terrible to behold, and the sailors suffered severely. They besought their commander to turn back.

"Put your trust in the Lord, we shall yet double the Cape," answered Vasco da Gama resolutely. Night and day he worked with the men, enduring all their hardships. As they stood farther out to sea the storms increased, enormous waves dashed over the ships, and every moment they seemed to be going to pieces. Again the sailors and pilots cried to him to have pity on them and to turn the ship back to land.

Then the commander grew angry, and swore that come what might he meant to double the Cape of Good Hope. And the crews worked with fresh vigour when they saw such pluck and perseverance, until after some days they again made land: the seas grew calmer, the winds hushed, and they all knew that the Cape had been doubled at last.

"And great joy fell upon them," says the old Portuguese historian, "and they gave great praise to the Lord on seeing themselves delivered from death."

But their troubles were not over yet. Another storm broke with redoubled fury on them, the seas "rose toward the sky and fell back in heavy showers that flooded the ships."

"Turn back! turn back!" cried the terrified sailors once more, till the commander was forced to answer that he would throw into the sea whosoever spoke of such a thing again. For backwards he would not go, even though he saw a hundred deaths before his eyes. If he did not find that for which he was searching he would not return to Portugal at all.

They now passed Algoa Bay and the little island of Santa Cruz, where Diaz had put up his cross.

As it was Christmas Day, to the coast along which they were sailing they gave the name of Natal. Keeping along the coast, they came presently to the mouth of a large river, up which Vasco da Gama sailed his ships, which were now badly in need of repair. So thankful were the weary mariners for this shelter that they exclaimed, "It is the mercy of the Lord," three times, for which reason they named it the River of Mercy, though to-day it is known as the Zambesi River.

Having repaired the ships and refreshed the men, the commander set up a marble pillar, on which was engraved: "Of the lordship of Portugal, kingdom of Christians."

Then Vasco da Gama called his men together and spoke to them about their want of courage and thoughts of treason, until they wept and promised to serve him to the end. So they weighed anchor and sailed out of the river.