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Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle

The Age of Discovery

When Christopher Columbus made his famous voyage in 1492, he did not by any means achieve the objects for which he set out. His purpose in venturing upon that perilous journey across an unknown ocean was, not to find a new continent, but a sea-route to Asia. It had long been thought that Asia, with all its rich gems, spices, and other treasures, might be reached by sailing westward from Europe. Even as far back as the time of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, there were rumors of a land beyond the Atlantic, which, it was suspected, was no other than India. How to discover this supposed passage to India had been a great puzzle long before Columbus made his daring voyage; and the European nations which had ships, and took pride in their commerce, were all anxious to be the first to find it. When Columbus, therefore, after passing safely through many perils, espied the lovely Island of San Salvador, and afterwards Cuba and Hayti, he felt confident that he had made the long-wished-for discovery, for which he would be envied the world over. He was perfectly sure that he had found Asia, and that India was not far off; and in the voyages he made afterwards, when he discovered Jamaica and the northern coast of what we call South America, he was still more convinced that a little further search would bring him to the well-known shores of Hindostan. To his dying day Columbus believed that it was one side of Asia, and not a new land, that he had discovered; and he was in so little doubt that he had touched near India, that he called the people of the places where he landed "Indians,"—a name by which we still know the early inhabitants of our continent.

It was not until some years had elapsed after Columbus's travels were ended that Europe found out that he had struck upon a new, and before unknown, continent. Meanwhile, the story of adventure, romance, and discovery, which he brought back, the accounts he gave of the beautiful islands and strange people and customs he had found far across the sea, and the great renown which by his voyage he had won, not only for himself, but for the good sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella, who had so generously aided him in his brave purpose, created the most lively excitement and sensation. in Europe. He was overwhelmed with honors, and in every part of Spain he was received as if he had been a great conqueror. Spain was very proud of his achievements, and the other nations were very jealous of the prestige and possessions which she obtained as the result of his success.

Among the sovereigns to whom Columbus, some years before his discoveries, had applied for aid in what then seemed his rash and foolish project, was Dom John the Second, King of Portugal; but his petition was refused. Now, the little kingdom of Portugal had long been the rival of Spain in making discoveries. Indeed, although she was far less rich and less powerful than Spain, she had obtained greater triumphs on the sea.

About eighty years before Columbus's first voyage, there lived in Portugal a brave and enterprising prince, named Dom Henry. He was the fifth son of the reigning king, and, when young, had fought valiantly in the wars against the Moors. When peace returned to his country, Dom Henry, who was an ardent student of geography and astronomy, instead of idling away his time at his father's court, spent it in encouraging and fitting out expeditions of discovery. He had himself visited the northern countries of Africa; and one reason why he turned his attention to voyages was, that he was anxious to find out whence the Moors got so much ivory and gold-dust as he observed them to have, and which, they told him, came from beyond the desert. It is said that the expedition which Dom Henry sent to explore the western coast of Africa in 1412 was the very first voyage of discovery ever undertaken by a modern nation.

After this he fitted out and despatched many expeditions. One of the earliest of these came upon the Madeira Islands; at which the Portuguese captain was rejoiced, for he thought that he was the first European to find them.

The Madeiras had been discovered, however, many years before, and in a very romantic way. It happened that a bright and brave young Englishman, named Robert Machin, fell desperately in love with a young lady of noble family. As he was not her equal in rank, her parents sternly forbade a marriage between them. But she loved him as ardently as he loved her; and, as she persisted in preferring him to all the rest of the world, her father did what was not unusual in those rude days,—shut her up, and had Machin arrested, and thrown into prison. The young man succeeded, after a while, in getting out again; and no sooner did he find himself free than he set his wits to work to devise a scheme for possessing himself of his lady-love. He managed to get one of his friends into her house, disguised as a groom, who apprised her of his real character, and told her the plan upon which her devoted lover had resolved. To this she gave a ready assent. One day she took a ride, attended only by the groom, under the pretence of getting the fresh air. The carriage was driven rapidly to the shores of the British Channel, near which, by chance, she lived. She got out, hurried into a boat, and was rowed out to a ship, where her lover awaited her.

They put to sea, intending to escape to France, but a strong gale blew the ship out of its course; and they were tossed about for many days, completely at the mercy of the waves.

At last they were overjoyed to perceive land not far off. When they had reached it, the lovers went ashore in the long-boat to find themselves on a lovely island; and, as they wandered over it, they came to a spot, under some noble trees, where they resolved to take up their abode with a few of their fellow-voyagers. Some huts were accordingly built, and here the happy couple ensconced themselves.

The ship in which they had come was anchored about three miles from the shore. After they had been on the island for three days, a great tempest arose: the ship was driven from her anchor, and thrown upon the coast of Morocco, where the crew were taken prisoners by the Moors.

When the lovers saw that the ship had disappeared, they became frantic with despair; and so deeply affected was the poor young lady, that she died a short time after. Her devoted cavalier, Machin, could not bear this loss; and he, too, died, begging his companions, with his last breath, to bury him in the same grave with his beloved Anne. The few who remained on the island now fitted up the long-boat with sails, and attempted to regain England; but they, too, were driven upon the African coast, and, like their companions, were captured by the Moors.

In this strange way the Madeiras were discovered by the English, and not by the Portuguese.

Among the discoveries made under the direction of Prince Henry of Portugal were the Canary and Cape Verde Islands, and various countries on the coast of Africa as far south as Lower Guinea. In some places they found gold-dust, ostrich-feathers, and ivory, and other articles of precious value. The ships brought home strange stories of the negroes, as well as rich merchandise.

The passion for discovery in Portugal did not cease with the death of Prince Henry, which occurred in 1463; for, under King John the Second, the Portuguese advanced still further southward, to the Congo River. All the islands thus discovered off the African coast were taken possession of in the name of the King of Portugal, and attempts were made to colonize them with his subjects. These attempts were, in many instances, successful. An amusing circumstance, however, rendered the Island of Puerto Santo, one of the Madeiras, uninhabitable. In the ship which discovered this island there happened to be a female rabbit, which gave birth to a litter of young rabbits during the voyage. These were let loose upon the island when it was reached, and allowed to remain there; and it is related that the rabbits multiplied so rapidly, that, in two years, they completely overran Puerto Santo, and all idea of a human settlement there was given up. With the negroes on the African coast a brisk trade sprang up; and the fame of Prince Henry, as the "father of discovery," became a household word in his own country and throughout Europe.

King John, the same who refused the aid which Columbus asked of him, was yet resolved that he would find out, if possible, a way to reach India by sea. He had heard that there was a rich and powerful king in India, called Prester John, who was a Christian; and he thought it would be of great advantage to Portugal if he could communicate with him, and secure his friendship. King John knew that the spices, precious stones, and drugs, that reached the rest of Europe through Venice, came from the East; and that it was said that the Venetians brought them from India by way of Aden, in Southern Arabia, Suez, over the country to the Nile, and so up to Alexandria, and across the Mediterranean, and the Adriatic.

He accordingly selected two of his most trustworthy courtiers, named Covillian and Payva, and told them to travel as best they could towards India by land, and see if they could find Prester John. The two young men set out, and, going by way of Florence and Alexandria, arrived Safely at Aden. Here they separated, agreeing to meet again at Cairo. As they were now uncertain, whether Prester John lived in India or Ethiopia, Payva turned his steps into Africa, where, after visiting the court of a sable sovereign who called himself "the Emperor of Ethiopia," and who, Payva thought, might be Prester John, the Portuguese traveller suddenly died. Covillian, meanwhile, pursued his journey from Aden to India, and succeeded in reaching. Calicut and Goa. Here he collected a great deal of information respecting India, and was rejoiced to hear that it was possible to reach India around Africa; but he could get no trace of Prester John. So he returned to Cairo, where he heard the sad intelligence of his comrade Payva's death. At the same time he received a message from King John, telling him to continue his search for the Christian king in the East. Covillian seems now to have become convinced, like Payva, that Prester John was no other than the Emperor of Ethiopia; and so he, too, repaired to that sovereign's court. The emperor treated him with great courtesy and kindness, loaded him with presents, and gave him cordial messages for his royal brother of Portugal. Covillian was about to depart with these proofs of the emperors good will, when the latter suddenly died. His successor was not so kindly disposed; for he would not let Covillian go away at all, but kept him a prisoner for many years, until his death.

King John never heard of his two faithful explorers again; but the wonderful accounts of India which kept coming to him inspired him with fresh exertions to reach that land of fabulous wealth. Despairing of accomplishing this by a land route, he turned his attention to the discovery of a way to India by sea. It was thought that such a way might be found southward of Africa. The king accordingly fitted up an expedition, and chose Bartholomew Diaz, an officer of the royal storehouse and a vigorous and intrepid man, to command it. Diaz set sail in 1486, and, after encountering many perils, succeeded in doubling the southernmost point of Africa. So frightful were the tempests that raged there, that Diaz named the southernmost point II the Cape or Storms."

When he returned to Portugal, however, and told King John of his discovery, the latter, in his delight, exclaimed, that, since it held out so bright a promise of reaching India by sea, it should rather be called the "Cape of Good Hope;" which is the name it bears to this day.

A strange incident took place during this voyage of Diaz. In one of the most terrific storms his ship was separated from the bark which accompanied him, and which carried the provisions for his crew. At this the men grew desperate, fearing that they would be starved; and threatened to mutiny, unless Diaz should retrace his way home. Diaz, however, persisted, and doubled the cape. Returning homeward, he fortunately fell in with the bark again. But, alas! of the nine men whom he had left in it, only three survived,—such had been their sufferings from cold and famine; and so overjoyed was one of the survivors, Ferdinand Colazza, to see the ship again, that he fell dead at the captain's feet.

It was eight years after the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope by Diaz that Columbus returned with his wonderful story. This filled the Portuguese not only with admiration, but with great alarm lest Spain should get ahead of them in finding a sea-route to the riches of the East They had every reason to be proud of their daring exploits as navigators; and Columbus's story only inspired King John with new resolution to seek a way to India by water, not westward, as the intrepid Christopher had done, but around the Cape of Good Hope. He longed to win for Portugal the honor and riches which she would gain if her ships were the first to reach India, and he was determined that neither money nor energy should be spared to achieve this exploit.

Such a journey was certain to be fun of perils and difficulties, and many people in Portugal declared that it was an impious tempting of Providence to hazard it. They believed that the storms which Diaz had encountered near the Cape of Good Hope were perpetual, and that no ship could ever pass through them without foundering, or being cast upon the shore, where the voyagers would soon meet with horrible deaths at the bands of savage negroes and cannibals. The king was implored by his superstitious nobles and subjects to abandon the project; and it is greatly to his honor that he persevered in spite of so much eager opposition.

After sending out a foreign merchant named; Janifante to coast along Africa and take soundings,—giving him many copper bracelets, brass basins, rattles, bells, looking-glasses, knives, and silks, to give to the negroes, and so conciliate them,—the king ordered his workmen to set to work building three large ships. Wood was cut in the forests, and brought to Lisbon; and the ships that were to undertake the great and dangerous voyage around Africa were forthwith begun.

Unhappily, just at this time the good King John fell ill, and, after lingering for several months, died, without having experienced the joy of seeing his darling project brought to a conclusion. It was fortunate for the Portuguese that he was succeeded by a monarch whose desire to conquer the ocean was not less intense than that of King John; for it was under King Manuel, who now came to the throne, that the thrilling adventures and heroic exploits of Vasco da Gama by sea and land, which are to be related in the following pages, took place.