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Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle

Vasco da Gama Doubles the Cape

Although Vasco da Gama had learned nothing from the black natives of St. Helena, he felt very sure that it would not be long before they saw the Cape of Good Hope. The cape was, indeed, not far off; but the gallant little fleet had to pass many anxious days, and encounter many dreadful hardships, before they could double it.

Scarcely had they emerged from the tranquil harbor of St. Helena when the ships were struck by contrary winds and tempestuous weather. The waves soon rose to a prodigious height, and tossed the poor little vessels about as if they were frail playthings made for the savage amusement of the sea. Now they seemed to be hurled up among the clouds; then the sailors trembled lest the furious waters which they saw raging far above them on every side should engulf them for ever in the deep. The wind was not only furious, but chilling cold. The pilots could not shout loud enough to make their orders heard by the sailors, so deafening was the uproar of the storm.

After brief periods of daylight, a long and dreadful darkness would hang over them, and prevent their seeing in what direction they were going. The masts and shrouds were stayed; and the ships, no longer to be controlled, drifted whithersoever winds and waves compelled them. It was now that the heroic resolution, courage, and constancy of Vasco da Gama were put to the proof.

When the storm lulled for a time, his sailors, wearied and despairing, crowded around him, and passionately besought him to give up his purpose, and to turn the prows of the ships again towards home. They begged him to consider that these were the perpetual storms which had always forbidden ships to pass the cape; and they cried out that, unless he turned back, they should all find watery graves. They declared that the land, which came in sight as often as they tacked to double the cape, had no end, but extended to the Antarctic Sea; and again and again they pleaded, as if for their lives, with their obdurate captain.

But Vasco da Gama was not to be moved. At first he chid his men gently, and said to them,—

"I assure you, good fellows, the cape is very near. Do not despair. If we keep tacking, we shall surely double it."

He set them a good example by freely and cheerfully sharing their dangers and hardships. Promptly, at the sound of the boatswain's whistle, Vasco da Gama appeared on deck with the others. He seemed never to take any repose, but was here and there and everywhere, often remaining day and night at the helm, ordering the men, and seeing to it that nothing was left undone. He ate the same coarse fare that was allotted to the humblest sailors; and, when the pilot was exhausted, Vasco himself took his place.

Finally, however, he lost patience, and grew very angry at the importunities of the men. Gathering them all on deck, he sternly told them that he would stand out to sea until the cape was doubled, or until the ships went down.

They had been making as many tacks to the windward as the storm would permit; but, every time they returned again towards land, they were disheartened to see the long and irregular coast reappear in the east.

At last Vasco da Gama resolved that he would make a long tack, and stand on it until it was certain that he could double the land

The storm was now gradually subsiding. The caravels sped somewhat more easily on their way; and, after a few days, Vasco ordered the sailors to once more turn the prows towards the continent. As they slowly sped south-eastward, prayers to Heaven went up from all the decks, and both captains and sailors seemed to take more heart. The ships labored less and less; the sea grew calmer; and through the long nights and brief days, the brave little vessels, showing each other colored lights: at frequent intervals, so as not to part company, kept steadily on.

This time no land appeared; and Vasco da Gama ordered the ships to sail more free, in order, if possible, to espy it. One morning they awoke to find themselves floating on a tranquil sea, with a gentle wind wafting them forward. It was a pleasant morning, very unlike the many wretched, dismal days they had passed; and, now, though they had seen no land, Vasco knew that they had doubled the cape.

The other two ships were signalled to come near the San Raphael, and the glorious news was shouted from deck to deck.

Both captains and sailors gave themselves up to the most eager demonstrations of joy. Some climbed the masts, and waved their caps to each other from ship to ship; some ran and got trumpets, which sent a joyous din of sound over the serene and sunny sea; some could only show their delight by firing off cannon; and some wildly, embraced each other, and danced about the deck. All the dangers and troubles of the past were forgotten in a moment; and as Vasco da Gama, his handsome face flushed with triumph and pleasure, strode up and down among his men, they kissed his cloak, and prayed for his pardon, and showered blessings upon him. They little knew that it would not be long before the keenest despair would again seize them, and incite them to make a murderous attempt upon their brave captain's life.

A solemn quiet suddenly succeeded the joyful noise or shouts, singing, cannon, and trumpets. Arrayed in their robes, the priests appeared upon the decks. With one accord every man dropped upon his knees, pulled off his cap, and bent low his head; and then, amid the stillness, the solemn voices of the priests were raised, repeating the "Salve," and uttering to God the gratitude with which the hearts of all were fined to overflowing.

The little fleet now cheerily resumed its journey, and one morning they caught sight of some lofty mountain peaks. To Vasco's delight he perceived that the land was no longer east, but north of him. Irregular ridges, blue in the distance, lined the horizon; and here and there jagged promontories ran boldly out into the sea.

Vasco directed his ships towards the shore, and skirted it leisurely during the night. At dawn they saw pretty sandy beaches interspersed with rocks, glistening in the sunlight; while coves, streams, and even good-sized rivers, appeared at intervals. The crews amused them selves with spearing fish, which they cooked; but the fish. made the men who ate them sick, and the sport lost its attractions.

After running along the coast for three days amid a balmy air and beneath a sunny sky, they came to the mouth of a large river. Vasco da Gama ordered the sailors to lower a boat, and reconnoitre the shore. No natives were anywhere to be seen. The mouth of the river having been sounded, and proving to be twelve fathoms deep, the ships entered it, and cast anchor.

Vasco da Gama, for the first time since they had left St. Helena, went on board his brother Paulo's ship; and Nicolas Coello, the other captain; soon joined them. The three captains embraced each other fervidly; and then, sitting down to a well-provided table which Paulo had prepared, they talked about the dangers and adventures they had passed through, and made merry over their safe arrival on the other side of Africa.

The Portuguese, meanwhile, landed upon the banks of the river, and, dividing themselves into little groups, wandered about to see what they could discover. How refreshing it was to find themselves once more upon the firm land, after all the hardships of the last two months! How pleasant to see the green grass, and to quaff the sparkling waters of the streams, after the weary monotony of the sea, and the scant fare to which they had been subjected!

They found, however, nothing remarkable; nor were any human beings anywhere to be seen. It seemed a deserted coast; and, after putting in wood and fresh water, the ships sailed away again.

A few days after, still hugging the coast, they came to another and larger bay, which Vasco da Gama named San Bias. It seemed to invite them to enter, being a sheltered nook, and apparently an inhabited spot. On the rocks overlooking the bay they observed thousands of seals, with long white teeth and ferocious aspect, warming their sleek fur in the sun.

Vasco da Gama thought this a good place to take a rest; and the ships were, therefore, anchored in the bay. The store-ship which they had brought with them was here emptied of its provisions, which were divided among the other vessels: and the store-ship itself was burned.

The men had not been long on shore before they came back with exciting reports of the strange animals they had met with. They said that they had seen enormous elephants wandering about, and very fat oxen without horns. On the rocks they had espied many large birds, which seemed to have no feathers in their wings, and which uttered a grating cry like the braying of asses.

Presently they discovered that the country round about was inhabited. They caught sight of a number of black fellows, almost naked, riding about in the distance on the backs of the fat oxen; and, after the ships had been in the bay several days, bands of sooty natives appeared, capering about in an excited manner on the rocks, pointing to the strange vessels, the like of which they had never seen before, and gesticulating wildly to each other.

Vasco da Gama was resolved not to be caught in the same trap into which he had fallen at St. Helena. He was anxious to converse with the natives, and find out if possible, where he was; but he had learned to be cautious. So he ordered the men to arm themselves well before going on shore; and to any some cannon with them, in case they should be needed. The negroes grew gradually bold enough to come along the beach, pretty near the ships; and Vasco seized the opportunity to throw out to them some little bells. The savages caught them up, and went scampering over the beach, ringing them, and making a great ado. Then the others became confident, and approached near enough to take the bells from Vasco's hand, grinning at him, and then dancing about.

He was surprised and pleased to find them so familiar and, telling his men to bring him some red night-caps, found no difficulty in going among the natives, and exchanging them for the ivory bracelets which they wore on their arms.

The next morning the shore was fairly swimming with black men, women, and children, almost naked, who rushed to and fro, and crowded, with eyes wide open, around the ships. Vasco, the other captains, and the men went on shore and fearlessly mingled with the sable crowd; and, to their surprise, they were regaled with a number of roasted oxen and sheep, which the natives had brought with them, and which they cooked on the beach after their barbarous fashion.

Invited to partake of these welcome dishes, the Portuguese willingly complied; and a merry time they had of it all day long. The negroes enlivened the feast by playing on flutes made of reeds, and singing songs in a strange, screeching way that caused the Portuguese to laugh heartily. The latter returned the compliment by blowing their trumpets, which seemed to fill the natives with astonishment.

Vasco da Gama seized the occasion to buy some of the sheep and oxen. While he stood bargaining for them, two or three of his men hurried up to him, and told him that they had just seen some young negroes suspiciously hidden in the bushes.

He at once ordered his men to retreat near the ships; seeing which, the natives gathered menacingly and quickly in a close group, as if they intended to attack the strangers. Vasco was unwilling to harm them, however, and gave a sign to the crews to go on board. When everybody was safe in the ships, he ordered two cannon to be fired over the heads of the negroes. The loud and sudden report overcame them with surprise and terror; and, dropping their weapons on the beach, they ran away into the bushes as fast as their naked legs could carry them.

Vasco, before leaving San Blas, erected a pillar on the shore, bearing the arms of Portugal, as a token that he had taken possession of the bay in the name of King Manuel; but, as he was about to set sail, he had the mortification to see the negroes come and pull it down and defiantly throw it into the sea.