It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. — Abraham Lincoln

Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle




Homeward Bound

Vasco da Gama, when he left Melinda, had promised the good king, that, on his return from India, he would pay him another visit: so the pilots directed the ships south-westward, hoping to strike near Melinda, on the African coast.

The voyage across the Indian Ocean was attended by few incidents worth relating. Although the trade-winds were now in their favor, blowing from the east, they did not escape some furious gales, and yet more annoying calms; and the sun's heat was sometimes intolerable. The ships had crossed from Melinda to Calicut in three weeks: it took them four weeks to make the African coast again on the homeward voyage.

Only two events occurred, however, to seriously mar the prosperous course of the journey. Scurvy again broke out among the men; and thirty poor fellows, falling victims to this horrible distemper, found a watery grave in that distant sea; While many others were rendered so helpless by it, that they were forced to lie in the cabin, and were useless for service about the ships.

When they were nearly half-way across, the fresh water fell short; and all hands were put on half-allowance. This caused a great deal of dissatisfaction and grumbling; and soon the pilots began to demand that the ships should put back to Calicut. When Vasco da Gama would not listen to this, the pilots became mutinous; and Vasco was obliged to arrest them, put them in irons, and have them carried into the hold; after which he piloted the San Raphael  himself.

At last the welcome coast of Africa came in sight, and the crews once more gave way to wild demonstrations of joy. It was about dusk when the dim outline of coast and mountains greeted their eyes. Vasco knew that this coast abounded in dangerous reefs and shoals, and so kept the ships well out to sea until morning should disclose their whereabouts, and the sun guide them clear of accident.

In the morning they stood towards land; and, running southward along the coast, they presently came opposite a large and prosperous-looking town. It had high walls around it, and on a height which arose from the middle of the town appeared a vast and lordly palace.

Vasco at first thought of putting in at this place; but learning that it was Magadoxo, a Moorish city, he abandoned his purpose, and passed it at a safe distance. He had had enough of Moorish treachery, and was resolved to avoid again putting himself in their power.

Some leagues farther on, they came to another town. While they were gazing at it, eight boats suddenly pushed out from shore towards the ships. They proved to be full of swarthy soldiers, whose intent evidently was to attack the Portuguese. But they were speedily disposed of; for the Portuguese fired several volleys of cannon-shot among them, which killed some, and effectually frightened the rest. The contrary wind would not permit the Portuguese to follow them, and the ships continued on their way.

It was on a bright morning in early January (1499) that Vasco da Gama once more caught sight of the imposing and friendly town of Melinda. The San Raphael  and San Gabriel  anchored in the roadstead; and Vasco ordered the streamers to be run up the masts, and the trumpets to be sounded. When the crews saw the familiar sights of Melinda, they cheered lustily.

A messenger was at once sent ashore to apprise the old king of the arrival of his Portuguese friends. He was soon followed by Vasco and Paulo da Gama in their boats. When they reached shore, they found the king on the beach waiting to receive them. He eagerly embraced the brothers, putting his arms around them affectionately, and made them sit down on either side of him.

The king questioned them about their journey, and renewed his promises of friendship and his expressions of good will. While they were talking, the two pilots whom the king had provided Gama to guide the ships to India came up and prostrated themselves before their sovereign, and kissed his feet. He asked them for an account of their adventures, which they gave him with great animation. On hearing about the Spanish Jew, the king expressed a desire to see him: whereupon the Jew was brought ashore, and presented to him.

After a long and pleasant interview, in the course of which Paulo da Gama begged the king to permit the two pilots to proceed to Portugal with them, which he readily granted, the captains returned to their ships.

They stayed at Melinda twelve days. During this time, Vasco and Paulo went ashore and visited their royal friend every day, feasting with him till dusk, and exchanging costly presents. The ships were supplied with fresh water and provisions; and the crews had an opportunity to wander about the handsome town, buy curious knick-knacks for their wives and children (whom they hoped soon to see), and observe the bazaars and the dark-skinned natives.

When they were about to depart, the king sent a boatful of costly parting gifts. Among these were heavy neck-chains of gold set with gems, silver and ivory ornaments, jewelled rings, silks and gold-thread, for the King and Queen of Portugal, besides other presents for the captains and Nicolas Coello. In return, Vasco lavished so many presents on the king, that he exclaimed,—

"I am a poor man to be able to pay for all this."

There were coral and amber, vermilion and quicksilver, brocades, velvets, satins, and damasks, mirrors, knives, caps, beads, gilt glasses, bars of copper, and a richly enameled dagger which Vasco da Gama had long worn on his own person.

The ships stood out to sea on the morning of St. Sebastian's Day, and the friendly shores of Melinda soon vanished from the view. The next day the priests said mass on the decks; and in their prayers they made earnest supplications to God to preserve them, and bring them safely back to Portugal.

The Melinda pilots proved to be quite familiar with the coast, and often guided the ships safely by shoals which would have been dangerous had the Portuguese pilots alone been trusted. They warned Vasco to have the sails shortened as they passed Sofala, as there was a river there whence there sometimes issued violent squalls. The ships hove to, and sent boats ashore at several points along the coast. At one village they took in a large quantity of hens; and when they arrived at Zanzibar, finding the king of the island disposed to be friendly, and the people harmless, Vasco ordered the ships to cast anchor, and they remained there a week. During this time they took in provisions, exchanged presents with the king, had mass said on shore, and set up a pillar in commemoration of their visit.

Vasco took good care to sail wide of Mozambique, but anchored again at San Blas, where a new supply of water was obtained, and a number of seals caught and salted down for provisions. At last, without any adverse incidents, the eyes of the Portuguese were once more blessed with the sight of the Cape of Good Hope; and as they turned it, and found themselves now running northward, full on the way home, and in familiar seas where they might reasonably hope to catch sight of European ships any day, their hearts were filled with joy, and, throwing themselves on deck, they uttered fervently their gratitude to God.

Soon after passing the cape, Vasco da Gama summoned the Portuguese pilots, who were still in irons on account of their rebellion while crossing the Indian Ocean, and said to them, —

What do you men say of the great shame with which you covered yourselves, when, from fear of the storm, you wished to seize upon me, and return to India?"

One of them replied,—

"Sir, we acted according to what we are: you acted according as you. On a day of so much joy we pray that you will pardon us."

"I forgive you," said Vasco, "and I have no malice in my heart against you. But I have made a vow that I will take you in irons before the king, not to have you punished, but as a token of the perils of this voyage."

Vasco then had the presents of the King of Melinda brought on deck, and distributed them among the men, to their great joy; sending also an equal amount to the San Gabriel, to be there divided in like manner.

The ships, instead of running along the coast where the continent of Africa bends, struck directly across towards the Cape Verde Islands; and, as they sailed, the San Raphael  and San Gabriel  were able to keep alongside each other, so that the men could speak from deck to deck. Even here the Melinda pilots were of great use; for, though they had never been on the Atlantic, they were able to take observations by the stars, and, with Vasco's charts, to steer a straight course. Now and then showers, calms, and contrary winds arose, and delayed the voyage; but happily they escaped the terrible storms which had assailed them on their way out.

They had left Melinda late in January, and it was not till the latter part of August that they once more came in sight of the Cape Verde Islands. Here a great sorrow overtook Vasco da Gama. His good and gentle brother Paulo had been taken sick soon after passing the Cape of Good Hope. At first it seemed but a slight attack of cold: but, as the ships approached the islands, he grew worse and worse; and Vasco went on board the San Gabriel and tended him. When they put in at the island of Terceira, Paulo had to be carried tenderly on shore; and the day after, to the intense grief of Vasco, he died in his arms. For his brother Paulo, Vasco da Gama had the most devoted and faithful affection: and no wonder; for Paulo was a noble character, lovable, sweet-tempered, yet resolute when the occasion demanded it, and ready at all times to share every danger with his companions.

Paulo da Gama was buried in the little monastery of St. Francis, at Terceira; his grief-stricken brother following him to the grave, attended by all the Portuguese in deep mourning.

The ships were already so much worn by the long voyage, that it seemed doubtful whether they could reach Portugal. At Terceira Vasco found a colony of his countrymen; and these heartily assisted him to repair the caravels, and supply them with all things needed for their final journey. Vasco's crews had been dwindled by sickness and death to about fifty, and more sailors were added to them at Terceira.

Having made all these preparations, theSan Raphael and San Gabriel  set sail for Portugal. Vasco da Gama's heart was oppressed with sorrow at his brother's death; and the exultation which he might have felt to think that in a few days he would be received with enthusiastic rejoicings and the highest honors by his king and countrymen was now obscured by the gloom that overshadowed his heart.