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Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle




Vasco da Gama Arrives at Mombaza

The wind did not at first serve the caravels. After going a league from Mozambique, they cast anchor, and the Portuguese disembarked upon a small and uninhabited island. Here Vasco da Gama caused the priests to set up an altar and say mass; while the crews stood around and listened to the solemn service of thanks with uncovered heads. Then the priests heard the men confess; and on the following day, which was Sunday, the sacrament was administered.

A favourable breeze springing up, Vasco da Gama pursued his voyage along the coast. He was not a little perplexed to decide whether he had best keep close to the shore, or strike out boldly across the ocean towards India. From the Moorish pilot whom he questioned he could get but little information, and what little he got he could not believe.

This Moor, enraged because he had been put in irons, resolved to bring the fleet to ruin if he could. He told Vasco that some leagues farther on was the great city of Quiloa, which was inhabited half by Christians, and half by Moors. It was quite true that the ships were going towards Quiloa; but there were no Christians there at all. The pilot's object was to lure Vasco into the harbor of Quiloa, raise the alarm among the Moors there, and so wreak vengeance on the Portuguese.

Davane, always awake to the dangers of the voyage, and entirely devoted to Vasco, warned him not to put in at Quiloa, but to distrust the pilot in every thing.

Vasco then called the pilot to him, and sternly told him that if any mishap occurred to the ships, or if they ran upon shoals, he would have both his eyes put out.

The fleet passed Quiloa in the night, driven on by the currents; and, a strong gale coming on, the ships were tossed about, and were with difficulty kept on their course. As they were making the best headway they could through the gale, Paulo da Gama's ship, very early one morning, ran suddenly aground upon a sand-bank, six miles out from the coast. Paulo hastened to make a signal to his brother, who lost no time in coming to his assistance.

Vasco was glad to see that the tide was low, and was confident that when it rose again the ship would probably float. At daylight the San Gabriel  lay quite dry upon the bank; and, while this was the state of affairs, some Moors came unexpectedly out to the ships in a canoe, bringing with them a quantity of sweet oranges, which the Portuguese enjoyed very much. These Moors assured Vasco that the ship was in no danger, for at flood-tide she would easily float off again. This proved to be the case; and the fleet continued on its journey, carrying away several of the Moors, who begged to go with the Portuguese to Mombaza.

It was late in April when the caravals, progressing to the north-east, arrived off the island and town of Mombaza. Vasco perceived that this town stood picturesquely on the summit and sides of a rocky hill; and that many of the houses were well built, and of stone. It seemed a lovely place: for on the hills round about could be discerned orchards of pomegranates; figs, oranges, lemons, and citrons; while, in the pastures, fat cattle and sheep were lazily browsing in the sun.

Vasco saw that there was a good harbor, but that it could only be approached by passing some shoals; and this, as well as the doubt whether he would be well received by the potentate and people of Mombaza, caused him to anchor at some little distance off the island.

From the Moors who were on board the San Gabriel, however, he learned a great deal about the town. They told him that the harbor was excellent, and that there was an active trade between Mombaza and the coast, mainly in honey, wax, and ivory. The inhabitants were Moors,—some very fair-skinned, and others swarthy; and they dressed richly, especially the women, who wore costly silks. As for the houses, they were as handsome within as on the outside, being plastered, and replete with ornaments; while the streets presented a wide and pleasant aspect. The town had plenty of provisions, they added, especially rice and millet. The Moors told him, moreover, that the town was ruled over by an independent king of its own; and they added falsely, that many Christians lived there.

All this made Vasco da Gama anxious to communicate with Mombaza, to make friends with the king, trade with him if possible, and find out the best route thence to that India which he more and more longed to behold.

Unhappily, he was destined here to meet with the same craft and treachery which had so often marked his intercourse with the dwellers along the African coast. The King of Mombaza had already learned from the perfidious Sheik of Mozambique, who had sent forward some swift coastwise vessels, that the Portuguese were Christians; and he had resolved to serve them an ill turn as soon as they reached his port. To do this, he used the same hypocrisy which the sheik had already done.

No sooner were the ships at anchor than the king sent out some boats laden with an abundance of good things,— chickens, sheep, sugar-canes, lemons, citrons, and large, sweet oranges, that tasted deliciously. The sick were delighted to get these luxuries, which wonderfully revived their health and spirits.

Vasco distrusted the accounts of his Moors, and took every precaution to avoid a surprise. Yet it might be that what they said was true; and he was anxious, if possible, to conciliate the king. He was ignorant of the warning the king had received from the sheik, and thought it at least possible that there might be Christians, who would surely be friends, living at Mombaza.

When he received this generous present of provisions, therefore, he ordered the flags to be hoisted on the masts, and the trumpets to be sounded, in token that he wished to be friendly with the king.

A venerable-looking Moor, richly clad, and with a long, flowing white beard, now came on board with a message from his royal master. He told Vasco that the king welcomed him to Mombaza, and would like to come on board the San Raphael, and that the captain was quite at liberty to enter the harbor, and to visit the town. At the same time, the king sent two pilots to conduct the ships safely by the bar into port.

Vasco sent the old Moor back with an amicable message; but scarcely had he departed when a large boat came out from the island, with a hundred Moors in it armed to the teeth. On reaching the San Raphael, all these men wished to go on board at once, but Vasco only permitted them to go four at a time, and without their arms; at the same time explaining to them that the Portuguese were strangers, and had learned by experience to be suspicious. The Moors answered that they only came armed because that was the invariable custom of their country, and readily accepted the cakes and wine which Vasco caused to be distributed among them. They told him how glad the king was that he had come, and that the king would not only visit him, but would load his ships with spices; adding, that it was true that there were many Christians living in Mombaza.

Nothing could be more cunning, as will presently appear, than the way in which the King of Mombaza tried to calm Vasco's suspicions, that he might fall into the trap set for him.

The next morning some Moors, very fair in complexion, came off to the ships. They asserted that they were Christians; and among the many messages which they brought from the king was a request that some of the Portuguese should go ashore and visit the city, and see its Christian inhabitants. Vasco da Gama once more had recourse to the convicts whom he had brought with him to be sent on dangerous errands. Two of these he ordered to return with the white Moors, which they accordingly did.

They were met, on landing, by crowds of finely-dressed people, men and women, who looked at them with much curiosity, and followed them to the royal palace. Here the convicts were conducted through three doors, each of which was guarded by a Moorish sentinel; and in a small apartment, at the farther end of the palace, they found the king himself. He received them with much courtesy, and calling the old white-bearded Moor whom he had first sent to Vasco, and who seemed to be a sort of marshal or major-domo, told him to conduct the strangers through the town, and to let them take whatever caught their fancy without any charge.

As the two convicts passed through the streets, which were really spacious and well built, they saw here and there men lying in irons. These they conjectured to be Christians, but dared or could not ask.

Pretty soon they reached a large, rather imposing house, which they were invited to enter. At the threshold they were met by several fine-looking, fair-skinned, well-dressed men, who led the way to a room within. These assured the convicts that they were Christians, and, to prove it, brought out some beads with crosses hanging to them, which they put to their eyes and reverently kissed. They also produced a picture representing the Holy Ghost, before which they fell upon their knees.

These pretended Christians regaled the convicts with rice-cakes, butter, honey, and fruit, and begged that they would stay over night at their house; but the old Moor who acted as guide forbade this, and carried the convicts back to the palace, where they slept.

The next morning the king took pains to show them his plentiful stores of spices, ginger, pepper, and cloves, and told them that he had besides an abundance of gold, silver, amber, wax, and ivory, which he would sell very cheaply to the Portuguese.

One of the convicts now returned to the San Raphael, and narrated to Vasco da Gama what had passed. The captain was somewhat re-assured to see him come back safely, and still more so at the mild and friendly conduct of the Moors, who continued to come to the ships with presents, and messages of good will. The other convict, as Vasco had commanded, remained at Mombaza.

The king having sent two pilots on board, Vasco da Gama resolved to venture into the harbour. If worst came to worst, he had his sturdy crossbow-men and his cannon to defend him from an attack; and he little doubted that he could make the Moors rue any attempt at treachery they might make.

The next morning the pilots declared that the tide was rising, and that now was the time to cross the sandy bar which lay between the ships and the harbor. The Portuguese pilots exclaimed angrily against this, and pointed out to the captain that the tide was not a quarter full. To this the Mombaza men replied that at full tide the water ran too strong for the ships.

Vasco ordered the anchors to be weighed. The old Moor who had come out with some armed men led the way with his boat. And now a curious thing happened. The San Raphael  could not be brought round with her prow towards the channel, despite every exertion of the sailors, but, instead, drifted straight upon the bank. "Let the anchor fall, and strike the sails!" shouted Vasco; and his order was echoed by his brother on the other ship, which was close by.

The next thing they knew, the San Raphael  stuck by her stem upon the bar. The old Moor, whose real purpose was to get the ships aground, thought he had succeeded, and rowed hastily away to the shore. At the same time, one of the Mombaza pilots seized a moment of confusion to leap into the sea, and swim lustily for the Moorish canoes; one of which soon picked him up, and carried him safely to the island.

Before the other Mombaza pilot could follow his comrade's example, he was seized And now Vasco da Gama began to suspect that the Moors he had brought from Mozambique had been plotting with those of Mombaza to destroy the ships.

He ordered them to be brought on deck, and questioned them. As they refused to reply, he had some boiling hot grease brought, and dropped upon their bare backs. Writhing with the torture, they at last cried out that they would reveal everything. They then confessed that they were in league with the Moors of Mombaza; and that the king had planned to get the ships upon the banks, to kill all the Portuguese, and to plunder the caravels.

There was still another Moor on board, who Vasco thought, might be in the plot. He was brought on deck, and his hands were tied together; but, before he could be put to the torture, he suddenly jumped overboard, and swam away with his legs, being, of course, unable to use his arms.

The next thing was to get the San Raphael  off the bar. Fortunately, night soon came on, and the moon rose full and clear. With the turn of the tide Vasco found with joy that his ship floated off the sands. But a new obstacle to their departure now presented itself. One of the anchors which had been cast stuck fast in the shallows, and the men worked all night to haul it up again.

"While this work was going on, a number of Moors came out in boats; and, before long, the sailors who were at work on the anchor felt something tugging at the cable. At first, they thought this was caused by a shoal of tunny-fish; but, on looking more closely, they caught some of the Moors, who had clambered up on the side, and were in the act of cutting the cable so that the ship might drift ashore. Before they could be reached by the boats of the San Gabriel, however, these black rascals jumped into the sea, and swam off to their own canoes.

It would appear that they had at least succeeded in damaging the cable; for, while the men were trying to weigh the anchor, the cable broke, and they were forced to leave the anchor sticking in the bottom. This anchor was afterwards got out by the Moors, who placed it as a curiosity at the gate of the royal palace, where it was seen some years after by a Portuguese navigator named Don Francesco d'Almeida.

Still another danger menaced the ships. It was feared that the Moors of Mombaza, having failed to strand them on the shore, would set fire to them. A strict watch was therefore kept through the night, and cannon were placed in a position to rake the Moorish boats if they should come up.

Probably the Moors caught sight of the guns, and were afraid to venture; for morning came without any attack having been made, and almost as soon as it was light the caravels were once more speeding north-eastward along the African coast.