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Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle

Vasco da Gama Sets Sail

It was a bright Sunday morning in spring; and the quaint, narrow streets, and spacious squares of Lisbon were full of people.

Something unusual, evidently, was going forward: the old city had the aspect of a holiday, and the multitudes, gaily dressed, were all flocking hurriedly in the same direction.

In the square where stood the ancient and stately cathedral the crowd was most dense and most eager; while, within the edifice itself, a large assemblage, composed of grandees and nobles, of dames and demoiselles, as well as of the common people, filled every niche, aisle, and comer. Behind a curtain which separated them from the rest of the assemblage, the young King and Queen of Portugal, surrounded by a select few of the highest dignitaries of the court, had taken their places; and near this curtain you might have seen Vasco and Paulo da Gama and Nicolas Coello, attired in rich and showy dresses, "the observed of all observers."

At the high altar of the cathedral stood, arrayed in the brilliant costume of his holy office, the Bishop of Lisbon: he was performing high mass, and his voice alone broke the deep silence that reigned in the cathedral.

When he had concluded his prayers, the bishop turned to the assemblage, and told them to pray to God that the voyage of Vasco da Gama might be successful; and went on to utter such praises of the king as were so often sounded in those days from the altars of the churches.

The service over, Don Manuel came out from behind the curtain and spoke to the three captains, who kneeled before him; and the courtiers gathered in a close group around them.

The whole party then repaired from the cathedral to the royal palace, being cheered and saluted on the way by an immense concourse of people.

The time had now come to embark, and soon a procession was formed to proceed to the ships.

Vasco da Gama, having kissed the hands of the king and queen, mounted a fine Arab horse, and put himself at the head of the procession. By his side rode Paulo and Nicolas. Behind them marched, two by two, the crews of the ships, handsomely attired in livery. A large number of noblemen, and officers of the court, accompanied the cortege; a body of monks and priests, bearing wax-candles, and praying aloud, followed; and throughout the route multitudes of people were gathered, many of them weeping at the perils their relatives or friends, the sailors, were about to encounter, others blessing and cheering them on with loud voices.

Arrived at the wharf where the ships lay moored, they found them gaily decked out with ribbons, standards, and flags; and, when Vasco da Gama appeared, a salvo of artillery welcomed him to the command of his little fleet.

The streets and houses near the wharf were occupied by dense and excited crowds, who filled the roofs and balconies, and were closely packed together down to the water's edge; and so many people were observed weeping and lamenting, that this place was afterwards called "the Shore of Tears."

Vasco da Gama now sprang lightly from his horse, crossed the plank with stalwart step, and went on board the San Raphael, followed by the sailors; and in another moment his resolute face appeared on the deck, gazing upon the familiar scenes to which he was about to bid adieu. His brother Paulo and Nicolas Coello also repaired on board their ships with their men.

Vasco, seeing that all was ready, gave the signal for departure. And now there was seen a busy stir on the decks, while the multitudes on the shore remained breathlessly silent.

Fleet of Vasco da Gama

The sails were spread as if by magic; the anchors were drawn up dripping from the bottom; the cannon on the quays boomed forth a noisy "God speed;" the people shouted, and waved their hands, to which Vasco and his comrades responded warmly from the deck; and the three ships, looking gay and sturdy and gallant in the sunlight, Boated smoothly out of Lisbon harbor.

The wind being contrary, the fleet proceeded no farther the first day than the little harbor of Belem, a few miles westward of Lisbon. Here they anchored until the breezes should be favorable.

Don Manuel accordingly himself repaired to Belem and took up his quarters in an old monastery there, so as to be near his fleet till it should sail.

Finally, on the third day, a good wind sprang up; and now, at last, Vasco da Gama was fairly off. The king accompanied the ships in his barge out as far as the open ocean, where he took leave of the captains, and watched them until the tips of their masts had faded out of sight beyond the horizon.

The beginning of this momentous voyage was an auspicious one. Fair winds and a quiet sea, blue sky overhead, and a mild and delightful temperature in the air, sped the adventurers on their way. Vasco's spirits ran high; and the songs of the crews, as they climbed up and down the masts betrayed the gaiety of all on board. The three ships and the provision bark kept well together; and often were so near, that the captains could shout to each other so as to be heard.

For a week they thus sailed on, until they were rejoiced to perceive land, which they soon recognised as the Canary Islands. So far, all was well: they were on the right path. Little did they foresee the dangers through which they would have to pass ere reaching their far-off destination.

Those dangers began, indeed, soon after the Canaries had disappeared from their view. A violent tempest burst upon them, and for hours they were tossed about at the mercy of the waves. When the storm subsided, the San Raphael, Vasco da Gama's ship, could not be seen anywhere by the others. A dreadful fear took possession of Paulo da Gama and Coello, lest their brave commander had foundered; yet they persevered in their course, making directly for the Cape Verde Islands, as Vasco had commanded in case they were separated.

A week of doubt was ended by the arrival of the ships at Cape Verde, where they were gladdened by the sight of Vasco's standard floating in the wind, and the gallant captain himself standing on the deck. The meeting was celebrated by the firing of cannon and the blowing of trumpets.

The ships now proceeded together to the little island of San Jago, one of the Cape Verde Islands, where they came to anchor in a snug inlet, and rested there for a week. They seized the occasion to take in fresh water, replenish the ships with provisions from the bark, and repair the yard-arms and other rigging that had been torn by the tempest.

A month had now passed since they left; and it must have been about the 1st of May that the ships sailed out of the San; ago bay, and turned their prows, as nearly as Vasco could guess, directly towards the Cape of Good Hope.

Vasco da Gama was full of courage as well as energy. He might have crept timidly along the African coast, and thus delayed his journey for the sake of being more safe. But he was eager to reach and double the cape and to see what he could discover in the unknown seas beyond: so he stretched at once across the Gulf of Guinea, and held a straight course southward, making long tacks in that direction.

After leaving San Jago, several months elapsed before the eyes of the voyagers were again gratified by the sight of land. Sometimes the sailors became impatient and were inclined to give up to despair. Sometimes they were deluded by what seemed to be land, but which turned out to be a fog, or a cloud against the horizon. Sometimes Vasco da Gama, consulting his compass and his astrolabe (which was an instrument like our sextant), feared lest he had gone wide of his track. Sometimes frightful tempests threatened to submerge them all in the raging seas.

Still, week after week, and month after month, Vasco da Gama kept resolutely on his course. He had a quick temper: and, when the sailors timidly suggested turning back, he warmly told them that they should go forward until they reached India, or until the sea engulfed them. It was late in August when this long voyage across the ocean brought them at last to the southern coast of Africa. The days, they perceived, had become very short; scarcely six hours of daylight enabled them to search for land on the east; while the temperature, after being for a while insufferably hot, had become very cool again.

One morning, land—real land—came in sight; and the ships, which had, singularly enough, been able to keep in sight of each other all this time, ran down upon the coast in the hope of finding a harbour.

In this they did not at first succeed; but, sailing along the shore a little farther, they reached a cosy bay, where they cast anchor. They named it St. Helena Bay; and Vasco da Gama was sure that they were not far from the Cape of Good Hope.

They were not to leave St. Helena, however, without having some stirring adventures with the dusky natives of that country. Vasco da Gama went on shore with his astrolabe in order to take the altitude of the sun. Meanwhile a number of his men also landed, some to take in water for the ships, and others to stroll about to see what they could find.

While the captain was busy with his instruments, some of his men came hurriedly running to ruin, and exclaimed that, as they were ascending a woody hillock near by, they had espied two naked negroes a little distance off, stooping down in the shrubbery as if gathering something.

Now, nothing could please Vasco da Gama better than to hear this; for he was not only curious to see what kind of people lived in Africa, but he was anxious to find somebody who could tell him how near he might be to the cape.

"Go," he said, "and surround them as quietly as possible, and seize and bring them to me."

Five or six men hastened to obey. They crept along, hidden among the brush, until they had got very near the negroes, who, all unconscious of their danger, went on busily with their work. The men now saw that they were gathering honey. They rushed upon them, but only succeeded in capturing one. The other was too nimble, and, in a great fright, ran away.

The sailors returned to Vasco in triumph with their captive, who stared and trembled, and seemed overcome with mingled terror and amazement.

Vasco tried to communicate with him by signs; but he only rolled his eyes, and showed his white teeth in an agony of fright.

Then a negro boy who happened to be on one of the ships was sent for; and Vasco told him to take the native aside, and to try to get him to eat, and see if he could talk with him. Presently the native became reassured by the food, and by seeing one of his own color, and now began to make a number of signs and motions with great rapidity, grinning from ear to ear. Vasco dressed him up in gay clothes, gave him some little bells, crystal beads, and a red night-cap, which made him dance with delight; and made signs to him to go and get some of his companions, promising that; when he returned, he should have some more presents.

The native scampered away; and, true to his word, he soon brought back ten or twelve men as woolly and black as himself. These men were small in stature, and as ugly in their features as they could possibly be. They wore the skins of beasts loosely about their bodies, and a queer wooden arrangement about their middle; while for arms they carried oak staves which had been hardened in the fire, upon the end of which horns had been fixed for points. Vasco was amused to observe, that, when they spoke, they made sounds as if they were sighing.

The negroes eagerly took the presents that were offered them, but seemed to care little for gold or silver articles, or for spices: they were much better pleased with toys, tin rings, counters, and beads. But little information could be got from them, however; and so they were sent away.

The next day they returned to the bay, bringing forty or fifty other negroes with them; and these grew so sociable and familiar, that Veloso, one of Vasco da Gama's men, begged to be permitted to go with them to their village, which by signs they described as being behind a high hill not far off.

Now, this Veloso had a way of bragging a great deal of what he could do; and his comrades were not sorry to see his courage put to the test. Off he started with his new friends, the others cheering him as he went.

Vasco da Gama returned on board the San Raphael while Coello remained on shore to look after the crews while they cut some wood; and Paulo da Gama, who did not like to be idle, took some men in two of the boats, and, provided with fish-spears and harpoons, went out into the bay to catch some fish.

This sport nearly cost Paulo his life. The harpoons had been tied by ropes to the bows of the boats; and, the men having harpooned a small whale, he whirled about savagely, and came near upsetting the boat in, which Paulo was. Happily the water was very shallow, and the rope long; so that the monster was with some difficulty taken.

Portuguese and Africans

It was nearly sunset, and the captains and men had already taken the boats to return to the ships for the night, when they heard a loud cry from one of the neighbouring hills. Turning in that direction, they saw poor Veloso running with all his might towards them.

One of the boats was ordered to return at once to the shore, and take him in; but the sailors, who were not sorry to see the boastful Veloso frightened out of his wits, rowed very slowly, so as to prolong his agony.

The boat touched the shore; and Veloso was on the point of springing in, when a party of negroes rushed out of an ambush where they had concealed themselves, and two of them caught hold of him, and tried to drag him away. A struggle ensued, in which the two negroes were severely wounded with spears. This only enraged the others, who began to hurl showers of arrows and stones at the boat. The other boats hurried up to take part in the fray, and some of the Portuguese jumped on shore. Vasco da Gama, eager to punish the savages for their perfidy, was standing up in his boat, and giving orders to his men, when an arrow sunk its point in his leg. The captain, however, insisted on remaining, and commanded some of his cross-bowmen to pour a volley into the negroes, which they did with good effect. The savages ran howling away to their hills, and the voyage returned leisurely to the ships. Veloso, when once safely on board, told a brave story about his adventures with the negroes; and said that they had intended to use him as a decoy to lure others on shore, and then destroy them. He related, too, how the negroes ate the roots of herbs, gulls, whales, seals, and gazelles; and how they had dogs very much like those at home in Portugal.

It then turned out that the hostility of the natives was due to a blunder or Veloso himself. When he arrived at the negro village, they thought to do him honor by cooking a large sea-calf, which they set before him, in one or their rude huts. He was so disgusted with the smell and look or it, that he rose abruptly, and strode off towards the bay. The natives, in perfect good humor, went with him: but he became frightened on the way; and, as soon as he came in sight or the ships, he shouted so frantically, that he alarmed the negroes, who plunged into the thicket.

They misunderstood his cries, and thought that he was calling upon his companions to come and attack them: hence their assault upon him as he was getting into the boat.

Vasco da Gama now despaired of learning anything about the Cape of Good Hope from these savages; and only tarried at St. Helena Bay three or four days longer, until his ships could be amply supplied with wood and water.

About the 1st of September the sails were once more spread, the anchors weighed, and the prows turned seaward. A south-west wind carried them briskly along; and, Vasco having told his men in a confident tone that he was sure that the cape was not far oft; the little fleet set forth cheerily on its way around the continent.