The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. — Edmund Burke

Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle




Sojourn at Melinda

Vasco da gama had hitherto met with nothing but craft and treachery from the inhabitants and princes who dwelt along the coast; and had begun to despair of finding any friendship or sincerity among them, or of procuring information on which he might depend.

He was soon to find, however, both a king and a people who presented a most favorable contrast to those he had so far visited; who would welcome him, and treat him generously, and set him fairly on the way to India.

Meanwhile, the voyage along the coast was not without incident. One afternoon he spied two zambuks running into land. Bearing down upon them, he succeeded in capturing one: the other was a little too quick for him; for, running into a narrow inlet, it escaped.

Vasco found that the vessel he had taken was laden with ivory, and contained a large number of Moors. It was commanded by an old Moor named Dias, who, it seems, had a pretty young wife on board, whom he was taking home with him. There were four other women, who were attendants of the bride; and in the boat was also a large chest, which proved to be full of her jewels, and a quantity of gold and silver coins.

Vasco resolved to take some of these Moors with him, among them the old captain and his wife: the rest he allowed to depart in the zambuk in peace. He tried to find among his prisoners a pilot to guide his ship; for the Mozambique pilot was still sternly kept in irons. But these Moors all declared that they could not pilot her, even though they should be put to the torture.

He managed, however, to get along very well without their aid. The weather was pleasant, and light west breezes wafted the ships along. In three nights and two days they reached Melinda, between fifty and sixty miles north-eastward from Mombaza; a town of which they had heard glowing accounts, and which Vasco was very anxious to see.

His expectations were more than realized. His ships were anchored in the roadstead, at some distance from the shore, because there seemed to be no good harbor; but, from the quarter-deck where the intrepid captain stood, he could plainly see, not only the town, but the country round about it.

He was amazed at the imposing spectacle which met his eyes. At the edge of the water rose a ridge, or reef of rocks, which formed a natural pier; but the waves beat so violently against this reef, that it was unsafe for the ships to venture close to it.

Beyond the reef appeared the town, or, as it better deserved to be called, the city, standing upon a broad, open, and fertile plain. Vasco could see that it was a large and flourishing place, adorned by noble stone buildings two or three stories high, with windows and terraced roofs. The city was surrounded by walls; and here and there a mosque was seen, its dome rising above the neighboring edifices. The suburbs of Melinda were really beautiful Stretching off over the hills, beyond the walls, were groves of graceful palm-trees, gardens full of the most brilliant flowers, and orchards of oranges, lemons, and other tropical fruits. Everywhere the grass was of the brightest, richest green; and the landscape in every direction was fair and lovely.

In the roadstead off the town lay a number of strange looking vessels, which Vasco rightly guessed to be Moorish traders, that ran between Melinda and various points on the coast, and also to the more remote ports of Asia.

The Portuguese were delighted to find themselves near a city which they declared to be scarcely inferior to Lisbon itself in size and civilized aspect; and Vasco da Gama caused prayers of thanksgiving for their safe arrival to be offered up by the priests on the decks. He felt confident, that, at Melinda, he would find pilots to conduct him to India; and he was impatient to open communication with the ruler of the city.

At first, no notice seemed to be taken of his arrival. No boats came out to visit the ships, nor was there any unusual stir on shore. It appeared afterwards that the people of Melinda feared the Portuguese, and suspected they had come rather as marauders than for any peaceful purpose.

While Vasco was considering what he should do, the old Moor Dias, whom he had taken in the zambuk, and who was anxious to get away home again with his young wife, came up and spoke to the captain.

"Sir," he said, "I see four Christian ships from the Indies lying at anchor in the roadstead; and I know that there are many Christian traders in Melinda. If you will put me ashore, I will engage to get you some Christian pilots as my ransom; hoping that, in your goodness, you will then let me depart with my wife."

Vasco resolved to trust the old Moor; and, anchoring his ship somewhat nearer the coast, he caused Dias to be put ashore on a ledge opposite the city. No sooner was he left alone than a boat came from Melinda to fetch him.

He was at once conducted to the presence of the king, who proved to be the most powerful monarch on the coast, and who lived in a palace in which a European prince might not have been ashamed to dwell. Dias without ado told the king whence the ships came, and what their errand was at so great a distance from home. He told him how badly the Portuguese had been treated at Mozambique and Mombaza, and how they had generously refrained from avenging the treachery of the potentates of those places.

The King of Melinda seemed to lend a favorable ear to Dias's story, and forthwith sent a boat laden with fruits and provisions to the San Raphael, as a token of good will At the same time he ordered flags to be displayed from the walls of the city, and Vasco returned the compliment by raising standards and streamers on his masts. The king sent a message to the captain, inviting him to come within the port.

Vasco da Gama then dispatched the Moor Davane, in whom he most trusted, to thank the king, and to report to him whether it appeared that the king was sincere in his advances.

Davane arrayed himself in a long red robe, and went ashore. He delivered his messages, and told his Majesty, that, when the pilot thought it safe, the ships would enter the port. The king took a fancy to Davane, and sat a long time talking with him. Then he summoned a council of his nobles and advisers, and asked them whether he should welcome the strangers, and whether it was wise to admit them within the port.

These wise men advised him with one accord to do so: for the Portuguese seemed good men; and, if they turned out to be not so, they could be driven away by the royal forces.

Davane remained in the palace over night, and was regaled with sweet oranges and other delicacies. The next morning he was rowed off to the ship again, in company with the chief priest of the mosque, a man of great dignity and consequence, who was sent by the king as his envoy to Vasco da Gama. The boat also carried a generous present of sheep, fowls, oranges, sugar-canes, and vegetables, for the Portuguese.

The chief priest was cordially greeted by Vasco da Gama. He was invited to sit in a chair on deck; and preserves were brought to him in a silver basin, with a napkin, the latter being a token of hearty welcome.

Meanwhile Davane entertained Vasco with what he had seen at Melinda. He said that the houses were really fine, and the streets spacious and pleasant. The natives were very dark, but tall and well made, with long curly hair. There were a great many foreign merchants in the city, both Moors and Arabs. The better class of these bore themselves with grave dignity, and had polished manners. They were naked down to the waist, below which they wore silk or fine cotton skirts; while on their heads were wound large turbans of many colors; embroidered with silk and gold At their girdles they wore daggers and swords with richly wrought handles and silk tassels; and many of them, being fond of archery, carried also bows and arrows. It appeared, curiously enough, that these Arabs were all left handed. They prided themselves on their horsemanship.

Davane saw in the streets bazaars filled not only with fruit and grain, but articles made of gold, and a great deal of ivory, wax, pitch, and ambergris; and he learned that the Hindoo merchants received these for copper, quicksilver, and cotton cloth. He saw many merchants, who, he was told, were Christians. He described the king as a fine-looking old man, with a benignant face, gorgeously dressed, living in great state and ceremony, and attended by a large retinue of courtiers and servants.

Vasco da Gama, highly pleased with the friendly advances of the king, thought he would show his gratitude by saluting the city with his artillery. He ordered all the cannon on both ships to be fired off at the same moment; and, as the balls went skimming and whizzing over the water, the town felt the concession, and the din caused not a little amazement and trepidation among the people. They were soon reassured, however, and gathered in crowds on the shore to hear the trumpets sounded, as Vasco ordered they should be. The chief priest was now invited to return to the king with courteous messages; but, for some reason, he hesitated to go. Vasco could not understand this, and, calling Davane, asked what he meant.

"He means," said Davane, "that he has been ordered to stay on board as a hostage for the old Moor Dias, who is still with the king."

But Vasco wished to show the king that he confided in his offer of friendship, and so sent the chief priest away, presenting him with a string of corals. He also sent the king a hat, and some scarfs, basins, and bells, and told the priest what things he wished to be sent on board from the town. In the meantime the king closely questioned the Moor Dias as to how he came upon the Portuguese ship, and what kind of men he found the strangers to be.

"Sir," returned Dias, "the Christians on board the ships are good men. They took me and my wife and companions prisoners; but they have not harmed any of us, nor have they taken away our money and jewels. I pray you, sir, to entreat them to set us free, that I may return with my young wife to my own country."

The king readily promised that he would secure their release if possible; and no sooner had he made the request than Vasco granted it, sending ashore Dias's chest and other property untouched. The young wife was also allowed to rejoin her husband, and the rest of his company were restored to him.

On seeing them, and hearing that he was once more at liberty, old Dias exclaimed to the sailors,—

"The God of heaven requite you well, and restore you to your country in health and safety!"

To which the men shouted, "Amen, amen!"

Dias with his company then went before the king, thanked him with tears in their eyes, kissed his feet, and hastened away rejoicing.

The next day was an eventful one to the Portuguese, for then they looked upon men holding their own Christian faith for the first time since, a long and weary year before, they had sailed out of Lisbon harbor.

Vasco, in the morning, ventured to move his ships up nearer the city; and thus found himself in close proximity to the four Christian trading-vessels which the Moor Dias had pointed out to him.

No sooner did these Christian merchants see the San Raphael  and the San Gabriel  near them than a number of them came off to pay a visit to the strangers.

Vasco da Gama happened to be with his brother Paulo on the San Gabriel, so the visitors were invited to come on board that ship.

When they appeared on deck, Vasco was struck with their courteous bearing and intelligent faces. They were swarthy (but less so than the Moors he had been meeting along the coast), tall, and finely-proportioned, with long beards, and long hair, which was plaited up under their spacious turbans. They were dressed in cotton gowns of various colors, which extended nearly to their feet: about their waists they wore girdles, from which hung long swords.

Vasco da Gama welcomed his guests with the refined grace which was natural to him; but he had been deceived so many times, that he resolved to try and find out whether these men were really Christians or not.

Bringing out a picture of the Virgin, who was represented as weeping, while a group of the apostles stood around her, he showed it to them without saying a word.

As soon as they saw it, they knelt down on the deck of one accord, and lifted their hands reverently towards the picture. Then they bowed their heads, and remained for several moments silently praying.

Vasco hastened to embrace them, and, inviting them to sit, held a long conversation with them through an interpreter. They told him that they were from India, and gave him a glowing account of that country; and Vasco was rejoiced to bear that India might be reached, without great difficulty, from Melinda.

On the following day the king sent word that he intended to come and visit the Portuguese, unless Vasco da Gama would come on shore.

The brothers Vasco and Paulo consulted together whether it was best to venture on land; and Vasco insisted, that, if either of them risked the danger of doing so, he, as the younger, should be the one. But they were not as yet fully convinced of the king's good faith; and they finally resolved to send him word that King Manuel bad forbidden them to land in foreign countries, but that they would come near the shore in their boats to see him. At the same time, to soften their refusal, they sent the king some red cloth, satin, and a large, beautifully gilded Flemish mirror.

It was not long before the king showed them that he was not offended; for about nightfall another message arrived from him, that he would be glad to welcome the captains as soon as they chose to come.