F Heritage History | Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama by George Towle

Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle




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King Manuel of Portugal had a country palace at Cintra, a few miles from Lisbon, cozily nestled at the foot of sloping and verdant hills, and in the midst of fruitful vineyards. Thither be was often wont to repair during the warm weather and at the harvest-time to get rid of the heat and dust of the city and the cares of business, his queen and a few favorite courtiers accompanying him to this pleasant retreat.

In the month of September, 1499, King Manuel was enjoying quiet and the pastimes of the country at Cintra. More than two years had elapsed since he had heard a word of Vasco da Gama and his expedition; and he had begun to fear that he should never see the brave captain and his caravels again. He had almost given up all hope that India would be discovered, and had even meditated sending out an expedition in search of Vasco and his companions.

One night, very late, the king was seated before a bounteous supper, feasting with his courtiers. The banqueting-ball was brilliantly lighted, and the table groaned with all the good things that the royal steward could procure and devise. The party were merry; and laughter often echoed through the ball at some sally by the jester, or witticism of a bright-witted courtier.

In the midst of the revel a loud knocking was suddenly Heard. Presently a chamberlain entered, and announced to Don Manuel that a man had just arrived from the sea-coast, having come at full speed, who declared that he had most important news for the king. He begged to be admitted to an immediate audience. Don Manuel told the chamberlain to conduct the man into the banqueting-room.

The new-comer was a large, red-faced man, with the air of a seafarer. As he advanced and knelt before the king, his movements betrayed the roughness and awkwardness of a sailor.

"Who are you, and what do you want?" asked the king.

"Sire," replied the man, "my name is Arthur Rodriguez. I am the captain of a caravel trading between the Cape Verde Islands and Europe. I belong at Terceira, and have a wife there, and children. Sire, I have just come hither in all haste from Terceira, and this night landed at Cascaes, at the mouth of the Tagus whence I have ridden on horseback without taking breath. I came," continued the man, still panting, "to tell your Majesty great news, glorious news."

"Ah!" exclaimed. Don Manuel, rising and going towards the man, while the courtiers flocked eagerly around. "What is this news?"

"I left Terceira four days ago, sire," Rodriguez went on; "and, as I was making from the island under sail, I passed two caravels which were entering port. They looked strange, and labored much in the water. Urged by curiosity, I brought my caravel near, shouted out, and asked who they were, and whence they came. They answered that they were just come from India, and that Vasco da Gama commanded them. So I hurried away, and made all sail for Lisbon, to be the first to tell this news to your Majesty. When I came off in a skiff, I learned that you were here."

At these words the king clapped his hands, and cried out joyfully; while the nobles manifested their delight by embracing each other, and gathering around Don Manuel to offer their congratulations.

"You shall be well rewarded for this," said he, when the first excitement of pleasure was over. "You shall be a gentleman of my household. If you have a son, he shall be a page of the chamber. And to-morrow my treasurer shall pay you a hundred crusados."

Rodriguez, with tears in his eyes, kissed the king's hand, and retired, hastening off to tell his friends of his good fortune.

Don Manuel's first thought was to repair to the chapel, recite his orisons, and to give thanks to God before the altar for the safe return of Vasco da Gama. Then he said to his nobles,—

"We must start for Lisbon at once, so as to be there when the gallant Vasco arrives. He will doubtless follow closely upon this Rodriguez, and should be received with all pomp and honor."

The king and his court set out about daybreak, and reached Lisbon in season for dinner. By this time another caravel had arrived from Terceira, hoping to be the first with the good news; and from the captain of this vessel the king heard of Paulo da Gama's death, and Vasco's intense grief at the event. Don Manuel lamented his a1Biction, and said,—

"I would that Vasco da Gama might have come to me with unalloyed pleasure; but, as it is, he must be consoled by such rewards and honors as his intrepid courage and great achievements deserve."

The king did not have to await long the arrival of the caravels; for one morning, a day or two after his return from Cintra, it was announced that they had entered the mouth of the river, and were fast approaching the bar below Lisbon. The news quickly spread from the palace to the city and the harbor; and all Lisbon turned out, and hurried in multitudes down to the quays. The harbor was full of ships and boats; and ere long they all appeared, gayly decked out with flags and streamers, while the sailors crowded an the decks in their Sunday suits. The people, also dressed in holiday attire, flocked through the narrow streets and across the broad squares; and the city hummed with excited voices, and shouts or joy.

On the principal quay was a large building with a balcony, over which hung a canopy: it was called the "House of the Mines." Hither the king, attended by the court, came; and seats were provided for the royal folks on the balcony.

Presently the booming of cannon was heard in the distance : it came nearer and nearer, and now was echoed by the cannon on the ships in the harbor. Then two caravels were seen, slowly floating in an open space which the vessels made for them towards the centre or the harbor. These, too, sent forth deafening volleys; and from their mastheads fluttered the royal standard and the flag of Portugal. They were the San Raphael  and the San Gabriel. Vasco da Gama could be seen by the nearest ships, standing on the quarter-deck of the San Raphael, wearing a plumed cap, and waving his hands on this side and that. Below, on the main deck. the crossbowmen, sailors, and officers, with whom mingled the dark Melinda pilots in their Oriental costume, and the Jew from Goa with his sweeping white beard, huddled together at the sides of the ship, and gazed eagerly towards the dear and familiar shore.

What a thrilling scene it was! How the hearts of the weary wanderers must have bounded to behold each well-known object,—the spires of the churches, the well remembered streets and squares, the easily recognized hills and cliffs, the spots where were their homes! And then how they must have strained their eyes towards the crowded quays, in the hope that they might make out the beloved forms of dear ones left so long ago behind! Soon, indeed, they would be locked in the embrace of parents, wives, and children, or would be bowed with grief at the news of the death of beloved relatives or friends.

The king sent out a great nobleman, named Vasconcelos to greet Vasco, welcome him home, and beg him to come on shore; at the same time expressing his grief at the death of Paulo da Gama. Vasconcelos was followed by a crowd of Vasco's friends, who docked on board to embrace him, and manifest their joy at getting him back again.

Vasco da Gama then dressed himself in a close-fitting silken tunic, a cloak and a round velvet cap, and proceeded to the shore. Landing on the beach, he was greeted by the bishop, and a nobleman named the Count of Borba, who, after embracing him, offered to conduct him to the king. As Vasco went along towards the House of the Mines, the people observed that his beard had grown very long, and that his face was pale and sad. They shouted and cheered frantically as the hero passed between their ranks, and blessings were showered upon him on every hand.

When he ascended into the balcony, Don Manuel, as a mark of peculiar honor, rose from his chair to greet him. Vasco da Gama kneeled, and kissed the royal hand; but Don Manuel immediately raised him, and warmly embraced him.

"Sire," said Vasco, "all my hardships have now come to a happy end, since I am once more brought in presence of your Majesty, as I have always prayed."

"May your coming be fortunate," returned Don Manuel. "Your return fills me with pride and happiness; and, since God has been pleased to bring you back in safety, he has reserved you for the rewards which your heroism deserves. But, for my sake, be consoled for the death of your brother."

The king now descended, and mounted his horse, and with Vasco da Gama riding by his side, and the courtiers following in a dazzling group, repaired to, the palace. Here he brought Vasco to his fair young queen, whose hand Vasco kissed; while she received him with graceful welcome.

Meanwhile a touching scene was being enacted on the quays. The sailors and other companions of Vasco da Gama on his voyage had come ashore, and were being overwhelmed with the joyfully tearful caresses of their families and friends. Their weather-beaten faces quivered with emotion as the dear wife, the bright young child, and aged mother, were fondly folded to their bosoms. Troops of old friends and cronies crowded around them and hugged them, and bore them away in triumph up the zigzag streets to their longed-for homes, where hearty feasts awaited them. Each man was a wonderful hero to his friends: he had braved unheard-of perils, and had seen such strange things and people as nobody had imagined existed on earth. That night many a group sat around the homely hearthstones of Lisbon, and listened to the marvellous stories of India and the East which the wayfarers told.

After Vasco da Gama had been presented to the queen, Don Manuel affectionately dismissed him, saying that doubtless he was weary, and needed rest; and told him to come to the palace next day, and recount his adventures more at length. An immense multitude of people accompanied Vasco from the palace to his own house, whither he retired for the night; but, before he could get to bed, many of his friends came to greet him, and congratulate him upon his safe return, and the great fame and honors that awaited him.

The next morning the city still wore a holiday look. The people, rejoiced at the return of the expedition, and proud of the glory and power which it seemed certain that Portugal would derive from the discovery of India, neglected their business, and made merry out of doors. Flags floated from the houses, and far and near you might have heard the strains of music celebrating the happy event.

Early in the morning, Vasco da Gama, surrounded as before by a great concourse of citizens, went to the palace as the king had commanded. Don Manuel was in his dressing-room, putting on his clothes before a mirror. When Vasco entered, the king came towards him with a smile of welcome, and extended his hands. Vasco kneeled; but the king, raising him up, said,—

"Rise, Don Vasco da Gama. You have rested but little."

The king called him "Don," and thus conferred on him that title,—a noble one, corresponding to "Lord."

Don Vasco again knelt, kissed the royal hand, and thanked the king for this high honor.

"I confer it upon you," said Don Manuel, "not only for yourself but for the whole of your lineage."

The king then repaired to mass, having Don Vasco with him; and they stood together behind the curtain of the royal box, talking as the service went on. Thence they repaired to the apartments of the queen; and Don Vasco sent for his faithful comrade, Nicolas Coello. When he had arrived, Don Vasco said to the king,—

"Sire, Nicolas Coello has been faithful and brave through all our perils and trials. I beg your Majesty to give him the rewards due to his merits."

"It shall all be, Don Vasco," returned the king, "as you wish."

DonVasco now ordered the beautiful presents which had been sent by the Kings of Cananor and Melinda to be brought, and set before the royal pair. The chests were opened; and when the queen saw the glittering jewels and porcelain, and other gifts, she clapped her hands with delight.

Don Vasco then sat with the king and queen, and chief noblemen of the court, relating his many adventures, escapes, and triumphs; to which they all listened with rapt attention, hanging upon his lips as he described the thrilling scenes through which he and his companions had passed.

He told the king of the pilots whom he still kept in irons, and why he had thus punished them: whereupon Don Manuel said that he might order them to be executed, or set at liberty, as he pleased. Don Vasco also spoke of the Melinda pilots, and praised their intelligence and fidelity. The king sent a man to go about with them, and show them the city; and ordered that they should enjoy a bounteous hospitality; that they should be taken to the feasts and banquets, the bull-fights and other games; and that all the public edifices should be open to their inspection.

When Don Vasco returned to his house, he sent for the pilots in irons, and when they were brought, said to them,—

"I have kept my word to deliver you up in irons to the king. I have told him of your offences, and he has left the punishment of them to me. Now, I pardon you freely, because of the hardships you have undergone. Go in peace, and rest yourselves with your wives and children, with whom you will live with more pleasure and content than if you had gone back to India, flying from fear of the storms, and carrying me a prisoner as you wished to do."

They threw themselves at his feet, weeping with gratitude, and exclaimed, "Sir, may you have your reward from God!"

The voyage of Vasco da Gama had lasted from March 25, 1497, to Sept. 18, 1499,—a period of about two years and six months. He had started with one hundred and fifty men, and returned with only one-third of that number. His frail little caravels had been new and stanch when he set out; when he got back they were worn and seemed old, and were no longer fit for such hard service.

It remained to settle up the accounts, to pay the men, to distribute the cargo, and to dispense the rewards which had been so bravely won. The crossbow-men and sailors were generously paid in money, and were allowed, besides, to carry each ten pounds of spices home to their wives. The heirs of the dead sailors were paid their wages, and share of the goods; and each master and pilot received, besides his wages, half a quintal of every drug which the ships had brought. Nicolas Coello received a large sum of money, a quintal of the spices and drugs, a share of the presents, and was made a lord of the royal household. To Vasco da Gama, besides the noble title of "Don," King Manuel granted a yearly sum of two hundred ducats to spend in spices from India, which he should bring in free of duty, besides a pension of about a thousand dollars a year, which was then worth as much as ten thousand dollars is worth now. He gave him permission to wear the royal arms, and to adopt as his coat of arms two does, which in Portuguese are called gamas. He made him lord of the village of Sinis, in which Don Vasco was born; and gave him a large proportion of the precious cargoes he had brought from India.

King Manuel made offerings to various churches and monasteries in token of his gratitude for the discovery of India; went with the queen in solemn procession to the cathedral, where the Bishop of Lisbon eloquently preached on the great voyage and discovery; and finally made a proclamation, in which he assumed the title of "Lord of the Conquest and Navigation of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and the Indies."

Thus ended the famous first voyage or Don Vasco da Gama; and thus he was received, when, after so many dangers and adventures, he at last returned to his native Portugal. His fame rapidly spread through Portugal and all over Europe. He was hailed as the rival of Columbus, and the kings envied the good fortune of Don Manuel in having so valiant and persevering a navigator. Camoens, the greatest of Portuguese poets, celebrated his heroic character and deeds in an epic poem, the "Lusiad," which still preserves his memory; and he became the pride and idol of his countrymen.