South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

Vasco Da Gama

And now the King of Portugal knew everything. What he wanted was a man who should turn theory into practice. Diaz had turned back: he wanted a man whom the Devil himself would not be able to turn. So he chose a poor gentleman of his court named Vasco da Gama, and how just his choice was will be shown before the end of the chapter.

Vasco da Gama was the son of the Alcaide of Sines, a little fishing village which looks over the Atlantic. In front is the open sea; behind is a waste of sand-dunes; on the north side of the little bay in which it lies is a rocky promontory which encloses a sheltered cove, the only refuge for the fishing-boats of the village in stormy weather; above, on the summit of the cape, are the ruins of an old castle, and the church which Vasco da Gama built to commemorate his voyage to the Indies. In this little village the boy grew to manhood. His interests were forcibly turned to the sea by the desert strip which divided the place from the land behind, and often he must have talked to the sailors prowling about among the tarry ropes and nets of the little cove, or watched the ships coasting along from the hill above. Here no doubt he heard stories of the savages of Guinea and of the King of Timbuctoo who tied his horse to a rock of gold, and of those beautiful Fortunate Isles to which the sailors of Portugal voyaged.

And so he grew to be a man, and traded himself for slaves and gold in the Bight of Biafra. He was not much of a scholar, and he had a practical man's scorn of theoretical knowledge. He was heard to say that all men who are very good as pilots have mad fancies; and, for his part, if the king wished to cut off Magellan's head, he would not raise a finger to prevent it. There is a story that when he was passing along the south coast of Africa, his officers clamoured to turn back because of the bad weather and the unknown seas. But da Gama clapped the pilots under hatches and threw the compass and astrolabe overboard. "And now," said he, "since you know not your way home, you may as well go forward as back."

Whether this story is true or false, he was a man who would have done such a thing. He was strong of build, of middle stature, and of a fiery countenance, and he had a most choleric temper. He would stare at men till they shook in their shoes, and they obeyed him through fear. He thought nothing—as the records tell us—of dipping a Moor in boiling oil, and there are dreadful stories of his doings in India. He ordered the Arab ship, the Joar Afanqui, to be burnt, and looked on through his porthole as the women brought up their gold and their jewels and held out their children to beg for mercy. He cut off the noses and ears of some hundreds of poor unoffending Indian fishermen, and sent them to the Zamorin of Calicut to make a curry. When he got home from his voyage he built a house in the town of Evora, and had it all painted over with figures of Indians and elephants and crocodiles; and we may imagine the children trembling as this bluff, fiery, terrible sea-captain rolled up the street to his enchanted house.

Such was the man chosen by the king for the second great adventure. Nothing was spared to make the expedition a success. Bartholomew Diaz himself superintended the building of the ships, making them high and strong to withstand the heavy seas of the Cape of Good Hope. They were fitted with a double set of everything that ships required. Da Gama's was a three-master with great sails on which crosses were sewn; she had a low waist, and a very high poop and forecastle, and through the casemates of the poop showed the muzzles of no less than twenty guns.

It was a great day at the port of Rastello when the expedition put out upon its voyage. Portugal felt it was the turning-point in her history, a most notable enterprise in her career of discovery and war against the Infidel. Vasco da Gama, his brother Paul, and the rest of his officers and sailors, prayed all night in the hermitage of Our Lady of Bethlehem, which Prince Henry himself had built, and in which that good prince had placed holy men to offer the sacraments to seafarers. In the morning the captain and all his men walked through the streets to the ships with candles in their hands and all the city behind them, answering the litany which was chanted by the priests in front. It must have been a brave sight—the consecrated banner of the king streaming in the breeze, the bright vestments of the priests, and the glittering helmets and breastplates of the men. No doubt the sailors blessed Prince Henry in his grave, for he had thoughtfully provided Bulls, which he had obtained from His Holiness the Pope, to take all who should die in this discovery straight out of Purgatory into Paradise. They were of good service—more's the pity—for of one hundred and seventy gallant hearts that beat so bravely in the four ships that fair day of July, only fifty-five saw Lisbon again.

And so they sailed with Bartholomew Diaz to put them safely on their way. He saw them as far as Cape Verde and so left them, as sorrowfully, no doubt, as when he bade farewell to his cross on the Island of the Fountains. But his crosses were like signposts on the road as they sailed south, and for many days the ships passed over a now familiar track.

Far south, almost at the Cape of Good Hope—in the Bay of St. Helena—Vasco da Gama came to an anchor and went ashore to ascertain the latitude by means of the astrolabe which stood upon a tripod and gave best results when used on shore.

His sailors, you may be sure, were glad to have a run on land after the long voyage cooped up on shipboard. Some went off among the rocks to catch crayfish, and Paul da Gama set out with a boat a-whale-fishing in the bay. They were reckless fishers. Paul stuck two harpoons into a whale, and if the ropes had not been long and the sea shallow there would have been a sorry end to their fishing, for they had made fast the harpoon lines round one of the thwarts. As it was, the boat went over the bay like a flash of light, with the gunwale dipping under the water, before the whale, by good luck, ran himself ashore.

As the Captain and Pedro d'Alanquer, his famous pilot, were taking the height of the sun, the company spied two little men behind a hillock stooping as if they were gathering herbs. Da Gama made a sign, and all the sailors drew softly upon them, creeping through the low shrub among the sand-hills. Then, without being seen, they surrounded the little men, who were working away among the bushes with lighted torches to keep off the bees, as they dug out the honey. They were such men as the Portuguese had never seen before—naked indeed, like the men of Guinea, but not so black. They were filthy and small, almost as much like baboons as men; and their hair was twisted in beads, stuck here and there upon their heads like black peppercorns. But their language was the strangest part of them, for, as one of the old sailors put it, they "clocked in their speech like a brood hen." For besides vowels they have various clicks of which their language is full. Some people say that this race of pigmies long long ago dwelt in the very north of Africa, and are identical with an aboriginal tribe that lived in the Delta of the Nile. They have been driven ever south by stronger nations until at last the miserable remnant found a refuge in the most barren part of Southern Africa. Certain it is that some of their beliefs and superstitions have a smack of Egypt. For example, they have as a sort of tribal totem the scarab beetle; and their wall paintings in red and black ochre, which I have seen for myself on the walls of the caves in which they used to live, may derive from the frescoes of the Egyptian tombs, while they have among their stories a legend almost exactly similar to the story of the dividing of the Red Sea. They are, indeed, a wonderful little people, or I should say they were, for they have been hunted out of their last refuges, and their old hunting-grounds know them no more.

The two little men were gradually surrounded, as I have said, and then the Portuguese made a rush. One of the bushmen escaped, doubling through the bushes like a hare; but the other was captured. He was, however, so afraid that he would neither speak nor eat until all the men went away, leaving only two cabin boys who sat beside him and made friends. But when he did begin to speak even the men who knew the language of Guinea could make nothing of what he said. However, he was given some toy bells and glass beads, and, going off in high glee, brought back a large number of his people. They were shown gold and silver and spices, but made no sign of knowledge, though they were delighted with the food and beads which they received.

The sailors were somewhat mistrustful of these strange people; but one of them, Fernao Veloso by name, boasted that he would go with them. Off he went, swaggering bravely, with a troop of the little men trotting about him. A little way inland he came upon their encampment, where they lived in little holes scooped in the ground with branches bent over them and the skin of an animal over the branches. They made a feast in honour of the stranger; but to Veloso's horror it was the raw flesh of an animal which they tore to pieces before his eyes; and they offered him the entrails as a choice delicacy. Horrified at the sight of their savagery, Veloso felt his valour ooze out of him, and in a panic he took to his heels and ran for the boats.

The little bushmen picked up their bows and assegais and made after him. But Veloso, winged by fear, ran to such good purpose that he reached the landing-place before they could catch up to him. As he came down the hill towards the shore he shouted most lustily, but the sailors, who had just put off to the ships with their cargoes of whale meat, only lay on their oars and laughed. For Veloso was known through the fleet as a boaster, who was "always speaking of his courage," and the sailors vastly enjoyed this exhibition of his bravery. However, Vasco da Gama ordered them to row to the rescue, and as they reached the shore the runner, with one last mighty effort, leapt into a boat. The pursuers were close upon his heels; but whether they meant evil or no is not quite clear. Whatever they intended the sailors did not trust them, and struck at them with oars and boathooks. In reply came a shower of bone-tipped arrows and assegais, one of which wounded Vasco da Gama in the foot, while two sailors were also wounded. The Portuguese shot at the savages with their cross-bows, hitting several, and then made for the ships. So ended the first unlucky meeting between white men and the people of South Africa.

Then the ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope "with less storm and perils than the sailors expected from the opinion they had of it, which had caused them to give it the name of Cape of Storms." They had good weather, and "sailed along the coast with much pleasure, merry-making, and playing of trumpets." They kept close to the land so that they could see it was covered with verdure, on which grazed herds of cattle and sheep. At one place, now called Mossel Bay, they landed on the Sunday of the feast of Saint Catherine, 25th November 1497, and there saw herds of elephants. The negroes came down to meet them, riding on oxen saddled with packs of reeds after the Spanish fashion. They entertained the strangers hospitably: "Our men," says de Barros, "had great pleasure from these people, for they were joyous and given to playing and dancing, and among them were some who played very well upon a kind of pastoral flute, after their own fashion." But soon there were quarrels over the barter of cattle, and the fleet sailed on. They passed an island covered with thousands of seals, "so savage that they attacked men like bulls" and wondered at the penguins "of the size of a wild goose, that cannot fly as they have no feathers on their wings, which are only covered with skin like those of bats." Then they were buffeted by a storm which filled the sailors with terror, so that "they did nothing but call upon God, thinking more of repenting of their sins than of managing the sails, for the shadow of death was over everything." But they came through it, and with great rejoicing they passed the islet where Diaz planted his last cross. On the feast of the Nativity they passed the coast of Natal, to which they gave its beautiful name, and so hopefully they sailed on, perceiving now that they were going north.

Yet Vasco da Gama must have been an anxious man, for his crews were sorely afflicted with scurvy; the flesh of their gums swelled so that their mouths could hardly contain it, and as it swelled it decayed, so that they cut it away like dead flesh, a most pitiful thing to see. Hitherto they had seen nothing but savages and the wilderness. But at last he saw something which rejoiced his heart—two sails, just such sails as might be seen on the coast of Morocco, long and upward-pointed like the wings of a swallow. Ships of the Moors they were in very truth—long, pointed, brown sails on the blue of the sea hard under the green shore. Then they were gone; but the Portuguese following close came into a great river (the Zambesi itself) and saw the ships again lying in a little harbour under the trees. There was a knot of men about them, some naked savages like those of Guinea; but at the sight of the others the Portuguese shouted with joy, for they had turbans on their heads or caps of coloured camlet, and wore blue mantles which fell to the ground behind them, and vests of bright silk. One of the Portuguese shouted to them in Arabic and they replied with the name of the Prophet. In this dramatic way the Cross and the Crescent met again, and the old enemies were face to face on a new battlefield—the hitherto untroubled waters of the Indian Ocean. As one of the Portuguese historians says, da Gama had ranged round Africa like a famished lion round the fold. He was now within, and with what dreadful consequences of fire and slaughter we shall presently see.

The mariners refreshed themselves and careened their ships, and they called the place the River of Good Signs. From that time it was as if they were sailing in the blue Mediterranean. There were white cities looking over the sea, and the flat-roofed houses were set in gardens and orchards, among palms and orange groves and pomegranate trees. The houses were of stone painted white and yellow, and on the roofs sat ladies in bright raiment. Above the houses rose the golden minarets of the mosques from which the Faithful were called to prayer. The streets were so narrow that a man might jump from roof to roof, and were thronged with the people of the East and of Africa. There were Mahomedans "dressed in striped cotton cloths, and on their heads turbans with silk borders worked in gold, with Moorish swords girded round them and bucklers on their arms." Others were dressed in white cambric with little caps of white cambric on their heads. The Mahomedan women were in breeches with veils that covered all but their eyes, and the women of the country and of Madagascar, slaves of the Arabs, wore pieces of white cotton tightly wrapped round their bodies. Then there were merchants from India, "such devout followers of Pythagoras that they would not even kill the insects that annoyed them," and savages from the interior with their hair worked up into horns and wearing nothing but a string of beads round their loins and porcupine quills in their noses. All these jostled in the streets and trafficked in the market-places, for at that time the Arabs did a great trade between East Africa and India, with great fleets of deckless zambucos, which were not even nailed together, but were fastened with wooden pins and cord of palm fibre, with great sails of woven coir. The Mahomedans had settlements all along the coast, chiefly built on little coral islands separated from the mainland by a narrow channel so that they could not be attacked by the savages. They had come to this country long, long before, some from Persia, some from the centre of Arabia. The first of them was no less a man than Zaide, the great-grandson of Ali, the nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet Mahomed himself. He had been chased out of his own land for heresy, and he was followed by other emigrations of fugitives from time to time. And now these Arabs sold the cloths and spices of Asia for the ivory and gold and slaves of Africa, their fleets moving this way and that like flights of swallows with the monsoons, so securely that they had not even guns to protect them.

At first these people thought the strangers were Mahomedans like themselves, and at Mozambique the Portuguese were treated with much courtesy. The Sheik Zakoeja himself paid the ships a visit, "accompanied by a great number of canoes and well-ordered people carrying bows, arrows, and other arms which they use, some dressed in striped cotton cloths and some in coloured silks, playing upon many Moorish and other trumpets, ivory horns and other instruments, which made so much noise that the instruments drowned one another, in which manner they arrived on board Vasco da Gama's ship." Zakoeja, we are told, "was a slender man, tall and handsome, of middle age; he wore a robe, after the manner of the Turks, made of fine white cotton, over which he wore an open tunic of Mecca velvet, and on his head a turban of different colours woven with gold thread: he had a short sword ornamented with gold and jewels in his girdle, a dagger of the same fashion, and velvet sandals on his feet." There were stately courtesies between this chief and the armour-clad Portuguese, and da Gama obtained provisions and two pilots to take him to Calicut. Subsequently, however, the Arabs found that their visitors were Christians, and tried to wreck or entrap the ships. But da Gama, by a judicious use of boiling oil, discovered their plot, and by placing a sailor armed with a stick over the pilot, was able to proceed on his voyage.

Concealed or unconcealed, it was war between Christian and Moslem in the Indian Ocean from the time that da Gama raised the altar on the Island of Saint George over against Mozambique, so that the Christian evensong met the cry of the muezzin across the blue palm-fringed waters of the Indian Ocean. And the great guns of the San Rafael roared a dreadful warning of a new Holy War in the East, where the Christians took the Moslems on their unprotected rear, and fell upon them with such slaughter that merely to read of it leaves us aghast.

We must not follow the Portuguese to India, as it takes us too far from our history. Sufficient to say that they found at Calicut a great city of rich and well-governed merchants, where the Arabs traded from east and west, and they found the Zamorin a wise and courteous prince who lived in a palace of marble and rare woods. The visitors began by giving thanks to the Virgin in a temple which they thought was a church, for the Portuguese had believed that the Indians were the Christian subjects of Prester John; but they were somewhat puzzled by saints which had teeth a span long and a hundred arms. They obtained a cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, pepper and silk; but instead of complying with the usages of the port, da Gama carried things with a very high hand.

Then the Portuguese sailed homewards, and a terrible voyage it was, for with the heat of the sun and the tropic winds, the bad food and the bad water, the men sickened and died like flies. Scurvy laid its dreadful hand upon the ships, and the dying sailors lay in the scuppers, their flesh turning black and putrid before death. The crews revived somewhat with the cool airs of the Cape; but in the Gulf of Guinea, where the very water seems to crawl with worms and foul emanations rise from the sea, they grew much worse, so that there were not enough men to work the sails of the two ships, for one had been abandoned and burnt on the east coast of Africa. Paul da Gama, who was as much loved by the sailors as his brother was feared, comforted the sick until he himself was struck down, and as month followed month, and the sea grew from cold to hot and from hot to cool again, he grew weaker. Vasco sat over him, appearing to care not how the ship went or whether it were day or night. Then a great storm fell upon them, and they laboured under shortened sail till they came to the Island of Santiago. Here, Vasco made John da Sa captain of his ship, and he lifted his brother and placed him in a little caravel that he found at the island. So he took him to Terceira, always hoping that in those tranquil and happy isles the sick man might get well. But Paul died in the monastery of St. Francis, where he was shrived and buried by the good fathers.

The news of the great voyage had already been brought to Lisbon by Nicholas Coelho, the captain of the second ship; but Vasco, when he arrived, did not so much as enter the city. He went straightway to the Hermitage of Our Lady of Bethlehem, where he had prayed with his brother, side by side, on the eve of their adventure; and there the great men of the kingdom found him when they came to do him honour, kneeling, with head bowed, before the image of the Virgin.