Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle

Along the Coast of India

Summer was gone, the cold and inclement summer of the East, which is like the winter of the West It was late in October, or early in November, when the good crafts San Raphael  and San Gabriel floated out of Calicut harbor. Vasco da Gama's voyage had already lasted a year and seven months; and many months more must elapse before his eyes would be again gladdened by the spires and domes of Lisbon, and he would reap the reward of his intrepidity and perseverance.

When the ships left Calicut, Vasco intended to sail directly for the African coast, and thence around the Cape of Good Hope home; but they no sooner found themselves in the open sea than they were struck by contrary winds, and were forced to proceed slowly along the coast of India. The trade-winds were still blowing steadily from the west; and, though the ships were not more than half laden, they were yet so old, and had passed through so much stress of weather, that the pilots did not think it safe to venture in the face of the trade-winds.

They crept slowly northwards along the coast, and one morning came again in sight of Cananor. It seems, that during their stay at Calicut, the King of Cananor had kept himself informed of the doings of the Portuguese. As we have seen, his soothsayers had warned him that India would one day be conquered and ruled by Europeans, and had told him that these were the people meant by their prophecy: so he was eager, not only to show the Portuguese that he could be a better friend than the Zamorin, but to gain their good will, in case they came again to subdue the country.

As soon as the ships appeared off Cananor, therefore, the king sent out boats with messengers to implore the captain to visit him; at the same time offering him presents of jars of wood and water, figs, fowls, fish, and butter. He protested that he desired nothing so much as the friendship of the Portuguese.

Vasco da Gama was greatly pleased at this, and displayed his flags and fired his cannon in token of his good will At first he hesitated about going ashore; but the king sent to him so many times, and urged him so earnestly, that at last he yielded.

In order that Vasco might not have the least suspicion or fear of foul play, the king ordered along wooden bridge to be built out into the sea at the end of which a small pavilion was erected. This bridge was made so narrow that two men could not walk on it abreast.

The king then repaired to the pavilion, attended by six or seven of his chief nobles; and Vasco and Paulo went to him in their boats, richly attired, and carrying presents with them. The king walked out upon the bridge to welcome them, and, on conducting them within the pavilion, made them sit down beside him and relate their adventures. He declared his anxiety to make peace and friendship with the King of Portugal, and offered them whatever goods they wished to complete the cargoes of the ships.

Their stay at Cananor, which continued for nearly three weeks, was full of pleasant incidents, and interchanges of friendly acts between the king and the captains. They gave him a splendid sword enameled with gold, coral, silver, brass, and copper basins, and silks and cotton cloths; and he, in return, presented each of them with a large gold collar set with rare gems, and a heavy gold chain with a jewel hanging from it crusted with diamonds and rubies.

The ships here completed their cargoes; and the captains and crews feasted merrily every day with the abundance of good things which the king lavished upon them. He also gave Vasco da Gama a letter written on a gold leaf for King Manuel, affirming his faithful friendship for him, and his desire to, in all things, serve the Portuguese.

When they were about to depart from Cananor, the faithful Moor Davane, who intended to remain in India, took leave of Vasco da Gama and his men. They were much grieved to part with this good friend; for he had been of the greatest service on the voyage and at Calicut. Vasco da Gama gave him a large sum of money, overwhelmed him with presents, and wrote him a letter bearing witness to his fidelity and value. When the Moor went away he was embraced and cheered by the men, and could not restrain his tears at parting from them.

Once more the ships set sail, directing their course westward towards Africa. They had not got more than fifty leagues away, however, when the wind fell, there came a dead calm, and they floated helpless on the waters. The trade-winds were still contrary; and it would be some weeks before they veered, and blew in the direction the ships wanted to go.

The pilot of the San Raphael  said this to Vasco da Gama, and added that it would be well to return to land, and not imperil the ships by braving the bad weather.

"I am ashamed to return to land," replied Vasco; "for that is what people do who do not know how to navigate."

"We need not go back to Cananor," replied the pilot. There is an island not far off the coast, where there is an abundance of wood and water, and a good shelter from the winds. Let us go and stay there until the trade-winds turn in our favor."

Vasco da Gama reluctantly assented to this proposal. He was anxious to find himself fairly homeward bound; yet he saw the prudence of the pilot's advice.

Taking advantage of a favorable breeze, the ships were once more directed towards the coast. Coming in sight of it, they ran along for some distance, and ere long came to the Island of Angediva, of which the pilot had spoken.

They soon found a sheltered bay, where the ships, when they lay at anchor, were almost completely hidden by an abrupt promontory from the sea beyond. Vasco lost no time in exploring the island, and discovered that it had only a single inhabitant,—an old Indian hermit, who lived alone in a hut, and subsisted on the rice which he got from the ships that passed by, and on the dried herbs which he found on the island.

The Portuguese went ashore, and roamed about their new sojourning place at will. They had not been there long before they found that many Moorish, Arab, and Indian ships passed near the island on their way up and down the coast; and that some of them were accustomed to touch there, and take in wood and water. At first, when these vessels rounded the point, and came suddenly upon the strange Portuguese caravels, they took fright, and sailed away as fast as they could.

One day the Melinda pilot took a boat and went out to a Moorish ship which was passing, and managed to catch up with it. Seeing that he was an African, she hove to, and took him on board. Then he explained who the Portuguese were, and for what purpose they had come into these parts; and assured the Moors that they were friendly, and intended no harm.

With this the Moors went ashore, and soon lost all their fear of the Portuguese. The news of their friendliness and generosity spread among the ports on the coast; and the ships that passed no longer hastened to take the offing, but came confidently into the bay for their wood and water. At the same time, they exchanged figs, rice, chickens, and cocoanuts, for the caps, knives, and cloths which the Portuguese had brought to trade with. Vasco hired some of these boats to catch and bring him fish, which he caused to be dried and salted, and so laid in ample provisions for his return voyage; and a great rivalry sprang up among the Indians to see who should bring and sell their fish first.

The stay of the Portuguese at the Island of Angediva, however, was not wholly without its dangers. An event occurred which showed them the peril they risked in remaining off the Indian coast, and which nearly proved fatal to the expedition.

At Goa, a large place many leagues north of Calicut on the coast, there reigned a king named Sabayo, who, jealous of the Zamorin, and greedy for plunder, resolved to seize the Portuguese ships, and capture their merchandise and other valuable freight.

In the service of Sabayo was an old Jew, who had wandered hither from Spain, and who had proved so expert in naval warfare, that the king had made him admiral of his fleet. Sabayo chose this man to go with a large number of boats and men, well armed, to reconnoitre the Portuguese ships, and., if he could by stratagem, capture and bring them into the port of Goa.

The Jew set out and arrived one night near Angediva, Just around the point, where the Portuguese could not See his boats. He waited till it was quite dark; when, taking a boat with sails and oars, he swiftly rounded the point, and approached as near the ships as he thought was safe. He at once recognized them as Portuguese, having himself come from Spain. Satisfied with what he observed, he returned his fleet, and waited till morning.

Meanwhile the fishermen whom Vasco da Gama had treated so generously had spied the Jew's boats concealed behind the point, and among the little islets that lay there; and knowing that they came from Goa, and suspecting that they had come for no good purpose, these fishermen hurried to the San Raphael  and apprised Vasco da Gama of the arrival of the Goa boats, and of their suspicions. Vasco made them a handsome present for this friendly warning, and put himself on guard against the hostile designs of the Jew. The cannon were got ready, and a strict watch was set through the night. Early in the morning, a boat was seen rounding the point. It swiftly approached the San Raphael. The Jew, who was seated in the stem, pretended to be passing by chance, and to espy the San Raphael  by accident. He took in his sail, and, coming up within hearing, shouted out in Spanish,—

"God preserve the ships, the Christian captains, and the crews who sail with them!"

Vasco thought it best to dissemble, and so responded with a hearty greeting.

"Captains," continued the Jew, "give me a safe conduct, and I will come on board of your ships, and learn news of my country. I have been forty years a captive, and God has sent you hither, and I will tell you all you wish to know about these parts."

Vasco replied that he might safely come on board: whereupon the Jew climbed up the side of the San Raphael, and stepped on deck. He was a tall old man, with long white hair, and a snowy beard which swept down over his broad breast. Vasco made him sit down and relate all that happened to him, and how he came so far away from his own land. The old Jew answered willingly, meanwhile looking sharply around to see how many men there were on board, and what the chances were of capturing the ships.

While Vasco detained him in conversation, Paulo da Gama quietly sent word to Nicolas Coello to come over from the San Gabriel  to board the Jew's boat, and seize his oarsmen. When Vasco saw that this was done, he arose suddenly, and ordered some sailors who were standing by to seize the old Jew, and bind him hand and foot.

The Jew was astounded to find himself in this predicament; and, appealing to Vasco, said piteously;—

"O sir, noble Christian, God protect me and you! I have trusted myself to your words; and here I am, bound hand and foot."

"Jew," replied Vasco, "you were treacherous when you asked for a safe conduct, and that shall not avail you."

Then they loaded his feet with irons; and his rowers, being brought on board, were carried bound below decks. Vasco then ordered that the Jew should be stripped and flogged; and told him that, if he did not confess the truth, he would have hot fat dropped upon his naked flesh.

With this the Jew cried out in the midst of his pain,—

"O sir, I am worthy of death I But have pity on me and my white beard, and I will tell you the whole truth."

Vasco then commanded that he should be dressed; and the Jew related all that had happened, and told his real purpose in coming to Angediva.

"Now, Jew," said Vasco when he had concluded, "unless you deliver up all your boats and arms, I will have you flayed alive."

"Sir," returned he, "command me, and I will do it; for I am in your power."

Vasco da Gama now formed a shrewd plot for capturing all the Goa boats as they lay concealed around the point.

He waited till the shades of night had fallen before putting it into execution; then he ordered a number of boats to be got ready, manned with twenty men each, and supplied with swivel guns and powder.

The captain himself got into the Jew's boat, taking the Jew with him in irons, his hands being tied behind him. In this boat there were also several crossbow-men, and sailors to row it.

The little fleet set out after the moon had gone down, an hour or two before daybreak. Vasco's boat took the lead, the others following some yards astern. As they were rounding the point, Vasco turned to the Jew, who was moaning and bewailing his fate, and said in a low voice,—

"Now, when we reach your boats, you must speak to the men as if nothing was the matter, so that they may not be alarmed at our approach, and so prepare to resist us. If you fail to do this, your life shall be the penalty."

"Sir," replied the Jew trembling, "I will try to save myself from death."

Presently they came so near that the Indians ill the other boats heard them, and cried out,—

"Who is coming?"

The Jew replied, in as natural a voice as he could,—

It is only I, friends: I am bringing some relatives with me."

This seemed to re-assure the Indians, who became quiet again. The Portuguese boats rowed up as quietly and rapidly as possible, and ere long surrounded the Indians. The gunners held their matches concealed, ready to touch off the cannon at the word of command.

All at once Vasco da Gama shouted in a loud voice the war-cry of the Portuguese,—

"San Jago! San Jorge!"

His men gave a wild cry. The cannon boomed loud and sharp in the darkness, flashing a momentary and lurid light upon the scene; at the same time, the lighted powder-jars were thrown among the enemy. The boats took fire; and the Indians, many of whom were awakened from sleep by this terrible attack, plunged madly into the sea.

The Portuguese boarded the boats, but were too late to catch any of the Indians, who swam wildly for the shore, or hid themselves in the brush on the little islands near by. A number of those swimming were killed on the spot by the Portuguese cannon and the cross-bows: others were caught on the islands, and despatched without mercy. Then the boats were all taken in tow, and carried back to the San Gabriel  In them were found stores of fish, rice, and cocoanuts, besides small cannon, javelins, swords, bucklers, and bows, with arrows made of cane, terminating in long, broad iron points.



The Portuguese stowed these away on the ships, and broke up the boats for wood. Vasco selected several of the Indians who had rowed the Jew's boat to do service at the pumps; and the rest were executed on deck, in presence of the crews and the old Jew. The latter, shivering with fright, and fearing that his turn would come next, begged piteously for his life. This Vasco granted him, ordering that he should be carried in irons below deck.

The trade-winds had now shifted, and were blowing briskly and steadily from the east. It only remained to complete the supplying of the ships with water and wood, and await the arrival of a favorable moment for departure.

The last days spent at Angediva were unmarred by any mishap; and, after the adventure with the Jew and his Indians from Goa, the fishermen and sailors who frequented the island treated the strangers with more respect and friendship than ever. Vasco found both, his ships provided not only with a full cargo of spices and drugs, but with a great abundance of provisions, and even luxuries.

One morning when the sun shone bright, and a light breeze was blowing off shore, the San Raphael  and San Gabriel  swung out of the little bay which had so well sheltered them, and, skirting around the island, directed their prows westward toward Africa. Gradually the hills and coast of India faded from their view; and the Portuguese sang and prayed, as at last they felt themselves to be homeward bound.