Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle

Vasco da Gama is Chosen

In the good old times of which we are writing, kings and nobles, as well as the common people, were much given to superstition. They seriously believed all sorts of things which we now see to be absurd. They were credulous, and made a great deal of signs and omens. They were terribly afraid of witches, and thought that their fates could be told by the stars, and that mysterious old men in long black caps, with flowing white beards, were able to foresee future events by muttering strange gibberish, and waving wands, and concocting elixirs and curious potions.

Young Manuel, the new King of Portugal, was by no means free from the superstitious beliefs of his age. He, too, thought that the future could be foretold, and that the stars betrayed the destiny of mortals by their place in the heavens, and the directions in which they moved. Manuel was a hale and vigorous young man of twenty-six when he came to the throne, and his accession was greeted and celebrated with much joy among his people.

This joy was all the greater when they learned that he was fully bent, on carrying out King John's purpose of sending out an expedition to find India; for although some of the king's advisers murmured that it would be expensive, dangerous, and perhaps useless, the greater part of the nation approved his design with fervor and delight.

There was living at that time, in a town not far from Lisbon, a swarthy old Jew, named Abraham Cacoto, who was famous for the skill with which he practised astrology. He could tell people, it was said, whether any undertaking would be successful or not, and what their fate in life would be, by consulting the constellations in the heavens.

King Manuel lost no time in sending as secretly as possibly to Cacoto, and bade him come to the palace Cacoto at once obeyed the royal command; and when he had reached Manuel's cabinet, whither he; came disguised and in the night, the king locked the door, and told him why he had sent for him.

"Find out for me, wise Cacoto," said he, "whether the bright stars will bid me to engage in this great discovery. Take your own time, and come and tell me what you learn."

The Jew promised to do so, and went away. Some days after, he returned as secretly as he had come at first. The king saw at a glance that an air of satisfaction rested upon the astrologer's dark and solemn face and eagerly asked what he had learned from reading the stars.

"Sire," returned Cacoto gravely, with a low bow, "I have bestowed great care upon the task which you have confided to me. I find that India is a long distance from us,—far away over the seas. It is inhabited by dark people; and there are in it great riches and merchandise that go forth to many parts of the world. There is much danger in going thither: the seas are rough and stormy; there are many savages in the countries on the way, who are full of perfidy and stratagems, and will deceive and try to kill Jour brave sailors. But, sire, your planet is great under the sphere; and you will discover India, and in no long time you will subjugate a large part of that mysterious land."

This reply, as may be supposed, greatly rejoiced the enthusiastic heart of the young king. He loaded the solemn old Jew with favors, and sent him home amply repaid for his favorable prophecy.

Don Manuel now gave up his thoughts to preparations for the momentous voyage which should bring such glory to himself, and such power to his people. The troublesome counsellors who croaked all sorts of foreboding and disasters in his ear were bidden to hold their peace. The king placed much greater trust in the prophecies of the stars than in their timid wisdom, and no argument was able to dissuade him from his purpose.

The ships which the good King John had ordered to be built still lay but half finished in the dock-yard of Lisbon; while all around were to be seen huge piles of timber cut from the thick forests of Portugal, and now :sufficiently seasoned to be used in completing the little fleet. The sailors who had made the voyage on the African coast with Diaz were employed to do this work, and the king told them to build the ships just as strongly as it was possible to do. Ere many weeks, three goodly vessels, the admiration and wonder of all the people who saw them, lay in their stocks, ready to be launched. They were of the kind called at that period "caravels," such as Columbus had sailed in.

Don Manuel then caused the ships to be supplied with whatever was necessary for so long and dangerous a voyage as they were destined to make; nor were these supplies few or inexpensive.

Each ship was furnished with double tackle, and two sets of sails: and they were also to carry some cannon, and an ample quantity of firearms, powder, and shot; for it was almost certain, that in going among savage nations, and landing upon coasts where they would meet barbarians and cannibals, the crews would need these to defend themselves.

An abundance, not only of provisions, but of preserves, perfumed water, and a whole apothecary's shop of drugs and medicines, was put on board. Besides these, the ships were loaded with a great variety of merchandise, among which were gold, silver, woollen cloths, jewelry, necklaces, chains, and bracelets; silver ewers; yataghans, swords and daggers, some of which were richly and beautifully chased and engraved; spears and shields; and an abundant supply of fine spices.

These things were put in the ships, either to be exchanged for any valuable wares that the Portuguese might find where they should happen to land, or as rich presents to win the gratitude and friendship of the swarthy princes whose realms they might reach. Don Manuel ordered that each ship should carry two priests and a surgeon; and, in order that the voyagers might be able to communicate with the strange peoples they met, he bought a number of slaves who were thought to be skilled in the languages of the African tribes and the nations of the East.

And now came perhaps the greatest difficulty with which the king had to contend in preparing the expedition. It was to be a most hazardous and formidable journey, and a great deal must depend on the man who should be selected to command the ships. Who was worthy to be intrusted with this momentous duty? Who was there in Portugal brave and intelligent and firm enough to direct the little fleet safely across the tempestuous oceans, and resolute enough to pursue the long journey, despite every obstacle, to the end?

The king gave many hours of anxious thought to this subject, and prayed Heaven to direct him in making a selection so important. His grandees freely gave him their advice, and proposed one man and another as fit to be the captain of the expedition. But to all their suggestions Don Manuel shook his head, and seemed inclined, at last, to leave it to chance to show him the right man for the duty.

Perhaps he was not unwise in this; for chance, or or what seemed something very much like it, came to his aid when he was almost at his wits' end.

One morning Don Manuel was sitting in a large hall in his palace, where he was wont to transact the business which it was his daily task to deal with. On a broad table before him were piles of papers, maps, and charts, which he had been diligently studying. His thoughts were still upon the voyage to India, and he was cudgeling his brain to think of some one to command it.

Grandees, courtiers, and officers of the royal court, were lounging here and there in the hall. Some, in rich costumes, were gathered in groups at a little distance from the king; others were busily bringing in and carrying out papers; yet others, with leisurely gait, were pacing up and down, talking in low tones, and now and then laughing at some sally of wit.

Presently a fine-looking man, about thirty years old, of medium height, with a strong, well-knit frame, very rosy cheeks, a thick brown beard and mustache, and large, dark, clear eyes, came in, and with a firm yet light and easy step sauntered across the hall He had a decidedly noble and military bearing, and was elegantly attired. By his side hung a sword, and in his hand he carried a velvet cap. It was evident, both from his dress and his manner, that he was a man of rank. Each courtier, as he passed, saluted him with a nod and smile; from which it appeared that he was a favorite at the palace.

As this comely cavalier was crossing the hall, the king happened to look up from his charts and papers. In an instant the troubled expression seemed to leave his face; his eyes were lit up with joy; and he brought his hand heavily down upon the table, as if a sudden and happy idea had just struck him.

"Thank Heaven!" thought the king: "I have found the man!" Then, calling an attendant to him; he exclaimed, "Go and bring to me Vasco da Gama!"

The young nobleman was soon found in an adjoining corridor, and at once obeyed the royal summons.

"Vasco," said Don Manuel, "I have a most perilous and difficult task for you to perform. You know that I have prepared three ships for a voyage to India around Africa. Many an anxious hour have I spent in trying to choose a man capable of commanding them. I know your courage and spirit, Vasco; for it has been tried in the wars in which you have fought so loyally and well. It is you that I choose to discover the way to Africa, which will bring glory to my crown, and riches and power to Portugal. Will you go?"

Vasco da Gama was overcome with surprise, and for a moment looked at the king in speechless astonishment. Here he was, an idle courtier, who had risen that morning with no other thought than how he should "kill time" during the day, selected to perform a journey which even Columbus would have looked upon as dangerous and doubtful.

But he promptly recovered himself, and his mind was soon made up. Bowing low to the king, he replied "I am your devoted servant, sire; and whatever tasks you confide to me shall be performed while my life lasts."

The king's dinner-hour had now arrived; but so impatient was Don Manuel to talk more with Vasco da Gama, that he bade him follow him in to the table. As they sat at the well-provided board, they conversed eagerly about the expedition.

"I am much bent upon this affair," said Don Manuel; and I beg you to make ready to depart in all haste."

"As soon as you please, sire," returned Vasco da Gama: "there is nothing to detain me from embarking at once."

"There are three ships," resumed the king. "Who shall be the two captains to go with you? Have you a brother?"

"I have three. One is a small lad; another is studying to be a priest; the third is one to whom your Majesty might intrust anything."

"And where is he?"

"I am grieved to say, that just now, my elder brother, Paulo, though not a hot-headed man, is in disgrace. He has had an unhappy quarrel with the judge of Setubal, whom he has wounded; and is now in hiding, lest the law should compel him to do restitution. But he is a brave and loyal fellow; and, if your Majesty would pardon him, he would readily accept the service of commanding one of the ships."

"Out of love for you, Vasco, I will pardon him, if he will first satisfy the judge. Tell him to come hither without delay: and do you at once attend to the preparation and equipment of the ships, and choose such sailors as you please; and be assured that you shall have abundant reward for your fidelity."

Vasco da Gama kissed the royal hand, and hastened away to obey Don Manuel's commands. Paulo was not long in making up his quarrel with the judge, and in a few days the two brothers went together before the king.

Don Manuel told Paulo that he had been chosen to aid Vasco in the expedition; and that, although Vasco insisted that he, Paulo, should command it, the king himself desired that Vasco should have that post. It being so arranged, the brothers recommended one Nicolas Coello, a very intimate friend of theirs, to command the third ship; and to this Don Manuel readily assented.

The preparations for the voyage now went rapidly forward. The three ships had already been named the San Miguel, the San Gabriel, and the San Raphael, and with them was to go a fourth vessel, loaded with provisions; but it was not intended that this vessel should accompany them to the end of the voyage.

Vasco da Gama selected the sailors with great care; and, when he had done so, he told them to make use of the time before the ship set out in learning to be carpenters, rope-makers, caulkers, blacksmiths, and plank-makers. For these purposes he provided them with a quantity of tools; and to their delight, he also increased their pay.

In all, there were about one hundred and fifty sailors. Vasco da Gama himself took command of the San Raphael; Paulo da Gama, of the San Gabriel; and Nicolas Coello, of the San Miguel. Large and imposing as these ships seemed to the Portuguese of that day they were only about one hundred and twenty tons each.

Late in March, 1497, everything had been got ready; and it now only remained to receive the blessings of the church, to bid adieu to the court and to anxious friends, to leave the scenes and comforts of home behind, and to sail out upon the stormy and unknown seas.