Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle

Adventures on the Coast

The Portuguese wanderers found their new sojourning-p1ace all that could be desired. Although it was January, the weather was temperate and sunny. Vasco da Gama, thinking that he had so far made good progress, was in no hurry to depart; and, as the ships greatly needed repairs, he decided to remain at the mouth of the River of Mercy for several weeks.

The crews were allowed to go on shore as much as they liked. Meanwhile Vasco and Paulo da Gama seized the opportunity to be often together, to talk over the mutiny, and to congratulate each other upon its prompt suppression.

One of the first things the sailors did was to go a-fishing. They caught a large number of curious-looking fish, which proved to be more palatable and more healthy than those caught near the cape. From the river they got very good water; which was a blessing they had long been without, and which they eagerly quaffed, and brought to the ships for cooking the food

The men then set lustily to work repairing the ships. A broad shelving beach stretched out near by, where they might have drawn the ships aground, and thus mended the leaks; but Vasco thought it a better way to heel them over in the water, and thus careen them.

The San Miguel, on being examined, proved to be too badly injured for further service: so Vasco da Gama ordered that it should be broken up, and its stores and materials used for replenishing and repairing the other two caravels.

They beached the San Miguel  took away its rudder, stowed its wood and iron work, and set it on fire so as to get the nails from it.

The next thing was to repair the San Gabriel, Paulo da Gama's ship, which had also suffered a great deal of damage from the tempests. They managed to heel her over by putting all the stores and heavy materials on one side, by which means they laid her keel bare. Planks were hung up on the outer side, and some of the men employed themselves in scraping off the seaweed which clung to it; while others repaired the leaks, extracted the rotten caulking, replacing it with oakum, over which they put a coating of pitch. The pitch was boiled in a boat moored just by.

Then the San Gabriel  was turned over on the other side, which, being less damaged, was more speedily repaired. When she was turned upright again, she proved to be perfectly water-tight. The stores of the San Raphael were now transferred to the San Gabriel, and the San Raphael  was then repaired in a similar manner. The two ships were finally refitted inside with new ribs, knees, and planking.

The three captains dined together every day, and had a merry time of it. As they had plenty of time, they resolved to explore the neighbouring country. Vasco da Gama accordingly sent Nicolas Coello, with twenty men, on an expedition up the River of Mercy.

After rowing six or seven miles, Coello came upon thick forests, and fields of green turf; and a little farther he found some negroes, not so black as they had before seen, and naked, except that they wore an apron of plaited leaves and grass about their middles. These negroes were fishing. As soon as they saw Coello's boat, they rowed up without a moment's hesitation, and coolly jumped into it. Coello tried to converse with them by signs; but they did not understand him. After looking the white men carefully over, they went back to their canoes. When Coello returned to the bay, one of the canoes followed him; and, arriving at the ships, the negroes boldly went on board the San Raphael, and sat down as if to rest themselves.

Vasco da Gama treated them as hospitably as the resources of his ship would permit. He gave them some biscuit, cakes, and bread spread with marmalade: but the negroes would not touch these good things until they had seen the Portuguese eat; then they fell to with an appetite, greedily gulping down the food, and angrily refusing to share it with each other.

Vasco da Gama observed that these negroes, both men and women, were not only lighter in complexion than those of St. Helena and San Blas, but were much taller and heavier, with matted or tangled instead of woolly hair. They carried as arms some sticks, the ends of which had been hardened in the fire, and had sharp, greased points.

Soon a whole fleet of canoes was seen coming down the river. When they reached the ships, a multitude of negroes jumped out upon the beach, and eagerly pressed forward to go on board. They did not show the least timidity, and seemed but little surprised to see the ships; from which Vasco da Gama concluded that this was not the first time that large vessels had been upon that coast.

Vasco was too prudent to permit them all to go on board the San Raphael  at once: so he admitted them ten at a time. Some of the negroes had brought birds and plums, of which the Portuguese, after some hesitation, partook, and found them very nice, the birds being quite sweet and tender. In return, Vasco caused his guests to be regaled with wine and biscuit.

The negroes grew so friendly, that Vasco was inclined to do whatever he could to please them: so he brought out a looking-glass, and gave it to them. They had evidently never seen one before. They stared at it, held it up to their companions, and then roared with laughter to see the faces reflected in it They kept continually peering into it, and shouting to their companions in the canoes. At last they carried the looking-glass on shore, as delighted with this new wonder as a child with a whistle.

Vasco had completely won their hearts by giving them the looking-glass; for in a few hours they returned in their canoes, bringing a large number of birds, which the sailors killed, and dried in the sun for future eating. The negroes were rejoiced to receive in payment some copper bracelets, bells, rattles, and white cloths; and so grateful were the sailors for the birds, which promised many a feast on the rest of the voyage, that they even tore up their shirts, and distributed the strips among their dusky mends.

It happened that one of the men on board the San Raphael—an old sailor named Martin Alonzo—knew a little of the Caffre language, which was spoken on the opposite or west coast of Africa. He was surprised to hear these negroes using words very similar to those of the Caffres; and, on making the attempt, he found that he could talk quite well with them.

The negroes made him understand that they lived in villages some leagues up the river, where their chief or king was, and invited him to go thither with them. Vasco da Gama was much pleased to find a means of intercourse with these friendly savages. He not only bade Martin go with them to their villages, taking another of the sailors along with him, but gave him a red jacket, a pair of red breeches, and a copper bracelet, to carry as a present to the king.

When Martin returned the next day to his comrades, he had an amusing story to tell. Taking him and his companion in one of their canoes, the natives had rowed them rapidly up the river, paying them many attentions, and chattering to them all the time. They passed through a lovely country of forest interspersed with rich green fields; and here and there they passed graceful slopes, on which Martin saw cattle grazing quite unlike any he had ever seen before.

Arrived at the principal village, he found it composed of low huts made of straw, the interiors of which were cosy and comfortable. Presently the chief of the tribe made his appearance, and greeted Martin with lively demonstrations of good will. Martin made haste to confirm his friendship by giving him the jacket, breeches, cap, and bracelet. The king, on seeing them, danced about with delight, and eagerly arrayed himself in them. Then he strutted proudly about among his people, and went from hut to hut to show off his finery. Coming back to Martin, he told him that he might have anything the country afforded.

Martin and his companion were then entertained at the chiefs hut with some delicious birds roasted at the fire, and a sort of porridge made of millet; which, being hungry, they heartily partook of. During the evening a crowd of negroes surrounded the tent, gazing curiously at the strangers; but finally retired, and left them to enjoy a sound sleep.

Martin described the negroes as being armed with long bows and arrows, and spears tipped with iron. They wore copper ornaments on their arms and in their hair, and had in their girdles iron daggers, with pewter handles, and ivory sheaths. They seemed to have an abundance of salt, which they kept packed away in caves. For an old shirt they gladly bartered a large quantity of copper. He observed that among them there were a great many more women than men.

The next morning a fleet of canoes escorted Martin, and his comrade back to the ships. From first to last, Vasco da Gama saw or heard of nothing but friendliness gentleness, and generosity on the part of these natives; and so pleased was he with their amiable conduct, that be called the place "the Land of Good People."

One misfortune attended the sojourn of the ships at the River of Mercy. The scurvy broke out among the crews, and made many of them very ill. This is said to be the first time that this strange disease is mentioned as having attacked European sailors.

Before Vasco da Gama set sail again, he gladdened the hearts of all his men by a generous and merciful act. His brother Paulo, who was a very sweet-tempered and gentle-hearted man, pleaded with him for the pardon of the master, pilot, and other mutineers, who still lay below deck in irons. In this petition Paulo was joined by Coello and the sailors.

"Well," said Vasco, "be it so; but, when I get back to Lisbon, I shall present these men in irons to the king, not to have them punished, but to show him what difficulties have beset me in this voyage."

Then, calling up the prisoners, he ordered the irons to be taken off and said to them,—

"You are pardoned and free. Beware, however, lest you allow treason to enter your hearts again. Faintheartedness brings misfortune; but courage conquers the most serious difficulties. Let us put our trust in God, and never falter to our journey's end."

The sailors broke into a loud cheer, and eagerly thanked their captain; and the released prisoners showed their penitence and gratitude by setting to work at once with a will, as if to make up for their past misconduct.

Vasco da Gama set up a marble pillar at the mouth of the River of Mercy, engraved with the arms of Portugal on one side, and a picture of the globe on the other; over which was placed the inscription, "Of the Lordship of Portugal, the Kingdom of Christians."

One pleasant morning they weighed anchor, and floated out of the river under a brisk land breeze.

Still skirting the coast for some days, the ships again came to anchor at the mouth of a wide stream, now known as the Zambesi which Vasco called "the River of Good Signs," because here they learned from a young native that he had come from a country a long distance oft; away over the seas, where he had seen ships as large as those of Vasco da Gama. This country Vasco believed to be no other than India.

The negroes who visited the ships at the River of Good Signs were as peaceable and friendly as those whom they had just left behind at the River of Mercy. They were naked, except that they wore a cotton band about their middles; while the chief men, or nobles, had handkerchiefs embroidered with silk twisted in their hair, and one of them wore a green satin nightcap.

Some of the women were very pretty. They were as scantily attired as the men; and three holes were bored in their lips, from which tin rings hung down.

Vasco exchanged toys and cloths with these natives for copper and ivory. He observed, in some of the clothes worn by the chiefs, marks of ochre; which, confirmed his opinion that ships from India had been there, and that he was on the right way to that wonderful land.

It was just before leaving the River of Good Signs that two mishaps occurred, one of which nearly deprived the fleet of its intrepid captain. Vasco da Gama was standing in a boat, alongside the San Gabriel, talking to his brother Paulo. He was holding on to the chains of the ship to steady himself, when, of a sudden, the boat was carried from under him by a strong current. For some moments he hung helpless upon the chains: his strength was fast giving out; when another boat shot up alongside, and he was pulled on board, and saved.

As the ships were sailing across the bar of the river, the San Raphael  ran aground. At first it seemed inevitable that she must be lost; but fortunately, at the turn of the tide, she floated again, and proved to have received no injury. Vasco da Gama, in bidding adieu to the River of Good Signs, left behind two of the criminals he had brought with him, to see what they could discover, and to be picked up again on the return voyage if they survived.