Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle


Having once tasted the delights of maritime adventure and the glories of discovery, Don Vasco da Gama was not content to rest indolently on his honors, and relapse into the dull monotony of a courtier's life. He longed for the excitements and perils of the sea, for the wild joy of its conquest, for the conflict with the tempest, and the struggle with the men of the East.

Events occurred, too, which aroused his ambition anew, and inspired him to once more venture to the distant lands the route to which he had discovered. The spring after his return, another eminent Portuguese navigator, Alvarez Cabral, made the voyage to India, following, after passing the cape, almost exactly in Don Vasco's track. He went with ten large ships and two caravels, was driven on to the American coast, and discovered Brazil, visited Mozambique and Melinda; and made a long and rather troubled sojourn at Calicut, where the Zamorin, instigated by the jealous Moors, provoked him to destroy their ships in the harbor, bombard the town, and nearly reduce it to ruins. In the next year (1501) King Manuel sent Joan du Nueva with three ships to India, who, passing over Don Vasco's route, made some stay at Cochin, Calicut, and Cananor, and returned safely to Lisbon with all his ships.

These voyages filled Don Vasco da Gama with renewed eagerness to undertake another voyage to India; and this wish King Manuel could not deny him. Accordingly, on the 3rd of March, 1502, two years and a half after his return from his first venture, Don Vasco set sail with a fleet of thirteen large ships and two caravels; and this fleet was soon followed by another of five ships, under the command of Stephen da Gama, Don Vasco's cousin, who joined him at Melinda.

This voyage was in many respects more successful than the first. Don Vasco succeeded in making friendly treaties with the formerly hostile Kings of Sofala and Mozambique, and compelled the usurping King of Quiloa to pay tribute to Portugal. He paid a visit to his old friend, the King of Melinda, who received him joyfully, and feasted him on the fat of the land; and, reaching India in safety, he fought with and took many Arab ships, in revenge for their hostility to him on his former voyage.

He received the same treatment at Calicut as before; but now having a large force, after attempting in vain to secure a treaty of peace with the Zamorin, he bombarded the town, destroyed the royal palace, and made the place almost uninhabitable.

Don Vasco thence went to Cochin, the Rajah, or governor, of which town had already evinced to Cabral his desire to be on friendly terms with the Portuguese. Here he was able to take in full cargoes, and to leave some agents for the purposes of trade. While at Cochin, Don Vasco received a message from the Zamorin of Calicut, expressing his sorrow at what had passed, and begging him to return there. When he reached the harbor of Calicut, having come with only one ship (for he left the rest of the fleet at Cochin under his cousin Stephen's command), he found a large number of native vessels waiting to assail him. He made all haste to cut his cables, and return to Cochin.

The Zamorin was not content with this act of treachery. When he found he could not decoy the Portuguese ships to Calicut, he sent to the Rajah of Cochin, and tried to persuade him to make war upon them. The Rajah not only refused this, but, as Don Vasco was going away, warned him of the Zamorin designs, and bade him beware of an attack.

The Rajah's fears were not groundless. Don Vasco sailed with his fleet from Cochin, but had not got far when a Moorish fleet of twenty-nine ships hove in sight, evidently with a hostile purpose. Don Vasco at once bore down upon them: three or his foremost ships closed with the enemy; and at the first onset the Moors leaped, panic-stricken, in large numbed into the sea. When the rest of the ships approached, the Moorish vessels made all haste to retreat. Two of them were captured, the goods they carried taken out, and the ships burned, the crews being shot without mercy. Besides these, the Portuguese killed three hundred Moors who were swimming about in the water.

Don Vasco repaired to Cananor, where he established a warehouse as he had done at Cochin, and left twenty Portuguese agents in charge of it, whom the king pledged himself to protect. In return, Don Vasco agreed that Portugal should defend the king from all assaults of his enemies. He left a squadron of ships under his cousin, Vincent Sodre, to cruise about the coast of India, aid their allies of Cochin and Cananor in case of necessity, and to make prizes of such Arab ships as they could.

The rest of the fleet sailed with full and valuable cargoes from Cananor for Portugal on the 20th of December, 1502, having been now absent a little more than eight months. The return-voyage was a stormy one, and in one tempest the fleet came near being destroyed; but they arrived safely at Cascaes, at the mouth of the Tagus, on the 1st of September, 1503.

King Manuel received Don Vasco and his companions with the same honour and hearty welcome as before, and made the heroic voyager Admiral of the Indies, and Lord of Vidigueyra.

After his return from this voyage, Don Vasco da Gama remained at home in Portugal for many long years. He had married, after his return from his first expedition, the fair Catherine de Atayde, daughter of the Mayor of Alvor; and two sons had now blessed the happy union. A family of children soon grew up about him, and in course of time he found himself the father of six sturdy boys. These home attractions, the honor in which he was held at court, his widespread fame, his ample fortune, seem to have made him contented to remain quietly in Portugal

Meanwhile King Manuel was resolved to take every advantage which the discovery of the route to India, and the relations of friendship with the African and Indian potentates, gave him. Portugal became the rival of the splendid republic of Venice in the attempt to obtain the control of the rich trade of the East; and King Manuel was forced to use every means in his power to prevent Venice from outwitting him.

Year after year, expeditions were sent out from Lisbon to Africa and India; the fleets carrying large bodies of soldiers, and beginning to make conquests along the coast where Don Vasco had met with so many adventures. In 1505, two years after Don Vasco's return, Francisco d'Almeida set out for India with twenty-two ships; and the king, appointing him viceroy, charged him to effect permanent footholds on the Indian coast d'Almeida was a brave soldier and an expert captain. He built a fort at Cananor, and left one hundred and fifty soldiers there to guard it. Then he repaired to Onore, where he built another fort. He had many sea and land battles with the Moors and Arabs, but gained brilliant victories over them, and succeeded in laying a foundation for the powerful Portuguese empire in India, which lasted for centuries after.

Nor did he neglect the opposite African coast; for he erected forts and left garrisons at Quiloa, Mozambique, and Sofala.

D'Almeida was succeeded as viceroy by the famous Alfonso d'Albuquerque in 1509. This really great man carried the Portuguese conquests in India to a far wider extent. He took the flourishing seaport of Goa, north of Cananor, and passing around the continent of India, achieved a brilliant victory at Malacca; which place he fortified, and held in the name of his sovereign. He sailed into the Red Sea, making terrible havoc with the Arab war-ships and merchantmen; he took and built forts at Ormuz, and established the Portuguese flag at Diu. This able conqueror died in 1515 at Goa, having obtained for Portugal a wider dominion in the East than any European nation had ever held.

The Oriental trade which was thus procured rapidly made Portugal rich, and her power became the envy of her sister-nations. Her marts in India, Ceylon, and Malacca, enabled her to build up such a commerce as that even of Venice scarcely equaled. From thence she received the cloves of the Moluccas and the sandalwood of Timor, the camphor of Borneo and the gold and silver of Luconia, the nutmegs and mace of Banda, and the gums, spices, and curious workmanship of Siam, China, and Japan.

These were all results of Don Vasco da Gama's perseverance and dauntless courage in achieving the discovery of a sea-path to India.

The time came when the old spirit of wandering and adventure again came over him. In 1524 he was not far from fifty-six years of age. He had grown up sons, and his once thick brown hair and gracefully flowing beard were grizzled with the frosts of coming age. But he was not older than Columbus when he had risked the trackless Atlantic: he was still vigorous, stalwart, active, and warm-blooded. He longed to find himself again on the stormy deep, to see the dominion which his country had acquired in the India which he had found, and to have a share of the glory of the great events that were going forward.

Don Manuel was dead, but fortunately had been succeeded by a monarch equally devoted to the interests of Portugal in the East, in King John the Third. Having recalled the Viceroy who was ruling in his name in India, he bethought him of Don Vasco da Gama, and offered him the office. Don Vasco eagerly accepted it, and forthwith set about the preparations for his departure. He was going in great splendour and state; for the post of viceroy was nothing less than a royal one in power and dignity.

Don Vasco little thought, as he sailed out of Lisbon harbour, that he should never behold his native land again. He went forth gayly, with high hopes of returning once more with new fame and greater honors. Under his command went fourteen ships, and these carried a force of three thousand well armed soldiers. The admiral—for such he now was—lived on board the flagship with luxury and magnificence. He was served by major-domos, pages, and body-servants. He ate his meals on a table covered with rich brocade, from gilded and silver dishes. His wardrobe was splendid; and a body-guard of two hundred men, in gorgeous livery, attended him. Don Vasco's second and third sons, Estevan and Paulo, went with him to India. As the fleet, after losing three caravels on the African coast (with two of them all the men on board), approached the well-known shores of India, a strange and fright-inspiring event occurred. Of a sudden, and in a calm, the sea began to heave, and knock the ships about in an unaccountable way. They thought they were on shoals, but, on casting the leads, could find no bottom. The men could not stand on deck; and the huge chests were hurled violently from one side to the other. This upheaving of the sea continued for upwards of an hour. The water came boiling and bubbling furiously up; and the crews kept crying out for very terror. At last it became evident that an earthquake had taken place.

Don Vasco da Gama was received at Goa with great enthusiasm and honor. He was welcomed by the governor. Splendid feasts took place; and an immense concourse attended the new viceroy to the cathedral, where prayers were offered for his safe arrival. Thence he repaired to the fortress, where he took up his residence.

He now showed that he could be an able and vigorous governor as well as a brave soldier and an intrepid voyager. He was no sooner settled at Goa than he began to depose the Portuguese governors and captains, who were proved to have been guilty of oppression and corruption. The first of these who fell under his displeasure was Francisco Pereira, who commanded the fortress of Goa, who had been tyrannical, and had wrongfully obtained money of the people. Don Vasco forced him to return the money he had thus taken.

Don Vasco's rule as Viceroy of India was brief; for it lasted less than three months. During that time he was unceasingly active in reforming the offices and affairs of the many fortresses and settlements under his charge. He severely punished all officers who dishonestly made money out of their posts; and was very careful, in appointing new officers, to find out for himself whether they were fit to perform their duties. He regulated the trade of the various Indian ports, and forbade any vessel from going to and from them without his written permission. He visited various forts and settlements, among them Cochin, Cananor, and Ormuz, deposing unfaithful or rebellious governors, putting the administration in order, and replacing bad officials with good ones. Had Vasco da Gama lived in this age and in America, he would have been called a model "civil-service reformer."

It is probable, that, for a man of his age, his labors were excessive. Before he had been in India three months, he was attacked by illness, which at first, however, did not seem serious. He felt severe pains in the neck, and boils broke out upon him, and tormented him so that he was unable to turn his head on one side or the other. These attacks made him irritable. The grave cares of his office, which always filled his thoughts, only increased his pains. He was at Cochin, a town on the Indian coast south of Calicut, when this illness overtook him. Finding that it grew more serious, he caused himself to be conveyed from the fort to the house of a Portuguese gentleman near by. He still attempted to exercise his authority as viceroy; but, feeling that his end might be near, he sent for various officers, and gave them orders what to do if he should die. He made the treasurer and secretary sign a promise to do all that he commanded until his successor should arrive, and had his instructions to them carefully written out in full.

Having thus disposed of his worldly affairs, Don Vasco da Gama turned his thoughts to higher and more solemn things, and prepared himself for death, which was now fast approaching. He made his will, confessed, and partook of the holy sacrament. In his will he enjoined upon his sons Estevan and Paulo to return to Portugal, and carry with them his goods and his servants, paying those who wished to remain in India what was due to them; to give his clothes and household furniture to the churches and the hospital; and to see to it that his remains should be conveyed to and entombed in his native land.

Gradually, day by day, the old hero failed; until, at three o'clock in the morning, on Christmas Eve, 1524, he quietly passed away.

The news of his death filled the Portuguese in India with grief. The churches were crowded with those who repaired to them to pray for the rest of his soul. His body, clad in silk attire, and wrapped in the mantle of the Order of Christ, lay in state in the hall of the fortress. On his head was the round cap that he had been wont to wear on state occasions, while by his side was laid his sword and belt. From the fortress the remains were carried to the Monastery of St. Anthony, and deposited in the large chapel. A square grating surrounded the tomb, lined with fringed black velvet. The next day a mass for the repose of the illustrious dead was said, attended by Don Vasco's two sons as chief mourners, and by all the high officers and captains who were at Cochin. Some years after, his body was taken from its resting-place in Cochin, and carried back to Portugal in the admiral's flagship, and interred amid great splendor at Vidigueyra, the town from which he derived his title; and there he lies to this day. Don Vasco's sons fulfilled their father's commands in every respect. When they returned home with the sad news, all Portugal mourned so great and irreparable a loss.

Thus died this celebrated hero, captain, governor, and patriot, after a life full of adventure, and crowned with all the fame and honors that the most ambitious could crave. Vasco da Gama had faults: his temper was quick and hot, his manner and action often arbitrary, his severity sometimes cruel. On the other hand, he was bold, persevering, patient of fatigue, disdainful of danger and of obstacles, prompt in executing justice, religious, devoted to his king and country, and full of the most untiring energy. Such a memory the Portuguese may well be proud to cherish, and preserve to the homage of future generations.