Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle

India at Last

With what eager, hopeful heart Vasco da Gama looked forward to this voyage across the Indian Ocean! How long seemed the days in traversing it! and how vast seemed these uncertain seas! If he could only at last reach the welcome shores of India, the haven he had now been seeking, amid every danger, for nearly a year and a half; if he could make a treaty of friendship with the sovereign of that country, and load his caravels with its riches,—with what a thrill of pride and joy would he turn his prows again towards home!

How exultantly would he enter the harbor of Lisbon with his precious cargoes and his glorious news! He would then be hailed, not only by his countrymen, but by all Europe, as the discoverer of the mysterious passage which had been sought so long; he would be named as the equal and rival of Columbus; no honors would be too great for his deserts; and his exploits would go down in history, making his name for ever famous, and his deeds the admiration of remote generations.

We may well believe that these glowing thoughts filled the ambitious soul of Vasco da Gama as the friendly trade-winds sped the San Raphael  and the San Gabriel  over the unknown ocean. Often, sitting upon his quarter-deck, he gazed over the waves, as if yearning to behold the promised land of India. Eagerly he listened to the words of the Melinda pilots, as they assured him that they were on the right track, and that it would not be many days ere the peaks of the Malabar mountains would gladden their sight. The two caravels were able, thanks to the favorable weather, to keep close together; and sometimes they were so near each other, that Vasco could talk with his gentle brother Paulo from deck to deck.

Both the pilots and the sailors were in the best of spirits; and no thought of turning back, or of resisting the captain's will, seemed to enter their heads. Vasco spent much of his time talking with the Moors on board through interpreters, and learned as much as he could from them about the country and the people of India. Some of them had been there, and could tell him much that was interesting and valuable for him to know.

The voyage was, almost without interruption, a pleasant one. The trade-winds blew the caravels steadily in the right direction; and, if a gale swept over the waters, it only served to carry them more rapidly on their way. Thanks to the thorough repairs which both ships had undergone, no accident or mishap overtook either of them. The days were, for the most part, sunny and temperate; and the nights pleasantly cool, freshened by light west breezes.

Thus they went on day after day, no incident occurring to delay their steady progress, and nothing happening to vary the monotony of the voyage. When they had been out from Melinda about a week, a pilot one evening pointed to the heavens, and exclaimed that he saw the north star; and, looking southward, they found that they could see the glittering white constellations grouped about the south pole.

The discovery that the north star was visible rejoiced the pilots; for they could now direct the course of the caravels more accurately, and be sure that they were not losing time by varying from the direct and shortest track.

One morning, when the voyage had lasted about nineteen days, Canaca, the Melinda pilot, came to Vasco da Gama with an air of satisfaction on his grave, dark face, and, pulling off his cap, said,—

"Captain, I am sure we are very near the coast of India. It would not surprise me if we should see land to-morrow morning."

Vasco's heart bounded in his breast at these words, and he uttered a profound thanksgiving te God. He thanked the pilot also, and promised that he should not regret it if it should turn out that he was a true prophet. Very likely the gallant captain did not sleep soundly that night. Early in the morning he was on deck with his men; and the eyes of all were straining towards the east, each eager to catch the first glimpse of land.

A number of sailors were perched on the maintops as lookouts. Vasco was at his usual post on the quarter-deck. Suddenly a loud cry was heard from several mouths, "Land, land, land!"

A moment after, the pilot Canaca came running up, and prostrating himself at Vasco's feet, pointed with trembling finger towards the horizon in the east. "Behold, captain!—the land of India!"

A confused shout of joy on both decks; wild cries of delight; a frantic rushing to and fro of sailors, some with tears running down their cheeks; a moment in which there seemed to be no officers, no order on board, but in which Vasco, Paulo, Coello, the sailors, the Moors, the convicts, seemed to be simply a crowd of weary wanderers who now saw the goal of all their hopes,—and then the voice of the captain rose above the noise, and there was silence.

"There," he said, pointing eastward,—"there is India! Let us first thank the bounteous Heaven that has guided us hither."

Vasco da Gama


So Saying, Vasco da Gama Cell upon his knees, and all the rest followed his example. No word of prayer was spoken; the hearts bowed before God were too full for utterance: but it is certain that in every one Vasco's silent prayer was heartily echoed.

When the solemn thanksgiving was over, and they once more gazed eastward, the great news was confirmed: there could be no doubt about it. What had been but a filmy streak, a faint, hazy line in the horizon, had now grown into the substance of blue though indistinct mountain eminences, rising apparently from the pale waters, and softly reflecting the rays of the bright sun. Canaca thought the shore twenty four or five miles distant; and, on making soundings, found the water forty-five fathoms deep.

Just then there came up a blinding rain, which, for a while, shut out the blessed view of the land; but when, in the course of an hour or two, the shower had spent its force, they found that they had meanwhile rapidly approached the coast.

Vasco da Gama, grateful to the Moorish pilots for their fidelity, called them to him, and gave each a robe of red cloth and a goodly sum of money, which they received with many low bows and with evident delight.

It was afternoon when the ships approached near enough to see objects on the shore, and the broad shining beaches stretching away in the distance. They ran along the coast, and ere long came in sight of a good-sized town, nestled in a bay, with thatched houses, and a number of fishing-boats, some of which were at anchor, and others moving about. The inhabitants of this town seemed greatly astonished to see the ships, and the fishing-boats came quite near to examine them.

At first, Vasco da Gama mistook this town for Calicut, and was greatly disappointed to see so rude a looking place; for he had heard a great deal of the splendour of Calicut, its noble buildings and temples, and its riches.

The pilot Canaca soon undeceived him.

"That place," said he, "is called Cananor. I know the country well. But be not discouraged, captain: Calicut, the great city, is only twelve leagues distant, to the southward."

From what Vasco da Gama learned afterward, it appeared that the people of Cananor had other reasons besides curiosity for regarding his ships, as they sailed along the coast, with amazement and terror.

Many years before, there had lived at Canan or a great magician, famous for his marvellous predictions. This magician had foretold to the King of Cananor, that, at some future time, the whole of India would be conquered and ruled over by a king who lived a great way off, whose subjects were white, and were a fierce people, though friendly to those who treated them well.

When, therefore, the king and his people saw the Portuguese ships, and the white men in them, they feared that they were the men meant by the ancient seer. So the king called his astrologers, and asked if this were true. Consulting their oracles, they replied that these were indeed the people who would conquer India.

The king, believing all that they said, and bearing in mind the prophecy that the white men would deal gently With those who proved themselves friendly, resolved to make peace with the Portuguese as soon as he had the opportunity; and sent messengers on to Calicut to learn all they could about the strangers, and to report what they heard to him.

Meanwhile the ships ran along the coast southward; and that night Vasco da Gama went to bed, well assured that the next day he should at last gaze on the famed city of Calicut.

So, indeed, it happened. The morning was fine, and the wind favourable; and before noon the city loomed before their eyes. Its domes and minarets glittered in the sunlight; its broad quays seemed full of life; and in the bay upon which Calicut was situated floated many ships from all parts of the east.

Vasco da Gama was, however, too wise to venture within the bay, or to cast anchor in too near a proximity to the shore. He was by no means sure of the reception he would meet with, nor would he venture to brave a possible hostility with his two frail little ships and his handful of men.

At the entrance of the bay was a small town, called Capocate, or Capucad, about six miles from Calicut. Here there was save anchorage at a convenient distance from the city, and yet near enough to enable the boats to go easily back and forth.

It was now sundown; and Vasco da Gama thought it best to wait till morning before attempting to enter into any communication with those on shore.

Meanwhile he called together his brother Paulo; Coello, and the faithful Moor Davane, and consulted with them how to deal with the King of Calicut.

At first, Vasco proposed to go himself on shore the next morning, to present himself before the potentate, and frankly to tell him the purpose for which he had come to India.

But Davane warned him by no means to do this, as the king might be hostile; and, if he were, no one could tell what he would do. The best way, Davane said, was to first demand hostages for his safety, as this was the custom of the East.

The Vasco and the other captains resolved that they would employ a fiction to awe the king, and to deter him from putting into execution any hostile design he might conceive. They would tell him that the King of Portugal had sent out a great fleet of fifty vessels; that the two ships, San Gabriel  and San Raphael  had separated from the rest of the fleet in a storm; and that they had come to Calicut to await the arrival of the other ships.

The king would then be afraid to deal perfidiously with them, lest the fleet should come, and, finding what had happened, should bombard and destroy the city.

The next morning, no sooner was the sun fairly up than a number of boats surrounded the two ships. In them were natives, with dusky skins, and naked, except that they wore cloths of various colors about their loins. They seemed very curious to know who the Portuguese were, and whence they came. The shore, too, was soon crowded with a multitude of people, who gazed at the two ships as if they were some unknown monsters of the deep that had suddenly appeared to them.

Among the boats were some fishing-smacks, and these came up close to the ships; and Vasco ordered his men to call to the fishermen, and offer to buy their fish.

The native fishermen went on board at once, and were delighted to receive some silver coins (which they took care to test by biting them with their teeth) in exchange for their wares. The Moorish pilots told them the story which Vasco da Gama had concocted about the fleet of fifty ships, which they went off and repeated to the people on shore.

Their story speedily came to the ears of the King of Calicut, who was called the Zamorin; and he told the fishermen to return to the ships, carrying figs, cocoanuts; and chickens, and to find out all they could.

Presently a boat laden with wood to sell came up to the San Raphael  but, as there was plenty of wood on board, Vasco declined to buy it. The men in the boat were going away much disappointed, when Vasco had them called back, and ordered some money to be distributed among them.

Davane asked him why he did this.

"Because," replied Vasco, "they are poor men, and came to sell their wood, and were going off disappointed. So I have given them money, that their labor may not be lost. It is thus I am wont to treat those who try to serve me."

The natives were told this reply of the captain, and, going ashore, repeated it to their people, which favourably impressed them with the Portuguese.

For three days, nothing was done except to engage in trade with the fishermen. On the fourth day, however, III large boat came out to the San Raphael, bringing with them a man of high birth, whom they call a Nair,—a messenger from Zamorin.

This Nair was naked, except that he wore a white cloth about his loins. He carried a small round shield, some wooden slings, and a short naked sword with an iron hilt His hair was matted close to his head. He was tall, well-proportioned, and very dark.

He refused to go on board, but spoke to Vasco da Gama through an interpreter from his boat. His message from the Zamorin was to ask who the strangers were, and what they wanted in Calicut.

Vasco replied that he had not sent a message to the Zamorin, since he had not until now his consent to do so. But he would send a messenger on shore with the Nair, who would answer the Zamorin.

The Moor Davane accordingly went back with the Nair, and, on being ushered into the king's presence, told him the story which Vasco da Gama had instructed him to tell. He said that the Portuguese had come from the greatest Christian king in the world, who had sent a fleet of fifty ships, from which these two had separated; that they had come to make peace and friendship with the Zamorin, and to buy cargoes of pepper and drugs with the rich cloths, gold, and silver which they had brought with them.

The Zamorin seemed much astonished to hear this, and began to talk earnestly with his courtiers. Meanwhile one of his officers asked the Moor how he came to be with the Portuguese.

Davane told him, and added an account of the noble and generous presents which Vasco had given to the King of Melinda. The Zamorin, it appeared, was very covetous, and, when he heard this, eagerly assured Davane that Vasco was welcome at Calicut.

"Tell him," added the potentate, "that I will fill his ships with as much pepper and as many drugs as he can carry away with him."

He then sent Davane back to the San Raphael, taking good care to provide him with a present of figs and chickens for the captain.

The return of the Moor with his friendly messages, greatly pleased the brothers, who rejoiced in the prospect of securing the Zamorin's good will, and of obtaining a valuable cargo with which to return to Portugal.

They regaled themselves upon the provisions which the Zamorin had sent, and resolved to send Davane to him with other messages the next day. Davane, accordingly, returned in the morning to the city, and told the Zamorin that the captain was unwilling to enter upon trading until he had made a secure treaty of peace; and begged the Zamorin to send hostages, so that the captain might go on shore and visit him in person, and deliver the letter he had from the King of Portugal.

Meanwhile the Zamorin, who had seemed so eager to welcome Vasco, had not only consulted with his advisers, but had become subject to a powerful influence which was brought to bear in hostility to the Portuguese. While Vasco da Gama slept in the serene confidence that his troubles were at an end, and that he had already secured peace and friendship with the Zamorin, powerful enemies were working upon the mind of the sovereign, and doing every thing in their power to persuade him to send the Portuguese away.

In order to understand who these enemies were, and what the cause of their hostility was, we must give a brief account of this city of Calicut, the people who lived in it, and the manners and customs which existed there.