Voyages and Adventures of Vasco da Gama - George Towle

Vasco da Gama Quells a Mutiny

It was not to be all fair sailing in calm seas, however, and pleasant sojourns in cosy bays. Many a league across the uncertain waters had yet to be crossed ere the intrepid Vasco da Gama reached his goal. Dangers were to multiply, and he was called upon to use all his stern resolution and dauntless courage to overcome them. The perils he had passed—perils of storm, and perils among savage races—were to be again endured; and other perils, quite as formidable, were to be added to them.

But his stout heart quailed before no threat of men, or of the elements: he looked forward to the future as cheerfully as he exulted in the difficulties he had already overcome.

An event was about to happen which would test his courage, and presence of mind, to the utmost.

After entering several other busy and finding nothing to satisfy their curiosity, or make it profitable to land, the caravels put out into the open sea again. In the daytime they ran under full sail as long as the wind would permit them, while at night they proceeded more slowly and cautiously. More than once they were becalmed, and had to lie by until a breeze sprang up; and, as they drifted farther away from the continent, they began to find that they had by no means left the storm region behind when they doubled the cape.

It was now winter. The voyagers were yet far from their destination, but how far they knew not; and the sudden storms of that season of the year were not tardy in assailing them.

One morning a terrific tempest burst, almost without warning, over their heads. Vasco da Gama took his place on deck, and, rapidly scanning the heavens with his keen eye, gave his orders rapidly and clearly. "Make the masts fast with ropes, my men!" he shouted. "Pass the shrouds over the yards! You two, take the pannels off the tops and sails! Strike all sails except the fore-sails: we'll weather the storm with them!"

Cheerily the men set about the tasks commanded by their captain: but, as they labored, the tempest grew yet more furious; until at last the pilot, doffing his cap, came up timidly to Vasco, and said,—

"I fear the ships are not strong enough to weather this tempest, captain. Let us put in to land, run along the coast, and find a secure haven till the storm is over."

"No!" cried Vasco. "Return to your post, pilot! When I came out of Lisbon harbor, I swore not to turn back a span's breadth. Whoever again proposes to return on our track shall be thrown into the sea, to be food for fishes!"

The crew looked at him aghast; but his countenance was stern, and they could find in it no sign that he would relent.

The gale was all this time increasing, and fitfully veered in every direction; the waves were running to a frightful height and falling, drenched the decks with floods of water. Then the wind suddenly lulled, so that the ships lay helpless on the surging sea, and lurched so badly, that they took in water on either side.

The men were forced to tie themselves fast to the masts and rigging to save themselves from being washed overboard. It became almost impossible to work at the pumps; and the ships creaked so noisily, that it seemed as if they would go to pieces at any moment.

The sailors now became more piteous in their appeals to Vasco da Gama to turn back; but he grimly replied,—

"I have said that I would not; and, if I saw a hundred deaths before my eyes, I should go straight on. To India we shall go, or perish." Then he added in more persuasive tones, "Think of the honor and rewards our good king will shower on us when we return with the story of our exploits! Come, my men, pluck up courage, and put your faith in God."

It happened, that, when the little fleet sailed from Lisbon, five or six men, who had been condemned to death for various crimes, were released, and put on board. The object of this was, that Vasco da Gama might use these convicts to explore dangerous places, and thus not risk the lives of his sailors. The lives of the criminals were looked upon as worthless; and, if they were killed by savages, it mattered little.

These men, when they saw the crews abandoning themselves to despair amid the tempest, and Vasco da Gama resolute in his purpose to go forward, thought it a good opportunity to make mischief.

They got together at the end of the San Raphael, and began to whisper among themselves; and presently, calling some of the other sailors to them, muttered mysteriously in their ears.

Just then the tempest lulled a little, so that the three ships could approach within speaking distance of each other. The sailors of the San Raphael  began to shout to their comrades on the San Gabriel  and the San Miguel, and to incite them to resist the orders of the captains.

Vasco da Gama thereupon cried out to his brother Paulo and to Nicolas Coello that he would on no account "turn back to the coast, and told them to keep bravely on their course. Some of the sailors on the San Miguel were so bold as to cry out angrily that they were many men, while the captain was but one; thus betraying their disposition to mutiny.

A sudden wind fortunately arose, and the ships were again separated. Deafening thunder pealed across the skies, and a dense darkness enveloped them. The ships, however, hung out lights, so that they might not lose each other; for Vasco da Gama feared, that, if they should part, the sailors would take forcible possession of the caravels, and put back to Portugal.

Such a plot was, indeed, going forward in all the ships, instigated by the criminals who had been brought along with them; and their designs would probably have succeeded, had it not been for the imprudence of one of the men on the San Miguel, who divulged the conspiracy to his brother, a young boy, who was Nicolas Coello's attendant.

This boy was devotedly attached to his master. Concealing his intention from his brother, and promising to keep the secret, he took the first occasion to warn Coello of the danger which threatened the fleet. Coello made up his mind that he would die before he would permit the mutineers to seize him, or get control of the ship. Arming himself to the teeth, he watched their movements; day and night, and told his faithful attendant never to lose sight of the ringleaders, but to find out all he could of their intentions, by winning their confidence, and seeming to enter into their plans.

Soon the boy came to him with the news, that the men, proposed to wait until they could act in concert with the sailors on the other ships before rising in mutiny. Meanwhile Coello, dissembling his fears and speaking gently to his men, bethought him of a way to let Vasco da Gama know what was going on, without giving the alarm to the conspirators.

Several days passed; and when, amid the raging of the storm, his sailors still urged Coello to leave Vasco to his fate, and turn back, he replied,—

"I promise you, that, as soon as I can speak to the captain, I will demand of him to put back, and bring us safe home again."

The storm became less furious; and the sea grew so calm; that the ships could once more approach each other. Coello, as soon as he was within speaking distance, shouted to Vasco da Gama,—

"I beg you, captain, let us turn about, and make for Portugal again. The men are begging to go back, with tears in their eyes; and, if we do not yield to them, they will be tempted to seize and kill us. We ought to yield to them; and, if we do not, you must look out for your self, captain, as I am going to do."

Coello cried loud enough for both Vasco and Paulo to hear.

Vasco da Gama, when there was another lull, cried back, "Well, Coello, I will consult my pilot and crew, and will signal to you when I have made up my mind"

The quick-witted captain had understood Coello though the mutineers had not. He knew that Coello meant to give him warning of a mutiny. Perceiving that he must conceal his real intentions, and pretend to yield to the clamor of the crew, he called them together, and told them that, if another tempest should arise, he would put back.

"But first," he added, "you must sign a paper, giving the reasons why we abandoned our voyage, so that our good king's anger may be appeased"

The men cried out with one accord, overwhelming Vasco da Gama with their thanks and praises, and eagerly promising to sign whatever he wished.

"You need not all sign," replied Vasco. "It is only necessary for those to do so who best understand the guiding of the ships and the difficulties of the sea. Pick me out such men, pilot, and they shall sign."

Vasco da Gama went into his cabin with his clerk, taking the precaution to station a faithful sentinel at the door. The document was speedily drawn up; and Vasco da Gama told the clerk to take it below to the store-cabin, which was underneath his own.

"Tell the pilot and the master," he said, "to go down there and sign it."

No sooner had those officers descended, than, to their speechless astonishment, they found themselves seized one after another, roughly thrown down, and put in irons.

The sailors stayed on deck, ignorant of the fate of their comrades. It remained to seize the men who had been designated by the pilot and master as skilled seamen. These were called, one by one, into the captain's cabin; and, before they knew it, irons had been clapped upon them, and they were helpless prisoners.

Vasco da Gama now ordered the pilot, master, and other prisoners to be brought on deck, and, pointing to them as they stood in a row with dismal faces, said to the rest of the crew,—

"You see how I deal with those who dare to conspire to resist my authority. Take a lesson from these fellows, and see to it that you obey orders, and do not murmur; for, if you do, you will find yourselves in their predicament. Every one of these fellows will remain below deck in irons till we return to Portugal: there they shall be delivered up to the judgment of the king."

Then, turning to the pilot, who stood manacled and with head bowed down, the captain continued sharply,—

"You, pilot,—where are your astrolabes, quadrants, and other instruments? Fetch them to me."

The pilot sullenly pointed out the instruments to the men who were guarding him, and they were brought to the captain.

"Here," said Vasco da Gama, holding them up, are all the means we have to find out where we are, and in what direction we are going. And now," he added, hurling them violently into the sea, "I cast them forth, so that they are lost for ever. I need neither pilot nor master, neither astrolabe nor quadrant. I place my trust in God, who will guide us henceforth. If we deserve it, he will deliver us safely out of the seas to our destination. I will take the place of the pilot who has proved a traitor, and myself will direct the courses of the ship."

This firm conduct completely subdued the rebellious disposition of the crew, who hastened to crave the captain's pardon for their mutinous designs. They begged him to release the men in irons; but to this he turned a deaf ear. He took up his station at the pilot's place, and himself undertook to guide the ship on its perilous way.

Da Gama at sea


When the other two ships again came near, Vasco da Gama told Paulo and Coello what he had done. The crews of the San Gabriel  and San Miguel, disheartened by the failure of the crew of the San Raphael, and won, moreover, by the gentle words of their own captains, who sought to persuade them to abandon their purpose, soon gave over all thoughts of violence; and so the little fleet once more sailed peaceably over the waters.

The long storm had meanwhile greatly damaged the three ships. Their holds were so full of water, that the pumps seemed to make little impression upon the flood that had gathered in them. In many places the ships leaked, and betrayed sore need of repairs. Many barrels of water had been burst in and broken up; and so the supply of fresh water for drinking had got very short, and the cooks were obliged to use salt water for cooking the provisions.

Vasco da Gama was prudent as well as brave. He saw the necessity of making land, if possible; and ordered the ships to once more turn their prows towards the African coast.

It was not long before land came once more in sight, much to the delight of the crews. They caught sight of a very pleasant landscape, with pretty copses of trees, and sloping hills on which they could see cattle browsing. They passed close to a high and jagged rock, which Vasco called "the Rock of the Cross;" and on Christmas they skirted a cape, which, with pious thought, he christened "Natal."

About ten days after this, Vasco da Gama espied the mouth of a large river, and a spacious bay well sheltered from the winds. Here he decided to cast anchor; and so grateful were they all to find themselves once more floating in calm waters, and near the land, that they called the river "the River of Mercy."