Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

How Brave Men Went Sailing upon Unknown Seas

Centuries passed. India suffered many changes. It was overrun and conquered by Mohammedans and Turks. Its temples were destroyed, its people slain or carried away captive.

But through all the changes, through battle and war, revolt and massacre, the trade of India continued, and merchants vied with each other for the possession of it. Nearly all of it, however, was in the hands of Arabs and Moors, and, except for the merchants of Venice, few Christians had a share in it The Moors brought the goods from India in their ships to Suez. There camels were laden, and by them the merchandise was carried through Egypt to Alexandria. And at Alexandria the Venetian merchants took it in their ships to the ports of the Mediterranean.

The old trade-routes to India and the East were by the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. These being in the hands of heathen peoples, Christian sailors and adventurers turned their thoughts ever more and more to the finding of a new way to the East.

In the fifteenth century the Portuguese were a great and powerful people. Among the bold adventurers who sailed the unknown seas their sailors were the most daring. And one of their greatest sailors and explorers was Prince Henry the Navigator, the fifth son of King John I. He did much to make his country great in trade, and was called the "Father of Discovery."

Prince Henry sent out many expeditions, and although the new way to India was not discovered, many new lands and islands were, and were added to Portugal. The Pope, too, who was very powerful in those days, issued a Bull, as it was called, saying that all lands and islands which might be discovered between Cape Bojador on the west coast of Africa and the shores of India should belong to Portugal for ever.

After Prince Henry died, the people of Portugal still eagerly sought for the new way to India. But for many a long year they sought in vain. It was in 1486 that a sailor called Bartholomew Diaz set out. Southward and southward he sailed down the coast of Africa until, driven by storms, he and his sailors lost sight of land. For thirteen days they sailed they knew not whither, battered by wind and waves, fleeing with furled sails before the storm. At length the sea grew calm again, the wind sank. Then Diaz turned eastward, hoping soon to come in sight of the coast of Africa, from which he had been driven.

For many days he sailed along and saw no land. So he turned northward, and at length came in sight of what is now known as Flesh Bay.

Without knowing it Diaz had rounded the Cape of Good Hope. He had passed it so far to the south as to be out of sight of laud. The adventurous sailor still sailed on, not knowing where he was, for now land lay west of him instead of east. After many days he reached the mouth of a great river. It is now known as the Great Fish River. Here he was obliged to turn back, for his sailors, fearful of the unknown regions into which they were drifting, were unwilling to go further.

Once again the Cape was safely rounded, and Diaz, mindful of the dangers through which he had passed there, called it the Cape of Storms.

But when they at length reached home and King John II heard the tale, he named it the Cape of Good Hope, for now he had good hope that the long-looked-for road to India was indeed discovered.

For some years after this King John was unable to send out any more expeditions. And meanwhile Christopher Columbus, sailing westward, discovered what he believed to be the further shore of India, and claimed it for the King of Spain. Then the King of Spain asked the Pope to grant to him all lands which might be discovered by sailing westward even as he had granted to the King of Portugal all lands which might be discovered by sailing eastward. This being done, the King of Spain and the King of Portugal agreed to share between them all the world which might be still unknown.

After the discovery of Columbus, the Portuguese became more eager than ever to find the way to India. King John ordered three ships to be built, tall and strong such as should be able to withstand the storms of the Cape of Good Hope. Bartholomew Diaz himself made the plans, for none knew better what stout ships were needful, for only he and his men in all the world had passed that stormy cape.

Before the ships were ready to sail, King John died. His cousin Manuel, however, who succeeded him, was as eager as his uncle had been that Portugal should be great and prosperous, so he ordered that the ships should be finished.

A noble called Vasco da Gama was chosen to be leader of the expedition, and one bright spring day in 1497 the King and courtiers, monks and priests, and a great crowd of people followed Vasco da Gama and his sailors to the shore, and there took leave of them with prayers and cheers and thunder of guns. But the rejoicings were mingled with such tears and sobs of those who thought never to see their dear ones again, that the place was afterwards called the Shore of Tears.

When the last farewell had been said, these brave men sailed out into unknown seas, there to meet many dangers and perils, danger from wind and waves, from fierce dark savage peoples, from strange and terrible beasts.

Nor were the dangers all from without. Within the ships were dangers too. For the men grew weary of the long struggle with storms, fearful of what might lie before them, and prayed their leader to return. "But nay," he cried sternly, "if I saw an hundred deaths before mine eyes, yet would I sail right on. To India we shall go, or die."

Then, seeing that they could not move their commander to return, the sailors mutinied. But Vasco da Gama was both bold and quick. Seizing the ringleaders, he loaded them with fetters on hands and feet, and thrust them prisoner into the darkness of the hold. Then taking the chart and all the instruments which helped him to find his way across the pathless ocean, he cast them overboard. "I need neither pilot nor guide, but God alone," he cried. "If so we merit it, He will lead us safely to our journey's end."

Thus the fearless leader crushed the mutiny, and continued his voyage.

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