Gateway to the Classics: Heroes of the Middle Ages by Eva March Tappan
Heroes of the Middle Ages by  Eva March Tappan

Vasco da Gama

W e have seen that Portugal missed the honour of sending out Columbus, although the people of that age scarcely realized that it was an honour. Six years after he crossed the Atlantic Ocean, a Portuguese sailor named Vasco da Gama made a voyage that was looked upon as being of far more importance, because it opened the way for trade with the far East for which merchants had been longing. He reached India by sailing around Africa. Navigators were already familiar with the western coast of Africa, and a few years earlier one of them had doubled the Cape of Good Hope; but of what lay beyond little was known.

Vasco da Gama, therefore, had been chosen by the king of Portugal to sail down the western coast, round the Cape of Good Hope, and then sail north up the eastern coast. When the day of departure had come, Da Gama and the men of the fleet and the courtiers all went down to the water's edge. The ships were ablaze with flags and standards. A farewell salute was fired, and the vessels floated down the river of Lisbon and out into the open sea.

On the voyage there were tempests and stormy winds, and the sea was rough day and night. When at last they thought that they must have sailed as far south as the southern point of Africa, they steered directly east. Alas, the shore soon came in sight. "There is no end to the land," declared the sailors, "it goes straight across the ocean." "Stand out to sea," commanded Da Gama. "Trust in the Lord, and we will double the Cape." On they went. The days grew shorter, the nights grew longer, and the cold rains fell constantly. Now the ships began to leak, and the men could never cease pumping. There was so little hope of safety that they no longer called upon God to save their lives, but begged Him to have mercy upon their souls. In the midst of all the distress, Da Gama strode about the ship, angry and fearless. "If we do not double the Cape this time," he declared, "we will stand out to sea again; and we will stand out as many times until the Cape is doubled, or until whatever may please God has come to pass."

By and by the sea grew calm, the wind moderated, and, however far they went to the east, no land was in sight. Then they knew that they had doubled the Cape. They were full of joy, and they praised the Lord, who had delivered them from death.

The Christmas season was at hand, which the Portuguese call Natal. They gave this name to the part of the coast off which they lay, and it has been so called ever since that time. After the shattered vessels had been repaired, Da Gama sailed onward up the coast of Africa as far as Melinda. There he found a native pilot who guided his ships across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, in Hindustan. After many adventures he returned to Portugal. The king gave him generous rewards, made him a noble, and bade that holidays should be celebrated in his honor throughout the kingdom.

Da Gama made two other voyages to India. On one of these he led a fleet of twelve ships and brought them back richly laden with spices and silks and ivory and precious stones. Finally he was made viceroy of India; and there he lived in much luxury and magnificence until his death.

For a time, the voyages of Columbus were almost forgotten. Vasco da Gama had found the way to India, and several countries of Europe, especially Portugal, were becoming rich by their trade with the East. What more could be asked?

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