A descoberta do caminho marítimo para a Índia



Volume LII –November 1927, p. 503 to 550





Setting Sail to Find “Christians and Spices” Vasco da Gama Met Amazing Adventures, Founded an Empire, and Changed the History of Western Europe






Columbus had failed!

True, he found land, but the land did not yield ginger or cloves, nutmegs or cinnamon. Natives with naked, coppery bodies painted in fantastic colors, who were overjoyed with glass beads, hawks’ bells, and tinsel trinkets, did not promise a rich overseas market.

“After all, King John was right,” murmured the big business men of Lisbon, who had many anxious weeks after their monarch had let the persistent Christopher Columbus slip through his fingers and Spain had sponsored his voyage.

“Now,” they sagely surmised, “it is time to resume our explorations on the sane lines laid out by Prince Henry the Navigator.”

That great seer, with the garb of a monk and the soul of a sailor, dreaming among his charts and instruments in a bleak, lofty room at Sagres, where the salty winds blew from unknown seas through the paneless windows of intricate Moorish design, had dreamed aright. Overland travelers kept coming in with reports of the fabled Prester John, who had vast resources to help crush Islam, and other reports, not fabulous enough, it later was shown, of the wealth of the Indies.

So the brisk young King Manoel did not wait for importunate explorers to besiege him with proposals. He planned a trade quest along the route that Bartholomew Diaz had blazed, and engaged a likely young man to command the expedition.

Vasco da Gama was his name.

The first Portuguese from Gama’s fleet to set foot on the soil of India summed up his king’s purpose and unwittingly formulated one of the greatest slogans in maritime history.

“The devil take, you! What has brought von here? exclaimed an Arab.

“Christians and spices,” retorted the Portuguese.



And Vasco da Gama’s reception at the court of the Zamorin of Calicut confirmed the wisdom, to his own generation, of his king. What a contrast to Columbus’s meeting with the primitive, ingenuous American Indians!

The Portuguese admiral and thirteen picked men marched into Calicut, elbowed their way through an ever-swelling throng of jostling, bearded men who wore earrings, and bejeweled women, and finally entered the beautiful gardens of a palace where fountains played among the trees.

Proceeding through a maze of smaller courts and verandas, they entered an amphitheaterlike audience chamber which dazzled them with its rainbow textiles and scintillant gems.

The Zamorin lounged on a green velvet divan surmounted by a canopy of brocaded gold. At the moment of their entry he was clasping in his left hand a 4-quart spittoon of solid gold. At his right stood a huge basin of gold, so large that a tall man could barely encircle it with his two arms. It contained betel nuts wrapped in leaves with a blend of lime and catechu.

His Majesty’s chief Brahman stood by the betel bowl, handing the Zamorin a fresh titbit each time he ejected his previous chew into the regal cuspidor.

When anyone addressed the throne, the entire company deferentially clapped their hands to their mouths.

The visiting Portuguese had learned the court salute, suggestive of the matutinal radio exercises of a later day. They thrust their hands high above their heads, fists closed, then-one can almost hear the broadcaster’s directions -. Open! Close! Hands back to sides!



Silent servants brought water for the thirsty travelers, who had been informed that touching a drinking vessel with the lips was considered unclean. Their efforts to pour it into their mouths resulted either in partial strangulation or in wetting their clothes, and temporarily upset the dignity of their hosts.

Pages passed bananas and melons. But every eye must have been focused on the Zamorin’s rather meager person.

He was a small, dark man, swathed in white cloth from his waist to his knees. The material was calico, but finer spun than the linen of Europe. On a hanging corner of this swaddling cloth were handsome gold rings with large ruby settings. On one arm, above the elbow, were three jewel-studded armlets. From the middle ring dangled a diamond as thick as a man’s thumb.

“And Columbus did business with glass beads and cheap baubles !“ must have been the unspoken thought.

But the eye traveled on. Around his neck, hung a string of pearls as big as hazelnuts. It was a double string reaching down to his lap. Then came a shorter necklace, a gleaming gold chain suspending a corns- cant cluster of pearls and rubies, and these encircled a monster emerald.

This king had devised places to display his wealth that European monarchs had missed. His long hair was twisted into a cone and bedecked with precious stones and pearls like a display rack in a jeweler’s window. From his ears hung not one, but many, pendants of marvelous beauty.

Even the Zamorin’s page was garbed in silk; his red shield had a border of jewels; its arm rings were of gold.

There was no surprise among these “natives” at the coming of Europeans. The shoe was on the other foot. The luxury of the Zamorin’s court, Gama soon learned, was no mere barbaric display; it was evidence of the flourishing trade of Calicut with merchants from Persia, Arabia, and Africa’s shores. Already these rivals had tried discredit the -newcomer as a pirate adventurer. The Zamorin rather curtly demanded to know what Gama wanted. The explorer scored over the jealous Arabs when he requested a private hearing. The Zamorin and the commander retired to a smaller chamber, no less luxurious, and the monarch threw himself on another couch, covered with cloth embroidered in gold. Thereupon Gama displayed a letter, touched it to his eyes, to his forehead, and, kneeling, handed it to the Zamorin. It may be that this letter was genuine, though one narrator says it was composed, and King Manoel’s signature forged, after Gama anchored at Calicut and learned of the splendors of the Zamorin’s court. It also may be that Gama did not fabricate a tale about his ship’s having been separated from a vast fleet in a storm, for not all the chronicles mention that.



But it is certain that Gama had some tall explaining to do when, later, it came to giving the inevitable presents. He assembled the best he had: twelve pieces of striped cloth, four scarlet hoods, six hats, four strings of coral, a case of six washbasins, a case of sugar, two casks of oil and two of honey. The Zamorin was totally unimpressed He asked what the Portuguese had expected to find, stones or men? He mentioned that the meanest traders from Mecca did better than that. Finally he intimated that the King of Portugal must be inconsequential, certainly lacking in good manners, to send the mighty Zamorin of Calicut such trifling gifts.

So Gama had to assure him that these presents were from him, not from his king. He had been sent to trade and had brought only samples, not gifts, Or, if you believe another narrative, that the king’s gifts were on the mythical storm-lost fleet.

Surely Gama was a great navigator; undoubtedly he was a great explorer; also, in our day, he would be acclaimed a great salesman.

His credentials and gifts were questionable, he was misrepresented and harried by the Arabs, the touch of his hand was a defilement, yet his persuasive presentation of his monarch’s power and good intentions won him the Zamorin’s signature on the ribbed, if not dotted, line.



For, ultimately, the Zamorin called for his iron pen and wrote with heavy strokes, on a palm leaf, the following note for Gama’s delivery to the King of Portugal:

“Vasco da Gama, a gentleman of your household, came to my country, whereat I was pleased. My country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, and precious stones. That which I ask you in exchange is gold, silver, corals, and scarlet cloth.”

After Gama’s return a Venetian chronicler wrote: “When this news reached Venice the whole city felt it greatly and remained stupefied, and the wisest held it as the worst news that had ever arrived.” Well they might; from that time forth shipping filtered slowly out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic.

The Sultan of Egypt, who had fattened on import and export levies upon Suez routed trade with Venice, was panic-stricken. He ordered Venetian wood shipped to Cairo, camels carried it across the Isthmus, and he started building a futile wooden fleet to attack the Portuguese when they should visit India again.

Probably no other explorer than Vasco da Gama ever reaped so richly and speedily, for himself and his country, the rewards of his discovery. He culminated that amazing flaring up of Portugal from a petty primeval fief of obscure Leon, in the eleventh century, to the famed mistress of the seas, in the sixteenth.



After his second voyage every farm and vineyard was culled of lads to join the India-bound caravels.

In one fleet a ship was manned by sons of the soil who never before felt the need of learning their right hands from their left. At sea they were nonplused by the intricacies of starboard and larboard.

A captain had the happy notion, according to one chronicle, of tying a bundle of garlic over one side of the ship and a handful of onions over the other. Then the pilot would shout to the helmsmen, “Onion your helm!“ or “Garlic your helm !“

Portugal’s power dwindled in the face of the greater ultimate worth of the voyages of Columbus, Magellan, and Cabot, but that fact detracts not a whit from the glamorous adventures and noble achievements of Gama’s first voyage to India.

Were there a list of the seven greatest scenes of the Middle Ages, Gama’s setting sail from the mouth of the Tagus July 9, 1497, would rank high among them.

Four squat three-masters rode at anchor in the muddy roadstead. Sailors swarmed over their towering “castles,” fore and aft, some storing last-minute supplies of beef and pork, biscuits and wine; others making ready to hoist the huge square sails, each painted with a mammoth cross of the Order of Christ.



An excited throng, big spice and slave men, shipwrights and sailors, grandees and hangers-on, lined the marshy shores. Some cheered, the women wailed, for the unknown seas held the direst mysteries, even for the boldest seamen. Equatorial oceans boiled and steamed like geysers; the sun beat on parched floors like whirlwinds of flame. Did not the maps show terrifying sea serpents in the deep and monsters on the rocks, unicorns that could pierce three caravels at a single stroke, and the dread Bishop of the Seas clutching his phosphorescent miter?

Twelve surly convicts lounged, tinder guard, blinking at the unaccustomed light. They had been released from dungeons to reconnoiter lands where Gama did not wish to risk the lives of able seamen.

The crowd parted and, in slow procession, came the expedition’s leaders, bearing lighted candles, while priests and friars chanted as they marched behind.

Gama, along with the rest, had spent the night in vigil and prayer in the crude mariners’ chapel Prince Henry had built. Always, one must keep in mind, it was “Christians and spices” they sought. Spices were the tangible rewards, but it was the final flicker of the Crusaders’ zeal that induced the fervor of the men who went and the people who paid.

A mighty tumult arose when the Royal Standard was run up at the stout mainmast, 110 feet above the deck of the blunt-bowed S. Gabriel;* another throaty roar greeted the unfurling of the commander’s scarlet flag at the crow’s nest.


* In full, São Gabriel. São, meaning Saint, is commonly abbreviated in Portuguese to “S.,” just as “Saint” is usually written “St” in English, when it precedes a proper noun.


The flagship, S. Gabriel, bearing the “captain-major,” and its sister ship, S. Raphael, commanded by his brother, Paulo da Gama, had been especially built for this voyage by Bartholomew Diaz, who already had rounded the cape which he called “Tempestuous” and his sovereign named “Good Hope.”

A smaller, swifter vessel, the Berrio, commanded by Nicolau Coelho, was a fine specimen of the lateen-rigged caravels that soon were to carry the flag of Portugal into world ports, from Brazil to farthest Cathay. The fourth vessel carried stores.

All the ships were square-rigged and flat-bottomed and each bore the figure of its patron saint. Their most conspicuous features, the seemingly top-heavy “castles,” were designed as citadels, whence their crews might hurl grenades, javelins, and powder pots against boarding pirates or attacking savages.

The men had no firearms, of course, but they were equipped with crossbows, swords, boarding pikes, axes, and spears. A few had steel armor, but most of them relied on breastplates and jerkins.

The captains’ quarters were in the quarter-deck castles; officers lodged both fore and aft, while the men slept beneath the low-lying planks between castles.



The goldsmiths and the spice merchants and the cloth sellers gossiped furtively about the captain-major as he went aboard - a stocky, florid, austere, black-bearded, bushy-haired young grandee.

“It’s taking a chance, building two ships and buying two more, and then intrusting them to a novice,” one must have said.

“He’s third choice, you know. His father, the chief magistrate of Sines, was picked for the command, and he died. We all thought Paulo would succeed him. Why, even Vasco urged Paulo, and later insisted that Paulo must go along.”

“Yes, and it all comes from acting on a hunch,” another would have chimed in. “They say the King saw him walking across the courtyard, and liked his looks. Manly bearing, looked like a leader, born to command, and all that. He’s only 37. And he’s not married. Lucky for us if he gets to India; luckier still if he ever comes back.”

The inevitable optimist probably was there with a reminder: “True, lie hasn’t explored, hut he certainly won his spurs fighting the French pirates and the African infidels. And they say he fears neither Cod nor Devil.”



With stern winds filling the huge sails, the flotilla dropped clown the Tagus. It halted at the Canaries and the crew fished. Then it made for the Cape Verdes, and left there August 3 on the longest voyage and one of the most daring recorded up to that time.

The little ships cruised through uncharted seas for 4,500 miles, a voyage of 96 days, without a glimpse of land. Columbus had sailed for 3,500 miles after he left the Canaries, when he sighted the Bahamas.

The commander in chief took a bold course to avoid the doldrums and currents that Diaz and others encountered nearer the African shores. He struck out on an arc to the west which carried him across the Equator at 19° W., and within 600 miles of South America, before he veered back toward the Cape of Good Hope.

To reach his objective after such a cruise, without any landmarks, was a far greater achievement for Vasco da Gama than it seemed to us who take for granted the modern accessories of navigation.

Previous mariners preferred the perils of coastal cruising to the uncertainties of the open ocean, because they could go ashore frequently to correct inevitable errors of their crude instruments.

Gama had the best aids his time afforded. There was the wooden astrolabe, designed in Prince Henry’s time, clumsy makeshift for the sextant, with which to find the latitude. Determination of longitude was yet unsolved. He probably based his calculations on the variations of the compass needle, because it was assumed that lines radiating from the magnetic pole had a constant relation to those radiating from the geographic pole. Thus if two places showed an equal divergence of the compass they must be on the same meridian.

On board also were “Genoese needles,” or mariners’ compasses, sounding leads, hourglasses, and a rope was flung astern to indicate the ship’s leeway. There was no log to measure a day’s run, nor any chronometer. The ship’s progress was estimated by various modes of dead reckoning. One way, in a calm sea, was to spit over the bow and to calculate the rate by timing its speed in passing this comparatively fixed point.

For a time the armada beat against adverse trade winds and rode out furious storms. Then the sails picked up west winds that bore the ships swiftly toward the South African shores. Late in October they espied sea fowl, next a whale was sighted, and then seals and “sea wolves,” probably porpoises. More hopeful still, they came upon a weed peculiar to South Africa’s coast, and on November 7 they found shelter, which their commander named St. Helena Bay.



On shore they saw a lone Hottentot gathering honey among the bushes. They fed him and sent him to summon his fellow tribesmen. The crew rejoiced more at the homelike sound of barking dogs and the sight of familiar birds, such as cormorants, sea gulls, crested larks, and turtledoves.

Other Hottentots came down from their kraal. They wore shells and copper in their ears, fanned themselves with foxtails tied to sticks, and carried fish-spearing shafts tipped with gemsbok horns.

The Portuguese displayed gold, seed pearls, cloves, and cinnamon, which did not tempt them, but they were captivated by tiny bells and tin rings.

To-day Hottentots, living like those that Gama found, dwell farther north in a reservation at Mount Brukkaros, Southwest Africa, site of the National Geographic Society’s station for observation of solar radiation.*

* See, also, “Hunting an Observatory: A Successful Search for a Dry Mountain on Which to Establish the National Geographic Society’s Solar Radiation Station,” by C. G. Abbot, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for October, 1926.


The voyagers set sail again on a Thursday, November 16, heading for the Cape, and on Saturday they sighted it. But they tacked against a merciless head wind until the following Wednesday before they doubled it. Then, in a few days more, they put in at Mossel Bay.



More Hottentots welcomed them, with a band—not brass, but squeaky wood winds, or goras, “some producing high notes and others low ones, thus making a pretty harmony for negroes, who are not expected to be musicians !“ Then they danced and, in return, the visiting sailors put on an exhibition dance aboard their boats, to the tune of the ships’ trumpets, and even the austere Gama joined in the dancing.

The Portuguese gave away red caps and bells and received ivory bracelets, evidence that elephants were plentiful. They bought an ox and found it “fat and toothsome. Oxen, geldings and hornless, provided the local taxi service, for the natives made saddles of twigs and rode them to avoid walking even short distances.

In the bay the voyagers observed Seal Island, which retains its name but not its seals.

The Roteiro tells of seals, some “as big as bears, with large tusks. And whilst the big ones roar like lions, the little ones cry like goats. There are birds as big as ducks, but they cannot fly, because they have no feathers on their wings. They bray like asses.” We can only surmise that the Portuguese saw some Cape penguins*.


* It is a great loss to the annals of exploration that Vasco da Gama left no first-hand narrative of his voyages, such as the journals of Columbus and Cook. The colorful Correa and the anonymous Roteiro (Journal or Itinerary) are the sources of last resort of Gama’s travels.

Gaspar Correa did not arrive in India until 15 years after Gama first landed. He found the notes of the first expedition compiled by a priest, one of those conservators of medieval history, and from this source and others less reliable he evolved a gossipy record that a Pepys might have written but not a Macaulay. One version we now possess was salvaged from a Lisbon confectioner’s shop, fortunately before many leaves had been used to wrap up sweetmeats.

The Roteiro is more authentic, but as distressingly laconic at times as the first chapter of Genesis. And then again one must guess at the meaning of some of the curious notes, such as those, for example, on the aforementioned Seal Island.


The three ships resumed their voyage, passing the “farthest north” achieved by Diaz after he had rounded the Cape, and here it seemed as if the jealous sea rallied a last desperate stand against the intruders.

A sudden storm arose. Soon it seemed as black as night. Small sails and lower sails were struck, shrouds were lashed to the yards to make the masts more secure, and the foresails alone remained.

The winds whipped the little boats with fiercer fury. Lightning dimmed the lamps hung out so they might keep together. Thunder crashed above the shrieking winds, the lashing waves, and the creaking timbers. Gama’s master and pilot urged that he turn south, the better to ride out the storm.

Gama shouted back that he had vowed when he crossed the bar at Lisbon never to turn about a single span’s breadth, and threatened to toss the next man overboard who suggested such a course.

Each wave beat the little ships until it seemed the next one must shatter them. They lurched so that men lashed themselves to keep from being tossed from port to starboard. They began to take in water from both sides and below, so the sailors had to work the pumps at highest speed.

“The seas rose toward the sky and fell back in heavy showers that flooded the ships,” says the picturesque Correa. “They could not see each other, except when they were upheaved, when they seemed to be among the clouds.”



The men pleaded with the captains; aboard the S. Gabriel Gama cajoled, threatened, worked at every job, and cowed his men by “a fury that outdid the storm.”

Hour upon hour of this and the men began to sicken. Some died of exhaustion. Gama said a hundred might die and he would go down with his ships rather than turn back.

In all three ships the seamen clamored and wailed, they prayed and cursed, and invoked the most bloodcurdling imprecations upon Gama, in the name of God, the Devil, their wives and their children.

Then a lull in the storm, and mutiny—though there is only Correa’s word for that.

Gama assembled the plotting masters and pilots aboard the S. Gabriel—a difficult feat, it would seem, in a still heavy sea—told them to go below and sign a document which would prove to his King that further progress was impossible.

Having trapped them, so Correa says, he clapped them in irons, threw their navigating instruments overboard, and said God alone would guide him to India’s shores.



When the storm abated there still was the Agulhas Current, one of those giant and then uncharted ocean rivers which plagued early mariners, and the ships found themselves at one time 200 miles abaft their dead reckoning.

The S. Gabriel had sprung its mainmast and lost an anchor, the daily water ration was cut down to less than a pint, and food had to be cooked in brine.

It was Christmas Day before they limped along the shores they named Natal. The indomitable Gama veered seaward to elude the current, but they could not escape its clutches; so they anchored near the mouth of a river which we now know as the Limpopo.

Crowds of friendly Bantus, among whom women seemed to outnumber the men by two to one, thronged the beach. Gama gave their chief a jacket, red pantaloons, a cap and bracelet. That dignitary donned them at once and strutted around the village, crying, “Look what has been given me!“ He must have resembled the livened doorman of a modern American hotel.

The observant Portuguese concluded that copper and tin were plentiful. Everyone wore circlets of the former metal on his arms and legs and twisted in his hair, while tin was used on the hilts of the daggers, which were carried in ivory sheaths.

Again Gama pressed northward, passing the Cape of Currents (Corrientes)—it was now January, 1498—and reversed the experience of most explorers. Henceforth the unknown world he was entering grew progressively more civilized. The reason is an interesting study in geography.

The landsman easily recognizes mountains as barriers to migrations, and he observes civilization creeping along the courses of friendly rivers. The oceans also have their barriers and their traveled valleys.

Trade winds and tides that pour through the sluicegates formed by the East Indies create Indian Ocean currents that “sweep round from east to west in an immense coil,” between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

The periphery of this giant swirl crashes against the northern shores of Madagascar and funnels a warm current southward through the Mozambique Channel, which collides with the cold Antarctic Current.

The Arab traders who had nosed southward along the African coast encountered in the resulting storms off Cape Corrientes a barrier no less sinister than, our Rocky Mountains seemed to pioneers of the covered-wagon era.



To the north both Persians and Arabians set up trading posts that sometimes grew into cities, trafficked in gold and ivory, and established harems to breed half-castes who would act as their local bargainers and buyers.

These Mohammedans made the Arabian Sea a Mediterranean of southern Asia, and their clumsy, roped-plank dhows, with palm-matting sails, plied busily among the prosperous ports of Persia, Arabia, and India. Gama was heading directly into their traffic lanes.

His first encounter with this new world of the East was at Kilimane. Naked black men brought supplies and water to the ships, but when the Portuguese went ashore they met with “two gentlemen … very haughty,” who looked with disdain on presents offered them. One wore a fringed headgear of embroidered silk; another had a cap of green satin.

‘With these “gentlemen” was a younger man who, it was learned, had come from some distant land and already had seen ships like Gama’s.

In this friendly port the sailors were attacked by scurvy, deadly enemy of maritime explorers until Captain James Cook solved the problem of its prevention.*


* See, also, “The Columbus of the Pacific,” by J. R. Hildebrand, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for January, 1927.


Barros, known as the Portuguese Livy, describes the affliction vividly, if not pleasantly: “So great (was the) growth of the flesh of their gums, that it would hardly be contained in the men’s mouths, and as it grew it rotted, and they cut into it like into dead flesh; a very pitiable thing to see.”

Paulo da Gama ministered to the sick day and night, emptying his private medicine chest to treat the sufferers.

Many were still sick when they made their next port, Mozambique, but there they were overjoyed by evidences of the riches ahead.

First there were the Mohammedan merchants, attired in “fine linen or cotton stuffs, with variously colored stripes and of rich and elaborate workmanships. They all wear toucas (caps) with borders of silk embroidered in gold.”

Even more impressive were four Arab vessels lying in the harbor, vessels “laden with gold, silver, cloves, pepper, ginger, and silver rings, as also with quantities of pearls, jewels, and rubies.”

At Mozambique Gama engaged two pilots and took aboard four half-castes; but when he arrived at Mombasa the pilots, having learned that their employers were “dogs of Christians,” tried to escape.

The King of Mombasa sent the explorer a sheep, oranges and lemons, sugar cane, and a ring, and when Gama dispatched emissaries ashore they were escorted through four doors, each guarded by a stalwart negro with a drawn cutlass, safely to the presence of the ruler.

After their reception they were shown around the village, where they met two merchants whom they took for Christians because of pictures they displayed, which appeared to represent the Holy Ghost. The sketches probably portrayed the Hindu pigeon god and goddess.

Two days later Gama’s suspicious were aroused by the maneuvers of a boatload of “Moors.” “Moors,” incidentally, was the designation used in all the chronicles for all non natives, both in Africa and India. They were Moslems, mostly from Arabia, many of them were of mixed blood, and the Swahili language of East Africa to-day possesses a large admixture of Arabic.



Gama suspected the halfcastes he held captive could shed light on their purpose, so he “questioned” two of them “by dropping boiling oil upon their skin, so that they might confess any treachery intended against us.”

About midnight the ship’s watch saw what seemed to be a school of tunny fish; soon they realized the “fish” were armed swimmers trying to cut the ship’s cables. When the Berrio’s watch sounded an alarm they silently swam away.

“Those and other wicked tricks were practiced upon us by these dogs,” the Roteiro relates, “but our Lord did not allow them to succeed, because they were tin- believers.”

All the while at Mombasa the Portuguese were regaling themselves with ‘large sweet oranges, the best that had ever been seen,” and when they sailed away to Malindi all trace of scurvy had disappeared. Various records mention both facts, but do not connect them.

In eager pursuit of the riches ahead, the explorers sailed on. From captain to cabin boy, they forgot the scourges of curvy and storms. Gama had been denounced as a demon; now he was a demigod. Let Castile have all the red Indians of the New World, Lusitania was heir to luxury that Crœsus would have envied!

Gama experienced the prevailing exaltation. Already the Indian Ocean, from Zanzibar to Hindubar, was his. He met two sambuks (a sort of coastal barge) and one escaped, but when he was in hailing distance of the other he grandiloquently proclaimed to the perplexed Moslems that the S. Gabriel’s flag was the emblem of the King of Portugal and ordered them to strike sail in the name of Manoel, else he would burn ships and men and send them all to the bottom. Moreover, he would do the same for every ship that dared disobey him.

Probably the very names of Portugal and Manoel were news to the sambuk’s distracted captain. There was plenty more ivory where he got his cargo, and his crew could swim to the near-by shore, but he had aboard his beautiful young wife, who was clutching her chest of jewels and coma forting four weeping women in her service. So her husband surrendered.

Gama sent ten Portuguese aboard and on the eve of Easter Sunday the fleet and its prize anchored off Malindi.

Next morning a dazzling tropical sun gleamed on a wide semicircle of tall, whitewashed houses, rimming a beautiful bay, and in the background were more restful greens of coconut groves, fields of maize, and well kept gardens.



Flags flew from the city’s walls, in obvious welcome, and pennants arose in friendly greeting among the numerous ships o the harbor.

“At the sight of it our men experienced great delight and gave great praise to the Lord, who  had brought them to such a country,” exclaimed the pious Correa.

Malindi was not India but it was Gama’s last port of call before Calicut, and it was to become a key colony of Portugal’s Indian Ocean domain. There, if ever Gama displayed the courtesy and adroit tact of a statesman and a diplomat.

Scarcely had the elated Portuguese time for a daylight survey of the scene when a canoe came alongside “with a well-dressed man,” who asked their needs and said his king had ordered their every wish fulfilled.

This seemed too good to be true; so the commander sent a red-robed Moor ashore to reconnoiter. Back came the Moor with a boatload of presents and the Rajah’s high priest, whom Gama received with ceremony, ordering that preserves be brought him in a silver vase, and also water with a napkin. The latter touch was the ultimate mark of deep courtesy to a guest.

Soon a curious, flat craft was seen circling the ships. On it the visitors descried the king wearing royal robes of damask trimmed with green satin. He was seated on two bronze chairs beneath a sunshade of crimson satin. The royal band was aboard, playing sivas, hornlike instruments of ivory, copper, and wood, with a mouthpiece in the middle. They were as long as a man is tall and beautifully carved. Beside the king was a page carrying a sword in a silver sheath.

Then the ships were dressed with flags, maneuvered outside the other craft, and the bombard boomed forth with a salute, “so that the city shook. On firing they threw a few balls from the large guns to seaward, which went skimming and ricocheting on the sea, causing great amazement.”

The people poured out on the beach, the ships’ trumpets sounded, Gama Prepared to set the priest ashore with greetings to the king. The emissary hesitated, and one of the Moors suggested to the commander that the king probably intended him to be held as hostage.



The quick-witted Gama gave him a string of coral for his prayers and told him to tell his king that His Majesty’s goodness of heart was sufficient assurance of safety; also, which he did not mention, the salute just fired had thoroughly awed the crowds on the shore.

Soon came more presents and more valuable ones, including cloves, ginger, nutmegs, and pepper. Gama, not to be outdone, set free the captive Moors of the sambuk and sent the boat and its cargo ashore to be disposed of by the king.

Meanwhile Vasco and Paulo da Gama debated which should go ashore. The commander’s affection for his brother is always cropping out to deny that his character was invariably harsh. Vasco pointed out that Paulo should have commanded the fleet, but since that had not come about he (Vasco) would Protect his brother and assume any risks of treachery’, and if he came to grief Paulo was to continue with the ships.

This point being settled, the brothers “embraced several times with many tears and sincere love.” When the king actually extended an invitation, however, the commander, for the sake of strategy or dignity, said his own king had forbidden him to pay such visits, but suggested that the King of Malindi come aboard ship.

“If I did that, what would my own people say of me ?“ was the gist of the king’s reply.

A compromise was reached when the king was borne in a palanquin to the water’s edge; all the townspeople came forth and Gama, with his officers, drew alongside in the ships’ boats.

The captains “dressed themselves nobly and very splendidly.” Gama was ensconced on a chair covered with green velvet. Rugs and carpets were strewn over the boats and the’ were bedecked with flags. Each carried two swivel guns.

In the absence of a “movie” camera, one must rely on “The Lusiad” of Camões for the best picture of the Portuguese:


“Nor less of pomp the Lusitanian shows

With his gallant retinue, advance

The Armada’s boats, midway to welcome those

Of the Melindan on the bay’s expanse.

Clad in the vogue of Spain, Da Gama goes,

All but the cloak, a gorgeous robe of France,

The web Venetian satin, and the dye

A glorious crimson that delights the eye.”


For entertainment, the king had provided horsemen to fight a sham battle.

The Rajah went aboard the boat that bore Gama and pledged lifelong fealty to the King of Portugal. Whereupon Gama presented him with a sword, in an enameled case, with “a lance of gilt iron, and a buckler lined with crimson satin worked with gold thread.”

After Gama departed the king ordered his crier to proclaim in the city streets that nothing was to be sold the Portuguese for more than it was worth. The next day Gama went ashore, and henceforth during their stay the Portuguese were as free to come and go as if they had been in Lisbon.

The seamen calked the ships, put on supplies, and learned how to make ropes of coconut fiber. They found these ropes were soft, would stretch, and were less affected by the salt water than their own.



One more ceremony remained to cement their alliance. The king sent aboard a caldron of rice, roast mutton, rice cakes, rice-stuffed fowl, figs, and fruits.

The commander and captains seated themselves immediately and, in the presence of the king’s messengers, ate of every dish he had sent, to show their confidence that the food was not poisoned.

In return the commander sent the king some preserved pears, between two silver basins, which he covered up with a napkin, and suggested that the dish be eaten, with water, after dinner.

The king ate the conserve, taking it with the fork Gama had sent, “also to show how much he trusted the captains.”

It was now the king’s turn to visit the S. Gabriel. He rowed out, accompanied by boatloads of musicians, all playing the sivas and kettledrums, and the harbor craft again flew their flags. After he had been shown over the ship he was seated in the commander’s cabin at a handsome table laden with preserved almonds, sweet-meats, olives, and marmalade. The platters were silver, the napkins dainty bits of gold-embroidered cloth from Flanders.



After the king had eaten, Gama “took a rich hand-basin chased with gilt and a ewer to match and went to pour water on the king’s hands.” The king, out of courtesy, declined this “finger-howl” service and kept staring at the table appointments.

“If these men use silver,” he sighed, “their king will not use anything but gold.”

Before the fleet left Malindi the king sent out boatloads of farewell presents - biscuits, rice, butter, coconuts, live sheep and salted mutton, and “much sugar in powder in sacks. More valuable, however, from the explorers’ standpoint, were the pilot he provided and the hints he gave about the exports and etiquette of Calicut.

With their huge sails bellied by a stiff breeze, the three little ships cut a straight course across the uncharted Arabian Sea for 23 days. They skirted the Laccadive Islands and turned east, heading for Calicut.

Soon the lookout spied the mountain range of Malabar’s coveted coast. All hands rushed to deck; one can picture a scene of wildest joy. Gama released all prisoners, so “there might not be one sorrowful heart on board the fleet.” The greatest moment in Portuguese history had arrived!

Was it portentous that huge clouds already were piling up to blot out the peaks, and presently a blinding tropical rain curtained the shore?

When the downpour subsided and the pilot could get his bearings, the ships proceeded, and anchored off Calicut in May 1498, ten months and a half after they set sail from Lisbon.



From visitors who came out to the ships and from emissaries he sent ashore, the commander gleaned information about Calicut before he landed to pay his celebrated visit to the Zamorin.

That monarch, he learned, lived in a stone palace outside the city, at a sort of Versailles of Malabar. He was a Hindu and his extensive court was made up of the priestly, vegetarian Brahmans and the polyandrous, meat-eating Nairs, scions of the’ fighting caste.

One of the latter came aboard ship, and the gaping crew saw a dark, slim, lithe little man, naked except for a girdle of white cloth. His black hair was plastered down in modern “movie” hero fashion and he wore earrings of gold. He bore a round shield with a gold arm band and grasped a short, broad-pointed sword. Night and day, waking and sleeping, as long as he lives, a Nair is never parted from his shield and sword.

The Zamorin could muster 200,000 fighting men, headed by these Nairs, so Gama was told, with probable exaggeration.

The Brahmans were the aristocrats of the Hindus. The lower native castes, comprising the great mass of the common people, sank to levels of human docility beneath that of the slaves then being introduced into Europe. Correa describes these “low people” as being so “accursed” that they dare not go by a road without shouting, for if a Nair should suddenly meet them he would kill them.

To-day caste still imposes rigid restrictions in this region.



The Mayfair district of Calicut comprised rows of commodious wooden houses roofed with palm leaves. There lived the Mopla merchant princes, who had clung to the faith of their Moslem fathers and seized the business of their mothers’ Hindu relatives, thus creating a Mohamamedan monopoly of maritime trade.

And Calicut’s trade was no mean item.

For many years this port, where no European ship had anchored until Gama came, had shipped the spices that graced the tables of the rich in every civilized city of Europe.

To-day sugar has replaced the spices as the world’s favorite flavor. And few pause to consider that the lowly pepper vine, the ginger root, and the cinnamon tree beckoned the Spaniards and the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the English, to some of the most daring voyages and greatest discoveries in the annals of geography.

The spices which Europe was eating were costly. In England, at this period, a pound of cloves was worth two cows. The middleman’s profit is no new problem.

Ships of Mecca’s merchant fleet put out from Calicut with cargoes of cinnamon, already transported from Ceylon, cloves from Malacca, and ginger and pepper from nearer sources, in India. It took weeks to voyage to Jidda, for these vessels sailed before the wind; they could not tack.

There they paid duties and transshipped the goods to smaller vessels bound for Gulf of Suez ports. Upon arrival, more customs were paid, and the goods were loaded on camels’ backs for a 10-day trip to Cairo.

Cairo took toll and transferred the spices from camel carriers to river boats plying down the Nile to Rosetta, which assessed its levy and loaded the goods once more on the lumbering camel freight.

Thence it was only a day’s journey to Alexandria, where the goods were piled up to await the coming of a galley from Genoa or Venice. From these cities they filtered through more profits and tariffs to the ultimate buyers of Europe.

Thus some of the tolls these spices paid bought gold cuspidors for the betel chewers of Calicut, subsidized a North Africa sovereign who had convinced the Grand Sultan of Egypt that he was waging war on Prester John, and helped build the palaces and paint the pictures which lure tourists to Italy to this day.

Vasco da Gama realized his coming was bound to incite jealousy among the Mecca traders and declined to enter the harbor of Calicut for fear of treachery. Instead he sailed to a cove 15 miles north, where he went ashore and started back to Calicut in a palanquin.



Palanquin owners, he later learned, had to pay the king a fee, just as modern car owners must pay an automobile tax. Some of these vehicles were luxurious. A “limousine” litter, for example, consisted of a mattress suspended by cloth from poles with silver-mounted ends. The mattress was made of silks threaded with gold and ornamented by heavy fringes. Silken cushions were provided for the passenger, who was propelled by a 6-man-power motor.

On the way the Portuguese were entertained at the borne of a native dignitary with a meal of buttered rice served on green fig leaves, and boiled fish.

At Calicut they first were taken to a Hindu temple. They saw a stone structure with tiled floors, which they entered by a gate hung with seven tinkling bells. They thought the edifice a church and construed the representations of Hindu deities as Christian saints crudely portrayed, since some had protruding teeth and others had four or more arms.

One member of the party wrote: “They threw holy water over us and gave us some white earth, which the Christians of this country are in the habit of putting on their foreheads, breasts, around the neck, and on the forearms.”

The “white earth,” of course, was the mixture of ashes, cow dung, and dust used by the Brahmans as an accompaniment of prayer. The “Christians” were Hindus.

Then, according to another narrator, Gama went to a house set aside for one of his traders, to dress for the reception. He emerged in a long coat of red satin with brocade lining, over a blue tunic bordered with gold. From a red belt hung a handsome dagger and across his shoulders was a wide enamel collar.

The Portuguese proceeded through the streets, followed by the ships’ trumpeters in red and white liveries, with their burnished trumpets decorated with silken streamers.



Throngs crowded the thoroughfares, peered from every roof top, and finally almost blocked the visitors’ progress, until there came an official sent out from the king’s household. He was a sort of royal secret service guard who was empowered to sever the head of any uninvited guest. He helped clear a way for the visitors, but before the Palace the throng grew so great that several natives were injured.

It was late at night when Vasco da Gama concluded his famous first visit to the Zamorin, and rejoined his companions, who awaited him on a balcony. They were busily examining the large iron lamps, each with four wicks fed by oil, mounted in candelabra fashion.

Another blinding tropical rain had set in the streets ran with water, so Gama in his finery was taken to the nearest available home as fast as a palanquim could carry him.

The next day, Tuesday, he wrapped his presents for the Zamorin, in spite of well-meant warnings that they were inadequate, and on Wednesday he presented them. On this visit he was kept waiting four hours, and, though the Zamorin was frankly scornful of his gifts, he inquired what Portugal has to sell and told Gama he might land his merchandise and dispose of it.

The Moors, meanwhile, had been as busy as the Portuguese. They cautioned the king’s ministers that Gama either was a fugitive from justice or a spy sent out in the guise of a merchant.



Some narrators insist they also bribed the bodyguard the king assigned to conduct the Portuguese back to their ships. Others interpret Gama’s difficulties to misunderstandings.

The first of these occurred on Friday, when a horse without a saddle was brought around for Gama to ride. He refused the mount and demanded a palanquin, which was provided. Probably no slight was intended, since riding without saddles was a common practice in Calicut.

On the way to Pandarani his suspicions further were aroused by the disappearance of some of his companions. Later it developed they had been unable to keep up with the fleet-footed palanquin bearers and had lost their way.

When they arrived the sun had set and Gama was requested to wait until next day before going out to his ships. He grew so angry he could eat no dinner. The next clay his guards suggested he send word to the ships to approach nearer the shore, so they could row out to them more easily, and Gama, scenting treachery, sent word to his brother to keelp the ships well out of the harbor.

Armed men patrolled the commander’s house, which he construed to mean detention, but they may have been intended only as a guard. It was several days before he was rowed out to his ships and the goods were brought ashore.

There was no mistaking then the attitude of the Moslems. They depreciated the goods, refused to trade, and when they saw a Portuguese they ostentatiously spit on the ground.

The Zamorin, however, showed his good faith when this was reported to him. He first sent Hindu merchants to look at the goods, and when they did not buy he ordered the merchandise conveyed at his expense to Calicut, so that it might be more accessible to customers.

Selling unknown goods in a strange land with no fixed exchange rates entailed an interesting procedure.



The commander appointed a factor, or steward, and a clerk, and sent in first “a chest of one hundredweight of unwrought branch coral, and as much of vermilion, and a barrel of quicksilver, fifty pigs of copper, twenty strings of large cut coral, and as many of amber, and five Portuguese of gold, fifty cruzados, and a hundred testoons in silver.”

Also he set up a table of green cloth, to be a sort of counter, and a wooden balance and weights.

The Zamorin’s overseer examined each article and fixed a price in native money. Then, since the Portuguese wished also to use their own currency, he assessed each kind of coin they had, proved it with touchstones, which he handled most deftly, and thus a schedule of prices was drawn up and also a series of weights was agreed upon.



In accord with Gama’s instructions, there was no haggling; his steward accepted the rates and weights without question, though it soon was apparent that the Portuguese were to be heavy losers.

Furthermore, also acting under orders, the steward accepted what goods were delivered him without questioning the quality.

One day the Portuguese ordered ginger, and the spice came heavily smeared with red clay. This was in accord with export practice, because the clay preserved the strength of the condiment; but the clay was far in excess of the usual amount. He mildly requested an additional consignment, with more ginger and less clay, explaining he was not protesting the price, but that he wished good samples of each product to present to King Manoel.

All this had the desired effect upon the Zamorin; he was elated at such profitable customers. But it had an unexpected boomerang.

The Moors conveyed to him a message which said in effect: “We told you so. These people can’t be merchants. And they are not fools. They must be spies or pirates masquerading as traders. Anyway, what can Your Majesty hope to gain from a market which it takes a year’s voyage to reach ?“

While this wholesale trading was going on, small parties of sailors went ashore daily to hawk clothing, and bracelets to swell the fund for buying samples of spices and gems.

Neither procedure proved profitable; so Gama, being ready to depart, sent a point- blank request to the Zamorin for certain specified gifts for his king. Diogo Dias, his emissary, brought back no presents but a bill—a bill for the equivalent of about $1,000 for custom duties on goods landed, with the warning that it must be paid before the ships could sail away.

To compel payment the Zamorin’s zealous agents threw a guard around the warehouse where Portuguese goods were stored and held Gama’s steward, clerk, and a number of sailors as hostages.



The explorer retaliated by seizing l8 Hindus. Among them, unfortunately, were six Nairs, and the hostages of this group had to be exchanged daily, because each went on a “hunger strike” against food prepared by “unclean” hands.

It now was late in August. The ships, which had been at Pandarani since June, moved to Calicut. Meanwhile Dias visited the Zamorin a second time and apparently convinced him that his aides had been bribed. He disavowed any knowledge of the seizure, sent to Gama his famous letter for delivery to the King of Portugal, and ordered the Portuguese hostages and goods released.

Gama retained five of the Calicut subjects, either as indemnity for goods he did not recover or to promote friendly relations when he should return to India.

Threatening vengeance against the Arabs, Gama sailed away from Calicut August 29, 1498, skirted the coast northward to Goa, which remains to this day a patch of Portuguese India, and laid over at the Anjidiva Islands to repair his ships.



From that vicinity he struck out across the Arabian Sea again, making for friendly Malindi; but storms buffeted the ships and calms spread death among the crews, for it took nearly three months to cross. Scurvy broke out, killed 30 sailors, and laid the rest so low that at times only seven or eight men were available to work each vessel.

Even the indomitable Gama and his captains were on the point of turning back to India when the African shores were sighted off Mogadishu.

One can understand why, when Gama found the natives hostile, “not being in the best of temper, he battered the city with his cannon and sank the vessels in the harbor.”

Sailing southward, he encountered eight Arabian ships, which he attacked, sinking some, while the rest took flight, and put into Malindi, where he was cheered by the princely hospitality of the Rajah and his men’s health was restored by the fresh fruits and vegetables so bountifully provided.

Toward the end of February he reached Zanzibar, where he found natives engaged in trading with the calicoes of Mombasa, gold of Sofala, and silver from Madagascar.

Near Mozambique the S. Raphael had been abandoned because there were not enough men left to man her. The store-ship previously had been broken up.

The two remaining ships doubled the Cape again on March 20. Late in April they parted company, Nicolau Coelho taking the Berrio to Lisbon, while Gama made for the Azores in the S. Gabriel because of the severe illness of his brother. He win his race with death, but the victory was short-lived. Paulo da Gama died the day after he landed at the Island of Terceira.



About the first of September, the date is not certain,” the battered flagship put in at Belém, where Vasco da Gama spent about ten days in mourning for his brother, and then made his triumphal entry into Lisbon.

He had lost his brother, half his ships, and two-thirds of his men, but his two years’ voyage had accomplished its purpose. He found the “Christians and spices” he sought, and Portugal was mistress of the sea route to India.

The grateful King Manoel affixed a “Dom” to Gama’s name, granted him a pension, and later made him “Admiral of India,” which title conferred certain valuable trading rights.

The monarch himself assumed the expansive designation, “King, by the grace of God, of Portugal and of the Algarves, both on this side the sea and beyond it in Africa, Lord of Guinea and of the Conquest, Navigation, and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India.”

Portugal’s supremacy was brief, but the “little hero nation” had a profound effect upon the history of the Western World. Vasco da Gama sounded the commercial knell of Alexandria, Genoa, and Milan, and also of the Turkish and Barbary pirates who had fattened at the Mediterranean table, and he rang up the curtain on the new trade world that henceforth was to radiate from Cadiz, Lisbon, Bristol, and Antwerp. Likewise the riches that had fostered the science and art of the Italian city states gradually shifted to England, France, and the North Sea countries, whose peoples created new art forms and new ideals, of which America is so largely the inheritor.

His success had an even more immediate effect upon the New World. In less than a year Pedro Alvares Cabral set sail from Lisbon with an armada of thirteen ships and, veering farther to the east than Gama, touched at South America and claimed for Portugal the area that now is Brazil. He passed on and reached Calicut, little dreaming that his incidental, and perhaps accidental, discovery was to become a far richer prize for Portugal than the Indies.

Gama made two other voyages to India; but they belong in the annals of colonization rather than exploration. The second was frankly a voyage of vengeance; the third was one of administrative reform.

Cabral had left forty Portuguese at Calicut, and all of them were murdered by the natives.

“Sire,” said Gama to his monarch after Cabral’s return, “the King of Calicut arrested me and treated me with great indignity. Because I did not return to avenge myself of that injury, he has again committed a greater one, on which account I feel in my heart a strong desire and inclination to go and make great havoc of him.



Vasco da Gama needs no whitewashing to make him a hero; but the terrors and tortures of his two later voyages must be considered in the light of these provocations, and of the feeling of the times, that “infidels” were a little less than human, and of the loss of the kindlier Paulo da Gama.

He started upon his second voyage in 1502. Off Malabar he came upon an Arab dhow carrying pilgrims to Mecca. He set the ship afire and either killed or burned alive everyone on board except 20 children. This seemed a perfectly natural procedure to his contemporaries. One chronicler, who frequently waxes very pious, writes of this incident:

“We took a Mecca ship, on board of which were 380 men and women and children, and we took from it fully 12,000 ducats, with goods worth at least another 10,000. And we burned the ship and all the people on board with gunpowder, on the first day of October.”

The commander remarked that “he who spares his enemy dies at his hands,” and ordered that the children who were saved be made Christians.

After the ships were set afire some of the Arabs jumped into the sea, and of one of them Correa relates, in his quaint fashion, that “a Moor who was swimming found a lance floating in the water and took it, and raising himself in the water as much as he could, hurled the lance into a boat, and with it transfixed a sailor and killed him; and, as this seemed to me a great thing, I have written it.”



When the fleet arrived at Calicut the Zamorin sought to placate the Portuguese, but Gama replied that his royal master could fashion a better king than the Zamorin out of a palm tree.

Thereupon he sank the Zamorin’s fleet and seized a number of traders and fishermen in the harbor, whose hands and ears and noses he cut off and sent ashore with a message to the Zamorin to make curry of them.

The victims of this cruelty, still writhing in agony, were piled on a raft, with their feet tied together and their teeth knocked out, so they could not undo the ropes. Mats and dried leaves were spread over them and set afire, and this flaming charnel barge was turned adrift toward the shore. The admiral paid his parting respects to the city with a terrific bombardment.

His wrongs avenged, Gama made treaties with Cochin, Cannanor, and other places, set up warehouses and left agents; so that his second voyage marked the beginnings of the rich, regular trade for which he had blazed the way.



In 1505 Francisco de Almeida was dispatched as the first Viceroy of India. That great admiral saw at once that the vast extent of Gama’s discoveries constituted a weakness. He urged his king to annex no possessions, and to build no fortifications except to protect trading posts, and advised that the navy be developed to the utmost to protect the extensive new trade.

After Almeida’s gallant battles with the strangely matched fleets of Egypt and Islam made the sea safer for Europeans. Affonso d’Albuquerque went out to plant his country’s flag in such strategic spots as Goa, Malacca, Ormuz, and Aden. Hitherto Portugal had not claimed a square foot of the territories Gama had discovered.

During the siege of Goa, Albuquerque’s ships were caught in a dead calm, and he could neither attack nor retreat to replenish his supplies. Food ran short or went sour in the blistering heat. The Shah of Goa, suspecting this condition, sent out a boatload of supplies under a flag of truce; whereupon Albuquerque staged a phantom banquet. The spies saw Portuguese lolling about tables laden with choicest foods, apparently surfeited by a heavy meal.

These viands were about all the food on board. They had been hoarded for the sick, and after the spies departure they were gathered tip intact, before the yearning eyes and watering mouths of the half-starved crew, to be conserved for the direst emergency.

Albuquerque’s career abounds in bizarre and heroic deeds, but his fame rests upon a generalship and statesmanship that made Portugal’s East Indian empire real and secure.

However, his administration had the vulnerable point of all dictatorships—the great Albuquerque left no successor. For ten years after his death, in 1515, India suffered from graft, misrule, and predatory fortune hunters. King Manoel had died. After his second voyage Dom Vasco da Gama had married and stayed home to enjoy his estates and fortunes.

King John III called India’s pathfinder from his 21 years retirement to reestablish Portuguese power in its overseas dominions.

It was a white-bearded, irascible, fat old man who marched pompously down to his fourteen ships one crisp day of April, 1524.

He seemed more a Sybarite than a sailor. A corps of men bearing silver maces was assigned to serve him; his retinue included a major-domo, pages wearing golden necklaces, and an array of equerries and body servants.

“They brought to him at table large dishes, as if to the King,” so Correa proudly relates, “with his napkin-hearers bringing him the ewer, and all the forms of precedence of a king.

Out of sight of land he quickly proved himself the fiery, dictatorial leader of a quarter of a century past. One day while his ships were becalmed they suddenly began to toss about and his crew became terror-stricken.

The figure who had quelled mutiny in perilous storms arose to proclaim, “Have courage! The very sea trembles at us. This is an earthquake!“

At Calicut he arrested the Portuguese governor for irregularities in his accounts, and that official’s influential brother besought clemency, pointing out that the accused had not sold any of the king’s forts, as others had done. The viceroy retorted, “Sir, if your brother had sold fortresses, he would not have his head where it is now, for I should have ordered it cut off.”

He dealt out harsh and wholesale penalties to all offenders. When some implored for Christian mercy, he gruffly replied that if the miscreants were guiltless and Christians, doubtless they would receive Christian mercy in the world to come. “Never,” he added, “shall they meet with anything from me except all severity and punishment.”

At various ports he amazed everyone by refusing presents from Arab, Hindu, or Portuguese. Many men had come to India to make their own fortunes, he explained, but be had come to make his king’s fortune.

He introduced a crude civil service system and personally examined the handwriting of applicants, for clerical posts. He registered all the government’s overseas employees. He stopped the adulteration of spices with sand and grit. He licensed navigators; he abolished pay and rations which had been distributed among colonists for no other reason than that they had married native women; he prescribed a shore uniform for sailors, and he gathered in many pieces of stolen artillery. In modern police parlance, he “cleaned up” India.

Then he cast about for a means of patrolling the rivers and shores, which were infested by the swift pirate craft of the Arabs. A Genoa boat builder he brought along promised him, “Sir, I will build you brigantines which would catch a mosquito.”



In 20 days the builder had ready two rowboats, fashioned after Levantine models, which were manned in the following manner:

“Each of the rowers had under his bench a breastplate and helmet of steel, and a lance and shield, and two pots of Powder; because, on seeing the prize, they armed themselves, and put on the helmets, which glittered afar off, and on coming up with the prize they let go the oars, and took their spears and bucklers and powder pots, which they cast on coming alongside, and there remained 30 armed men, who fought and could do much; so nothing escaped them either with oars, or sail, or fighting.”

Vasco da Gama’s death was not dramatic, like that of Diaz, who was lost in a storm at sea, or like that of Almeida, who was slain by Hottentots. He succumbed, on Christmas Eve of 1524, at Cochin, to an attack of boils on his neck.

But Gama’s death, like Lincoln’s, was timed at the climax of his career.

His first voyage marked out the path to India, his second put fear into the hearts of the natives, his third exhibited a loyalty and honesty which were marvels of his time.



Had he gone back to Portugal he might have been discredited by his enemies, as was Albuquerque. Instead, he was buried at Cochin, and when his remains, some years later, were transferred to Portugal, he was acclaimed a national hero.

To-day his supposed remains appropriately rest at Belem beside those of the poet Camões, in one of the world’s most beautiful tombs, the Convento dos Jeronymos, the Westminster Abbey of Portugal.

It is to be regretted that there is no first-hand narrative of Gama’s voyages. Neither Columbus nor Cook, however, had a Camões, such as the one-eyed soldier-poet who wrote the epic of Gama’s voyages, known as “The Lusiad”.

Half of that latter-clay Iliad was composed at Macao, Portuguese China, and tradition has it that Camões was shipwrecked on his way home to Lisbon and swam ashore clutching some five or six dripping cantos.

This masterpiece of Camões, one of the world’s greatest epic poems, is the finest monument to Vasco da Gama’s genius; and a fuller realization of the effects of his voyages has added historical confirmation to the poet’s intuitive perception of his mighty achievement.