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Vasco da Gama


 

Vasco da Gama, the first European navigator who found his way to India by doubling the Cape of Good Hope, was born at the small seaport town of Sines in Portugal. The date of his birth, and the circumstances of his early life, are not mentioned. It appears that he was in the household of Emanuel king of Portugal, and having devoted himself to navigation and discovery, was appointed to the command of an expedition which was to seek its way to the Indian Ocean by sailing round the southern extremity of Africa. The notion of this passage was by no means a new one, and when it was taken up by the Portuguese sovereign its practicability had been pretty well established. In 1487 Pedro de Covilham set out for India by way of the Mediterranean, the isthmus of Suez, and the Red Sea, and he was accompanied as far as Egypt by Alfonso de Payva, who then left him to go in search of' Prester John,' a great Christian king, who, after being sought for in various countries, was now reported to be living in a high state of civilization in the eastern parts of Africa. [abyssinia.] Before their departure from Portugal, Calsadilla bishop of Viseu gave these travellers a map of Africa, in which that continent was correctly described as being bounded on the south by a navigable sea. This map, or the materials for it, had probably been procured from the trading Moors of North Africa, to whom the Portuguese had long before been indebted for much information concerning that continentPayva added little to geographical knowledge; but Covilham crossed the Indian Ocean, visited Goa, Calicut, and other places on the coast of Hindostan, acquired an exalted notion of the trade and wealth of those parts, and on his return towards the Red Sea he obtained from Arabian manners some information concerning the eastern coast of Africa as far as Sofala on the Mozambique Channel. Soon after his return he visited Abyssinia, where ho was detained by the government for some thirty years. Shortly after arriving in that country he found means of forwarding letters to the king of Portugal, in which he stated that no doubt existed as to the possibility of sailing from Europe to India by doubling the southern point of Africa, and he added that that southern cape was well known to Arabian and Indian navigators. The reports of Covilham, and the well-known importance of the trade with India, greatly excited the Portugese, who moreover had long been pursuing discovery on the western coast of Africa; and in the course of this, the fifteenth century, they had gradually extended their researches from Cape Non, in lat. 28° 40' N., to Cape Cross, or de Padrono, in lat. 22° S. At the end of December, 1487, Bartholomew Diaz had returned to Lisbon after discovering 300 leagues of coast, and correctly laying down the great Cape, which he doubled in a storm without knowing it, but which he had properly recognised on his return. [africa.] Vasco de Gama sailed from Lisbon on the 8th of July, 1497, five years after the discovery of the NewWorld by Columbus. The royal squadron which he commanded consisted only of three small vessels, with sixty men in all. The Cape of Good Hope seemed to merit the name which had been given it by Diaz—Cabo Tormentoso. Dreadful tempests were encountered before reachinz it, the winds were contrary, and their fears and their sufferings caused a mutiny among the sailors, who tried to induce Gama to put back. But the firmness of the commander quieted the apprehensions of his men, and on the 19th November, with a stormy sea, he doubled the Cape and turned along the eastern shore. [africa.] On reaching tho African town of Melinda, which belonged to a commercial and civilized people, a branch of the great race of Moors or Arabian Mohammedans, he found several Christian merchants from India, and he also procured the valuable ser* vices of Malemo Cana, a pilot from Guzerat. This man was a skilful navigator: he was not surprised at the sight of the Astrolabe, or at their method of taking the meridian altitude of the sun. He told them that both the instrument and its uses were familiar to the mariners of the Eastern seas. Under the guidance of this pilot Gama made the coast of Malabar in twenty-three days, and anchored before Calicut on the 20th of May, 1498, then a place of considerable manufactures and foreign trade, which was chiefly in the hands of Moors or Arabs. Gama opened communications with the zamarin or sovereign prince of Calicut, who, a*\er some negotiation, agreed to receive him with the honours usually paid to an ambassador.


The sailors, who were well acquainted with the character of the Moors, feared that if their commander put himself in their power he would fall a victim to their treachery and jealousy. The officers also and his brother Paul strongly dissuaded him from landing. But Gama was resolved. Arming twelve of his bravest men, he went into his boat, strictly charging his officers, in case he should be murdered, to return immediately to Portugal and there announce to tbe king the discoveries made, and his fate. On landing he was received with great pomp and ceremony by the natives, who conducted him through the town to a house in the country, where on the following day the zamorin granted him an audience. At first his reception was very favourable, but the tone of the prince soon changed; a circumstance which the Portuguese attribute to the intrigues of the Moors and Arabs, who were jealous of the new comers. The illhumour of the zamorin was not soothed by an unlucky omission. Gama had not brought any suitable presents, and the few paltry things he offered were rejected with contempt by the officer appointed to inspect them. Whatever may have been the designs of the zamorin against the Portuguese, Gama, it is said, at last succeeded in convincing him of the great advantages he might derive from a commercial and friendly intercourse with the Portuguese; uid he certainly was allowed to get back to his ships in safety. As soon as he was on board he made sail, and after repairing his ships attheAngedive Isles, on the coast a little to the north of Calicut, he again stood across the Indian Ocean. He touched at Magadoxa, or Mukdeesha, on the eastern coast of Africa and nearer to the Straits of Bab-elMandeb than he had gone on his outer voyage. He next anchored at Melioda, and took on board an ambassador from the Mohammedan prince of that place. He arrived itLobon in September, 1499, having been absent about two yean and two months. His sovereign received him with h«r> honours, and conferred on him the sounding title of Admiral of the Indian, Persian, and Arabian seas. This voyage of Gama is a great epoch in commercial history: it showed the nations of the West the sea- road to the remote East; it diverted the trade of the East from the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, Asia Minor, Egypt, and Italy, the routes in which it had run for 1400 years; and it led ultimately to the establishment in India of a vast empire of European merchants. The effect it had upon Italy was most disadvantageous, and though there were other causes at work, the decline of the great trading republics of Venice and Gtnoa may be traced to the discovery of the passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope. Soon after Gama's return Emanuel sent out a second fleet to India, under the command of Pedro Alvares de Cabral. The most remarkable incident of this voyage was the accidental discovery of Brazil. [bkazil, vol. v. p. 369.] From Brazil however the tatte fleet got to India, and Cabral established a factory at Calicut—the first humble settlement made by the Europeans in that part of the world. But Cabral had scarcely departed when all the Portuguese he left behind were massacred by the native* or Moors, or by both. The Portuguese government now resolved to employ force. Twenty ships were prepared and distributed into three squadrons; Gama set ad with the largest division, of ten ships—the others were i') join him in the Indian seas. After doubling the Cape, be ran down the eastern coast of Africa, taking vengeance apon those towns which had been unfriendly to him during his former voyage. He settled a factory at Sofala, and inotber at Mozambique. On approaching the coast of India be captured a rich ship belonging to the Soldan of Egypt, and after removing what suited him he set fire to th«- vessel; all the crew were burned or drowned, or stabbed by the Portuguese. He then went to Cananore, and forced the prince of that country to enter into an alliance with

him; on arriving at Calicut, the main object of his voyage^ he seized all the ships in that port. Alarmed at his display of force—for Gama had been joined by some of the other ten ships—the zamorin condescended to treat; but the Portuguese admiral would listen to no propositions unless a full and sanguinary satisfaction were given for the murder of his countrymen in the factory. Gama waited three days, and then barbarously hanged at his yard-arms fifty Malabar sailors whom he had taken in the port. On the next day he cannonaded the town, and having destroyed the greater part of it, he left some of the ships to blockade the port, and sailed away with the rest to Cochin, the neighbouring state to Calicut. These neighbours being old enemies, it was easy for Gama to make a treaty with the sovereign of Cochin, whom he promised to assist in his wars with Calicut. It is not quite clear whether a war existed at the time, or whether Cochin was driven into one by the manoeuvres of the Portuguese; and according to some accounts, Gama only renewed a treaty which had been made by Cabral two years earlier. It was Gama however who first established a factory in Cochin, at the end of 1502. In the following year, the Alburquerques obtained permission to build a fort on the same spot; the Portuguese then became masters of the port and the sea-coast, and Cochin was thus the cradle of their future power in India. Gama left the zamorin of Calicut with a war with Cochin on his hands; and five ships remained on the coast of Malabar to protect the settlement. The admiral arrived at Lisbon with thirteen of the ships in the month of December, 1603. The court created him Count of Videqueyra. Gama however was not re- appointed to the command in India, where the career of conquest was prosecuted by Alburquerque, Vasconcellos, and others. In J 624, eight years after the death of the great Alburquerque, Gama, who had been living quietly at home for nearly twenty years, was appointed viceroy of Portuguese India, being the first man that held that high title. He died in December, 1525, shortly after his arrival at Cochin. His body was buried at that place, and lay there till 1538, when, by order of John III., his remains were carried to Portugal.

Vasco de Gama was a brave and skilful man, but owing to several circumstances his fame has been raised somewhat above his real merits. The main cause of this is probably to be found in the great national poem of the immortal Camoens, of a portion of which Gama is the hero, the adventures of his first voyage to India being described with even more than the usual brilliancy and amplification of poetry. (Barros, Decades; Castanheda and Lafitau's Hist. Conqu. Porlug.; Cooley's Hist. Afar. Discov.; Camoens.)

                 

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