Post-classical history



AT FIRST EVERYTHING went smoothly. On Saturday, July 15, a week after leaving Lisbon, the four ships came in sight of the Canaries. They stopped at dawn the next day for a couple of hours’ fishing, and by dusk they had reached the broad inlet the earlier explorers, seemingly a long time ago now, had named the Gold River.

That night came the first taste of the dangers ahead. As darkness fell, a dense fog rolled in, and Paulo da Gama lost sight of the lanterns hung out on his brother’s ship. The next day the fog lifted, but an eerie silence remained; there was no sign of the São Gabrielor the rest of the fleet.

The Portuguese had long experience of such mishaps, and the São Rafael made for the Cape Verde Islands, the first appointed rendezvous. At daybreak the next Saturday, after nearly a week of empty horizons, the lookouts sighted the first of the islands. An hour later the storeship and the Berrio appeared, heading toward the same point. The São Gabriel, though, was still nowhere to be seen, and as the vessels regrouped the sailors shouted anxiously across to one another. They continued on the planned route, but almost immediately the wind died away and the sails sagged. For four days they drifted in a calm until finally, on the morning of July 26, the watch made out the São Gabriel five leagues ahead. By evening they had caught up, and the brothers brought their ships close enough to confer. It had been a bad omen, and to general joy the trumpets pealed and the gunners fired off round after round from their bombards.

The next day the reunited fleet arrived at Santiago, the largest of the Cape Verde Islands, and anchored off sheltered Santa Maria Beach. Already the yards and rigging needed repairs, and the ships stayed for a week, taking on board fresh supplies of meat, water, and wood. On August 3 they headed back out to sea, first sailing in an easterly direction toward the African coast and then changing course to the south. They were now in the dreaded doldrums, the region near the equator where dead calms trapped ships and threatened crews with slow death by thirst and starvation, then gave way to changeful gusts and sudden storms. As the vessels pitched and rolled, even veteran sailors were racked with seasickness, and the novices clutched their stomachs and threw up overboard for days on end. During one squall the main yard on the São Gabriel cracked in two and the great square mainsail hung flapping like a broken wing; for two days the fleet lay to while a new spar was fixed into place.

When they resumed, the ships steered to the southwest—a heading that took them into the very center of the Atlantic.

On every previous known voyage, every captain—up to and including Bartolomeu Dias—had kept his ships close to land as they labored down the African coast. Not this time. Perhaps the Portuguese had set out on secret missions—so secret that no trace of them survived—to unravel the wind patterns of the South Atlantic. Perhaps they had realized that square-riggers were much less well equipped than caravels to sail against the southeast trade winds and the north-going current. Or perhaps it was a mix of happenstance and intuition that led Vasco da Gama to head for the open ocean in search of the great wind wheel that would whirl him in a counterclockwise arc to the southern tip of Africa. If so, it was an astonishingly risky move. If he sheered off at the right moment, he would catch the westerlies that would speed him to his destination. If he got it wrong, he would be buffeted back up the coast of Africa—or even worse, he could be blown off the known face of the earth.

Gama’s men had no choice but to trust their commander. Their only companions were the great flocks of herons that kept pace with the fleet until they flapped off at night toward the faraway coast. One day a whale caused great excitement by surfacing nearby; perhaps, as on another voyage, the sailors made a racket with drums, pans, and kettles in case it decided to turn playful and capsize the ships. Otherwise they went about their tasks, and gradually they adjusted to the daily routine of life at sea.

Half hour after half hour, day and night, the sand ran in the hourglasses. Each time the ship’s boy turned the glass the ship’s bell rang; after eight bells, the watch changed. The departing seaman of the watch handed over to the new team by chanting an ancient ditty:

“The watch is changed, the glass is running! We shall have a good voyage if God is willing.”

Each day on board began with prayers and hymns. Every morning, on the boatswain’s orders, the deckhands pumped out the water that had seeped into the bilges, swabbed down the salty decks, and scraped the woodwork. The sailors adjusted the rigging, repaired tears in the sails, and made new lines from frayed ropes, while the gun crews cleaned their cannon and tested them with some target practice. To prepare to fire, they first loaded a stone ball into the long barrel, then rammed a powder charge into a cylindrical metal chamber. They wedged the open tip of the chamber into the breech end of the barrel, and put a smoldering stub of rope to a touchhole. It was best to keep one’s distance when firing, as King James II of Scotland discovered in 1460:

And while this Prince, more curious than became him, or the majesty of a King, did stand near hand the gunners when the artillery was discharged, his thigh bone was dug in two with a piece of a mis-framed gun that brake in shooting, by the which he was stricken to the ground and died hastily.

With no mishaps and enough precharged chambers ready to be wedged in place, a slow but steady rate of fire could be maintained.

While the guns boomed, the servants and cabin boys polished the officers’ steel armor and washed and mended their clothes. Belowdecks, the storekeeper kept a daily check on the equipment and provisions. The galley boy cooked the single daily hot meal over a sand-filled firebox on the deck, and the men ate the results off wooden trenchers with their fingers or pocketknives. Every crew member, from the captains down, received the same basic daily rations: a pound and a half of biscuit, two and a half pints of water, and small measures of vinegar and olive oil, together with a pound of salt beef or half a pound of pork, or rice and cod or cheese instead of the meat on fasting days. Delicacies like dried fruit were reserved for the top brass and would prove vital in preserving their health.

The officers passed on orders from the quarterdeck, the part of the main deck abaft the mainmast, or climbed the ladder to the poop deck that formed the roof of the sterncastle to get a better view. Meanwhile the pilots calculated their position and corrected their course. With the simple instruments at their disposal, it was a laborious business. As the ships sailed south, the angle of the Pole Star above the horizon declined, and by a fairly simple calculation their latitude could be established. To calculate the angle the pilots used a smaller, simplified version of an instrument that had evolved over the centuries for celestial observation. The mariner’s astrolabe consisted of a brass circle suspended from a ring at the top to ensure it stayed as vertical as possible on the swaying deck. The alidade, a sight bar that pivoted from the center of the circle, was aligned with the star—assuming it was not obscured by clouds—and the altitude was read off a degree scale marked around the circumference. It was a recent invention, and since it was made of light sheet brass it tended to swing in a strong wind, which made accurate readings exasperatingly tricky to take.

Each night the Pole Star rode lower in the sky until finally, about nine degrees above the equator, it touched the sea and disappeared over the horizon. To the novices who were spending their first nights under southern skies, it seemed as if the world had suddenly flipped over. Even veterans paused to wonder before readjusting themselves to the unsettling new shape of the heavens. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to confront the problem of navigating south of the equator, and without the Pole Star as their guide they had learned to calculate their latitude by measuring the altitude of the sun at noon. Squinting directly at the sun—again, assuming clouds were not in the way—was not a pleasant task, and since no timepiece had been developed that was accurate at sea, numerous readings had to be taken to hit the meridian, the point when it was at the top of its arc. Besides, the sun was a much less reliable partner than the Pole Star. Since its ecliptic does not follow the celestial equator—in other words, since its path through the sky does not line up with the earth’s equator projected out into space—its meridian angle from the equator varies on each day of the year. A navigator who wanted to know his latitude by reference to the sun therefore needed to compensate for that variable. Again, the Portuguese had a head start. Gama’s ships carried with them the Rule of the Sun, a series of lengthy tables and detailed instructions that King John II’s committee of mathematicians had drawn up in 1484. The tables gave a figure for the declination of the sun—its angle from the equator at noon—on any given day, and the instructions told a navigator how to apply the figure to his reading. Faced with such a laborious series of tasks, many preferred to forgo celestial navigation and trust their gut instincts, but Vasco da Gama was a stickler for the rules.

So much for latitude; no useful way whatsoever had been found to determine longitude. The navigators relied on dead reckoning, which amounted to an informed guess about the speed of travel constantly adjusted by the direction shown on the compass. That all-important instrument was carried in a recess under the sterncastle, near to the spot where the tiller poked through the stern. The magnetized needle was attached to a card marked with the compass rose and set on a pivot in a round bowl; the apparatus was lit by a tiny oil lamp and was encased in a hooded wooden box. Spare needles and cards and lumps of adamant to remagnetize the needles were carefully stashed away. As the officer of the watch shouted instructions to change course and the helmsman heaved on the heavy tiller to turn the rudder, he kept a close eye on the compass at his side. With his vision obstructed by sails and forecastle, sailors and deck equipment, it was often the only way he knew where he was headed.

Between carrying out their duties a few men read books, and more gambled with dice and cards. Some fished with hooks, nets, and harpoons, and cleaned, filleted, and salted any of the catch that was left over. Others struck up a tune or sang a sea song; a few kept dogs or cats, which hunted down the population of rats and mice that gnawed their way through the ship’s stores. Many merely ate and drank, lounged about, talked, argued, and occasionally brawled, lubricated by the wine ration of as much as two liters per man per day. All prayed. Cast on the unknown deep, with death always figuring on the horizon, the need for a beneficent god to guide their path was always in their minds. They prayed alone, while they worked, or in groups, sometimes led by the captain. They worshipped before the shipboard shrines, read prayer books and rubbed amulets, and observed holy days with lengthy devotions and festivities.

Each day ended with a religious service, and when it was over the night watches were set and the lanterns were hauled up the masts. The captain repaired to his cabin in the sterncastle, the officers to their bunks in the cabin below and in the forecastle. The rest of the men slept where they could—beneath the raised gang boards that ran between the castles, in the recess under the sterncastle, or on close tropical nights when the compartments smelled foul, in the open air; the top of the hatch, the only flat spot, was always in demand. On the much smaller caravel, where there was only one cabin and even less privacy, the men shifted even closer against one another.

August wore on, and the crews grew sick from the burning heat. What food was left quickly went corrupt. The water began to reek, and the men held their noses while they drank. Strong odors were everywhere. Men hauling sails and anchors in the burning sun worked and slept in the same clothes for months on end. At sea their hair was never cut and seldom washed—seawater was too briny, and fresh water too precious—and their scalps teemed with lice. They squatted between the cables and gear on the forecastle and used an open box as a toilet, but their aim was at the mercy of the waves, storms made it impossible to maintain even that minimum of decorum, and the results invariably ended up being washed belowdecks. A passenger on a later Portuguese voyage to the East drew a painful picture of the worst moments:

Amongst us was the greatest Disorder and Confusion imaginable, because of the Peoples Vomiting up and down, and making Dung upon one another: There was nothing to be heard but Lamentations and Groans of those who were straightened with Thirst, Hunger, and Sickness, and other Incommodities, and Cursing the time of their Embarkment, their Fathers and Mothers, and themselves, who were the cause thereof; so that one would have thought they had been out of their Wits, and like Mad-men.

When the scorching heat and the storms and calms near the equator were behind him, a new scourge struck the hapless sailor. Hot rain fell in sheets along the African coast and, he complained,

afterwards turned to Worms, if that which was wet was not perfectly dried. It was a wonderful trouble to me, to see my Quilt wet, and Worms crawling all over. These rains are so stinking that they rot and spoil, not only the Body, but also all Cloths, Chests, Utensils, and other Things. And not having any more Cloths to shift my self withal, I was forced to dry upon me that which I wore, with my Quilt, by lying thereupon; but I was well fitted for that; for the Fever, with a great pain in the Reins, took me in such a manner, that I had a fit of Sickness, almost, the whole Voyage.

September passed, then October, with few distractions except for a school of whales and huge herds of seals that floated like smooth boulders on the waves. By now, though, the fleet had reached the southwesternmost point in its great loop around the Atlantic, and the westerly winds were driving it at full speed back to Africa. Finally, on Wednesday, November 1, clumps of gulfweed began to float past: a telltale sign that land was near.

That Saturday, two hours before daybreak, the night watch lowered the lead and line and sounded the depths. They measured 110 fathoms, or a mere few hundred feet of water. From the latitude, they reckoned they were a mere thirty leagues north of the Cape of Good Hope.

At nine o’clock in the morning the watchkeepers sighted land. The ships drew close together, and every man put on his best clothes. The mightily relieved crews ran up the flags and standards, and the gunners blasted off the bombards.

It had been a grueling journey. The men had not seen land for ninety-three restless days, and it was a desperately long time since they had had fresh water or food. Yet the unprecedented sweep of the ocean had paid off handsomely: by avoiding the contrary coastal winds and currents they had shaved precious weeks off the voyage. In the infancy of his command, Vasco da Gama had discovered the fastest and surest sailing route from Europe to the Cape of Good Hope.

It was the first bold move of a man who was determined to push himself and his crews to the limits to attain his otherworldly goal.

THE SHIPS TACKED close to the coast, but the shoreline bore no resemblance to the charts and sailing instructions drawn up by Bartolomeu Dias. They stood out to sea again to catch the wind, and three days later they tacked back to land.

This time they found themselves in front of a wide bay backed by low-lying plains. Dias’s veterans had not seen it before, and the explorers named it St. Helena Bay.

On Vasco da Gama’s orders, the chief pilot set out in a boat to take soundings and find a safe anchorage. The bay turned out to be sheltered and crystal clear, and the next day, November 8, the fleet dropped anchor a short distance from the shore.

Four months at sea had already wreaked havoc with the ships. One by one they were run up into the shallows, and the arduous process called careening began. The stores were piled up against one side of the hold, and with some concerted tugging on cables the vessels were heeled over. The sailors climbed up ladders onto the exposed hull and scraped it clean of the barnacles that encrusted the wood like thousands of tiny volcanoes. They scrubbed off worms, snails, and weeds, and drove fresh oakum into the seams with a caulking iron. A fire was lit on the beach, and boiling pitch was poured along the seams. The same operation was carried out on the other side, then the ship was hauled back onto an even keel and towed out to sea. By now the ballast was sodden with foul bilgewater, reeking from the rubbish and ordure that had been washed belowdecks and crawling with rats, cockroaches, fleas, and lice. The noxious slurry was shoveled out and new ballast was tipped in. The decks were scrubbed and scraped, the sails were repaired, and the damaged spars and worn ropes were replaced with spares.

As the work got under way a landing party set out to reconnoiter the shore, find fresh water, and gather wood. A few miles to the southeast they came across a river that meandered through a grassy plain, and nearby they ran into a group of locals.

“The inhabitants of this country are tawny-colored,” noted the Chronicler. “Their food is confined to the flesh of seals, whales and gazelles, and the roots of herbs. They are dressed in skins, and wear sheaths over their virile members.” They carried spears of olive wood tipped with a sliver of fire-hardened horn, and packs of dogs accompanied them wherever they went. The Portuguese were surprised to find that the dogs barked just like the ones back home, and the birds, too—cormorants, gulls, turtledoves, crested larks, and many others—were equally familiar.

The day after the fleet arrived, Vasco da Gama went ashore in his ship’s boat with several of his crew. While he was setting up a large wooden astrolabe to take a more accurate reading of the latitude than was possible at sea, his men spotted a party of Africans gathering honey. The bees made their hives on the drifts of sand that piled up around bushes near the shoreline, and the locals were busy smoking them out. The sailors crept up on them, grabbed one man who was conveniently small in stature, and dragged him off to the São Gabriel. Since he was clearly terrified, the captain-major sat him at his table and ordered two ship’s boys—one of them a black slave—to sit beside him and tuck into a good meal. Gradually the visitor began to help himself to the food, and by the time Gama returned he was almost gregarious. He stayed on board overnight, and the next day Gama dressed him in handsome clothes, gave him a few trinkets—some bells, crystal beads, and a cap—and set him free.

Soon he reappeared on the shore, as Gama had hoped, with more than a dozen companions. The captain-major had his men row him to the beach, and once there he laid out before the Africans small samples of cinnamon, cloves, seed pearls, and gold. In gestures he asked if they had anything similar to sell. When it became clear that they had never seen anything of the sort, he handed out some more bells and tin rings and returned to his ship.

The next day another group appeared, and the day after, a Sunday, forty or fifty locals gathered on the shore. After dinner the Portuguese landed and exchanged some small coins for conch shells, which the Africans wore as earrings, and fans made from foxtails. The Chronicler, in search of a souvenir, bartered one copper coin for “one of the sheaths which they wore over their members, and this seemed to show that they valued copper very highly.”

When the commerce was over, a loudmouthed sailor named Fernão Velloso asked Gama if he could accompany the natives to their village to see how they lived. The amateur anthropologist would not be dissuaded, and at his brother’s urging Gama gave in. While most of the party returned to the ships, Velloso went off with the Africans to feast on freshly roasted seal served with roasted roots. Paulo da Gama and Nicolau Coelho, meanwhile, had stayed behind with some men to collect driftwood and lobsters from the shore. When they looked up they saw a pod of young whales gliding between the ships in pursuit of shoals of small fry in the shallows. Paulo and his crewmen jumped into their boat and set off in hot pursuit, brandishing harpoons that were attached to the bow by ropes. The sailors took aim, and a barbed head pierced one whale’s back. As the pain hit, it thrashed and dived, pulling the line taut in seconds. The little boat flipped up and lurched into the bloody foam; only the shallow coastal water, which made the whale run against the bottom and cool down, stopped the men from being dragged out to sea.

A little later, as the sportsmen and foragers were returning to the ships, Fernão Velloso came pelting down a hill with his dining companions in hot pursuit. When he had eaten his fill, the Africans had gestured in no uncertain terms that it was time for him to go back to his people. He had run off in a panic, and he began hollering to the fleet.

Gama had been watching for his return. He signaled the boats to turn back and rescue the would-be ethnographer, and in case of more trouble he ordered his men to row him to the shore.

As Velloso pounded down the sands toward the boats, the Africans stayed back in the cover of the bush. The sailors, though, were in no hurry to rescue their cocky comrade. After four months they had already had enough of his boasting, and they decided to make him sweat it out. They were still enjoying the joke when two armed Africans ran purposefully onto the beach. The mood abruptly changed, but before the rescuers could climb ashore, the rest of the Africans emerged and unloosed a fierce volley of stones, arrows, and spears at the boats. Several men were wounded—including Vasco da Gama himself, who had no sooner appeared on the scene than he was shot in the leg with an arrow—and the landing party retreated pell-mell to the fleet. Gama salved his wound with a paste of urine, olive oil, and theriac, and he salved his pride by ordering his crossbowmen to fire at will toward the shore.

The captain-major decided he had been taught a salutary lesson, and it would stay with him for the rest of his time at sea.

“All this happened,” recorded the Chronicler, “because we looked upon these people as men of little spirit, quite incapable of violence, and had therefore landed without first arming ourselves.”

NOTHING MORE WAS seen of the locals, and the Portuguese stayed for four more days to finish their repairs. On November 16, at first light, they left the bay and stood out to the south-southwest. Two days later they caught their first unmistakable glimpse of the Cape of Good Hope. Its stage set of mountains glowed in the setting sun, a milestone as monumental as the decades-long journey it marked.

Once seen, the Cape proved tricky to pass. The winds howled along the coast from the south, and for four days the ships battled out to sea and were blown back to land. Finally, at midday on November 22, with the wind now astern, they doubled the Cape. Only one fleet had sailed these waters before, and Bartolomeu Dias had only seen the legendary landmark on his way home.

The trumpeters blasted a fanfare, and the crews thanked God for guiding them to safety.

For three days the ships hugged the coast, passing lush woods and the mouths of numerous streams and rivers, until they reached an enormous bay, six leagues deep and six leagues wide at its mouth. This was the place where Dias had had an unfortunate encounter with some herdsmen, and Gama was forewarned.

The explorers sailed into the bay, past a little island whose shores were solid with seals, and anchored off the beach. It was to be a long stay. The supplies on the three main ships had already run low, and the contents of the storeship needed to be transferred to them.

A week passed with no sign of any inhabitants; only a mysteriously large number of fat cattle roamed the shores. Then, on December 1, ninety or so men emerged from the hills, and some came down for a walk along the beach. At the time most of the company were on the São Gabriel, and as soon as the Africans appeared they armed and launched the ship’s boats. As they neared the shore, Gama threw handfuls of little bells onto the sand, and the curious locals picked them up. After a moment they came right up to the boats and took some more bells from the captain’s hand. The veterans of Dias’s voyage were perplexed; perhaps, the sailors surmised, before their recent skirmish the news had traveled that the visitors meant no harm and gave away gifts.

Gama, who was still recovering from his injury, was less sanguine. He told his men to row away from the overgrown spot where the Africans were gathered and make for the open beach, where there was less chance of a surprise attack. At his gesture the locals followed.

The captain-major landed with his captains, soldiers, and crossbowmen, and he signaled the Africans to approach in ones or twos. In return for his bells and a few red nightcaps, he was presented with some fine ivory bracelets. Clearly elephants were plentiful; great piles of their dung were all around.

The next day two hundred locals appeared on the beach, leading a dozen fat oxen and cows and four or five sheep. The fattest ox was ridden by a man sitting on a litter of twigs supported by a reed packsaddle; the other beasts had sticks through their nostrils, which turned out be signs that they were for sale. After months of chewing on dried and salted meat, an ox roast was a mouthwatering prospect. The Portuguese made straight for the shore, while their hosts produced some flutelike instruments, struck up a tune, and began to dance. Gama was now in high spirits, and he ordered the trumpeters to play. The Portuguese stood up in the boats and danced along, and the captain-major joined in.

The explorers bought a black ox for the bargain price of three bracelets and feasted off it for Sunday lunch the next day. “We found him very fat, and his meat as toothsome as the beef of Portugal,” noted the Chronicler.

Both sides began to relax in the festive atmosphere. More curious locals began to appear, this time bringing their women and little boys as well as herds of oxen and cows. The women stayed back on a low hill just behind the shore, while the men gathered in groups on the beach, dancing and playing more tunes. As the Portuguese arrived the older men approached them, fanning themselves with more foxtails, and the two sides managed to communicate in signs. It all seemed thoroughly cheery until the sailors noticed the young men of the tribe crouching in the bush, weapons in hand.

Gama drew aside his African translator Martim Affonso and told him to try to buy another ox with some more bracelets. The Africans took the bracelets, drove their cattle into the bush, and pulled Affonso to a nearby watering hole where the Portuguese had been filling their barrels. Why, they angrily asked, did the strangers take away their precious water?

The captain-major was starting to get a bad feeling about the whole situation. He drew his men into a huddle and shouted to Affonso to get away and join them. The Portuguese retreated to the boats and rowed along the shore to the open space where they had first landed. The locals followed, and Gama commanded the soldiers to strap on their breastplates, string their crossbows, grasp their lances and spears, and line up on the beach. The show of strength seemed to work, and the Africans backed away.

Gama ordered the soldiers to the boats, and they rowed off a short distance. The captain-major was anxious, the Chronicler recorded, to avoid killing anyone by mistake, “but to prove that we were able, although unwilling to hurt them, he ordered two bombards to be fired from the poop of the longboat.” The Africans were now sitting quietly, just off the beach in front of the bush. When the guns went off and the balls went whistling overhead they jumped up and fled, dropping their animal skins and weapons in their panic.Two men ran out a minute later to gather up the scattered possessions, and they all disappeared over the brow of the hill, driving their cattle before them. No more was seen of them for days.

As the work of cannibalizing the storeship for spare parts and wood came to an end, Gama had a fire set in the stripped hull. For several days the burning hulk smoldered and smoked like a somber warning signal. The sailors, though, had quickly forgotten about the troubles onshore—that was the captain-major’s problem—and were more interested in a bit of recreation. One party rowed to the island in the middle of the bay to take a closer look at the colony of seals. The animals were so tightly packed that from a distance the island itself seemed a mass of smooth, shifting stones. Some were as big as bears, roared like lions, and attacked men without fear; spears thrown by the burliest sailors glanced off their skin. Others were much smaller and cried like goats. The Chronicler and his party of sightseers counted three thousand before they gave up, and to amuse themselves they fired their bombards at them. There were strange birds, too, that brayed like asses and were “as big as ducks, but they cannot fly, because they have no feathers on their wings.” They were Cape penguins, and the explorers massacred them, too, until they grew bored.

By their twelfth day in the bay the three remaining ships were almost ready to leave, and the sailors set out once again to fill the water casks. On one sortie they took with them one of the padrões, the stone pillars bearing the royal coat of arms, that they had carried from Portugal. Gama had had a large cross made out of the mizzenmast of the storeship, and after the pillar was set up, it was fitted to the top.

The next day, as the little fleet set sail, the Africans finally emerged from the bush. They had been keeping a watch on the uncouth strangers all along, and they seized their chance for revenge. A dozen men ran out and smashed the cross and the pillar to pieces in full view of the departing ships.

It was now December 7, and there was a palpable mood of nervous excitement on board. Bartolomeu Dias had turned back home just a little farther ahead, and Vasco da Gama’s men were about to trespass on nature’s secret places. Many were convinced they were sailing toward an uncrossable threshold, and their worst fears soon seemed to be confirmed.

No sooner had the fleet left the bay than the wind dropped, the sails sagged, and the ships lay all day at anchor. The next morning—the day of the Immaculate Conception, the Chronicler piously recorded—they moved off, only to sail into a terrifying storm.

The waves reared into watery cliffs. The vessels heaved toward the inky clouds and dropped into the abyss. A piercing cold wind battered at the stern, and everything went pitch dark. With the ships under full canvas the prows plunged under the waves, and the captains hastily ordered the foresails struck.

Freezing seawater crashed on the decks and soaked the sailors’ woolen cloaks. Belowdecks all hands were on the pumps, but water seeped and washed in faster than they could expel it, and the holds flooded. The howling heavens drowned out the pilots’ commands, but even with several men hanging on to the tiller, the ships were almost impossible to control. As the tempest reached its worst Nicolau Coelho’s caravel disappeared from sight, and the most seasoned sailors thought they had seen their last day. They wept and confessed to each other, and struggling to form a file behind a cross, they prayed God to show mercy and preserve them from disaster.

Finally the skies lightened, and at sunset the lookouts spotted the Berrio on the horizon, fully five leagues away. The two ships hung out their signal lights and lay to. Around midnight, at the end of the first watch, Coelho finally caught up, but only by chance. He had not seen the other ships until he was almost upon them; he had sailed in their direction because the spent wind gave him no choice.

The fleet had been blown far out to sea, and once more it made for land. Three days later the watchkeepers spotted a chain of low islands. Pêro de Alenquer recognized them at once: five leagues farther, on a headland that jutted out from the coast, was the last pillar erected by Bartolomeu Dias.

The next day, December 16, the three ships passed the mouth of the river where Dias’s mutinous crew had forced him to turn around. They were now sailing where no European—almost certainly no man—had ever sailed before. That night they lay to, and specters of the dangers ahead filled every half-sleeping mind.

The next day they sailed briskly on with a following westerly wind, but in the evening the wind sprang around to the east. The ships were forced to stand out to sea again, and for two days they tacked as best they could. When the wind finally switched round to the west they headed back to land to find out where they were. They soon saw a familiar sight: an island where Dias had erected a cross, sixty leagues back from where they had reckoned they should be. A strong offshore current had dragged them halfway toward the bay they had left nearly two weeks before.

Many of the sailors were sure they had hit an invisible wall that divided East from West. Vasco da Gama, whose steely determination was daily becoming more evident to his men, was having none of it. The fleet resumed its course.

This time a stiff stern wind blew for three or four days, and the ships inched forward against the current.

“Henceforth,” noted the Chronicler, who was as relieved as the rest, “it pleased God in His mercy to allow us to make headway! We were not again driven back. May it please Him that it be thus always!”

They were now sailing past lush woodland, and the farther they went, the higher the trees reached toward the heavens. It seemed like a sign, and sure enough, the coast was now clearly trending to the northeast.

After decades of questing and centuries of dreaming, the first Europeans had sailed into the Indian Ocean.

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