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Chapter V 


The adventures of the Portuguese, and the actions of Don Christopher de Gama in Aethiopia.

About the beginning of the sixteenth century arose a Moor near the Cape of Gardafui, who, by the assistance of the forces sent him from Moca by the Arabs and Turks, conquered almost all Abyssinia, and founded the kingdom of Adel. He was called Mahomet Gragne, or the Lame. When he had ravaged Aethiopia fourteen years, and was master of the greatest part of it, the Emperor David sent to implore succour of the King of Portugal, with a promise that when those dominions were recovered which had been taken from him, he would entirely submit himself to the Pope, and resign the third part of his territories to the Portuguese. After many delays, occasioned by the great distance between Portugal and Abyssinia, and some unsuccessful attempts, King John the Third, having made Don Stephen de Gama, son of the celebrated Don Vasco de Gama, viceroy of the Indies, gave him orders to enter the Red Sea in pursuit of the Turkish galleys, and to fall upon them wherever he found them, even in the Port of Suez. The viceroy, in obedience to the king's commands, equipped a powerful fleet, went on board himself, and cruised about the coast without being able to discover the Turkish vessels. Enraged to find that with this great preparation he should be able to effect nothing, he landed at Mazna four hundred Portuguese, under the command of Don Christopher de Gama, his brother. He was soon joined by some Abyssins, who had not yet forgot their allegiance to their sovereign; and in his march up the country was met by the Empress Helena, who received him as her deliverer. At first nothing was able to stand before the valour of the Portuguese, the Moors were driven from one mountain to another, and were dislodged even from those places, which it seemed almost impossible to approach, even unmolested by the opposition of an enemy.

These successes seemed to promise a more happy event than that which followed them. It was now winter, a season in which, as the reader hath been already informed, it is almost impossible to travel in Aethiopia. The Portuguese unadvisedly engaged themselves in an enterprise, to march through the whole country, in order to join the Emperor, who was then in the most remote part of his dominions. Mahomet, who was in possession of the mountains, being informed by his spies that the Portuguese were but four hundred, encamped in the plain of Ballut, and sent a message to the general that he knew the Abyssins had imposed on the King of Portugal, which, being acquainted with their treachery, he was not surprised at, and that in compassion of the commander's youth, he would give him and his men, if they would return, free passage, and furnish them with necessaries; that he might consult upon the matter, and depend upon his word, reminding him, however, that it was not safe to refuse his offer.

The general presented the ambassador with a rich robe, and returned this gallant answer: "That he and his fellow-soldiers were come with an intention to drive Mahomet out of these countries, which he had wrongfully usurped; that his present design was, instead of returning back the way he came, as Mahomet advised, to open himself a passage through the country of his enemies; that Mahomet should rather think of determining whether he would fight or yield up his ill-gotten territories, than of prescribing measures to him; that he put his whole confidence in the omnipotence of God and the justice of his cause, and that to show how just a sense he had of Mahomet's kindness, he took the liberty of presenting him with a looking-glass and a pair of pincers."

This answer, and the present, so provoked Mahomet, who was at dinner when he received it, that he rose from table immediately to march against the Portuguese, imagining he should meet with no resistance; and indeed, any man, however brave, would have been of the same opinion; for his forces consisted of fifteen thousand foot, beside a numerous body of cavalry, and the Portuguese commander had but three hundred and fifty men, having lost eight in attacking some passes, and left forty at Mazma, to maintain an open intercourse with the viceroy of the Indies. This little troop of our countrymen were upon the declivity of a hill near a wood; above them stood the Abyssins, who resolved to remain quiet spectators of the battle, and to declare themselves on that side which should be favoured with victory.

Mahomet began the attack with only ten horsemen, against whom as many Portuguese were detached, who fired with so much exactness, that nine of the Moors fell, and the tenth with great difficulty made his escape. This omen of good fortune gave the soldiers great encouragement; the action grew hot, and they came at length to a general battle; but the Moors, dismayed by the advantages our men had obtained at first, were half defeated before the fight. The great fire of our muskets and artillery broke them immediately. Mahomet preserved his own life not without difficulty, but did not lose his capacity with the battle: he had still a great number of troops remaining, which he rallied, and entrenched himself at Membret, a place naturally strong, with an intention to pass the winter there, and wait for succours.

The Portuguese, who were more desirous of glory than wealth, did not encumber themselves with plunder, but with the utmost expedition pursued their enemies, in hopes of cutting them entirely off. This expectation was too sanguine: they found them encamped in a place naturally almost inaccessible, and so well fortified, that it would be no less than extreme rashness to attack them. They therefore entrenched themselves on a hill over against the enemy's camp, and though victorious, were under great disadvantages. They saw new troops arrive every day at the enemy's camp, and their small number grew less continually; their friends at Mazna could not join them; they knew not how to procure provisions, and could put no confidence in the Abyssins; yet recollecting the great things achieved by their countrymen, and depending on the Divine protection, they made no doubt of surmounting all difficulties.

Mahomet on his part was not idle; he solicited the assistance of the Mahometan princes, pressed them with all the motives of religion, and obtained a reinforcement of two thousand musketeers from the Arabs, and a train of artillery from the Turks. Animated with these succours, he marched out of his trenches to enter those of the Portuguese, who received him with the utmost bravery, destroyed prodigious numbers of his men, and made many sallies with great vigour, but losing every day some of their small troops, and most of their officers being killed, it was easy to surround and force them.

Their general had already one arm broken, and his knee shattered with a musket-shot, which made him unable to repair to all those places where his presence was necessary to animate his soldiers. Valour was at length forced to submit to superiority of numbers; the enemy entered the camp and put all to the sword. The general with ten more escaped the slaughter, and by means of their horses retreated to a wood, where they were soon discovered by a detachment sent in search of them, and brought to Mahomet, who was overjoyed to see his most formidable enemy in his power, and ordered him to take care of his uncle and nephew, who were wounded, telling him he should answer for their lives; and, upon their death, taxed him with hastening it. The brave Portuguese made no excuses, but told him he came thither to destroy Mahometans, and not to save them. Mahomet, enraged at this language, ordered a stone to be put on his head, and exposed this great man to the insults and reproaches of the whole army. After this they inflicted various kinds of tortures on him, which he endured with incredible resolution, and without uttering the least complaint, praising the mercy of God who had ordained him to suffer in such a cause.

Mahomet, at last satisfied with cruelty, made an offer of sending him to the viceroy of the Indies, if he would turn Mussulman. The hero took fire at this proposal, and answered with the highest indignation that nothing should make him forsake his heavenly Master to follow an impostor, and continued in the severest terms to vilify their false prophet, till Mahomet struck off his head.

Nor did the resentment of Mahomet end here; he divided his body into quarters, and sent them to different places. The Catholics gathered the remains of this glorious martyr, and interred them. Every Moor that passed by threw a stone upon his grave, and raised in time such a heap, as I found it difficult to remove when I went in search of those precious relics.

What I have here related of the death of Don Christopher de Gama I was told by an old man, who was an eye-witness of it: and there is a tradition in the country that in the place where his head fell, a fountain sprung up of wonderful virtue, which cured many diseases otherwise past remedy.

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