Burg Altena, Germany
Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex

(29.03.2001 , South Africa, Mossel Bay )
Research Information: BARTOLOMEU DIAS

The Outward Voyage
It will be recalled that Portuguese discoveries were made down the west coast of Africa after the fall of Ceuta in 1415, which opened the way for trade with Africa. Prince Henry the Navigator was the mentor of navigation for the next 45 years. After his death in 1460 Afonso V continued the explorations and soon the Gold Coast was reached in 1471 and the equator in 1474. Under King Joao II followed a new impulse; Angola was reached in 1483 and in 1485 - 86 the coast of south-west Africa. Diogo Cao planted a Padrao at Cape Cross, a short distance beyond which he probably died.

When the survivors of his expedition returned home and reported to their king, Joao II must have been disappointed that the southern tip of the continent had not yet been rounded. Joao II immediately ordered preparations for explorations to continue. To command the expedition he selected Bartolomeu Dias de Novaes, making him an advance grant 'for services to come'. Dias was a gentleman at the king's court. Certainly he must have had a distinguished past of resourceful service to earn an appointment so vital to the achievement of Portuguese commercial, territorial and missionary ambitions. Very little is known about him.

The squadron which Dias commanded consisted of three vessels: two caravels of about 100 tons each and a somewhat larger storeship, a caravela redonda, rigged with a square mainsail. Each vessel would certainly have been provided with the latest available charts, astrolabes and declination tables to enable the pilots to calculate latitude from the position of the sun and prominent stars. Revolutionary developments in astronomical navigation were at this time being pioneered by Portuguese mathematicians.

As pilot on his flagship (name unknown) Dias appointed Pero de Alenquer, a distinguished navigator. The second caravel, Sao Pantaleao, was commanded by Joao Infante with Alvaro Martins as pilot. A brother of Dias, Diogo, was captain of the storeship. Its pilot, Joao de Santiago, had sailed with Diogo Cao up the Congo River in search of a passage to the east as well as down the west coast. The ships also had six negresses on board, to be landed at various places on the coast to show the natives samples of gold, silver and spices and to enquire as to the presence of these products and the whereabouts of Prester John, the Christian King of Abyssinia.

The royal instructions as well as the actual record of his voyage have not survived. The researcher has to rely for information on contemporary maps, early pilot-books, and chronicles. Dias raised probably three padroes. Only, by careful and meticulous research was Eric Axelson able to locate the spot where Dias had erected his first padrao.

Dias sailed from the Tagus in August 1487 and reported back to his king in December 1488 - a date borne out by Pacheco Pereira from direct experience, for Dias picked him up on his way home on Principe Island, and also by Christopher Columbus.

On his outward voyage Dias called at Sao Jorge de Mina on the Gold Coast to replenish provisions before exploring the unknown waters. In a suitable bay somewhere on the Angolan coast, he transferred provisions from the storeship and left it at anchor with a caretaker crew of nine, while he sailed on towards the extremity of Africa.

Beyond Cape Cross and the Serra Parda the two caravels made a close coasting, and on 4 December he named the land he was passing Santa Barbara and three days later he named a point after St Agata. The Praia das Verde, (Beach of Verdure) may well be the mouth of the Swakop River but Praia das Aves (birds) could refer to almost any beach in south-west Africa. The Golfo da Conceicao, named on 8 December, could, according to some, be the Walvis Bay of today; to others it seems to be the present Conception Bay.

Travelling ever south, Dias named the Gulf of Sao Tome on 21 December, a place probably the present St Francis Bay. The bay, of Santa Vitoria, probably Hottentot Bay, 35 sea miles (1 nautical mile = 1,852 km) north of Luderitz, received its name on 23 December. The Cantino map marks a vast bay, studded with islands and rocky outcrop, the Gulfo de Sao Cristovao, described by Pacheco Pereira as 'the beautiful Angra das Voltas' (Bay of the Tacks). This bay, it is now realized, was entered and named by Dias only on his return voyage.

On 26 December Dias named the Golfo de Santa Estevao, which is generally accepted as being the present Elizabeth Bay, and on the last day of the year the Terra De Sao Silvestre, perhaps the coast about Prince of Wales Bay. The Serra dos Reis, named on 6 January 1488, was probably the Stinkfonteinberge, in the Richtersveld. It was probably off here, in the vicinity of Peacock Roadstead, that he was forced to tack because of the prevailing southerly winds, and he took the decision to steer out to sea.

The caravels sailed so far south that they may indeed have approached the zone of the roaring forties where it was really cold and dangerous for such frail ships. With a favourable wind the pilots steered east, but with no land in sight Dias ordered course to be set north and soon his mariners joyfully hailed land as they had not seen any for thirty days. They were opposite the mouth of a river along the banks of which cattle and herdsmen were seen and which Dias named Rio dos Vaqueiros (Gourits River). The point to the east bears the name Cape Vaca, known locally as Kanon Point. The heavy surf prevented their crew from landing, so the caravels sailed along the coast, which to their joy continued running due east. Dias was convinced that at long last the continent of Africa had been successfully rounded. As the caravels sailed past a line of cliffs which culminated in a rocky bluff pierced by a great cave, Dias named it Sao Bras, after the Saint whose day falls on 3 February. The cape, which still bears the name St Blaize, provided shelter to a broad expanse of water, which Dias also called Sao Bras (now Mossel Bay).

For several years the Angra de Sao Bras became a calling place for Portuguese ships bound for the Indies. Pacheco Pereira told of a little river that flowed into the bay where its banks 'grow many reeds, rushes, mint, wild olive trees and other plants and trees like those of Portugal'. Apart from the fresh river water and firewood from the trees, Dias and his crew enjoyed the temperate climate and green landscape. Dias anchored in what is known today as Munro Bay. He sent his men ashore to seek fresh water and was delighted to observe herds of cattle and flocks of sheep.

The fatal chain of distrust that led to confrontation may have had its beginning in that very first encounter between Europeans and Hottentots (Khoi) when Dias landed at Mossel Bay. The natives were astonished at the Portuguese ships and clothes; the Portuguese, on the other hand, by the scant items of Hottentot clothing. A tragic incident abruptly put an end to Dias's visit to Sao Bras. The Hottentots crowded round to receive trinkets offered by the Portuguese in exchange for sheep and cattle which would after many months provide the mariners with fresh meat. While they were filling their casks with water from the stream, the Hottentots suddenly started throwing stones down the hill. Dias became annoyed, snatched up a cross-bow and killed one of them. Dias and his men withdrew to their ships and set sail.

The caravels sailed eastward past sandy hillocks, rocky shores and long sandy beaches while inland lofty mountain ranges appeared, one of which they named Serra da Estrela after the highest range in Portugal. Off one headland they caught abundant fish and therefore named it Pescaria. They sailed past red cliffs, bush-covered bluffs, green headlands, inland lakes and a remarkable cape which they called Talhado (Cape Seal). The bay beyond, Dias called Baia das Alagoas (now Plettenberg Bay) which teemed with marine mammals and seabirds. It was an excitingly spectacular stretch of coast, fined in places with 200 m high cliffs, broken by forest-clad gorges draining the massive Tsitsikamma mountains, dwindling into a low point later called St Francis. Dias called it Ponta das Quiemadas because of the grass fires sweeping towards the mountains. The sandy shores of St Francis Bay were lined by pastures crowded with herds and herdsmen, therefore he called the place Golfo dos Pastores. The rocky coast that followed ended in Cabo do Recife, Cape of the Reef, the name which it still bears, and the bay beyond, the Baja da Roca (da Serra de Sintra), the present Algoa Bay. Dias landed on the largest of the islets at the head of the bay, and pushed through the sea-lions that made more noise than a crowd at a bullfight. Dias and his men dragged a wooden cross up the slope and erected it on the crest. In the shadow of the cross they doubtless held a religious service and named the islet Ilheu da Cruz.

The crew became restless and began to complain, demanding that the expedition turn back. Dias called a meeting on shore attended by the captains, pilots, masters and leading sailors. He made each one swear an oath to give the best and most honest counsel. Unanimously they decided to turn back and signed a document of agreement to this resolution. But Dias, desiring to continue his voyage of exploration, finally persuaded them to carry on for another few days.

The caravels sailed beyond Algoa Bay at the eastern end of which stood a rocky head 26 miles east of the Ilheu da Cruz and 4 - 5 miles south of which were rocks and islets which Dias called Ilhas Chaos (Bird Islands). After the stipulated few days, the caravels reached a river where Joao Infante was the first to leap ashore, so the river was named after him. Reluctantly Dias was at last obliged to turn back home. The exact identification of Rio Infante, where Dias turned back, is the subject of debate, but it was probably the Keiskamma (at the mouth of which is the present-day Hamburg). But Dias did not erect his first padrao at his turning point. He went back until he found a suitable site and favourable weather. By the 20th century this padrao had vanished. When Axelson returned from two years of research in Portugal on early Portuguese contacts with southern Africa, he discovered remains of this padrao.

Top of Page

The Homeward Voyage

On 12 March 1488 Bartolomeu Dias erected his farthest padrao (at Kwaaihoek) after which he resumed his homeward voyage with much regret and grief as if the cross he left behind on its lonely hillock was a son sentenced to irrevocable banishment. He could find consolation, however in the knowledge that he had opened the sea-route into the Indian Ocean. Nothing was known to him about the coastline west of Sao Bras and as far north as the point where he had left the land on his voyage southwards. He was to discover a further coastline unknown to European voyagers. This in itself would be a great achievement.

The pilots would have discovered the fast westward-flowing Agulhas current some miles off-shore. Beyond Cape Vaca it was an unfamiliar shore and Dias must have followed it as closely as rocks and weather would allow. The rocky beaches soon gave way to sand, and the long expanse of Still Bay beach came into view - Terra de Sao Joao as it was called on early maps. The blue summits of the Langeberg island formed a beautiful backdrop as the ships sailed into the broad deep bay, into which flowed the Bree River which Dias called the Nazare. Its western point, Cape Infante, was named after the adventurous captain of the Sao Pantaleao.

On 23 April 1488, St George's Day, Dias anchored at Aguada de Sao Jorge - at present known as Struis Bay. This meant that he took six weeks to cover the comparatively short distance of 345 miles from Kwaaihoek. It must be kept in mind that sailing ships proceeding during March and April from east to west can encounter adverse weather conditions. The crews celebrated St Brendan's Day on 16 May after three weeks' stay in Struis bay, perhaps renewing their supplies and repairing ships before proceeding northwards. Cabo de Sao Brandao was later renamed by other Portuguese voyager Cabo das Agulhas, as it is known to this day. The name means the Cape of the Compass Needles because there was no magnetic variation there at that time. Dias and his pilots failed to realize they were passing the southern most extremity of Africa. All the maps based on the voyage of Dias showed the more spectacular Cape of Good Hope as being the tip of the continent. Even Alvaro Velho on the voyage of Vasco da Gama did not consider Cape Agulhas worth mentioning.

Beyond Cape Agulhas Dias sailed past a coast of many bays and coves, with sea-lion covered islands. He could not have missed Danger Point near the present Gansbaai. North-west of this the caravels entered the wide Walker Bay. Further on they sailed past the Paardeberg, Blousteenberg and Kogelberg ranges. They pasted Cape Hangklip (to give it its eighteenth-century name) which later navigators called Cabo Falso, lest pilots mistake it for the Cape of Good Hope, only to be trapped in False Bay. Dias called this bay the Golfo dentro das Serras - the Bay between the Ranges.

Axelson continued that the legend about the name of Cabo Tormentoso reputedly so-called by Dias on account of storms that drove him round it, was false. Because the discovery of this Cape gave an indication and expectation of the discovery of India, Dias himself called it the Cabo de Boa Esperanca - Cape of Good Hope. Cape Point would have been the obvious place for Dias to erect his second padrao but it was inaccessible diving to its steep cliffs. Cape Maclear to the west would be more reachable. Dias erected a cross probably somewhere in that vicinity, on St Philip's Day (6 June) to mark his discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, but in spite of intensive searches no trace has ever been found of any remains of a padrao. The caravels might have found shelter from westerly winds in Buffels Bay.

From the Cape of Good Hope Dias sailed northward, following the west coast of the peninsula passing Porto Fragoso (Craggy Port) - Hout Bay. He did not enter Table Bay. He continued to keep a fair offing as he hastened northward for he certainly did not see the entrance of Saldanha Bay and the rocky reefy coast that extends to St Helena Bay. (It was Vasco da Gama who first entered and named this bay in 1497.) On 24 July 1488 he entered Luderitz Bay, where, on a point to the westward, he raised his last padrao (on what was later called Dias Point). This cross stood until the end of the 18th century, but by the early 1820's it had been overthrown and damaged. In 1855 the Commander of a guano ship carried away four large fragments to Cape Town, one of which Sir George Grey, Governor of Cape Colony, took with him as a souvenir when he became governor of New Zealand.

Two other pieces which fitted together were sent to Portugal where they came to rest in a museum in Lisbon. The forth fragment is preserved in the South African Cultural History Museum in Cape Town. The Historical Monuments Commission of SWA invited Axelson to locate the exact site of this padrao at Luderitz. He went there in 1953 and searched and excavated among the rocks. He and Dr C J Lemmer found pieces of the familiar limestone with two parallel faces as well as a block the upper face of which bore the remains of an inscription too worn to read. The style was identical to that of the Kwaaihoek inscription. By carefully sieving sand and stone he collected more than 180 chips and piece - this was unmistakable evidence of the site of the padrao.

Sailing northward from Luderitz, Dias returned to the bay where he had left the storeship, and found that of the nine men aboard six had perished at the hands of hostile natives who coveted their trade goods (according to Barros). One of the remaining three men, the purser Fernao Colaco, was so overcome with joy at the sight of Dias and his crew- that he dropped down dead. The remaining contents of the storeship were transferred to the caravels and the empty ship set on fire, as there were too few hands to work three vessels. Dias put in at the mouth of the Congo and took on board the ambassador of the King of Congo.

At Principe Island he rescued Pacheco Pereira who was stranded there. Dias returned to the Tagus in December 1488, after a voyage of sixteen months and seventeen days, having discovered a previously unknown coastland double that discovered by Diogo Cao. He was welcomed enthusiastically and soon afterwards was appointed superintendent of stores in the organization responsible for trade with Guinea, with particular responsibility for the preparation and safe-keeping of charts. But the chart which Dias himself had made for the king has not survived. It was he who proved the existence of a feasible sea-route to India by his exploration of the coast of South Africa, and entrance into the Indian Ocean.

Top of Page

The aftermath and death of Dias

The command of this vital expedition which would finally establish Portuguese trade with the Indies, King Manuel entrusted to the fidalgo Vasco da Gama, a nobleman. His fleet left the Tagus in July 1497. Dias was instead appointed to the command of a vessel directed to the Guinea Coast, and kept company with Da Gama's fleet as far as Cape Verde. As he took leave on his solitary way to Sao Jorge de Mina, he must have watched the departing ships with regret. Da Gama would be gaining a triumph based on his experience. Pero de Alenquer, who had served under Dias, was a member of Da Gama's squadron. In the earlier part of his voyage Da Gama profited by the knowledge of the coast-line and the prevalent Atlantic winds that Cao and Dias had accumulated.

Dias transported a cargo of trade goods destined for Mina. He would bring back gold and slaves to provide the finances for further expeditions. He must have acquired a certain expertise in the gold trade since when Da Gama returned to Portugal in 1499 with information regarding the gold trade of the east African coast, King Manuel selected Dias to found a fortress factory similar to Sao Jorge de Mina, at the gold-exporting port of Sofala.

With Vasco da Gama's epic discovery of the sea-route to the East, the Portuguese had reached the stage of negotiating trade relations with the view of establishing trading stations. With the knowledge and experience gained by Da Gama the most promising prospects were on the Malabar coast, but there also seemed to be opportunities for breaking into the gold trade of Sofala. King Manuel appointed Pedro Alvares Cabral to command a fleet of thirteen sail. He left Portugal in March 1500 with specific instructions to gain a footing in Calicut, develop the Malindi friendship, sign a treaty of peace with the Sultan of Kilwa as suzerain of Sofala, and enter into trade relations with Sofala with the view of establishing a trading post. The purpose of the expedition was primarily economic.

The fleet discovered Brazil incidentally - or perhaps intentionally - as it took a route far west in the South Atlantic. Bartolomeu Dias captained one of the vessels, a caravel, for he had been designated commander of the proposed trading station at Sofala. He was never to reach his destination for a tornado assailed the fleet in the vicinity of Tristan da Cunha, causing four ships to sink - including that of Dias.

Barros described it as follows: 'This happened suddenly: the wind burst down in an instant so furiously that there was no time for the seamen to work the sails, and four vessels were overwhelmed, one of which was that of Bartolomeu Dias; he who had passed so many dangers at sea in the discoveries he had made, principally of the Cabo de Boa Esperanqa. But this fury of the wind ended his life and those of other fellow mariners, casting them into the great abyss of that ocean sea which that day smote all of us, and giving human bodies as food for the fishes of those seas . . .'

SAMWEB CREATIONS - Various sources: Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex

copyright © museum.com gmbh. all rights reserved.
copyright policy