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Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex

(29.03.2001 , South Africa, Mossel Bay )
Research Information: SEAFARERS (various)

Prince Henry (1394-1460), son of King Joao I, was known as " the Navigator" because he inspired, financed and organized the early Portuguese voyages of discovery. He epitomized Portugal's drive for religious, political and economic expansion, which was given further inpetus in the second half of the 15th century by his great nephew King Joao II (1455-1495), who continued exploration of the African coast and the quest for the route to India.

King Joao II commissioned Diogo Cao, a knight of the royal household, to explore the west coast of Africa. The first European to set foot on African soil south of the Equator, he established friendly relations with local rulers in the Congo, Angola and Namibia. During his first voyage, in 1482, he explored the coast between Cape Catarina and Cape Lopez (in present-day Gabon). On a second voyage he passed Pointe-Noire and sailed upriver to explore the interior of the Congo and Angola. Like other Portuguese navigators, he set up engraved stone pillars (padroes) in the places he visited, as a result of which it has been possible to retrace his steps.

A knight of the royal household, Bartolomeu Dias (d. 1500), is famed for the voyage (1487-1488) in which he rounded the southernmost point of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, which he named the Cape of Storms. He thus confirmed King Joao II's hypothesis that it was possible to reach India by sea. Ten years later a fleet commanded by Vasco da Gama set sail from the Tagus estuary in search of the legendary eastern land of spices and gold. Dias carried out further expeditions and died when his ship went down not far from the cape he had discovered.

Vasco da Gama (c. 1468-1524), the most celebrated of the Portuguese navigators, carried out several missions for King Joao II before being appointed admiral of the fleet which sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and opened the sea route from Western Europe to India in 1498, a major achievement for the Portuguese. (Six years before, Christopher Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, had tried to find a western sea route to Asia, but instead reached America, the existence of which had not been suspected by Europeans.) Da Gama's fleet sailed from Lisbon on 8 July 1497 and arrived at Calicut, on the south-west coast of India, in May the following year. He met the Zamorin (ruler) of Calicut and gave him a letter from King Joao's successor, Manuel I, proposing an alliance and a commercial treaty. After his return to Lisbon, Da Gama was made Portuguese viceroy to India. His great voyage of discovery inspired Luis de Camoes' epic poem The Lusiads.

Magellan (c. 1480-1521) commanded the first expedition to sail round the world (1519-1522). While in the East as a soldier in the service of the Portuguese crown, he learned much that proved useful during his great voyage. At that time many Portuguese navigators were offered large sums by foreign rulers to command maritime expeditions, and Magellan entered the service of the Emperor Charles V, who was also King of Spain. The major commercial rivals of the Portuguese, the Spaniards were seeking a western sea route which would take them around the Americas to Asia. Magellan's proposal to sail westward to the Spice Islands or the Molucas received royal assent. On 21 October 1520 his ships rounded the southern tip of of South America via what would later be known as the Strait of Magellan and entered the ocean which he called the "Pacific". The great navigator did not live to see the conclusion of his project. He was killed in a skirmish in the Philippines and the voyage was completed by the Spaniard Juan Sebastian Elcano.

After Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India, Pedro Alvares Cabral (c. 1467-1520) was appointed captain of the second Portuguese fleet bound for Calicut. His orders were to establish commercial and political relations with the port, which was then the center of the spice trade. The fleet, which left Lisbon harbour in 1500, drifted off course and headed west, finally reaching the Brazilian coast at a point which Cabral named Vera Cruz. In spite of the believe that Brazil was discovered by chance, there are several indications that King Manuel I of Portugal had ordered Cabral to find a route to the West Indies, as the Americas were known. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish were exploring these regions, and the two nations had drawn up the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 in order to define the limits of their respective spheres of influence in the New World.

- Kindly sponsored to the Museum Complex by SAMWEB Creations on various sources obtained from the Museum Complex.

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