27.01.2017

Bartholomeu Dias - Watery grave at the Cape of Storm


Bartolomeu Dias erected a stone cross at Lüderitzbucht in 1488. (Photo: Gondwana Collection)

Defying gale-force winds and the spray of the thundering surf, the stone cross stands firmly on a rocky promontory that juts some 50 metres into the Atlantic Ocean southwest of Lüderitz. It is a monument to Bartholomeu Dias, the Portuguese seafarer who was the first European to sail around the southern tip of Africa and thereby pioneered the way to opening up the sea route to India. 

With two caravels and a supply vessel 37-year-old Bartholomeu Dias set sail from Lisbon in August 1487 for a top-secret expedition. King John II of Portugal had instructed him to sail down the coast of West Africa and find out whether the continent ended somewhere in the south and whether it was possible to sail around it to the east, specifically to India. 

Portugal, the naval power at the time, had been searching for the sea route to the east for decades. This quest was not driven by mere curiosity or an urge for discovery but by economic motives. Spices from India were much sought after in Europe, but they were outrageously expensive. The spice trade was in the hands of Indian, Persian, Arab, Turkish and Venetian merchants, and the Osman Empire was imposing high customs duties. If it were possible to sail to India, the monopoly of the merchants along the overland spice route would be broken. 

Dias had taken part in an expedition to the coast of Guinea in 1481. Now his task was to continue where fellow countryman Diego Cão had left off in 1486. Cão had sailed as far south as present-day Namibia and erected a stone cross at Cape Cross north of Swakopmund. Dias with his three ships pushed on beyond that point to Walvis Bay where he anchord the supply ship and continued to the bay of Lüderitz. He named it Angra Pequeña (the little bay) and put up a padrão, a stone pillar bearing Portugal’s coat of arms.

On the next stage of the journey the two caravels were swept off far to the south by storms. The coastline disappeared from sight. Dias turned east. When day after day passed without land coming into view Dias changed to a northerly course and indeed returned to the African coast. He replenished his water supplies in present-day Mossel Bay and continued further east. On 12 March 1488 he erected another stone pillar at Cape Padrone, east of what was to become Port Elizabeth. At the mouth of the Great Fish River, where the coast clearly headed in a northeasterly direction, Dias was finally certain that he has sailed around the tip of Africa: this was the sea route to India! 

The crews of both ships had been suffering from scurvy for weeks and mutiny was in the air. Dias turnd back with a heavy heart. Thus it is not him but his successor Vasco da Gama who goes down in history as the explorer who discovered the sea route to India.

On the return journey Dias discovered the cape which King John renamed the Cape of Good Hope because of the high expectations he had for the sea route to India. Dias had called it cabo tormentoso, the Cape of Storms – in a strange premonition, perhaps, that it would ultimately be his undoing. On 1 May 1488 he erected his last padrão near Cape Point on the Indian Ocean side of the peninsula. He arrived back in Lisbon at the end of that year, more than 16 months after he had set sail for his expedition. 

After his successful return King John II appointed him the highest administrator of the royal trade and tax authority. It remains a mystery why John’s successor, King Manuel I, chose Vasco da Gama instead of Bartholomeu Dias to lead the first expedition to India in 1497. Dias commanded four ships of a fleet of 13 which sailed southwest across the Atlantic in 1500 and took possession of Brazil. Recrossing the Atlantic further south, four ships were lost in a storm. On 29 May 1500 Dias and his crew found their watery grave near his Cape of Storms.


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