Bartolomeu Dias

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Portuguese navigator discovered the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and maritime explorer

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Date of birth: 
circa 1450
Date of death: 
24 May 1500

Bartolomeu Dias, also called Bartholomew Diaz, was a Portuguese navigator whose discovery in 1488 of the Cape of Good Hope showed Europeans there was a feasible route to India around the storm-driven southern tip of Africa. He also discovered for Europe the south-east trade winds and the westerlies to the west and south of South Africa, thus establishing the wind system for those who sailed after him. King João II of Portugal financed Dias’s expedition. Dias took part in Cabral's expedition that discovered Brazil, but Dias’s ship sank during a storm. It is very unlikely that Dias was, in fact, the first mariner to round the Cape. The great merchant traders of antiquity ¾ the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Arabs, Chinese and Indians ”” all made journeys down the west and east African coasts, and one expedition went right around the continent.

Nevertheless, the voyage of Dias was fraught with consequences, for at the time the search for a passage to the Indies was a move in the great struggle between the Moslem world and Christendom. The epoch-making voyage of Dias not only opened up the sea route to the Indies; it paved the way for contact between Europe, Africa, and the East, greatly extending the Portuguese sphere of influence. Early information about Dias's voyage is limited because all the actual records of his voyage perished when the castle of São Jorge, in which they were housed, burnt down after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

However, historians have reconstructed story from chronicles written in the sixteenth century, from near-contemporary maps, and from the stone pillars or padroes which the explorers raised on headlands along the African coast during their voyages, and from old rutters (sailing instructions). The route-book of Duarte Pacheco Pereira has been particularly useful. Pereira wrote the Esmeraldo de Sito Orbis, in which he records his own adventures on the Guinea coast. He wrote from direct experience because Dias rescued him in 1488 on his return voyage after the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope.

Dias's squadron of three ships departed from the River Tagus below Lisbon in August 1487. The name of the flagship has not survived, but we do know that Dias’s pilot was Pero de Alenquer. The second caravel was the São Pantaleao, commanded by João Infante and piloted by Alvaro Martins. Diogo Dias, Bartolomeu’s brother, commanded the storeship, a square-rigger. Her pilot was João de Santiago, who had previously accompanied Diogo Cão up the Congo River. (See Cão, D.) They also carried with them six African hostages who had been taken to Portugal earlier, some by Diogo Cão. They were to be landed at various places on the coast to praise the greatness of the Portuguese and to explain to local chiefs that the Portuguese king wished to establish friendly relations and make contact with Prester John, the legendary Christian king of Ethiopia. The Portuguese king wished them to know that they were seeking a way to India in order to trade.

To replenish provisions before voyaging beyond the Congo, the squadron called at São Jorge de Mina, the Portuguese fortress on the Gold Coast. They touched on the barren Namibian coast in December, and on the coast of Angola, they transferred provisions and supplies from the storeship and left it at anchor with a caretaker crew of nine men. Beyond Cape Cross, they sailed close to the coast. It is thought that they reached Golfo da Conceicão (Walvis Bay) on 8 December, where it is likely that they anchored. Sailing southward along the Namaqualand coast, they named the Gulf of St Thomas (Spencer Bay) and the Angra das Voltas (Luderitz). Continuing along an inhospitable coast, they sailed into Golfo de Santo Estevão (Elizabeth Bay). On 6 January, Dias named a range of mountains Serra dos Reis (the northern Cedarberg). Beyond this point, tradition has it that they encountered adverse winds. Beating on for some days without sighting land, they unwittingly rounded the Cape of Good Hope in late January 1488. While coasting along the southern shores, they came to the Gourits estuary where they saw Khoikhoi tending their wide-horned cattle. They named this river, Rio dos Vacqueiros (River of the Cowherds).

Much worn by wind and weather, in early February 1488 they pressed on eastwards along the coast and, realizing they must have rounded the continent of Africa, they anchored in a broad bay to replenish their water casks. They named this bay Golfo de São Bras (Mossel Bay). Here, the local inhabitants accepted their trinkets and the sailors were able to buy by barter cattle and sheep. But the Khoikhoi later grew distrustful of the interlopers and attacked them. Snatching up a crossbow, Dias shot one of them dead causing the people to flee in terror. The sailors immediately withdrew to their ships, and the expedition sailed on eastward as far as Bahia da Roca (Algoa Bay) where they anchored in the lee of the largest of three rocky islets crowded with sea birds and sea-lions. On the summit, they raised a wooden cross and celebrated mass. They named the islet ilhéu da Cruz. A few days after leaving Algoa Bay, they came to a river mouth, which Dias called Rio de Infante after João Infante, the captain of the second ship. Here, his men compelled him to return them to Portugal because they were exhausted and frightened and their provisions were running out. Historians first assumed his turning point to be the mouth of the Great Fish, but it is now thought to have been the Keiskamma River at Hamburg, 50 km south-west of East London. On 12 March 1488, a little west of Bushman's River mouth, they dropped anchor at a headland, formerly called False Islet, now known as Kwaaihoek. Here, Dias erected his farthest stone pillar, the padrão de São Gregorio and then resumed his homeward journey. Eric Axelson excavated fragments of this padrão in 1938.

Again, Dias's caravels sailed into Algoa Bay. They anchored at Struisbaai Bay on 23 April, naming it Aguada de San Jorgy. They probably stayed here for some time renewing their supplies of fresh food. They saw Cape Agulhas on 16 May, but were unaware that this unimpressive point was the southern extremity of Africa, as all later maps indicate the Cape of Good Hope as being the tip of the continent. The caravels then sailed into Walker Bay, beyond which lies modern Hermanus. Sailing on past a backdrop of mountain ranges, they rounded Cape Hangklip, and entering False Bay, naming it Golfo dentro das Serras (the bay between the mountains). Dias sailed for some days in False Bay and it is very likely that he saw Table Mountain from here, as the side of the mountain is clearly seen fro this position. On 6 June, Dias erected a second padrão somewhere on the Cape Peninsula. Legend has it, Dias called Cabo Tormentosa ””Cape of Storms ””, and the Portuguese king supposedly renamed it Cabo da Boa Esperanca. Professor Axelson scotches this with reference to Pacheco Pereira's statement:

It was not without good reason that this promontory received the name Cabo da Boa Esperanca because Bartolomeu Dias, who discovered it at the command of the late King João in the year 1488, saw that the coast here turned northwards and north-eastwards towards Ethiopia-under-Egypt and on to the gulf of Arabia, which gave indication and expectation of the discovery of India, and for this reason gave it the name of Cabo da Boa Esperanca.

Moreover, a note in a book of Christopher Columbus records that Dias gave an account to King João of how he navigated `to the promontory called by him Cabo da Boa Esperanca'. (Axelson, 1972: 149). Dias's chroniclers record that a padrão dedicated to São Filipe was placed on a prominence of the Cape of Good Hope on 6 June 1488 (Saint Philip's Day). But no trace of it has ever been found. From the Cape of Good Hope, Dias sailed northward. On St Christopher's Day, 34 July, he rejoined the storeship they had left behind at Luderitz Bay. Of the nine men who had remained, six had been killed in attacks by Khoikhoi hostile to their presence, and the three survivors were so weak that the purser, Fernão Colaco, apparently died with joy at the sight of the returning ships. After setting fire to the store-ship, Dias erected his last padrão to the west of the bay that he called Golfo de São Cristovão. By the 1820s, the limestone pillar had been overthrown.

Professor Axelson identified the original site on the foghorn knoll in 1953 and he recovered many fragments of the padrão at the foot of the hill and in the adjacent channel and shallows. Dias probably put in at the mouth of the Congo. He certainly anchored at Principe Island in the Gulf of Guinea, where he rescued Pacheco Pereira and the survivors of an expedition, which had been sent to explore the waterways entering the Bight of Biafra. These explorers had fallen ill with fever and had lost their vessel after a fruitless search for a navigable route to the land of Prester John.

Dias dropped anchor at the river Tagus in December 1488 after a voyage of sixteen months and seventeen days, and having discovered 350 leagues of coastline unknown to Europeans. According to Christopher Columbus, who said he was present at the time, Dias sketched and wrote in a chart for the king, league by league, the voyage he had just completed. This chart has since vanished.

In the same decade that Dias had reached the Cape of Good Hope, Christopher Columbus had sailed across the Atlantic, also looking for a sea route to the Indies. To settle conflicts between Spain and Portugal arising out of Columbus's first voyage, Pope Alexander VI drew up the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 to demarcate the boundaries of the spheres of influence of the Spanish and Portuguese kings.

Nine years were to elapse before the next Portuguese fleet under Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa in search of India. During that time, João II died (1495) and was succeeded by his cousin and brother-in-law, Manuel, who took a keen interest in exploration. Dias accompanied Da Gama's fleet as far as the Cape Verde islands where he left it to command the fort at Mina. Dias gained experience in trading at Mina and brought back with him a cargo of gold and slaves, which were sold to provide finances for further expeditions.

When Da Gama returned to Portugal in 1499 with news about the extent of Muslim gold trading on the east African coast, King Manuel became determined to send a strong armada to take advantage of these discoveries. The fleet, under the command of Admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral, included a squadron of four caravels under Dias, who had been selected to found a fortress-factory at the gold-exporting port of Sofala on the east coast. On 9 March 1500, the armada set out on the Atlantic and turned south-westward to take advantage of the south-east trade winds. Cabral may well have been secretly instructed to explore the western area allotted to Portugal under the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. Sailing westward, the fleet came upon the bulge of South America. Dias thus became an active participant in the first discovery of Brazil. In order to test the mood of the local inhabitants Dias was ordered to land a longboat at an anchorage they named Porto Seguro (the present Baia Cabralia). As the natives proved friendly and attractive, the Portuguese went ashore and danced and made merry with them, visited their village, and afterwards celebrated mass on the beach.

Cabral and his fleet sailed from Brazil on 2 May 1500. On 24 May, while re-crossing the South Atlantic, a cyclone suddenly overwhelmed the fleet. Four ships were swallowed up, including the caravel of Bartolomeu Dias.

Cabral secures the sea route to India for Portugal. Cabral eventually found himself off Sofala with only six battered ships, all stripped of sail. Realizing it was now impossible to establish a fortress at Sofala, he pressed on to Cochin and other ports where he traded for spices and formed alliances with the local rajas, finally securing the Portuguese sea route to India that Dias had done so much to establish.


Sources differ on the spelling of Dias's first name Bartolomeu/Bartholomew.

• Howcroft, P. (undated)

Last updated : 07-Dec-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011

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