To India and Back

The other prong of King John II’s discovery enterprise, in the modern seafaring mode, was a long-planned, carefully organized undertaking, with large capital investment and a numerous crew. For commander he chose Bartholomeu Dias, who had superintend the royal warehouses in Lisbon and had taken a caravel down the African coast. Dias’ expedition comprised two caravels of fifty tons each and a store ship, never before added to a discovery trip, which would enable the others to range farther, to stay at sea longer, and go far out to sea. Dias carried with him six Africans who had been on earlier Portuguese voyages. Well fed and dressed European style, they were deposited at several places along the coast, together with specimens of gold, silver, spices, and other products of Africa so that, in the way of “the silent trade,” they could show the natives what goods the Portuguese wanted. Having landed the last of these African emissariesm Dias’s ships ran into a storm that became a gale. Running before the northerly wind with close-reefed sails in a rough sea for thirteen days, the ships were driven far from shore, then southward into the open sea. The crew, who had just suffered tropical heat at the equator, were panicked. “And as the ships were tiny, and the seas colder and not such as they were in the land of Guinea… they gave themselves up for dead.” After the storm, Dias steered east with all sails hoisted, but for several days he still sighted no land. Turning north for 150 leagues, he suddenly viewed high mountains. On February 3, 1488, he anchored in Mossel Bay, about two hundred thirty miles east of what is now Cape Town. The providential storm, achieving what no planning could yet accomplish, had driven him around the southern tip of Africa. When the men landed, the natives tried to drive them off with stones, Dias himself killed one of them with an arrow from his crossbow, and that was the end of their encounter. He followed the coast, which now plainly ran to the northeast, another three hundred miles to the mouth of the Great Fish River and into Algoa Bay.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987