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A fact finding history of the 1487-88 voyage that rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Part 1


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Bartholomew Diaz - Bartolomeu Dias 1450-1499

A fact finding history of the 1487-88 voyage that rounded the Cape of Good



Bartholomew Diaz - Bartolomeu Dias The 1487 - 1488 voyage

Shortly following  Diogo Cão’s 1485-86 voyage, King João II of Portugal ordered for the preparation of a further voyage of exploration of the west coastline of Africa. It was known that a great sea lay to the east of the continent, but the questions remained, "How far south did the land-mass of Africa reach to? Did it stretch deep into the southern regions where water turned to ice? Or could the continent be rounded, thus opening the sea route to the east?"


Bartolomeu Dias was chosen to lead the expedition. Diaz is thought to have belonged to a family of known Portuguese seafarers, that included João Dias who had sailed past Cape Bojador, and Diniz Dias thought to be the discoverer of the strategically positioned Cape Verde Islands. There are several dangerous areas scattered along the 'bulge of the West-African coastline' where, when sailing in a northerly direction unfavourable winds often caused ships to founder. The discovery of the Cape Verde islands gave Portuguese ships the advantage that they could sail a westerly route to the Atlantic Islands where they could take on supplies if needed and then catch the trade winds home to Lisbon.


Bartholomew Diaz (1450 - 1489) was well educated and in 1481 he had accompanied Diogo d'Azambuja on a voyage along the coast of West-Africa as far as São Jorge de Mina, on the Gold Coast (Ghana) where the Portuguese were to establish a fortified trading post in 1482. Shortly after this Bartolomeu Dias was appointed as superintendent of the royal warehouse and also the commander of the war ship São Christovão, and was elevated to being a member of the Royal Court. In October 1486 he was made Commander in Chief of an expedition with the purpose of further charting the west-coast of Africa and to establish as to whether a sea route to the east existed. If so, valuable trade routes could be opened and possibly the 'way to Prestor John' the ruler of a fabled Christian Empire that lay in the east.


In August 1487 Bartholomew Diaz sailed from Lisbon in command of a fleet of two lateen rigged caravels, each measuring about 22 meters in length and of about 50 tons burden, plus a smaller third vessel that was to serve as a supply ship and could possibly have been a caravelo redonda having a square rig on the main mast. Dias had Leitão serving as Master and Pero Alenquer as Pilot. The second caravel the São Pantaleão was under the command of João Infanta, with João Grego serving as Master and Alvaro Martins as Pilot. The supply ship had the brother of Diaz, Pedro serving as Master and João de Santiago as Pilot.


Bartolomeu Dias also took with him 2 negroes that had been brought to Lisbon by the Diogo Cão expediton from the area of the Bay of Tigres in southern Angola. He further took aboard 4 negresses from the coast of Guinea. The Africans were treated well during their stay with the Portuguese. The motive being that when they were released ashore they would convey a favourable report of the Portuguese to the local natives.


The expedition eventually passed latitude 21º 47'S the previously furthest point of exploration, being marked by the Padrao of Diogo Cão at Cape Cross in Namibia. Cão had recorded the distance from Cape Catherine at latitude 0º 53'S to Cape Cross as being some 375 leagues. A Portuguese league being 5,920meters or 3,197 nautical miles, or 2,285kms. A measurement of some accuracy considering the calculation methods of the time.


Padrao Memorial to Portuguese Navigators Lisbon

Navigators Padrao Lisbon

Bartholomew Diaz 500 Anniversary Stamp

Diaz 500yrs Anniversary

Portuguese Caravel

Portuguese Caravel

Portuguese Flag 15th Century

Portuguese Flag

Mid 15th Century

Henriki Martelli Germani Map 1489

Henricus Martellus Germanus


AlbernasII Map of 1673

Discussion on Place Names: The voyages of exploration were costly, both financially and on men's lives. The mariner's charts and log-books (rutters) containing navigational information such as wind directions, positions of stars, the latitudes of identifiable land marks, the colour of the sea, and of dangerous shoals and currents, were all classified as being important state secrets. The business of espionage and purchase of secret documents was just as active in those days as it is today. A major blow to history was experienced in the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 and subsequent fires that ravaged the city and destroyed the great libraries that housed many of the most important records of the voyages of exploration.


The earliest known of chart following the rounding of Africa by Bartholomew Diaz is the 1489 map of German cartographer Heinrich Hammer, known as the Henrichus Martellus Germanus Map, which is presently held in the British Library. The Coastline of West-Africa and the Cape were taken from tracings that had secretly been made and then sold on. Interestingly the map incorrectly shows the

 Cape of Good Hope as being at about 45º S whereas Bartholomew Diaz had shown that the Cape as

being at latitude 34º 22'S. A study of maps of this period also reveals that certain places were often referred to by more than one name. Was it a strategy of the early Portuguese cartographers to publish an amount of disinformation that would help blanket their true findings, and spread confusion and mystery to those who would spy on them?


Present day Luderitz has been referred to as: Golfo de Santo Antonio, Angra da Voltas, Angra dos Ilheus, Angra da Sao Christavão, Angra Pequena. Some of these names are also duplicates of names given to other locations, a good example of which is Angra das Voltas (bay of Tacks), a bay in which Bartholomew Diaz sheltered after meeting strong head winds. He stayed at anchor in this bay for 5 days, and that it was here that the two negresses were put ashore. But, this could be challenged. The reasoning being that Luderitz and its relative distant surroundings are totally barren and waterless. In those times it would have been quite an uninviting place. The bays would have been useful to pull into for very temporary shelter, but there would be no other reason for a ship on a voyage of exploration the stay there a day longer than needs demanded. Further south the banks of the Orange River and its outlet to the sea are verdant and would have been abundant with a great variety of game and other animals. It would have been the first suitable location, south of Angola for the fleet to anchor and re-supply with fresh water and meat. Plus Luderitz lays at latitude 26º 38'S. The João de Barros chronicle of the expedition tells us that the bay at Angra das Voltas was recorded as being 29ºS. The mouth of the present day Orange River lays at approximate latitude 28º 55'S. The section of map shown above left is taken from the João Teixeira Albernas II Atlas published in 1680 clearly shows Angra Pequena as being north of Angra Das Voltas which is indicated as being the mouth of a river.


04 Dec 1487: Terra da Santa Barbera: Bartholomew Diaz arrived at the mouth of a dry river where a thick forest of reeds indicated that there must be water in the vicinity. Going ashore they discovered a lagoon which though the water was brackish could be drunk. He noted that the place was abundant with wild life, and is possible this was the mouth of the Swakop River

Praia das Sardinhas: The sea was abundant with fish and the next bay to be named was most probably Walvis Bay

08 Dec 1487: Golfo da Santa Maria das Concepcoes: Conception Bay

23 Dec 1487: Golfo da Santa Vitoria: This bay was later renamed Hottentots Bay

26 Dec 1487: Golfo da Santa Estavao: This bay was later renamed Elizabeth Bay


After a stay of five day at Angra das Voltas, Bartholomew Diaz with his two caravels set a course that took them further out into the South Atlantic. They would have seen the Olifants River in Present Day Namaqualand and it is likely that they named this River Infanta where strong head winds caused them to reef the mainsails at half mast. For thirteen days they beat against the wind, and when it abated they took a course east where they believed they would find land. But, after some days of seeing just open sea they turned north to search for land and on 3 February 1488 saw for the first time the east coast of Africa at Cape Vacca. They briefly rested in a bay they named Bahia dos Vaqueiros, near to Mossel Bay. Dias followed the coastline until reaching a small island at 33º 45'S where the mariners went ashore and on the instruction  Bartomoleu Dias erected a Padrao. They named the island Ilheo da Cruz, now known as Kwaaihoek.


The crew were suffering both mentally and physically from the ordeal of the voyage and the rounding of the Cape. Their provisions were getting low and they were a long way from the supply ship. A shore-side meeting was held at which Dias listened to their anxieties. Opinions were that they had achieved the expedition's object, that of rounding Southern Africa, and that they should turn back and head for home. Batholomew Diaz requested a further few short days of exploration of the coastline before turning back to which the men agreed and and signed a resolution to that effect. They then sailed along the coastline reaching the mouth of a river which they named Infanta (north-east of the Great Fish River) in respect of the João Infante, who commended the second vessel the Sao Pantaleão. It was here that the fleet about turned and began the long journey home.


The Cape of Storms?

The ships now sailed along a coastline that they hadn't seen before, having rounded the Cape without having had sight of it. When they did arrive at the Cape of Good Hope they logged the latitude as being latitude 34º 22'S on 6 June 1488. They found a sheltered bay and anchored and the crew went ashore where they erected a Padrao at a place they named São Filipe, of where the present day location is unknown and to date no trace of a Padrao has been found. Barros informs us that Dias named it the Cape of Storms and that after the return of the expedition to Portugal that King Jaoa II renamed it the Cape of Good Hope. However, Duarte Pachero Pereira wrote that he was present at the meeting in Lisbon in December 1488 which was presided over by King Jaoa during which Bartholomew Diaz submitted his detailed report of the voyage and that it was Diaz who first referred to the Cabo de Boa Esperanca (Cape of Good Hope). The latter information now being the accepted.


24 July 1488 the ships anchored in a bay he named Angra da Sao Cristavao (Luderitz). It was here, near to a rocky outcrop, now known as Diaz Point that he erected the last of the three Padroes. The sheltered bay was later renamed Angra-Pequena and finally Luderitz.


July 1488  Some nine months after leaving the supply vessel Bartholomeu Dias arrived back at the location,  to find only three survivors. Their crew mates having been murdered by the local natives who had raided the supply ship camp. One of the men Fernão Coloça, a secretary, was in such poor condition that he died on seeing his comrades arrival. The small supply vessel was also in poor condition. It's hull suffering from shipworm and encrusted with barnacles. Bartolomeu Dias ordered it to be burned. However, the two remaining ships were able to take on good stocks of provisions needed.


Barros account informs us that Diaz stopped on Principe Island, off the coast of now Equatorial Guinea, where they found the survivors of another Portuguese voyage of exploration commanded by Duarte Pacheco Pereira, also a gentleman of the King's household. Their objective had been to explore some of the rivers and establish trade. The commander was found to be very sick and their ship had been lost. Pacheco and the surviving crew returned to Portugal with Diaz.


December 1488 after 16 months and 17 days from the initial departure Bartholomew Diaz arrived back in Lisbon. 


 The Pedro de Covhilã Explorations  - A Vital Contribution: 

Shortly after Bartholomew Diaz had departed from Lisbon in August 1487, King João II of Portugal dispatched two undercover agents who travelled via the Mediterranean route to the east. One was tasked with finding the legendary Prestor John and was reported to have reached as far as Ethiopia where he unfortunately died. The second, Pedro de Covilhã was to spy-out the sea routes used by the Arab traders between India and East Africa. De Covilhã sailed by dhow to Hormuz, the busy port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf which was the crossroad for goods coming from India and the east. He then sailed with Arab traders on the East African trade route as far south as Sofala, which lays about 35km south of Present day Beira in Mozambique, at latitude of 18º 15' S. While on these journeys he collected and recorded   valuable navigational information, such as the direction of the trade winds and the times of the year to take advantage of them. The geography of the

coastlines, of the trading ports, of the safe areas and those of danger. He learned of the Arab slave trade and of the kingdom of the African Emperor Monomotapa and the trade with gold. It was while on his homeward bound journey and having arrived in Cairo that he was met by Portuguese agents who told him that King John wished him to guide two further agents to Hormuz. Pedro de Covilhã  dispatched his findings in writings to the King and then took the two agents to Hormuz. From there he sailed west to Ethiopia where he carried on his explorations, but became so popular that the local Monarch would not allow him to leave. He settled there and later in 1520 when a Portuguese mission arrived they found Pedro Covilhã , an eldlery man satisfied to stay and enjoy life where he was.


The Missing 14º of Latitude:  It is thought that it the report of Pedro Covhilã was delivered to King João II sometime in 1491, and by piecing together the discoveries of both Batholomew Diaz who had achieved latitude 32º S by sailing northwards along the east coast of Africa, and Pedro Covilhã who reached latitude 18ºS by sailing in a southerly direction along the east coast of Africa, there only remained a difference of 14º degrees of latitude to be explored and charted. Sailing on a south to north course, this represents a distance of about 287 leagues (1700km). The Portuguese had proven the route to India and the east via the Cape was viable and began planning their next great voyage that would only be ready by 1497 and would be commanded by Vasco da Gama.



Barros wrote that the two negroes were to be returned to the place they were taken from being the Bay of Tigres, Angola. Of the four negresses. one was left at a place they named Angra do Ilheos, a bay possibly in the Luderitz district as there are several islands along this stretch of coastline. A second negress was put ashore at Angra das Voltas. The third one died, and the fourth was left in a bay at the Islets of Santa Cruz (St Croix).


The location at which the supply vessel was left is unknown and still debatable. But, it is probable that it was at Baia dos Tigres in southern Angola. The distance of this bay from Lisbon, and then to Ilheo da Cruz and back are about the same. Therefore this bay is the half way point of the total voyage travelled. The crew who asked Diaz at Ilheo da Cruz to turn back would have known this at the time. The total voyage time was some 18 months, of which the fleet was nine months away from the supply vessel.


Acknowledgements and further reading:  H2, H8, H12, H13, H15, H16. P1,


Of Interest: In 1500 Bartholomew Diaz commanded a ship in the fleet of Pedralvarez Cabral (The discoverer of Brazil - 22 April 1500) which comprised of 13 ships and over 1200 men. The fleet then sailed for India. Diaz ship and three others were lost in a violent storm North-West of the Cape of Good Hope 29 May 1500.

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