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DIOGO CÃO, PORTUGUESE EXPLORER MARINER, A HISTORY. In January 1486 the crew erected a Padrão (stone cross) at Cape Cross Namibia


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Diogo Cäo Portuguese Explorer Mariner

January 1486 the crew erected a Padrão (stone cross) at Cape Cross Namibia



Diogo Cão

History has left us scant information about Diogo Cão, sometimes referred to as Diogo Cam. It is known that his family lived in the far north of Portugal in the province of Tres os Montes. The family was respected, and Diogo's grandfather had distinguished himself in the wars against the Castilians (Spanish) which brought the freedom and sovereignty of Portugal.


Diogo Cão was reared and trained to be a warrior both on land and sea, and he first comes to notice in 1480 following a daring exploit. Records show that in 1479 the Flemish trader Eustace de la Foss sailed from Bruges in Flanders with a ship full of goods to Seville. Having concluded this business he involved himself with a group of Spanish merchants who were about to embark on a daring voyage to seek the rich trade of the West African Coast. A venture that meant the  entering far into waters that the Portuguese considered theirs, as they had explored and established trade agreements with the tribal kings. Waters the Portuguese guarded jealously.

The small Spanish fleet made its way secretly along the coast of Africa and on the night of 5 January 1480, anchored off the Aldeia dos Duas Paaies on the Guinea Coast. But, they had been spotted and tracked by a Portuguese naval patrol, of which one of the vessels was commanded by Diogo Cão. During the early hours of 6 January and taking advantage of cover of the morning fog, the Portuguese took the Spanish by surprise and confiscated both their trading goods and ships, one the latter of which Diogo Cão claimed as his personal prize. But, first a little background to the Portuguese explorations


Henry The Navigator:

The main instigator of Portuguese naval exploration had been Prince Henry (1394-1460) the third son of King John 1 (1357- 1433) of Portugal. Henry was fascinated with the challenge of sea travel. He made his residence at Sagres near Cape Saint Vincent, and there he built an observatory and established Europe's first school for navigators. His passion to establish the Portuguese as the masters of the sea was continued by King Joao II and the innovations in navigation techniques, cartography and ship design along with an understanding of the ocean currents and winds gave the Portuguese the advantage over other nations in seafaring matters.


Prince Henry The Navigator with Alfonso V

Henry The Navigator

With Alfonso V

Mid 15th Century Portuguese Latten Rigged caravel

Mid 15th Century

Lateen rig Caravel

Portuguese Flag Mid-Fifteenth Century

Portuguese Flag

Mid15th Century


late 1400's


Cape Cross General location

Erongo Region

21º77'S - 13º95'E

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The Caravel, A Revolution In Ship Design:

The Portuguese also develop a new class of ship that became known as the caravel (Portuguese - Caravel,  from the Greek - Karabos,  or Arabic - Qarib). They were small vessels in relationship to the lumbering galleys that for over two millennium had plied the Mediterranean. Approximately 16m in length and having two or three short masts that carried lateen sails. They looked more like an Arab Dhow than a product of Western Europe, but the craft were seaworthy and were capable of sailing close to the wind. It was in these fast, robust little ships that the Portuguese began to explore the West Coast of Africa, and by 1446 they had reached as far South as the Gambia River.


The Portuguese continued to push further along the African coast and in 1482 established a fortified trading station, Sao Jorge de Mina, on the Gold Coast, present day Ghana. In the meantime, Diogo Cão must have established for himself a solid reputation at the Court of King Joao II, for he was chosen to command a voyage of exploration that would expand Portuguese influence along the Coast of Africa even further.


Diogo Cão the first voyage

The fleet consisted of two lateen rigged caravels, and it is known that Pero Dias, the brother of Bartolomeu Dias, sailed on this voyage as one of Diogo Cão's lieutenants. The ships were the first to carry Padròes, stone crosses that were to be used as markers that would indicate the new lands had been claimed in the name of Christ and Portugal. The fleet took on supplies at São Jorge de Mina and sailed into previously uncharted territories. They would have carefully recorded the changing night sky and were the first Europeans to cross the equator and see the Southern Cross. Diogo Cão charted at latitude 1º 52' S Cabo da Santa Catarina. Following their discovery of a great river known to the local as the Zaira, they named it the Rio Poderosa (Congo) and it is thought they explored the river as far asthe Yellala Falls (110 miles inland). Sailing to the south side of the mouth of the Congo River, they erected their first Padrão, which they dedicated to St. George, on a high point they called São Antonio de Zaira (now known as Shark Point).


The fleet sailed further along the coast until they reached the present day Cape Santa Maria which lays about 180km south of Lobito, in Angola. Here they erected the second Padrão at 13º29'S and named the place Cabo do Lobo and dedicated this Padrão to São Agostinho. It was from about this point that Diogo Cão turned and made his way back to Portugal to report his findings. On 8 April 1484 King Joao II knighted Diogo Cão and awarded him an annuity. The heraldry sign of Diogo Cão depicts the sea and Padròes.

Diogo Cão Coat of Arms

Coat of Arms of Diogo Cão


The Second Voyage Of Diogo Cão:

In 1485 Diogo Cão was commissioned again to command a second expedition along the west coast of Africa. Thought to comprise of two ships, the mission was two-fold. Explore further south and find the trade route to the East, and the Church's added request to find the land of the fabled Prester John. The date of the commencement of the voyage is unknown, but by the closing of the year the ships were n early January 1486 Diogo Cão erected a third Padrão at Cape Negro on the Angolan coast. The explorers then pushed further South and soon encountered the forbidding and often mist shrouded Namibian desert coastline. They eventually laid anchor in a bay where thousand of seals had made their settlement. The tired and hungry mariners would have caught some provisions, and it was here that Diogo Cão decided to erect his last Padrão on a rocky outcrop that he named Cabo da Padrão and declared this sparse and empty land for Christ and Portugal. It bore the inscription, "in the year 6685 of the creation of the Earth and 1485 after the birth of Christ the most excellent and most serene King Dom Jao II of Portugal ordered this land to be discovered and his Padrão to be placed by Diogo Cão, gentleman (or knight) of his house."



There is no exact record of the events that followed the landing at Cape Cross. Diogo Cão died while on this voyage. It is possible the ship sailed south for a day or so and then with the demise of the captain about-turned and sailed home to Portugal. Other thoughts are that Diogo Cão may have died later during the voyage while making a further exploratory journey up the Congo River.


Early charts beginning with the Germanus map of 1489 and Cantino map of 1502 do show the place as

 being named Cabo da Padrão, but exactly when and by whom Cape Cross was named is unknown. By the early nineteenth century several European maps had the area marked as being Cape Cross. Cabo da Padrão is marked about halfway on the map section to the left


The Padròes (Stone Crosses):

The discoveries being made along the West-African coast were the most impressive of the times and Pope Sixtus V proclaimed Prince Henry's nephew King John II (1455-1495) as being the "Lord of all of the African Possessions". The king ordered that Padròes commemorative pillars of limestone depicting the coat of arms of Portugal and surmounted with a Cross to be carved. These were to be erected at prominent places to serve as landmarks and also to proclaim sovereignty for Christianity and Portugal. The Padròes were about 3,5m in height and weighed 360kg


Acknowledgements and further reading:  H1, H2, H12, H15, H16, P1


The Cape Cross Site is Managed by the Namibia Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Permits to visit the Cape Cross site are available at the office on-site. Opening hours are: 10h00 to 17h00 


Model of the erection of the Padrão at Cape Cross, courtesy Swakopmund Museum

Portuguese Erecting

Padrão at Cape Cross


Section of the Cantino Planisphere

Section of Cantino Map 

Replica Padrão at Cape Cross Namibia

Replica Padrão

at Cape Cross

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Of Interest: Martin Behaim (of Nuremberg) Served King John II of Portugal from 1480 as a Member of the Council to Further Navigation. This Astronomer, Cartographer, Geographer and Navigator introduced several important improvements to early navigational equipment and tables and could have been involved in the planning of the Voyages of Diogo Cão. It is proposed, though highly unlikely, that Martin Behaim may have sailed on the second voyage of Diogo Cäo (1485-1486)


Diogo Cão at Cape Cross

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