The Rounding of Cape Point
Part 1: The first attempt – Bartolomeu Dias
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the first sailing ship to have rounded the Cape of Good Hope, is that it didn’t.
Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias left Europe on a quest. He was searching for a passage to India around the African continent, hoping to bypass the troublesome Middle East. On this particular journey, he didn’t actually see Cape Point. He managed to miss the spectacular milestone entirely – and by some considerable distance!
Dias was approaching this tip of the African continent in 1488 when suddenly his ship was hit by a very persistent south-easterly gale. People who live in Cape Town today are very familiar with this wind. It’s known as the Cape Doctor because it’s believed to clear Cape Town of pollution.
The Cape Doctor whips the ocean into a white spray, making life very uncomfortable for anybody on a boat. It rocks the vessel and infuses the air with salty mist, routinely reaching gale force extremes in summer. That was precisely when Dias was approaching this corner of Africa.
The southeaster blows directly into any ship that’s sailing down the west coast of Africa, so Dias found it extremely difficult to hug the coastline.
Of course, he had no idea how close he was to rounding the African continent. He was frustrated by this constant battle of having to tack directly into the wind, so he decided to take an easier course. He sailed west and south – heading away from Africa, and beyond sight of the coastline.
For thirteen days Dias sailed into the open ocean, travelling hundreds of nautical miles southwest of Cape Point. When the wind began blowing in a more favourable direction, he found himself in cold and uncharted waters – further south than any European sailor had ever been on this longitude.
The explorer decided to seek landfall upon Africa’s shores, so he sailed east again. But when he did, he discovered that where the coastline of the African continent had once been, he now encountered only water!
Imagine, for a moment, the crew’s feelings at this time. Their course had not been well-calculated – it was merely an attempt to outmanoeuvre an irritating wind. For months, the sight of land had been a comfort, like a banister alongside a staircase that now led only downwards, into a vast unknown.
Once all sight of land was gone, it was as if the entire continent had disappeared.
Had their pilot made a terrible mistake? Was the compass still working? Were they on the cusp of success, or the brink of disaster? Had they found a path around the continent and onto India, or were they lost at sea?
Dias sailed east, groping for land, but still he found nothing but open ocean. Finally he headed north. You can imagine the crew’s relief and elation when they finally sighted land on the 4th of February, 1488. From his vantage point on the deck, Dias could see a rocky outcrop above a beautiful, calm bay. And beside it was a vast beach stretching not south but east – endlessly east.
What the explorer laid eyes on is actually a typical scene along South Africa’s east coast: currents and prevailing winds have created a series of bays with rocks at their western extremes, leading onto golden beaches. Although Dias’s journals of the voyage have been lost, historians agree that he landed on Mossel Bay, some 400 kilometres past Cape Point.
Dias did not reach India. He travelled as far east as the Bushman’s River Mouth, near modern-day Port Alfred. There, the water became warm – an indication that he had passed from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean. But those anxious weeks in the open seas south of Africa had taken their toll on morale. The crew begged the captain to head back home. Dias agreed.
And it was only then, on his return journey, that Bartolomeu Dias discovered Cape Point. It was almost entirely by accident that he stumbled upon this corner of the African continent, where today a majestic crag of earth juts into the Atlantic, just as it has for millions of years.
Dias’ posthumous chronicler, Joao de Barros, wrote:
“…they came in sight of that great and famous Cape,
concealed for many centuries, which – when it was seen –
made known not only itself, but also another world of countries.”
Dias named this spectacular promontory the Cape of Storms, but upon his return to Portugal, King Joao II changed it to the Cape of Good Hope. It was he who had initially sent Dias on his journey.
Interestingly, the king also commanded Dias to alter the voyage’s official measurements by some considerable distance. He wanted to ensure that the Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus wouldn’t be able to gain an advantage, should the information reach him. Competition for the coveted trade route was fierce.
So the first person to make it all the way from Europe to India was, in fact, Vasco da Gama.
Part 2: The second attempt – Vasco da Gama
In the early 1800s, an ancient manuscript was discovered in Santa Cruz Convent, in a large Portuguese city called Coimbra. It was a copy of a diary belonging to a sailor who had joined Vasco da Gama on his journey from Europe to Africa, the first time the feat had ever been accomplished.
The sailor was identified as the Portuguese writer, Alvaro Velho. He was born in Berreira, near Lisbon, but spent his final days in North Africa after being banished for an unknown crime.
Velho’s account of Da Gama’s journey was published in 1838, and was partially translated into English at the end of the century. It’s a fascinating account of the journey – if not very objective – and was almost certainly edited by Portuguese court officials. In it, we learn what happened after King Joao II ordered Vasco Da Gama to complete the voyage to India that Bartolomeu Dias had first begun.
In 1497, just before the ships reached Cape Point, Da Gama’s party landed in St Helena Bay. There they found a local man collecting honey, and they brought him aboard. (Velho’s diary doesn’t say whether by force or persuasion.) It does say:
“We took him to the Commander-in-Chief’s ship, who placed him
at his table, and he ate of everything they ate.
The next day the Commander clothed him very well,
and ordered him to be put ashore.”
The honey collector returned to his tribe with what we can assume was considerable haste, and the next day a distinguished party of local men appeared on the beach. The Portuguese seamen showed them goods that they wished to trade and gave them “little bells and rings of tin” in return for “shells and fox tails fastened to sticks.”
Once the bartering was over, a shipman by the name of Fernao Veloso begged the Commander to be allowed to go into the tribe’s village. He said he wanted to know how they lived, what they ate, and what their life was like. The Commander was reluctant, but Veloso persisted, and eventually permission was granted.
Veloso approached a group of local men on the beach, and they shared a meal of roasted seal and roots. But when it came time to return to their village, the tribesmen indicated that they didn’t want the sailor to join them.
Instead, the would-be anthropologist called a boat to fetch him, but as its sailors were trying to pick him up, Velho writes, the tribesmen began to attack them with assegais, wounding the Commander and three or four men. It’s impossible to speculate on the motives surrounding the attack, but it was with some consternation that the Portuguese left the bay to continue their mission.
Like his predecessor Bartolomeu Dias, Da Gama also had some difficulty rounding the Cape of Good Hope because of the south-easterly wind. It was only after their third attempt in five days that he managed to round Cape Point.
They eventually anchored at Mossel Bay, and Da Gama described how a local tribe approached them and accepted bells from the hand of the Commander-in-Chief.
The Commander was cautious. He had heard stories of Dias being attacked with rocks while collecting water in Mossel Bay. In fact, it was here that Dias had shot one of his assailants with a crossbow. Da Gama decided on an open space in which to trade. He received some ivory bracelets for his efforts.
The following day, a large party of locals arrived with 12 cattle, some sheep, and a party of musicians and dancers. The universal language of music did much to thaw relations between the Africans and Europeans. Before long, the Commander had ordered his men to play trumpets and to dance, and even joined his crew in the celebrations.
That night, the Portuguese traded a black ox for three bracelets. Velho described it in his diary:
“It was very fat; and the flesh of it was as savoury as meat of Portugal.”
But the next day, relations quickly soured. Da Gama wished to fill up his water barrels, but the locals refused. A skirmish broke out, and soon the Portuguese were firing warning shots at the beach with their cannons.
Succeeding in rounding the Cape had led Vasco da Gama and his men to dine with a honey collector, trade with a tribe which later attacked them, to enjoy a celebration of song and dance, have a braai, and to defend themselves in a skirmish – all in just over a week!
Part 3: The Padraos of Cape Point
Portuguese explorers used to mark their landing points on voyages of discovery with a stone monument called a padrao. These large stone pillars – topped with crosses and emblazoned with the Portuguese coat of arms – were symbols of Portugal’s imperial ambitions, and the “Christening” of uncharted shores. All Portuguese ships that sailed to the edges of maps, and beyond, carried them in their holds.
We know that Dias erected a padrao at Cape Point in 1487, but we don’t know exactly where, or what happened to it. After he reached Bushman’s River Mouth, Dias turned back to Europe, and fragments of the padrao he left there were found centuries later by a South African historian.
Eric Axelson, the historian, soon began searching for the padrao that Dias had erected at Cape Point, but to no avail. He did find a ring of rocks with fragments of wood in its centre at Cape Maclear, which looms over Dias Beach. Perhaps Dias’ Cape Point padrao had been made from wood, not stone, he hypothesized.
We know that southern Africa’s indigenous inhabitants didn’t approve of this land annexation by pillar and cross, and a stone padrao may have been destroyed by local tribes. It might have simply fallen into the sea. Still, we will never know where it was first erected.
Dias’s successor, Vasco da Gama, wrote about Sao Bras – or modern-day Mossel Bay – in his diary:
“While we were in this bay of Sao Bras, taking in water one Wednesday,
we placed a cross and a padrao at the said bay…
We made the cross out of mizzen-mast, and it was very tall.
The following Thursday, as we were about to leave the said bay,
before we departed we saw about 10 or 12 negroes overthrow both the cross and the padrao.
After taking in everything that was necessary, we departed from here.”
The padraos that stand at Cape Point today were erected in the mid-1960s. The one you’ll see on the main road is called the Dias Beacon. It’s painted black so it’s more visible against the blue sky. The padrao on the road down to Bordjiesrif is a memorial to Vasco da Gama, and it’s painted white in contrast with the land.
These padraos were positioned to serve as markers to help passing vessels avoid Whittle Rock: a treacherous obstacle in False Bay, and the source of many a ship’s demise.
If you stand on Cape Point Peak, beside the lighthouse, you’ll be able to look down and imagine what these pioneers saw when they first rounded the promontory.
Behind you, you’ll see that the coast runs clearly north to Europe. And to your left, it follows a curved line east, to India, and beyond. Cape Point is indeed the corner of the African continent.
To listen to podcasts of the stories of Cape Point, click here.