Around the Cape

For shipping companies and world trade, the cost was astronomical. Some estimates put it at billions of dollars per day.

A huge ship stuck in the Suez Canal last month caused 400 other vessels to wait – or to reroute around the Cape of Good Hope. This would add cost to their journeys, but under the circumstances, few other options remained.

The caravel ‘Bartolomeu Dias’ at sea.
Image by: Sam J Basch

The Cape route between west and east had been the usual one for centuries. The Suez Canal was built only in 1859.

In 1487, with an eye on trade with India, Portugal’s King João II sent the skilled master mariner Bartolomeu Dias to find the route around Africa. Of course, the Portuguese had known about sea routes long before that.

The crew in period costume working the ropes with Captain Emílio de Sousa looking on.
Image by: Sam J Basch

They were familiar with classic tales of Phoenicians who had circumnavigated Africa more than 2 600 years ago. They had translations of Marco Polo’s manuscript describing his voyages in 1272 to China.

Armed with all this knowledge and more, along with maps purchased from Venetian cartographers, the Portuguese were about to sail East.

Bartolomeu Dias departed Lisbon in 1487. On the way, he took on supplies on the coast of present-day Ghana and proceeded south. Battling south-easterly winds, he purposely headed away from land, before turning east, not realising he had voyaged past the Cape.

Crew getting the hang of sailing the caravel.
Image by: Sam J Basch
Much work still to be done before departure…
Image by: Sam J Basch

The eventful and storm-wracked journey saw him unwittingly rounding the Cape, and not finding land, he turned northwards, where he made landfall near present-day Mossel Bay on 3 February 1488 – more than 500 years ago.

A crew member in period dress on the bridge.
Image by: Sam J Basch

A renowned expert on Portuguese maritime history, Prof Eric Axelson, wrote:

“Dias had rounded Africa. He had sailed to where the coast was trending to the north-east, and to where there was a strong warm current flowing from the north-east. He had definitely reached the Indian Ocean.”

It remained for his compatriot Vasco da Gama to complete the journey in 1497 all the way from Portugal to India.

South Africa’s large and influential Portuguese community launched a project in 1987 to commemorate the Dias voyage. A replica of the caravel was constructed in Portugal under the auspices of Aporvela, the Portuguese Sail Training Association.

The replica caravel under construction in Portugal
Image by: Sam J Basch

Caravels were probably adapted from vessels that Arabs were using to ply the Mediterranean, with some improvements that enabled the Portuguese to journey far out into the deep oceans.

A flotilla of sailing craft accompanying the ‘Bartolomeu Dias’ on the River Tagus at Lisbon.
Image by: Sam J Basch
The replica caravel ‘Bartolomeu Dias’ passing the historic Belem Tower outbound to South Africa in 1987.
Image by: Sam J Basch

The replica was built at a small shipyard in the town of Vila do Conde in the north of Portugal. After completing extensive sea trials, the ‘Bartolomeu Dias’ departed Lisbon on 8 November 1987 under the command of Captain Emílio de Sousa. His crew of 16 comprised both South African and Portuguese sailors, among which was acclaimed architect and avid yachtsman Gawie Fagan.

Belém Tower, built in the 16th century at the height of Portugal’s maritime feats to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s port.

The replica caravel is on permanent display in the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex in Mossel Bay.

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