Bartolomeu Dias

Bartolomeu Dias de Novais (died 1500) was a Portuguese explorer who discovered the Cape of Good Hope and opened the sea route to the Indian Ocean.

It is not known when or where Bartolomeu Dias was born, and no information has survived about his early life. He emerged from obscurity only in 1487, when he sailed from Portugal with orders from King John II to continue exploration beyond a landmark raised by Diogo Cão in 1486 on the coast of South-West Africa. The King instructed Dias to discover a sea route to India which bypassed Moslem-dominated routes between the East and Europe and to seek information about the Christian empire of Abyssinia.

Journey of Discovery

In command of two caravels, each of about 100 modern tons, and of a storeship of about double that size, Dias left the Tagus River in August 1487. Beyond the farthest point reached by Cão, Dias made a close coasting. On Jan. 6, 1488, off the Serra dos Reis, in modern South Africa, Dias left the coast and was out of sight of land for 13 days. He steered eastward and found no land so altered course to the north. He closed the coast again opposite a river, the Gouritz of today. The coast ran eastward, and on February 3 he entered and named the bay of São Bras (modern Mossel Bay). Here he took in fresh water and bartered livestock from the local inhabitants, the Khoi-Khoi (Hottentots).

Continuing east, Dias came to a bay which he called Golfo da Roca; it was soon to be known as the Baia da Lagoa, a name subsequently corrupted to Algoa Bay. In this bay the crews verged on mutiny: they protested their shortage of provisions, pointed out that they had reached the extremity of the continent, and urged Dias to turn for home. A council agreed to this course, but Dias won consent to continue for a few more days.

At the end of the stipulated term the caravels reached a river which Dias called the Infante (probably modern Keiskama) after the captain of the second caravel. The coast was running decisively to the northeast, the sea became warmer, and it was clear that the expedition had indeed rounded Africa and reached the Indian Ocean. At the earliest conjunction of suitable site and favorable weather, at what came later to be called Kwaaihoek, 4 miles west of the Bushman's River, Dias landed and supervised the erection of a padrão, a square limestone pillar cut and inscribed in Portugal and surmounted by a block with the Portuguese coat of arms and a cross. It was a landmark, an assertion of Portuguese sovereignty, and a symbol of Christianity. Dedicated to St. Gregory, it was raised on March 12, 1488.

On May 16 Dias gave the name St. Brandon to a cape which soon became known as Agulhas. Dias discovered and named the Cape of Good Hope because, a contemporary recorded, "it gave indication and expectation of the discovery of India." There, on June 6, 1488, he probably raised another Padrão, dedicated to St. Philip. On Dias Point, west of Lüderitz, on July 25 he raised another padrão, dedicated to St. James. The caravels returned to the Tagus in December 1488. Dias had proved the sea route into the Indian Ocean.


Later Career

Dias helped administer the Guinea gold trade until 1494, when King Manuel I appointed him to supervise the construction of two square-rigged ships for Vasco da Gama's expedition. Dias kept the squadron company as far as the Cape Verde Islands, when he turned off to Guinea.

On the return of Vasco da Gama, Manuel dispatched a fleet of 13 vessels under Pedro álvares Cabral to the Indian Ocean to profit by the discoveries. In the fleet were 4 caravels under Bartolomeu Dias, who was instructed to found a trading station and fortress at the gold-exporting port of Sofala. The expedition left Brazil on May 2, 1500. On May 12 a comet came into view, "a prognostication of the sad event that was to take place," the Portuguese chronicler João de Barros remarked. The comet disappeared on May 23. The next day a sudden storm over whelmed 4 ships, which sank with all hands; among those lost was Dias.


Further Reading on Bartolomeu Dias de Novais

There are numerous books on the Portuguese voyages of exploration at the end of the 15th century. Recommended are Edgar Prestage, The Portuguese Pioneers (London: 1933) and "The Search for the Sea Route to India" in Arthur Percival Newton, ed. Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930); Mary Seymour Lucas, Vast Horizons (New York: The Viking Press, 1943); Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance, 1420-1620 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952); and Gerald R. Crone, The Discovery of the East (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972).

Probably the best account of Dias's voyage is in Eric Axelson, Congo to Cape: Early Portuguese Explorers (New York: 1974). Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance (1955), and J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaisance (1963), are excellent surveys of European overseas expansion that include mention of Dias. Useful background is provided in Eric Axelson, South-East Africa, 1488-1530 (1940).