Bartolomeu Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope

On October 10, 1487, after Alonso Sánchez returned from his shipwreck and Christopher Columbus left Portugal, King João II appointed the experienced navigator Bartolomeu Dias to continue the search for a route under Africa to the Indies. At the least, King João hoped Dias would find the bay that cut into Africa and open a new route to the Kingdom of Prester John.

The Order of Christ sent four Christianized Negroes with Dias – four women and two men – to aide him as he traveled through Africa. The missionaries dressed in fine, brightly colored vestments [clothing] to give them “a note of authority and wealth.” Instructed on how to serve as interpreters and preachers of the Christian faith, the missionaries were to stay in Africa as ambassadors of Portugal and ask Prester John to send four ambassadors to Portugal in return.

Bartolomeu Dias left in August with three caravels and one supply ship [a carrack]. Dias commanded the São Cristóvão [ironically, Saint Christopher]. A Prince João [the record does not specify which prince of that name he was] commanded the São Pantaleão, named after the Greek King Pantaleon (r. 190-180 BCE), who was the first governor of India during ancient times. Dias’ brother Diogo Dias [some accounts call him Pêro] commanded the supply ship. Pêro de Alenquer and João de SãoTiago, who had sailed with Diogo Cão, were also part of the team.

The expedition sailed directly to the “Land of Santa Barbara,” the last point reached by Diogo Cão, where, Cão’s crew had reported, there was an excellent anchorage [somewhere above today’s Walvis Bay]. They anchored there December 4. Dias restocked with wood and water, and then parked his supply ship in a cove he thought was safe. He left Diogo and a small crew to guard the ship. On December 26, the caravels reached the “Gulf of St. Stephen,” which was either today’s Luderitz Bay, where fragments of the pillar Diaz planted were supposedly still in evidence in 1969, or Elizabeth Bay in today’s Namibia.

From there Dias sailed south past “barren and inhabitable lands.” The weather grew colder. The winds lashing his ships from the southeast became so fierce, Dias had to stay in today’s Alexander Bay for seven days.

The Portuguese then traveled south for thirteen days. The weather remained miserably cold, and the winds prevented them from staying too close to the coast. They did not know that they were passing, portside, the cape that Dias would later name the Cape of Good Hope. To their surprise, the temperature turned moderate as warm winds drifted toward them from the Indian Ocean. Dias turned his fleet eastward, expecting to hit the coast. When there was no land, he turned north. He finally sighted land again at today’s Mossel Bay on February 3, 1488.

The ships dropped anchor beneath some cliffs, on top of which “wooly-headed” men herded grazing cattle. Bartolomeu Dias named the place Bahia dos Vaqueiros [Bay of the Cattle, or Bay of Cowheads]. The missionaries tried to make friends with the herders but were greeted with a barrage of stones.

Dias named the creek there Angra da Roca [Roca Creek] Supplies were running low and there was no sign of advanced civilization anywhere. There were no Indian castles, no Chinese market places, not even other merchant ships from whom they could beg.

The crew were tired and frightened to be so far away from home. Their foul-smelling ships greatly needed a wash down. They demanded that Dias turn for Portugal. The captain took a vote. When the majority of officers insisted, Dias drafted a document and made them sign it so that he would not be responsible for the decision.

Before turning for home, Dias wanted to survey Algoa Bay. He erected a pillar at the farthest eastern point that he reached on May 16, 1488. He named it St. Brennon [St. Brandon] after the legendary wandering bishop. Today the cape is called Cape Aguhlas. It is ninety-one miles southeast of the Cape of Good Hope and the more true dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. One account states that the party reached a river Dias named Rio do Infante [River of the Prince] after João Infante [Prince João], the pilot of the São Pantaleão. That would be today’s Groot-Vis River [Great Fish River]. One of Dias’ pillars was found thirty miles west of that river in 1938.

Favorable winds helped the fleet head west. This time they sailed closer to land and came across the cape and beautiful bay Diaz named Cabo da Boa Esperança [Cape of Good Hope]. Evidently he first named it Cabo das Tormentas [Cape of Storms]. On the way up the coast, Dias returned to Walvis Bay to retrieve his supply ship, only to find it ransacked. All the men except his brother and a few crew members had been slaughtered. One of the survivors was so weak he dropped dead from a heart attack when he saw his rescuers sail over the horizon.(1)

Bartolomeu Dias exchanged his fouled caravel for the larger carrack supply ship and sailed for home with the remaining two caravels. They stopped at St. Jorge daMina to collect a cargo of slaves and some gold dust. The profits for transporting the cargo would help pay for their expedition. The three ships “crossed the bar of the Tagus River at Lisbon” and anchored triumphantly off the beach at Rostello(2). Within days, Dias presented his charts and ship logs to King João II.

Graphologists have proven that some of the notes written in the margins of Christopher Columbus’ copy of The Travels of Marco Polo were in Bartolomé Columbus’ handwriting. One of those notes stated that he, Bartolomé, was there when “in the year [14]88, in the month of December arrived in Lisbon, Bartholomew Diaz, Captain of three caravels that the Most Serene King of Portugal [João II] had sent to try out the land in Guinea.”

From that scribbled note, we learn that Bartolomé Columbus was attending court the day Diaz arrived. Bartolomé was a witness to the moment when Dias trumped any hopes that Bartolomé and Christopher might change King João’s mind about sailing west.

Christopher Columbus’ copy of Marco Polo’s Travels with his notes in the margins. Held in the Colón Museum in Seville, Spain.(3)


  1. This same story about retrieving a supply ship has been attributed to Vasco da Gama’s voyage.
  2. “The bar” referred to the sandbars guarding the entrance to the river. I have been unable to locate Rostello beach.
  3. Christopher Columbus’ copy of The Travels of Marco Polo with Columbus’ notes in the margins. Held in the Colón Museum in Seville, Spain. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Via Wikimedia. Image source:

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