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Bartolomeu Dias

[aka Bartholomew Diaz] leader of the first European expedition to round the southern tip of Africa by sea

Bartolomeu Dias

Bartolomeu Dias was born in Portugal sometime around 1450. Little is known about his early life, but it is believed that he came from a long line of navigators that may have included Dinis Dias, who rounded Cape Verde in 1455, and Joao Dias, who rounded Cape Bojador in 1437. Accounts of Bartolomeu's earliest voyages are very few and far between, but it is known that he accompanied Diogo d'Azambuja on an expedition to the Gold Coast of Africa in 1481.

Dias was a cavalier of the royal court, superintendent of the royal warehouses and sailing-master of the man-of-war San Christovao when, on October 10, 1486, King John II appointed him as the head of an expedition to sail around the southern end of Africa for the purpose of establishing a sea route to the rich trading grounds of India.

The expedition left Lisbon in late July or early August 1487 with two armed caravels of fifty tons each and one supply ship. It sailed first towards the mouth of the Congo River, then followed the African coast southward to Walfisch Bay, where Dias erected a stone column. After passing 29° south latitude he lost sight of the coast and was driven by a violent storm, which lasted thirteen days, far beyond the southernmost point of Africa. When calm returned he sailed again in an easterly direction and, when no land appeared, turned northward, finally landing at Mossel Bay (in present-day South Africa). Following the coast he reached Algoa Bay and the Great Fish River before being forced by the crew's fears to turn around and head back to Portugal. It was during the return trip that Dias spotted the southernmost point of Africa. Although some controversy surrounds who named that point the Cape of Good Hope, most historians generally give credit to Dias rather than King John II, who may have named it Cape Tormentoso (Cape of Storms). The expedition returned to Lisbon in December 1488, after an absence of sixteen months and seventeen days.

map of Dias' route

Despite his success at sailing around the southern tip of Africa, Dias was not given credit within Portugal for locating and mapping the Cape of Good Hope -- probably because he had failed to reach India. Nevertheless, in 1494 he was appointed to oversee the construction and outfitting of a fleet of ships for an expedition to reach India by way of the Cape of Good Hope. This expedition, led by Vasco da Gama, left Portugal in 1497; Dias accompanied the voyage, but in a subordinate position and only as far as the Cape Verde Islands. Upon reaching the islands he was sent to establish trading posts in present-day Mozambique.

In 1500 Dias was given command of a caravel in Pedro Ălvares Cabral's expedition to civilize, Christianize, and trade with India. Due to a miscalculation in longitude the expedition sailed so far to the southwest that it saw land and forests never seen before. The trees were bright red, like glowing embers, hence the name given to the new territory -- Brazil. The grand discovery came at a price, however. On May 29, the expedition was overtaken by a sudden storm that overwhelmed four vessels, one of which was that of Dias.

Vasco da Gama
Pedro Ălvares Cabral

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The Robinson Library >> Geography >> History of Discoveries, Explorations, and Travel

This page was last updated on 10/24/2017.