The Dias Caravel at Mossel Bay

It was part of a grand design to find a sea route to the “land of spices”, India, via the southern tip of Africa. The ships’ landing point, on 3 February, 1488, was later to become known as Mossel Bay on the Garden Route of South Africa. This was not only the sole source of fresh water on a long and hazardous journey for Dias and his brave companions but also the first port where early explorers could communicate by letters left in the now historical Post Office. Today a life-size replica of the Dias caravel is part of the rich heritage of this magnificent town. It is the mainspring of a Maritime Museum which recounts Portuguese seafaring history from 1488 and its connection with the English and Dutch explorers until 1652. No log, no journal, no chart has survived of the Dias voyage. But later references in contemporary documents, maps and charts, as well as later accounts of the voyage, has enabled historians to reconstruct these events with a fair degree of certainty. Dias, who served at the king’s court, left the Tagus in August, 1487, in command of two caravels of about 100 tons each and a ship that carried extra stores. He called at Mina on the Ghana coast to replenish supplies and then sailed to the south of present Angola, where they left the supply vessel in a secluded bay. In December he passed Cape Cross where his predecessor, Diogo Cao, had raised a beacon, and coasted southwards. After passing the Orange River mouth, he ultimately rounded the African continent, steering north and landing in Mossel Bay on the festival day of Saint Blaize. Here his men took on fresh water and bartered with the local Khoi people for fresh meat. For many years after this, many Portuguese sailors, including the famed Vasco da Gama, landed here to trade and take on fresh provisions. In Algoa Bay Dias dropped anchor in the lee of an island on which a timber cross was raised. The two caravels turned homeward when they reached a river, probably the Keiskamma, and at the first suitable site, now known to us as Kwaaihoek, the Portuguese raised another beacon. On the return voyage to Portugal others were posted somewhere on the Cape Peninsula and at Luderitz. Arriving in the Tagus in December, 1488, Dias was not received in Lisbon as a hero but could derive satisfaction from the fact that he was the first Portuguese mariner to reach the Indian Ocean. After his return to his homeland, he advised on the construction of two square-rigged ships with which to complete the discovery of the sea route to India. He died 12 years after his circumnavigation of the Cape when his caravel sank with all aboard in 1500 in the south Atlantic. This caravel was part of a Portuguese fleet on its way to India after discovering Brazil. Dias was to have founded a trading station at Sofala in Mozambique. However, the voyage of Dias to Mossel Bay enabled European cartographers of the time to make considerable progress in reflecting the African coastline more accurately on their maps and charts. The first map of his route is believed to have been drawn by Henricus Martellus Germanus, a German living in Italy, based on information smuggled to him from Portugal, probably by the brothers Christopher and Bartolomeu Columbus. There are several Metallus maps but the best is preserved in the British Library in London. Caravels were lateen-rigged vessels of shallow draft, admirably suited for coastal exploration. These vessels were probably developed from Arab craft sailing in the Mediterranean at the time, but were improved in handling and design to such an extent that caravels became the first type of deep sea vessel used by the Portuguese. The research on which plans for the caravel replica was based could be described as naval archeology, since the original plans had been lost in time. In this process, the correct measurements had to be taken from old drawings and mosaics. In 1987-8 a symbolic re-enactment of the Dias voyage was undertaken in a replica of his caravel as a fitting way of honouring the memory of a great navigator. The replica was built at a shipyard in Vila de Conde in Portugal with traditional building materials being used as far as possible. She was named the Bartolomeu Dias and launched on 17 June, 1987, by Mrs Maria Soares, First Lady of the Republic of Portugal. The vessel then departed Lisbon on 8 November under the command of Captain Emilio Carlos de Sousa and arrived at Mossel Bay on 3 February, 1988, exactly 500 years after Dias called at the site on the original voyage. After participating in the main festival at Mossel Bay, she sailed for East London, Port Edward and Durban, to enable people attending local celebrations to gain first-hand knowledge of the ship. Mr Gene Lowe, chairman of the Dias festival in 1988, said: “For Portugal this commemoration represents a proud moment of reflecting on a glorious past. “For South Africa the opening of the Cape Sea Route in 1488 determined the course of her history. “Over the following five centuries this vital link brought together the people comprising the South African nation today.” l A large milkwood tree at Mossel Bay is believed to be the first “Post office” in South Africa, dating back to 1500, when a sailor named Pedro d’Ataide left a letter in an old shoe hanging in its branches, giving an account of his experiences in India. Another Portuguese mariner, Joao da Nova visited Mossel Bay in 1501 and found this report. From then on, the tree became the only way of communication between seafarers. To this day the fresh water fountain found by Dias still flows over a rocky area of Mossel Bay. The town also features the Da Gama Cross, known as a “Padao”, a gift from the Portuguese Government to commemorate the arrival of Dias in the bay. The wooden cross marks the first Christian place of worship in South Africa.

April 2006
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