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M. B. Synge

Bartholomew Diaz Reaches the Stormy Cape

B UT though Prince Henry was dead, the enthusiasm he had aroused among Portuguese navigators was not dead, and Portuguese ships still stole forth by twos and threes to search for treasure down the West African coast. In 1462 they reached Sierra Leone, the farthest point attained by Hanno of olden days. Each new headland was now taken in the name of Portugal: wooden crosses already marked each successive discovery, and many a tree near the coast bore the motto of Prince Henry carved roughly on its bark. Portugal had officially claimed this "Kingdom of the Seas" as it was called, and henceforth stone crosses some six feet high, inscribed with the arms of Portugal, the name of the navigator, and the date of discovery, marked each newly found spot.

It was not until 1471 that the navigators unconsciously crossed the Equator, "into a new heaven and a new earth." They saw stars unknown in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Northern Pole star sank nearly out of sight. Another thirteen years and Diego Cam, a knight of the King's household, found the mouth of the Congo and erected a great Portuguese pillar on the famous spot. It was in the year 1484 that Diego Cam was ordered to go "as far to the south as he could." He crossed the Equator, which for past years had been the limit of knowledge, and, continuing southwards he reached the mouth of the mighty river Congo, now known as the second of all the African rivers for size. The explorer ascended the river, falling in with peacefully inclined natives. But they could not make themselves understood, so Cam took back four of them to Portugal, where they learned enough Portuguese to talk a little. They were much struck with Portugal and the kind treatment they received from the King, who sent them back to their country laden with presents for their black King at home. So with Diego Cam they all sailed back to the Congo River. They were received by the King in royal state. Seated on a throne of ivory raised on a lofty wooden platform, he could be seen from all sides, his "black and glittering skin" shining out above a piece of damask given to him to wear by the Portuguese explorer. From his shoulder hung a dressed horse's tail, a symbol of royalty; on his head was a cap of palm leaves.


Negro boys, from Cabot's map, 1544.

It was here in this Congo district that the first negro was baptized in the presence of some twenty-five thousand heathen comrades. The ceremony was performed by Portuguese priests, and the negro King ordered all idols to be destroyed throughout his dominions. Here, too, a little Christian church was built, and the King and Queen became such earnest Christians that they sent their children to Portugal to be taught.

But even the discoveries of Diego Cam pale before the great achievement of Bartholomew Diaz, who was now to accomplish the great task which Prince Henry the Navigator had yearned to see fulfilled—the rounding of the Cape of Storms.

The expedition set sail for the south in August 1486. Passing the spot where Diego Cam had erected his farthest pillar, Diaz reached a headland, now known as Diaz Point, where he, too, placed a Portuguese pillar, that remained unbroken till about a hundred years ago. Still to the south he sailed, struggling with wind and weather, to Cape Voltas, close to the mouth of the Orange River. Then for another fortnight the little ships were driven before the wind, south and ever south, with half-reefed sails and no land in sight. Long days and longer nights passed to find them still drifting in an unknown sea, knowing not what an hour might bring forth. At last the great wind ceased to blow and it became icy cold. They had sailed to the south of South Africa. Steering north, Diaz now fell in with land—land with cattle near the shore and cowherds tending them, but the black cowherds were so alarmed at the sight of the Portuguese that they fled away inland.

We know now, what neither Diaz nor his crew even suspected, that he had actually rounded, without seeing, the Cape of Good Hope. The coast now turned eastward till a small island was reached in a bay we now call Algoa Bay. Here Bartholomew Diaz set up another pillar with its cross and inscription, naming the rock Santa Cruz. This was the first land beyond the Cape ever trodden by European feet. Unfortunately the natives—Kafirs—threw stones at them, and it was impossible to make friends and to land. The crews, too, began to complain. They were worn out with continual work, weary for fresh food, terrified at the heavy seas that broke on these southern shores. With one voice they protested against proceeding any farther. But the explorer could not bear to turn back; he must sail onwards now, just three days more, and then if they found nothing he would turn back. They sailed on and came to the mouth of a large river—the Great Fish River. Again the keen explorer would sail on and add to his already momentous discoveries. But the crews again began their complaints and, deeply disappointed, Diaz had to turn. "When he reached the little island of Santa Cruz and bade farewell to the cross which he had there erected, it was with grief as intense as if he were leaving his child in the wilderness with no hope of ever seeing him again." To him it seemed as though he had endured all his hardships in vain. He knew not what he had really accomplished as yet. But his eyes were soon to be opened. Sailing westward, Diaz at last came in sight of "that remarkable Cape which had been hidden from the eyes of man for so many centuries."


The west coast of Africa, from Martin Behaim's map, 1492.

Remembering their perils past, he called it "the Stormy Cape "and hastened home to the King of Portugal with his great news. The King was overjoyed, but he refused to name it the Cape of Storms. Would not such a name deter the seamen of the future? Was not this the long-sought passage to India? Rather it should be called the Cape of Good Hope, the name which it has held throughout the centuries. In the course of one voyage, Diaz had accomplished the great task which for the past seventy years Prince Henry had set before his people. He had lifted for the first time in the history of the world the veil that had hung over the mysterious extremity of the great African continent. The Phœnicians may have discovered it some seventeen hundred years before Diaz, but the record of tradition alone exists.

Now with the new art of printing, which was transforming the whole aspect of life, the brilliant achievement of Bartholomew Diaz was made known far and wide.

It was shortly to be followed by a yet more brilliant feat by a yet more brilliant navigator, "the most illustrious that the world has seen." The very name of Christopher Columbus calls up the vision of a resolute man beating right out into the westward unknown seas and finding as his great reward a whole new continent—a New World of whose existence mankind had hardly dreamt.