When people think of maritime explorers, they usually think of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Leif Eriksson. All of these are important historical figures in their own right, but one shouldn’t forget to include Bartolomeu Dias in the list. This comes from the fact that the Portuguese explorer had several impressive achievements that should not be ignored and that he had important contributions to the world of maritime exploration.
Before we tackle his accomplishments, though, let’s take a closer look at who Bartolomeu Dias really was. Nothing is known much about his life before his voyage, except that he was a part of the court of Portuguese king João II and that he managed the royal warehouses. Historians think that Dias was in his thirties when he was assigned to the famous expedition, and they assume that he had prior experience with seafaring, although nothing is known about these voyages.
Joao was interested in two major things: finding a nautical route to India and locating the kingdom ruled by Prester John. The former was important because land routes to India (which required people to go through the Middle East) was labor- and time-intensive and was becoming more dangerous with the fall of the Byzantine Empire under the Ottoman army. With a nautical route, the Portuguese can bypass the Middle East and reach India with relatively less hassle.
Finding Prester John, meanwhile, was a goal that many rulers (not just Joao II) were interested in. Prester John was a legendary figure who was thought to run a rich and holy Christian empire in Africa, which was considered to be impressive since Africa was predominantly a Muslim continent. However, no one really knew exactly where this empire was located, so monarchs and explorers took it upon themselves to search for it.
Bartolomeu Dias only had one major achievement: he was credited to be the first European who was able to sail around the southern tip of Africa (known as Cape Agulhas in modern times). This is a big accomplishment, though, because doing this allowed the Portuguese to prove that there indeed was a faster and easier way to travel to India and obtain spices and other goods.
Joao II dispatched Bartolomeu Dias with the goal of finding an ocean route to India and locating the Kingdom of Prester John. Dias was given three ships, namely the Sao Cristovao (which was commanded by Dias himself), the Sao Pantaleao (which was commanded by Joao Infante), and a support ship that was commanded by Dias’s brother Pero. Dias had brought along six African people who were previously brought to Portugal by other explorers, and he dropped them off one by one as they passed different ports along the African coastline. The Africans were each given gold and silver, which they were to give to the indigenous people to express the Portuguese’s goodwill.
When Dias’s expedition reached Angola, they decided to leave their supply ship there and continue with the two remaining ships. They passed the Cape of Good Hope, but they didn’t really notice it because their ship was too far from land. After a month of sailing, they eventually spotted land, an area which they called Aguada de Sao Bras and is now named Mossel Bay. They sailed further until they reached Kwaaihoek (which is now a part of the Eastern Cape province). There, they planted a stone cross called a padrao, which was used by Portuguese explorers to claim land for their king.
Dias wanted to go on further and reach India, but his crew disagreed because they were low on food supplies. So, to prevent a mutiny, he had to stop at planting the padrao on Kwaaihoek. On their journey back to Angola, Dias noted that they passed the southernmost part of Africa. He also observed the Cape of Good Hope, which he called Cabo das Tormentas (or Cape of Storms in English). He chose this name because the cape was the site of strong and dangerous storms, which threatened to damage and even destroy passing ships.
Bartolomeu Dias eventually returned to Portugal after sixteen months of being away. He undeniably achieved a huge goal by navigating around Africa’s southernmost tip, but King Joao II was disappointed that he wasn’t able to reach India. Because of this, Dias was no longer put in charge of any expeditions. (It’s interesting to note that Joao II decided to rename Cabo das Tormentas into Cabo da Boa Esperanca, or Cape of Good Hope, presumably to celebrate the fact that it paved the way to an ocean route to India.)
Despite the fact that he no longer headed expeditions, Dias was still involved in a couple of voyages. He became a shipbuilding consultant and helped create the ship that explorer Vasco da Gama would use. He even joined da Gama’s expedition, although he only made it to Cape Verde before he decided to head back to Guinea, where he had been living at the time. (Vasco da Gama eventually made it to India.)
A few years later, Dias became a part of the expedition that aimed to reach India and was commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral. Dias was the captain of one of the ships. Unfortunately, this proved to be a perilous journey; when the expedition reached the Cape of Good Hope, they encountered a storm that took down four of their ships, one of which was Dias’s. They were never found, and Dias was believed to have perished during this unfortunate event. Many people have pointed out the curious fact that Dias died in a storm in the area that he himself named the Cape of Storms.
Bartolomeu Dias may not be as celebrated as other explorers of his time. However, it can’t be denied that he made a huge contribution to the evolution of maritime exploration. Without his journey around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas, Portugal wouldn’t have discovered an ocean route to India, and trading between the two countries wouldn’t have flourished as it did.