Bartolomeu Dias

Explorer

Age of Discovery

Quick Facts:

The first European to sail around the tip of Africa, Dias opened the doors for seafaring trade with India.

Name: Bartolomeu Dias

Birth/Death: 1450 CE - 1500 CE

Nationality: Portuguese

Birthplace: Portugal

Statue of Bartolomeu Dias

Bartolomeu Dias

Statue of Bartolomeu Dias at the High Commission of South Africa in London (Credit: en:User:RedCoat10)

Early Life

Bartolomeu Dias was born to a noble Portuguese family; therefore, he received a good education. He reportedly worked for the King of Portugal in the royal warehouses for a time.

Voyages

An experienced sailor, Bartolomeu Dias made over 10 months of preparations before beginning his most important voyage. He left Lisbon in August 1487 with three ships: two armed caravels and a supply ship.

Six Africans from Angola and Guinea (two men and four women who had been taken to Portugal) went along with Dias. The plan was for the ships to drop the Africans off along the west coast of the continent with samples of gold, silver and spices, as well as orders to inquire where such products were to be found. They were also told to praise the King of Portugal and explain to the local chiefs and kings that the King of Portugal wanted to establish relations with Prester John (a legendary medieval Christian priest and king) and discover a sea route to India.

Bartolomeu Dias sailed for the mouth of the Congo River, then followed the coast southward and entered Walvis Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean on the western coast of Namibia. Dias lost sight of the coast at 20° south latitude when his ship was caught in a storm which lasted thirteen days. When the seas and sky finally cleared, Dias sailed in an easterly direction, hoping once again to see land. With no success sailing east, he made the decision to turn northward. He landed in Mossel Bay, on the coast of present-day South Africa, on February 3, 1488.

In May 1488, on his return voyage to Portugal, Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope, near the southern tip of Africa. Dias originally named it the Cape of Storms because of all the violent storms in the area. King John II later renamed the area so it wouldn’t sound so foreboding; he wanted to encourage others to travel in that direction.

At age 50, Bartolomeu Dias died in 1500 on another voyage, after being caught in a violent storm off the coast of Africa.

Notable Ships

The two caravel ships that Dias used on his voyage were named:

  • São Cristóvão

  • São Pantaleão

Dias also assisted in the construction of two ships later used by Vasco da Gama. Their names were:

  • São Gabriel

  • São Rafael

Legacy

Because of Dias’ voyage, Europeans realized they could establish their own trade route to India and Asia by sea travel. This was beneficial because European traders had previously paid large fees to use trade routes that went across land and through multiple countries.

Baker, Daniel B. Explorers and Discoverers of the World. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Fromkin, David. The Way of the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Gordon, Ruth E. From Dias to Vorster: Source material on South African history 1488-1975. Cape Town: Nasou, 1977.

Spoken, Howard. The World’s History, Third Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2006.