Discovery of the Cape

In the fifteenth Century Venice was a centre of influence and wealth. She was much envied for the rich trade that came to her from the East, by way of Alexandria, and Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, grandson of John of Gaunt and second son of the Portuguese king, was determined to wrest the glittering monopoly from the Venetians through the discovery and exploitation of a sea route to the lands of silks and spices. Moreover, he perceived in such an expedition a crusade worthy of a prince of Christendom. If his captains could discover the southward extent of the African Continent, and the maps of the day did not show it as being of a very great distance, they could then sail North and fall upon the Ottoman Turks, who were a growing threat to Europe, from the rear.

This was Henry’s consuming ambition and he pursued it assiduously. A number of maritime expeditions were sent down the West coast of Africa and as each reached a point further South than its predecessor, its captain would order the erection of a wooden cross (Padreo) or have inscriptions carved on the trees to mark the extremity of his voyage.

Prince Henry died with his dreams unfulfilled, but the young King John II was equally bent on establishing Portuguese trade with the Indies. Henry’s expeditions were followed up with more substantial ships and improved navigational instruments. By 1485 the Portuguese had reached Cape Cross where they once again erected a padrao.

In the following year one of the King’s most intrepid

captains, Bartholomew Diaz, began the voyage which was to lead to the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope.

Bartolomeu Dias was an overseer at the royal Guinea warehouses in Lisbon.

By 148I he was in charge of one of the ships in the first expedition to Guinea under the patronage of the new sovereign, Joao II, and on 10 October, 1486, he was given the caravel S. Cristovao, one of the little ships with which he was to sail for Africa the following year.

With his two caravels, each of approximately one hundred tons, and a nameless little cargo-vessel, he left the Tagus in July or at the beginning of August 1487, to return about December 1488, after sixteen months and seventeen days.

From the first week of December 1487, Dias sailed along the arid Namib coast of South West Africa, and his progress can be determined chronologically because of his habit of naming places according to the festivals of saints in the Catholic calendar.

After visiting the modern Walvis Bay, the caravels had by Christmas day entered the wide bay now known as Liideritzbucht. They had left their supply ship behind. The southward voyage continued as far as the Namaqualand coast, where European eyes saw for the first time in the misty interior the mountains that were later to be called the Pakhuisberg, Kapteinskloof and Cedarberg.

It must have been during the first week of the year 1488 that the Dias caravels in the face of a strong south-easter, were deliberately taken off course – and not driven along by a storm, as traditionally was believed for a long time – for more than a thousand miles into the Atlantic Ocean by their pilot, Pero d’ Alenquer. Then a southerly course was set along latitude which took the ships past the unseen Cape, before they were swung northwards to reach land again.

The sight, during the first days of February, of the Arican coast west of Mossel Bay must have been a moment of triumph for Dias. At last, for the first time, south of the equator, the coast ran in a new direction, which indicated that the “southern shore” of this African continent had finally been reached after more than seventy years, and that the passage to the India and the glamorous riches of the East was now in sight.

Mossel Bay was named Aguada de Sao Bras by these first circumnavigators of Africa, and to the Portuguese this fountain of Saint Blaise remained the only harbour of importance on the southern coast of Africa for more than a century.

During Dias’s first visit it was also the scene of the first contact between Europeans and the native Hottentots, a meeting that was unfortunately marred by violence.

The last dramatic stage along the south coast ended in personal defeat and disappointment for Dias. Royal orders compelled him to consult his fellow travellers about whether or not to continue the voyage. The weight of their opinion, which took place in the bay now known as Algoa Bay, forced Dias to turn his ships in March 1488, after a river-mouth, generally accepted to be that of the Great Fish River, had been reached.

Although for Dias this must have been an exasperating decision, time was to prove its wisdom. The defects of his small ships, the lack of provisions, the distance to the real India – the coast of Malabar – and above all the relentless enmity of Islam in the Indian Ocean, meant that Dias probably would never have returned from his travels, even if he had reached his destination.

On his return voyage he erected padroes at three places, starting at Kwaaihoek, west of the Bushman’s River mouth, where the cross of Saint Gregory was raised on the I2th March 1488.

Fragments of this, the oldest evidence of European contact with South Africa, were discovered in 1938 and 1939 by the historian Eric Axelson, and can be seen in a reconstructed form in the library of the University of the Witwatersrand.

A second limestone cross was erected on 6 June, 1488, in the vicinity of Cape Point, which according to contemporary evidence was named Cabo de Boa Esperanza by Dias himself, and not, as some believe, by King Joao 11.

This was the Cape around which Dias had unwittingly sailed on his outward voyage. This most southern tip was the only part he actually saw of the Cape peninsula. The return voyage proceeded without interruption from Cape Point to Luderitzbucht, where, before Dias sailed for Europe, the third padrao was erected in July 1488,

The discoverer of Southern Africa was received unobtrusively by his sovereign, and lived without recognition or reward until he met his death in the South Atlantic Ocean in 1500, on another voyage to India in the service of his king.

Da Gama sails round the Southern Land and reaches India

Nine years were to pass after Dias’s homecoming before a Portuguese ship was once more to brave the stormy seas of the Cape. The main reason for this delay was that African trade had already brought Lisbon considerable prosperity

The leading advocate of further attempts to reach India had always been King Joao 11.

Manuel I, who ruled Portugal until 1521, and whose reign was to witness the flowering of a Portuguese trading empire extending from Brazil to the Malayan Archipelago, was truly the spiritual heir to the Great Navigator. Immediately after his accession to the throne preparations were begun for the expedition that was to reach the destination Dias had aimed at.

The two ships of the new expedition – Sao Rafael and Sao Gabriel, were nearly three times the size of Dias’s caravels. Each had twenty cannon of various calibre and was thus well-armed. The light caravel Berrio was to accompany the two large ships as a lookout ship, and there was also a heavy cargo-vessel for provisions and supplies. The ships were provided with the latest means of measuring latitudes, improved astrolabes, including one that could be erected on land to obtain more accurate readings, and the services of Dias’s experienced pilot, Pero d’ Alenquer.

The man to whom the King in 1497 gave the command, as captain-major, of the ships that were to reach India via the Cape, was thirty-eight year old Vasco da Gama (1460 – 1524), a bachelor and the son of a magistrate in the coastal town of Sines. Da Gama. He was quite different from the gentle Dias. He did not have much knowledge of navigation and had to rely on his pilots. But he was a stern disciplinarian and loyal servant of his king. He was ruthless in the execution of what he considered to be his duty. The oath which Da Gama solemnly swore on the cross before his sovereign, in which he undertook “to go out to discover the oceans and countries of India and the East”, sustained him throughout his voyage.

His departure from the Tagus on 8 July 1497 was colourful. It was surpassed in splendour only by his return more than two years later, about August 1499, as the hero who had charted for Portugal the sea-route to the coast of Malabar around the Cape, key to the riches of the East.

On the 7th November 1497, da Gama landed in the bay he christened St. Helena Bay. Here he saw Hottentots for the first time.

Da Gama, like Dias, then found himself faced with the necessity of sailing directly into the raging south-easter. He sailed round the Cape directly into the wind without swerving to the west. He landed at Angra de Sao Bras, where he saw the “brown people” again during a stay of thirteen days and bartered cattle before continuing his voyage past the Rio de Infante, the furthest point reached by Dias.

Traditionally, Da Gama gave the name Terra do Natal to the coast around the Kei River on Christmas Day.

On the way to his great triumph – the reaching via the Cape of the Malabar coast in May, 1498 – Da Gama penetrated the Mohammedan world of commerce, and in the old island city of Mozambique the first “ships of the Franks” caused amazement and afterwards bloody conflict with the “Moors”.

In the years to come Portuguese ships, sailing according to the strict timetable of the monsoon season, were to use Mozambique as a landmark on the southeast coast of Africa.

Da Gama returned from India without costly cargoes, or valuable trade treaties, but the sea-route round the Cape which he had charted with ruthless perseverance was a priceless gift for Manuel I. Portugal could now exploit the unparalleled riches of the Indian trade as a royal monopoly.

For two decades after Da Gama’s first voyage Manuel developed his Indian empire “in the service of God our Lord and to our own advantage”, as he once put it.

Many factors caused the Portuguese monopoly of the Eastern trade to totter dangerously. There was corruption in the Indian service and a shortage of manpower. The unwieldy and overloaded ships were an easy prey to English and French pirates or heavy seas. Portions of the royal monopoly were leased to strangers: in particular the perspicacious Dutch who distributed the spices quickly realized the possibilities of the Indian trade and before long began to filch the trade round the Cape from its jealous guardians.

In 1596 the Dutch launched their first assault against the Portuguese monopoly. In spite of the inauspicious inception of the trade with India the English founded an East India Company in 1600. In1601 Sir James Lancaster anchored in the bay at the foot of Table Mountain, as commander of the company’s first fleet to the East.

In the end it was the Dutch, and not the English, who destroyed the Portuguese monopoly in the East during the half century before the establishment of a colony at the Cape.

The carrying trade was doubly advantageous for the alert Hollanders and Zeelanders in that it gave their small country economic power, and simultaneously provided an opportunity for learning the potential value of the spice monopoly, which the Portuguese had kept so secret.

The United Netherlands Chartered East India Company was formed in 1602. This company was granted a charter by the States-General of the Netherlands, which remained the sovereign authority over these overseas enterprises.

The Dutch East India Company, with its six autonomous chambers under a main directorate, “the Seventeen”, became the instrument of Dutch activity in the East. In the Malayan Archipelago itself a permanent administration, headed by a governor and Council of India, was established after 1609. A permanent headquarters was established at Batavia, in Java, after 1619.

The first Dutch occupation:

Circumstances that led to the establishment of a replenishment station at the Cape

By the middle of the 17th Century the United Provinces of Holland experienced great political, economic, and spiritual prosperity. Their Naval fleet reigned supreme, due to the lucrative trade with the East and West.

Across the Canal, Britain also began to increase their trade with East. The Dutch realised that they could not allow Britain to beat them to the lucrative spice trade with the East, their largest source of income.

Both countries realised the importance that the Cape of Good Hope could play in their quest for supremacy.

It was imperative to establish a replenishment station, half way to the East, where the crew could rest and take on fresh provisions.

The Table Bay had been used by many ships of different nations, for many years, and from the beginning of the 17th Century, was frequently visited by Dutch and British ships.

It was only when the rivalry between the two powers, increased to dangerous proportions that the occupation of the Cape became an issue.

The Lords of 17, owners of the Dutch East India Company, passed a resolution in 1616 that would force all the Company’s ships to make Table bay their port of call.

In 1660 the English- & Dutch East India Companies considered the possibility of establishing a joint refreshment post as the Cape.

When theses negotiations failed the DEIC considered the possibility of going it alone. This prompted two British ship captains to hoist the British flag on their own accord. The British Monarch, King Jacob 1, however, did not endorse this.

Almost 30 years later, a DEIC ship, the Nieuw-Haerlem, ran aground in Table Bay, near Rietvlei (Suburb of Table View). The castaways where forced to spend almost a year at the Cape.

During this time they accumulated valuable information about the area and its inhabitants.

They built a primitive fort and vegetable garden. A return fleet rescued them in April 1648. On board this this ship was Jan van Riebeeck, the future founder of white South Africa. This was his second visit to the Cape.

Amongst the castaways trapped at the Cape, were Leendert Jansen and Nicolaas Proot. On the 26th July 1649, they submitted a report to the United East India Chartered Company, outlining the advantages and profits, which would accrue to the Company by establishing a Fort and Garden at the Cape of Good Hope.

Increased hostilities between the Dutch and the British, again brought the importance of building a fortification at the Cape to the fore.

In July 1651 Jan van Riebeeck, an ex employee of the Company, submitted his viability report to the DIEC.

This certainly impressed the Lords 17, and when Proot, the Commander of the stranded Nieuw-Haerlem, turned down the Commandership, Jan van Riebeeck was appointed to establish a refreshment post at the Cape of Good Hope.

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