The Voyages of Madmen

Behind the Dias Crosses: The Voyages of Madmen

NON-FICTION: Published in Sunday Times Travel

South Africa. The breadbasket at the bottom of Mother Africa. The open hand that the rest of the world slid longitudinally into, leaving behind them stories of adventure and sorrow, promise and disaster, and bringing with them the residues of other worlds. The only original inhabitants of the geographic area that we call the Republic of SA are, as we all know, the sad memory of the San and Khoekhoe peoples. The rest is, as we say, history…

But how much do we reflect on our history? With a colonial past steeped in collective trauma, we often choose, consciously or unconsciously, to inhibit our imagination in the dreaming up of details; we tend to generalise the narrative to eradicate singularities. The following is a story from before Jan van Riebeeck landed his three small ships, the Dromedaris, Reijger and Goede Hoop, on the hopeful shores of Table Bay on that defining sixth day of April 1652.

In 1487, 165 years before the Dutch decided to settle a few men in the cosy basin of today’s Cape Town, the Portuguese King Joao II began a new impulse of exploration. Under the command of a noble seamen, Bartolomeu Dias, a squadron of three vessels, two caravels of about 100 tons each and a supply vessel with square-rigged mainsail, left the Atlantic shores of Portugal, and headed south: their aim – to round the tip of Africa. What happened on that fateful voyage over 500 years ago is hard to ascertain, since most records have expired in one way or another. But historians playing detectives have done a great job with filling in the gaps, and the outcome is the same as almost all history: a pretty picture painted by those with the paintbrush.

Dias left the port town of Tagus in Portugal in August 1487. In a sheltered bay on the Angolan coast somewhere, he left his supply vessel with nine men. He bid them adieu, and the two caravels headed south into the empty promise of discovery. Since he was entering “unnamed” territory, Dias left in his wake a Portuguese songline of phrases and names, bays bearing the continental lexicon of a 15th century Gentleman. These names have stood the eroding test of time better that Dias’ notebooks did, and we are still familiar with many of them, taking them for granted, or trying to rename them in a more indigenous vernacular.

Heading south from Angola and following a favourable wind, Dias and his men eventually lost sight of land, and rode out into the blue fathoms of the Atlantic. Steering east, and then north, the crew eventually saw land after some 30 days of deep-sea. What they saw from the decks of their small wooden caravels was a sight to behold; the mouth of a river spewed gently into the Indian Ocean, cattle and sheep and curious herdsmen looked from the green hillocks on the edge of the river, and all must have gesticulated in surprise. Dias was certain he had rounded Africa. He found himself at the Gourits River mouth of today.

The coast was too jagged for him and his men to dismount their vessel though, and they continued to sail eastwards along the coast. They reached a rocky bluff with a gaping cave in it, and Dias named this Cape Sao Bra, after the saint of that day, 3 February 1488. This cape shouldered off the rough ocean from a calmer bay, and the crew found a safe landing spot to drop anchor, eventually rowing ashore. This is present day Mossel Bay, and it is the first ever recorded steps of a European on South African soil.

Today Mossel Bay is situated just off the N2. An easy and speedy ride through the country will get you there fairly effortlessly. In the town, down near the harbour, is the Dias Maritime Museum, and inside this museum, is a replica of the caravel that Dias sailed from Portugal.

This replica has a story of its own. The Cape Sea Route established by Dias in 1488 changed the course of RSA forever. To commemorate this event, the Portuguese and South African governments decided to build a replica caravel, guessing at the design since no known plans have survived, and sail it down to Mossel Bay from Portugal. It was aptly named the Bartolomeu Dias, and it departed from Lisbon on 8 November 1987, arriving at Mossel Bay on the 3rd of February, 1988, exactly 500 years after Dias and his men first arrived on SA soil.

Aboard this replica vessel was well-known South African architect and avid sailor, Gawie Fagan. He was the Sailing Master of the vessel, and carried out the orders to the crew. “I thought the boat was a bit over designed,” explains Gawie in his office on Bree Street. “To tack was incredibly difficult, and we ended up going a long way with our diesel engines, until we had the trade winds behind us.” Besides for being aboard the replica vessel, Gawie and his wife, Gwen, are almost solely responsible for the preservation of the area that Dias visited in Mossel Bay. Town planners and the Mayor had their hearts set on commercial development of this prime seaside stretch of land. They would have nothing of it, and ended up convincing the state to acquire the land. “I redesigned an old mill where the present day museum is, and we designed it to house the caravel,” continues Gawie. “It was quite a thing getting that boat into the building!” He smiles; 1988 was a long time ago.

What this commemoration under the PW Botha Regime failed to address, unfortunately, was the interaction that occurred on those first steps on Mzansi soil. From their anchorage in the bay, Dias’ men observed flocks of sheep and cattle grazing on the slopes of the Mossel Bay peninsula. There is a spring where the museum is today, and the men went ashore to refresh their water supplies, and in hope of bartering some livestock off the local Khoekhoe who watched over their pastures with enthralled attentiveness. Offering trinkets in hope of bartering with the local peoples, the sailors filled up their casks with the sweet spring water. Apparently the mood swung like the weather, and the records state that the Khoekhoe herdsman started throwing stones at the Europeans. In a quick and brash agitation, Dias armed his crossbow, and aimed it at the closest local around him. He released, and killed the person. Dias and his men allegedly withdrew in haste to their ships, and set sail shortly thereafter. As we say, the rest is, once again, history.

It’s interesting to observe this first cause in a chain of events that has shaped the social contours of today’s South Africa so decisively. What would the causal implications had been if, indeed, that first and fateful meeting had gone otherwise, and all got on without a flinch of violence? This, unfortunately, we shall never know, but it did indeed mark the first act in centuries of violence and subjugation to come. Even during the commemoration, there was a scene involving the local coloureds of Mossel Bay calling on a boycott of the event because it was held on a “whites-only beach”. The event was open to the public though, and all ethnicities were asked to attend.

From Mossel Bay, Dias and his crew went further north, and anchored just past PE, off a small beach known today as Boknes. It’s a magical stretch of white sand, with furrows of fresh water permeating the dunes. He went ashore there too, and this time erected a padrao, or a cross, on the headland known as Kwaaihoek. In subsequent years, a replica has been raised in the place that historians believed Dias erected his original padrao. The khoekhoen or san demolished the originals, and memorial beacons have been built. There are also padraos to be found at Cape Point, as well as Luderitz, at Dias Beach in Namibia, which Dias erected on his journey. To confuse matters, there are also spurious padraos left behind by Vasco de Gama, who sailed along these shores a few years after Dias. People often confuse the padrao of de Gama’s at Mossel Bay to be a Dias Cross.

Dias eventually made it back to Portugal after 16 months away. He returned with the promise of reaching the east, having been the first European explorer to round the tip of Africa.











<On naming: >

Names bear with them all types of signification, and since they originated in a certain time and place, they bear with them all types of baggage. They are used to orientate our environments, and thus, merge with our environment. The following names are from those early Portugeuse times:


Cape Agulhas takes its name from the Portuguese “Cabo das Anguillas” which means ‘cape of the needle’. The compass-needle showed no magnetic declination there but pointed directly north.


Cape Infanta was named after Joao de Infante, captain of Dias’s second caravel.


False Bay takes its name from Cape False, Portuguese “Cabo Falso”.


“Cape of Storms” was named by Dias – King John II of Portugal later named it “Cape of Good Hope” since it gave hope for the sea-route to the east.


Port St Johns takes its name from the fact that the ship Sao Joao was wrecked nearby on 18 June 1552.


Cape St Francis and St Francis Bay also have translated names, respectively from Cabo de Sao Francisco and Baia de Sao Francisco.



<Mossel Bay: The first of the first, and the first of the last:>


Mossel Bay, by some strange twist of irony, is home to both Pinnacle Point, where some of the oldest remains of human beings have been found, as well as home to the first colonial footprints on South African soil.