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The Sea Route Around Africa
Dias de Gama
Dias and Exploration to the Cape
European trade routes overland to Asia had been thrown into chaos by Muslim expansion across North Africa and into the Balkans. Venice and Genoa had dominated this trade. Gold imported from Africa was minted in Italy, and paid for profitable imports of spices and silk from Asia. Now these land routes were imperilled. The Portuguese sought to find a sea route around Africa to Asia, thus re-opening trade and taking the profits so long enjoyed by Italian cities.

Each year Portuguese explorers were ordered to go further south. First they edged their way along the west coast of Africa, marking their achievements with stone crosses. Soon, their efforts were rewarded: in 1480 the first Portuguese ships loaded cargoes of gold in the Senegal River and the Gulf of Guinea.

The explorers, like Diego Cao and Dias, were instructed to go further. They planted more crosses along the coastline which turned first to equatorial rainforest and then to dry scrubland. In 1485 Cao reached the coastal dunes of the Namib. Dias continued along the barren, unknown coast, and finally made his historic passing of the Cape in ignorance, wrapped in the storm of January 1488.

Before another mission could be launched, an Italian - Christopher Columbus, working for the rival Spanish - seemed to squash the promise of the Cape by discovering a much shorter route to 'the Indies' in 1492. But it proved a false alarm and the Portuguese renewed their efforts.

Vasco de Gama
In 1497 Vasco de Gama set off from Lisbon with four ships and followed the African coast. He rounded the Cape, and stopped for Christmas along the South East coast of South Africa - naming it 'Terra do Natal' (the land of Christmas).

At Malindi (Mombassa) he struck east to cross the Indian Ocean and arrived in Calicut, on May 20th 1498. He returned in triumph to Lisbon via the Cape, after 26 months away and the loss of two ships.

These long, hazardous, brave journeys 'changed the course of both Western and Eastern history' (Thompson, Pg 31), and prepared the way for a settlement at Cape Town.

With the round profile of Africa chartered, and the routes to rich trade opened to all Europe, Southern Africa, so long isolated, was exposed to a completely new set of influences.

The Cape, at the half way point of the long journey, would always be a logical place to stop between West and East, where trade would lead to settlement and cultures would mix. In due time the roots of East, West and Africa grew together, creating a unique city. However, the process took much longer and was more difficult than may have been expected.

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