|The Sea Route
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.
| 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
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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