by Braz Menezes

Changing the course of history: Reflections on Bartholomew Diaz

February 3, 2016 marks 528 years since an unfinished sea voyage to India by Bartholomew Diaz. It changed the course of history for much of Africa and Asia. On February 3, 1488, the Portuguese nobleman and mariner inadvertently landed in a wide bay now known as Mossel Bay, about three hundred kilometres east of the Cape of Storms, later renamed the Cape of Good Hope. Diaz and his men were ecstatic. They had managed to cross the southernmost tip of the African continent. For them it must have been a turning point for history and a technological equivalent as the moon landing in 1969 was for our generation.

Reflections on Diaz

A few months earlier, Diaz had left Belem, the port of Lisbon, under the king’s orders to find an alternative sea route to India, via the southern tip of Africa. Muslim merchants already dominated easterly overland routes through Europe and Asia. Europe was determined to wrest control of the silk and spice trade.

Photo: ‘Turbulence at Sea’ 2015. Acrylic on canvas by Author Braz Menezes

Photo: ‘Turbulence at Sea’ 2015. Acrylic on canvas by Author Braz Menezes

It was a harrowing journey for Diaz’s crew, who, when they had reached the dreaded Cape of Storms, fell to their knees on deck and prayed for divine guidance, seeking forgiveness for any unconfessed sins. Gale-force winds, high waves, and foamy spray lashed at the fleet, but miraculously, the three ships were blown away from the destructive force of the tempest. Once they reached Mossel Bay, Diaz wanted to sail further north to India, but the crew refused.

His achievement hastened an explosion of seafaring expeditions and a land-grabbing competition for Asia and East Africa among European nations, primarily Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Britain- and that in turn to the enslavement of Africans in large numbers.

Portugal sent further expeditions led by Vasco da Gama, reaching India in 1498. In 1510 a conquering expedition attacked the thriving port city of Goa.