Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope

Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened up a water route to the Far East, thus eliminating the trade monopoly of Arab and Italian middlemen.

Summary of Event

The Dias expedition was the final phase of more than a century of voyages initiated by Prince Henry the Navigator. At his center for study at Sagres in southern Portugal, Henry gathered the finest minds and compiled extensive geographical data. His school studied ancient geographers, medieval maps, and the use of the compass at open sea and directed the design and development of the caravel, the type of ship utilized in the exploration of the African coast. Good Hope, Cape of
Exploration and colonization;Portugal of Asia
Dias, Bartolomeu
Henry the Navigator, Prince
John II (1455-1495)
Cão, Diogo
Dias, Bartolomeu
Henry the Navigator, Prince
John II (king of Portugal)
Cão, Diogo
Gama, Vasco da
Dias, Bartolomeu

A caravel like the one depicted here in a drawing attributed to Christopher Columbus was used by explorers of the African coast and of Asia, including Bartolomeu Dias.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Motivated by crusading zeal and a desire for wealth, Portuguese expeditions were sent south along the African coast almost annually, beginning in 1418. Henry sought to open communication with the fabled kingdom of Prester John (modern Ethiopia), develop sea trade, spread Christianity, and eventually discover a sea route to India. From 1418 to 1460, Portuguese explorers cautiously proceeded southward, discovering and occupying the Madeira, Azores, and Canary Islands, doubling Cape Bojador, and rounding Cape Verde.

Portugal’s painstaking African explorations produced immediate benefits, such as an increase in geographical knowledge and the development of trade along the coast of Guinea, of which the infamous African slave trade Slave trade was an unfortunate result. For a time, the Portuguese became so involved in commerce and the insidious traffic in African slaves that explorations farther south were curtailed. With the accession of John II in 1481, however, voyages of exploration resumed, and by 1486, Diogo Cão had reached Cape Cross and Cape Negro in southwest Africa.

Bartolomeu Dias was a cavalier of the royal court, superintendent of the royal warehouses, and sailing master of a man-of-war when King John II appointed him head of an expedition around the southern end of Africa. In August, 1487, the expedition set off in the belief “that ships which sailed down the coast of Guinea might be sure to reach the end of land by persisting in a southward direction.”

The expedition was made up of three caravels, two armed caravels of fifty tons each and one supply ship to allow the others greater mobility. Most of the officers, including Dias, were veterans of previous African voyages. Besides the Portuguese, there were six Africans on board who had been taken by Cão. They were outfitted in European dress and were to be set ashore at suitable spots to explain to the natives the purpose of the expedition.

Through most of the autumn, the expedition sailed southward, landing at Angra Pequena (modern Lüderitz Bay) early in December. The store ship anchored in the bay, and the two remaining caravels continued southward. They were soon caught in a storm that lasted for thirteen days and tossed them around the Cape of Good Hope without their knowledge. Their first landfall beyond the cape was at Mossel Bay, South Africa, in February of 1488. As the ships headed in a northeasterly direction, Dias realized that Africa had been rounded and that India lay ahead.

He was unable to continue much farther, however, since the crew, distressed by the length of the voyage, demanded to return. Following the coast, he was able to reach Algoa Bay and then the limit of his exploration, the Great Fish River. There, the two ships turned westward, having traveled 520 miles (837 kilometers) eastward from the Cape. On his return voyage, Dias discovered the cape itself, to which he gave the name Cabo Tormentoso (stormy cape). Only after the importance of the voyage was realized did King John II propose the cape be renamed to Cabo da Boa Esperanza, or Cape of Good Hope. In December of 1488, Dias returned to Lisbon after an absence of sixteen months and seventeen days. He had shown the way to Vasco da Gama, whom he had accompanied in a subordinate position in 1497 as far as the Cape Verde Islands.


The return of the Dias expedition roused little enthusiasm in Portugal, where such accounts of discovery were commonplace by 1488. Nevertheless, this discovery provided the Portuguese with a wealth of knowledge. Of primary value was the fact that they believed that an all-water route to India had been discovered, so King John broke off his talks with Christopher Columbus, who was proposing a western route to Asia. The voyage of Dias greatly added to the geographical knowledge of the day, with the Cape of Good Hope appearing soon afterward on an Italian map (c. 1489-1492).

The Portuguese realized that their caravels were too low and frail to survive south Atlantic storms and too small for satisfactory payloads. Vasco da Gama’s ships were made larger. Dias himself never set foot in India. While making a second attempt to reach the subcontinent in 1500, Dias commanded a ship in the expedition of Pedro Álvares Cabral. Unfortunately, his vessel was wrecked not far from the Cape of Good Hope, which he had discovered thirteen years before. To quote Antonio Galvano, the Portuguese chronicler: “It may be said that he saw the land of India, but like Moses and the Promised Land, he did not enter it.”

Further Reading

  • Diffie, Bailey, and George D. Winius. Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415-1580. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. Written for student audiences, this simple exposition portrays Portuguese expansion as the result of long-term economic and maritime development, rather than the work of one man.
  • Hanson, Carl. Atlantic Emporium: Portugal and the Wider World, 1147-1497. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 2001. Survey of the Portuguese sphere of influence from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, covering political, economic, and cultural history. Emphasizes Portugal’s contribution to the creation, for the first time, of a global economy, and the importance of Dias’s journey in making such an economy possible. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Hart, Henry H. Sea Road to the Indies: An Account of the Voyages and Exploits of the Portuguese Navigators. New York: Macmillan, 1950. A scholarly account by an American historian based on original documents.
  • Knox-Johnston, Robin. The Cape of Good Hope: A Maritime History. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989. A very technical and up-to-date account of the discoveries, voyages, and captains.
  • Penrose, Boies. Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance, 1420-1620. New York: Atheneum, 1962. Emphasis is on colonial history and settlement, especially the Portuguese explorations. The Dias expedition is discussed as part of a development of mental and physical techniques of conquest.
  • Prestage, Edgar. The Portuguese Pioneers. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967. A well-documented, romantic work that treats all of the recorded Portuguese voyages to the end of the fifteenth century and the more important ones up to the mid-sixteenth century. The Dias voyage receives treatment of some length.
  • Russell, P. E., ed. Portugal, Spain, and the African Atlantic, 1343-1490: Chivalry and Crusade from John of Gaunt to Henry the Navigator. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995. Anthology of essays detailing the expansion of Portugal’s exploration and influence across the African Atlantic in search of a route to India. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Winius, George D., ed. Portugal, the Pathfinder: Journeys from the Medieval Toward the Modern World, 1300-ca. 1600. Madison, Wis.: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1995. Anthology of essays on Portuguese exploration, including several on the discovery of the sea route to India and Portugal’s subsequent activities in South Asia. Includes a bibliographic essay by the editor surveying all major sources pertaining to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

c. 1485: Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

Jan., 1498: Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast

1502: Beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

Sept. 29, 1513: Balboa Reaches the Pacific Ocean

Aug. 4, 1578: Battle of Ksar el-Kebir

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company