06 March 2013 by Kate Turkington

Following in the footsteps of Dias

Follow in the footsteps of the first Europeans to land in South Africa when you visit the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex in Mossel Bay.

I’d been to Mossel Bay on South Africa’s Garden Route before and even watched the southern right whales breach and blow in the Indian Ocean from a high cliff-top cave where ancient humans once lived.

But on this occasion I’d come to follow in the footsteps of Bartolomeu Dias and his early Portuguese sailors, who first anchored here in the Bay of St Blaise in 1488 – so-named because it was the festival day of St Blaise. It was only later, in the 17th century, after the Dutch East India Company had established a refreshment station here, that it was renamed Mossel Bay.

‘It’s so small!’ is every visitor’s first thought. How did such a seemingly frail craft navigate almost halfway round the known world?

Inspired by the vision and rhetoric of Prince Henry the Navigator (who, interestingly enough, never himself left the shores of Portugal), Dias set out from Lisbon in 1487 with two caravels and a store ship. They had few maps (and those they had showed sea monsters and great swathes of uncharted seas and coasts) but somehow found their way to this beautiful bay in the Southern Cape.

You will marvel, as I did, at the replica of his caravel that now stands in the Maritime Museum in the fascinating Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex on the cliff overlooking the bay. ‘It’s so small!' is every visitor’s first thought. How did such a seemingly frail craft navigate almost halfway round the known world?

A statue of Vasco da Gama stands outside in the museum gardens

When you see the maritime history displays and read some of the background of these early adventurers, you’ll begin to understand something of their audacity.

In the lovely gardens outside the Maritime Museum, you can walk to the 500-year-old milkwood tree that served as a post box from 1501. The story goes that one Pedro de Ataide, on his way back from India, left a letter there warning of troubles he had encountered near Calcutta. It was picked up by another Portuguese navigator, Joao da Nova, on his way to India, and thus South Africa’s first post office was born.

Da Nova was so grateful for the information that he built a small chapel here, said to be the first place of Christian worship in South Africa.

Take time also to check out the complex’s Shell Museum, the Malay graves, a replica of Vasco de Gama’s stone cross, massive whale bones, the ethno-botanical garden and braille trail, and many other interesting sights.

Then buy yourself an ice cream and gaze out over the gorgeous bay below.

Dias and his motley crew would surely approve...

A photograph of the replica caravel when it sailed from Portugal to South Africa in 1987/88 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Dias’s landing.

Category: Culture & History

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