Bartolomeu Dias was a 15th-century Portuguese navigator. He was the first European to reach the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of Africa. Dias was born in Algarve, in Portugal, around 1450. He soon joined the Portuguese navy, based at the fortress of São Jorge da Mina. Trade with the East was extremely important to 15th-century Europe.
John II, King of Portugal, guessed that there was a possible sea route to India by sailing around Africa. John II did not believe, as many did, that the Indian Ocean was closed. He thought it could be reached by sailing along the east coast of Africa. The sovereign’s goal was to avoid difficult land passage through the Middle East.
In 1486, the king gave Bartolomeu Dias the task of exploring Africa’s eastern coast. Dias sailed from Lisbon in August 1487 with three ships. He sailed further south than any other explorer, passing Cape Verde and the mouth of the Congo, and reaching present-day Namibia. In January 1488, storms forced the three ships, now nearly at the southernmost tip of Africa, to leave the coast.
When they resumed sailing east, the coast was no longer visible. The ships turned north and made landfall on the coast near the Great Fish River in the eastern part of modern South Africa. Dias realized that he had circumnavigated the southern point of Africa and that he was on the east coast of the continent. The expedition had achieved its objective – to reach the Indian Ocean and open a maritime route to Asia.
Sailing back, Dias sighted Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa, as well as the Cape of Storms, which he named due to the bad weather he encountered there. He arrived in Lisbon in December 1488 after having sailed for 16 months and explored more than 2,000 kilometers of coastline. Cape Tempest was renamed the Cape of Good Hope to indicate the hope of opening new trade routes with Asia.
Portugal’s new King Manuel I gave the task of reaching India to the young explorer Vasco da Gama. Dias was assigned a marginal role. He was to escort da Gama along already-explored routes and then return to Portugal. In 1500, Dias took part in a new expedition to India. He was made captain of one of explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral’s ships.
While traveling off the west coast of Africa, the ships sailed as far west as Brazil before setting sail for the Cape of Good Hope again. On the way, the fleet faced a terrible storm that destroyed Dias’s ship.
Bartolomeu Dias died at sea off the coasts that he had discovered. He was around 50 years old. His explorations opened a maritime route to the East.