Good Hope, the first of the capes

Good Hope, the first of the capes

The route traditionally chosen by sailors circumnavigating the world involves rounding three great capes: Good Hope at the foot of Africa, Leeuwin in south-western Australia and Horn at the southern tip of South America. Known initially as the Cape of Storms, the Cape of Good Hope was the first to be discovered, by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488.

In the 15th century, the world’s major trading nations had little hesitation in devoting considerable resources to the search for new routes to the Indies and Asia. The reason for this was that the journey east along the route taken by Marco Polo through the steppes of the Caspian Sea, the deserts of Kazakhstan, the foothills of Afghanistan and the plains of the Indus and Ganges was dangerous and extremely long. While sea routes had been opened up between China and India to Arabia, via the Persian Gulf and Baghdad, or the Red Sea and Alexandria, they were no less hazardous to negotiate, even for the Venetians, who had controlled all trade routes since the Fourth Crusade, but still saw some of their convoys arrive late or fall victim to plundering.

Edward I “The Eloquent” and Prince Henry “The Navigator”

In the former Roman province of Lusitania, Edward I, the eleventh king of Portugal, was able to devote his energies to the development of his kingdom thanks to his father John I’s defeat of the Spanish in 1385 and the signing of the first alliance with England. In seizing the port of Ceuta in 1414, thereby bringing a halt to Moorish raids, the Portuguese discovered the trans-Saharan trade route. Edward’s brother Prince Henry was enthralled by the two century-old legend of the priest-king Prester John, which told of the existence of a Christian kingdom in the Indies, “beyond Persia and Armenia”, a magnificent country “boasting emeralds, sapphires and rubies”. The world and its roads, towns, rivers, bays and remarkable landmarks still needed to be mapped, however, and cosmography and cartography were essential to achieving that goal. 

Aware of this, Henry founded a university in Sagres in 1416, equipping it with an arsenal, a school of geography and navigation and an observatory, all with the assistance of the celebrated Spanish cartographer Jafuda Cresques, whose 1375 mappa mundi depicting Europe from western Ireland to Cape Bojador was found to be remarkably accurate. 

Measuring around 20 metres in length, boasting a capacity of 50 tons and able to accommodate in the region of 40 sailors and soldiers, the first caravels duly sailed from neighbouring Lagos. Light and easy to manoeuvre due to their shallow draught, these new ships could also sail close to the wind, enabling them to explore the African coast against the prevailing trade winds.

The noblemen of the day set sail for the south in search of gold and slaves, faraway lands and Terra Incognita. It was at this time that theories on a route linking the Atlantic and Indian Oceans began to gain currency. In seeking to find it, navigators equipped themselves with compasses and cross-staffs (a forerunner of the sextant) to ascertain their approximate position. Meanwhile caravels were built for long-range exploration, proving their ability to sail against the trade winds on a triangular route known as the volta, which involved venturing south along the African coast and returning in a north-westerly direction to catch the Atlantic depressions and the north-eastern route back to Portugal. Long-distance navigation out in the open sea was now possible. 

The Cape of Storms

On ascending to the Portuguese throne, John II revived the policy of exploration, encouraging and funding African expeditions, with his navigators marking the territorial claims they made by erecting stone pillars topped with a cross and known as padrões. A knight of the royal court, Bartolomeu Dias was entrusted with the task of finding a sea route to the Indies. Formed by two caravels and a supply ship, his expedition set sail from Lisbon in August 1487. After landing in present-day Namibia in December, he pushed on south before being hit by a storm that blew his ships off course and out into the open ocean. 

After 13 days out at sea, he regained contact with the coast to the north-east and landed at Cape Vacca. Continuing along the African coast, he reached Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth), at which point his crew mutinied. Though forced to turn around, Dias had found a route around Africa, and on the return journey to Portugal he mapped the coastline and also discovered the Cape of Storms, which John II renamed the Cape of Good Hope on the expedition’s return to Lisbon in December 1488. 

Cape of Good Hope panel

In 1968, The Sunday Times came up with the idea of sponsoring the first non-stop, single-handed, around-the-world yacht race, which followed a route taking in the three capes: Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn. Clearly, then, those three capes had become established as key landmarks.

Only one of those three, however, marks the southernmost point of its continent: Cape Horn, in Chile. Cape Leeuwin, in Australia, merely marks the starting point for exploration of the country in the 17th century. The Cape of Good Hope, meanwhile, marks the point a few kilometres to the south of Cape Town where the cold sea currents of the west meet the warm currents of the north-east, but as it turned out, is is not the southernmost point of Africa.

A needle of hope

That honour goes to Cape Agulhas (agulha being Portuguese for “needle”), located at 34°50 South and 20° East, 90 nautical miles south-east of the Cape of Good Hope, which lies at just 34°20 South, and 18°30 East. Cape Agulhas is the true junction between the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Topped by a lighthouse, it is now the first major landmark on any circumnavigation of the globe, marking the western boundary of the Indian Ocean, with the eastern boundary demarcated by the southern tip of Tasmania (146°49 East). 

History, or maritime tradition at least, was forced to bow to the geographical precision of satellite images, as a legend gave way to a landmark and “hope” ceded its place to “needles”. But the Cape of Good Hope remains symbolic of the start of a new era for sea trade.

Cape Point lighthouse