This is where modern human behaviour emerged more than 162,000 years ago, and where Southern Africans first met European explorers more than 500 years ago – a meeting that’s celebrated at the Dias Museum Complex (the largest complex of its kind in the Southern Cape). Here you’ll find a Maritime Museum (housing a life-size replica of the Caravel in which Bartholomew Dias first rounded the Cape all those years ago); a Cultural Museum, a Shell Museum and Aquarium; an ethno-botanical garden with its Braille Trail and the famous Post Office Tree in which Dias hid a letter to his compatriot Joao da Silva (and, incredibly, da Silva found it!).
When the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 made the overland spice route to the East dangerous and expensive for Europe’s trading powers, Portugal’s King John II became determined to find an alternate via the as yet un-charted ocean south of Africa. On his orders, Bartolomeu Dias and his men sailed from Lisbon in August 1487 in three ships – the lateen rigged caravels São Cristóvão and São Pantaleão, and a square rigger under the captaincy of Dias’ brother, Pêro.
After voyaging round the Bulge of Africa and southwards past modern-day Angola and Namibia, Dias and his men reached further south than any European explorers before them. But at a point off the west coast of South Africa (probably near the Orange River Mouth), Dias decided to escape relentless southerly winds by turning south by west, and sailing out into the open ocean. After running dangerously southwards for thirteen days, Dias decided to sail eastwards again, hoping to find the coast of Africa – but in fact (and without knowing it), he’d rounded the Cape, as he had wanted to do. Finally turning northwards, the ships made landfall on St. Blaise’s day – the 3rd of February 1488 – at Mossel Bay, which Dias named Aguada de São Bras (St. Blaise’s Watering Place).
It was the first time that any Europeans had landed South African soil.
Here the crews drew water (at Dias’ Spring), and met some of the local Khoi San people. They then sailed eastwards and finally northwards to land at Kwaaihoek, near the Bushman’s River Mouth in KwaZulu-Natal, on the 12th of March 1488. After stopping there for some time, they turned back, and arrived home during the following May. The journey had taken 16 months.
The ship that’s now dry docked in the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex’s Maritime Museum is believed to be a faithful replica of those caravels.
Since no plans for any caravel has survived, the drawings for this vessel were created by the Portuguese Sail Training Association (the Aporvela) from historical records and archaeological evidence.
The ‘Bartolomeu Dias’ (pine on oak, 23.5 metres long, with a displacement of 130 tonnes) was built by Samuel & Filhos, Lda., at Vila do Conde in Portugal, and was launched on the 14th of June, 1987, by Maria de Jesus Barroso Soares, the wife of Mário Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares, the 17th President of Portugal (in office from 1986 to 1996).
Named ‘Bartolomeu Dias,’ she sailed from Lisbon with a crew of 16 under master mariner Emilio da Sousa on the 8th of November, 1987. After stops at Madeira and Saint Helena, she arrived in Mossel Bay on the 3rd of February, 1988 – the 500th anniversary of Dias’ landing.
She then sailed to Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Port Edward, and Durban as part of the country’s Dias88 Festival, before arriving at her permanent home in Mossel Bay, where she was winched into position. The building was then closed up around her.
Visitors may board the caravel on payment of a small fee. IN order to preserve the display, the Museum’s management reserves the right to limit the number of people who can board at any one time.