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Portuguese Exploration of the African coastline

This map is part of a series of 16 animated maps showing the history of The Age of Discovery.

In the early 15th century, African gold was brought to the Mediterranean and Europe by trans-Saharan caravans.

In the 1420s, in order to counter the Muslim merchants’ monopoly on this trade, the Portuguese wanted to find a way to the wealth of Africa via the sea.

The first initiatives came from Prince Henry the Navigator.

Progress was slow. South of what is now Morocco, the coast was empty and inhospitable. North-easterly winds helped the outward journey, but made the trip back to Europe more difficult.

Cape Bojador marked the last outpost of the known world. Here violent currents were much feared by sailors, who were convinced that they would never return from the “Sea of Darkness”.

This obstacle was finally overcome by Gil Eanes, who, in 1435 passed Cape Bojador and returned safely. This success served to erase the fear factor and marked a major turning point in progress along the African route

Ten years later, the Portuguese reached Cape Verde.

When Henry the Navigator died in 1460, Portuguese caravels had travelled along the African coast as far as Sierra Leone: they named this country after seeing a strange mountain in the shape of a lion.

Beyond Sierra Leone, the coast continued first in a south-easterly direction and then due east. The Portuguese navigators and mapmakers thought they were approaching the southernmost point of Africa.

About this time, the reasons for pursuing this maritime adventure changed radically. Now, the Portuguese realized that they may have discovered a southern route around Africa to the Indies.  

In 1472, Fernando Po reached the coast of what is now Cameroon and sent back bad news: the Gulf of Guinea was a dead end, and the African coast had turned southwards again.

Under orders from the new King of Portugal, John II, the expeditions continued, each with a mission to discover at least 100 leagues of coastline, the equivalent of some 550 kilometres.

Diogo Cao reached and continued past the mouth of the Congo in the year 1482.

On his second voyage, Cao sailed up the river to the first rapids before returning to the coast and continuing further south as far as Cape Cross on the coast of what is now Namibia.

The next expedition, headed by Bartolomeu Dias, left Lisbon in August 1487.

He landed in Namibia, and then sailed away from the coast in search of favourable winds. When he turned back on a north-easterly course, he had to sail for a long time before reaching land again at what is now Mossel Bay.

Dias thought that he had gone past the southern extremity of Africa, and decided to verify this hypothesis by sailing along the coast to the east as far as the Great Fish River. 

On his return journey, he noted the position of the Cape of Good Hope where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.

During 70 years of exploration, Portugal had set up a number of forts and trading posts. Some were located on the islands: Arguin Island on a level with Mauritania, the Cape Verde islands, Sao Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea, and others on the African coast itself, including the fortress of São Jorge da Mina in modern Ghana.

The discovery of the African coastline was not just a seafaring adventure; it also offered new business opportunities for ship-owners and merchants, as can be seen from the names given to various parts of the newly discovered coastline: the Grain Coast, after the Malagueta plant which provided an alternative for pepper, the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, the Slave Coast.

Sea of Darkness Name given in the Middle Ages to the Atlantic Ocean because of its reputation for being inaccessible to sailors.

Cape of Good Hope. In order to indicate the navigational conditions in this area, Bartolomeu Dias called the southern point of Africa, the Cape of Tempests. It was King John II of Portugal who decided on the name “Cape of Good Hope”.