Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Diaz Cross lost for 500 years

The history of this monument stretches over 500 years from 1488 when the intrepid Portuguese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias erected a Cross or Padrao on a promontory known as Kwaaihoek, in the district of Alexandria. The planting of this padrão was in all probably a tense and rushed affair as against the wishes and desires of Dias, in a regrettable turn of events, the caravel’s crew had mutineered and demanded to turn back for home. Yet even in this tense atmosphere, Dias had to perform a singularly important ceremony: the planting of a cross which signified Portuguese hegemony over the land. This was a sacred imperial duty which compelled him to continue with his duty however rushed.

In the intervening centuries, knowledge and the physical location of the monument was lost.

This is the story of its recovery and a duplicate being made.

Main picture: The Diaz Cross in the elegant Mayor’s Garden

A hasty erection
Against his inclination, Bartolomeu Dias had been persuaded to turn back by his crew who were wearied of their struggles against the sea. They were suffering from scurvy; and the fear was upon them that their provisions would not be sufficient to last them until they reached their supply ship which had been anchored in what is now known as Luderitz Bay in Namibia. The Padrao was erected on the sand-covered knoll of a promontory and was held in an upright position by boulders carried up the cliff from the rocky beach below.   

He built his Cross on the sand which in time engulfed it. All that was left to indicate the spot were a few obscure descriptions which Dr. Axelson found, after much scholarly industry, in the archives and libraries of Europe.

Diaz was in all probability in turmoil as he gave the instruction to turn the caravel around and retrace their steps back whence they had come. Foremost amongst this regrets was the failure to appease the monarch with his objective of discovering a passage to the east with its riches and exotic spices. Far from his thoughts was a method of ensuring that the padrão would be discovered by future generations.

As the centuries passed the Dias Cross sank lower and lower into the sand. It was broken by the ravages of storms or vandalised by destrucenarytive Xhosa inhabitants. Sections rolled down the 27m cliff into the sea. The remainder was engulfed by the sand. Early in the nineteenth century, three hundred years after it had been erected, the first European travellers to visit the site could find no trace of the Padrao. Historians were at odds to name the exact site; and many were the theories advanced. Some said it was on the Island of St. Croix in Mossel Bay, others preferred to name the sand dunes opposite the Island. Some said it must have been on Cape Padrone and others were equally convinced that it had been erected at the mouth of the Kowie River about 300 miles west of Mossel Bay. It was all guesswork without any scientific foundation.

According to both Malcolm Turner and Phillip Caveney, remanants of this cross had been discovered in late 18th century by the Dutch explorer Colonel Robert Gordon. He had recovered parts of the cross in on the 13th February 1786 and took them to The Castle in Table Bay. Some parts had inscriptions on them, but have never come to light. They were most probably sent to Holland. He also found the Cannon Rocks wreck and the Sacramento site at the same time.

Above: Extract from Robert Gordon’s diary on his discovery of remnants of the padrao

Although a number of persons very nearly solved the problem, it was left to Dr. Eric Axelson to solve it completely. As is usual in such discoveries, his solution came in an indirect manner.

Dr. Axelson spent two years studying in the archives and libraries in Lisbon, Porto, Evora, in the Vatican in Rome, in Paris and in the British Museum in London. He returned to South Africa with all the material he needed for his book plus a certain knowledge that he could locate the exact spot where Dias had erected his furthest Padrao in 1488.

Dr. Axelson acted immediately. On the very day that his ship berthed at Port Elizabeth, giving him only the afternoon to spare, he motored to Kwaaihoek; and [sic many?] miles away. His research had led him to suspect the upper part of the promontory at Kwaaihoek; and although on this first occasion he found no trace of the Cross he returned perfectly satisfied in his mind that the promontory would prove to be the site.

A fortnight later, after his arrival in Natal, his brother motored him down to the promontory for a more thorough search. The first day’s search revealed nothing beyond the occurrence of a spring between the bush and the sea; but this spring told Dr. Axelson that the locality might well prove to be the Penedo das Fontes referred to in the oldest sailing instructions.

On examining the summit of the knoll they found it to be covered with low bush and scrub growing over a layer of sand about 20 ft. (6m) deep. Below the sand was a layer of tufa, and beneath the tufa the dune rock of the cliff. Dr. Axelson found that to maintain a Padrao in an upright position in such sand a base of boulders would have been necessary. Such boulders would have had to be carried up from the bottom of the cliff. With the passing of years it was probable that both the Padrao and its base had sunk into the sand.

Accordingly, a systematic search was started by driving pointed steel rods into the sand. The search began at the highest part of the ridge where the ground drops sharply for 20 ft. (6m) to the edge of; the 70-ft. (21m) cliff. The full details of the search need not worry us here. Continued probing into the sand revealed something solid about 3 ft. (1m) beneath the surface. Other obstacles were encountered by the rods at about the same depth beneath the surface — all within a radius of 5 or 6 feet (1.5 or 2m).

Excavations were started, revealing boulders of which the largest was capable of being carried up the face of the cliff by two men. Later a piece of limestone was found that could not be matched anywhere in the vicinity. This stone was denser, more crystalline, more pinkish and more attractive than the local limestone which was soft, white and chalky in nature, being composed of pebbles set in a calcareous matrix. This piece of limestone, moreover, had two level and almost parallel faces about 8¼ in. (21.5cm) apart. These faces seemed too smooth and true to be the result of natural jointing in the local rock. They suggested artificial shaping. Similar and smaller pieces of the same limestone were subsequently found.

Then occurred one of those fortunate accidents. A round boulder taken from the excavation was placed on the edge of the hole. It rolled down the slope, falling over the edge of the cliff into the sea. This immediately suggested that something similar may have happened to portions of the Cross.

By this time night had fallen, and in the light of a full moon a search was made among the pools and rocks laid bare by the low tide. Dr. Axelson’s brother made an important discovery. In a pool he found a block of stone which presented a rectangular face. When the marine growths were scraped off, it proved to be of the same kind of limestone as that found at the top of the cliff. The next day this block was dragged by donkey sledge to the car and taken to Alexandria from where it was railed to Pietermaritzburg. Professor Leo Fouche then made a special trip to Pietermaritzburg and, on examining the stone, declared it to be a portion of the true Cross

Subsequently, the Witwatersrand University offered to pay for the expenses of excavation and Dr. Axelson returned to the site for a third time in February, 1938. By careful excavation and sifting of the sand the Cross was almost completely recovered, but only in pieces. There were about 5,000 fragments in all. These fragments were in due course sent up to the University in Johannesburg where the Cross was reconstructed by willing and expert hands.

Unfortunately, the damage to the Cross was of such a nature that the inscriptions were not legible, but a number of letters and portions of the coat-of-arms of Portugal are easily seen. Subsequently, the stone was proved to have been quarried in Portugal, possibly at Alcantara outside Lisbon.

This year (1941) the Commission for the Preservation of Natural and Historical Monuments, Relics and Antiques had a replica of the Padrao made. This replica was erected on the exact spot where Dias erected his Padrao and dedicated it to S. Gregoria over four and a half centuries ago. The reconstructed original Padrao has been placed on exhibition in the entrance to the Library of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

The original cross was found in about 1938 by Eric Axelson and is in the William Cullen Library at the University of the Witwatersrand. This one is a replica cut from the same quarry in Portugal and brought out by Gawie FAGAN and co on the replica caravel in 1988 (500th anniversary). It has been somewhat vandalised, unfortunately.

Replica in Market Square
In Market Square is a replica of the Diaz Cross. Apparently the orginal replica was erected there in 1954. Subsequently another replica was donated by the Portuguese Government to commemorate the arrival of Bartholomew Diaz in Algoa Bay in 1488. This replica was cut from the same quarry in Portugal as the original. It was brought out by Gawie Fagan on a replica caravel in 1988, the 500th anniversary of Diaz’s trip. Famous architect, Gawie Fagan (95) who was involved with the restoration of the Diaz Museum in Mossel Bay died at his home on 13 September 2020. Since this picture was taken the Diaz Cross was moved again. You could say The Diaz Cross has had a chequered past – moved around a lot and 3 replicas made.

Diaz Cross-1942 Kwaaihoek just outside Alexandria

Article written by Cat Anderson James and published in Facebook Ex PE  60s, 70s, 80s on the 18 January 2021
Corrections regarding initial discovery of the padrao were supplied by Malcolm Turner and Phillip Caveney.

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1 Comment

  1. I think the incident described by Robert Gordon in his writings is relevant to this article. He traveled through the area in 1777 and took some fragments of the padrao back to the Cape with him. They were subsequently lost.
    He was the garrison commander stationed at the Cape Castle.
    His travels are well documented.

    • Hi Phillip

      I really appreciate your comment on the discovery of the padrao by Robert Gordon as I was blissfully uaware of this discovery.
      Was Robert Gordon actually aware that fragments represented portion of Dias’ padrao?

      Dean McCleland
      082 801 5446


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