Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Account of Algoa Bay – A Journey too Far

The fact that Bartholomew Diaz, a nobleman of the Portuguese royal household and explorer, sailed around the southernmost tip of Africa in 1488, reaching the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic, would  reverberate for centuries to come. At the very least, the coastline should have been documented but it took 87 years for this to occur.

This is the narrative of Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo’s 1575 voyage at the behest of the Portuguese king, Dom Sebastian. 

Main picture: 1575 map of Southern African coastline from Cape of Good Hope to Inhambane

The Caravel, the enabler

It beggar’s belief that vessels only 23 metres long could undertake voyages of such immense distances; but they did. This vessel, the Iberian workhorse, was known as the Caravel, a small highly manoeuvrable sailing ship with lateen rigged sails. The key advantage afforded by this form of sail was its capacity for sailing windward, known as “beating”.

The ancient square sail permitted sailing only before the wind; the lateen was the earliest fore-and-aft sail. The triangular sail was affixed to a long yard or crossbar, mounted at its middle to the top of the mast and angled to extend aft far above the mast and forward down nearly to the deck.

Lateen sail

Voyage to terra incognito

Curiously enough, despite the Portuguese sailing up and down the South African littoral for 87 years, this coastline could still be described as a terra incognito as nothing except salient and prominent features had been recorded on previous voyages.

It was only on 22nd November 1575, that Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo, commenced his assignment of charting the Southern African coastline from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Correntes. After accepting his commission earlier in 1575, set off on 22nd November and completed it two months later on the 28th January 1576, returning to Mozambique on the 13th March 1576.

His report includes eight panoramas of the horizon viewed from sea, starting with Cape Agulhas

Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo

Report “Of the Bay of Lagoa and the Islets of the Cross and Chaos”

In his book “Records of South East Africa,” J.M. Theal has provided a translation of Perestrelo’s account of Algoa Bay together with the Islets of St Croix and Bird Island as follows:

“Along this Cape (i.e. Cape Receife) on the eastern side is a great open unsheltered bay which is called da Lagoa, although I had named it before [as] the Bay of Wolves (i.e. sea-wolves or seals) owing to the great number [that] I found in it. It may have been ten or twelve leagues across. Anyone who is in it, will see into the interior the mountain that I have spoken of before and south of it a peak with four of five hills (i.e. summits – probably the Cockscomb). 

Woody Cape

On the western side there are four islets called “of the cross”, one of them larger than the three around it, where any ship can find shelter at all times for the bottom is clean sand with twelve or thirteen fathoms of water. On the eastern side of the bay in the same latitude lie the other two that are called Chaos (Bird Islands) because they are so flat that they cannot be seen farther than two leagues. They lie along the coast and there is a shoal at a distance of half a league towards the south west. The whole coast between these islets and those behind is of great banks of sand with patches of bushes, and towards the interior, round topped ridges of black ground with many small mountains.

Perestrelo goes on to describe a headland with numerous trees in the valley alongside, “the first that I saw along the sea from Cape Agulhas.” Could this be Woody Cape? He attempted to identify the location where Dias erected the Padroa of St. Gregory, but the location that he indicates as the “Points of the Pillar” is probably Cape Padrone. The true site, Kwaaihoek, is some 8 or 9 miles to the east. It seems likely, however, that even at that early date, 87 years after its erection, the cross had disappeared for it must have been a prominent landmark on top of the headland. Perestrelo could hardly have missed seeing it if it had still been there.  

I find it interesting that these sandstone crosses or padrãos were hard to find afterwards. They were all mounted on high ground. The most likely explanation is that local Khoisan smashed them to pieces when they found them. When Eric Axelson found the remnants of the Kwaaihoek cross in 1938, most of it was missing. In fact he only found a few small pieces, some with writing still visible, which are now stored at Wits in the William Cullen Library. Other padrãos from the 1487 trip were never found.


Looking Back, Vol IX No 3 (September 1969) page 92


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