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After passing present-day Sierra Leone, da Gama took advantage of the prevailing winds, sailing almost due south on a broad sweep through the open ocean, crossing the Equator in search of the South Atlantic westerlies Dias had discovered in 1487. Once they found them, the four ships made landfall on the South African coast on 4 November 1497 after covering more than ten thousand kilometres out of sight of land.

Unfavourable winds and adverse currents meant the ships did not manage to pass the Cape of Good Hope until 22 November. Three days later they anchored in Mossel Bay, erected a padrão, and broke up the store ship after transferring its contents to the other three vessels. 

The remaining ships sailed again on 6 December, passed Dias' furthest point at the Great Fish River on 16 December, celebrated Christmas as they passed Natal, and reached the Quelimane River (their Rio dos Bons Sinais or River of Good Omens) a month later. 

By early March they had reached Mozambique, a city-state on the outskirts of the east African trade routes dominated by Muslim traders where da Gama impersonated a Muslim to gain an audience with the Sultan, then managed to offend him with modest, unsuitable gifts. A hostile crowd forced the ships to withdraw from the harbour, but with a significant proportion of the crew affected by scurvy, they spent a month in the vicinity, repairing the ships and erecting another padrão while the ill recuperated.

In the waters off modern Kenya, the expedition turned to piracy, looting unarmed Arab trading vessels and became the first known Europeans to visit Mombasa (7 to 13 April), where the reception was hostile.


© Ian Hughes 2017