The Expedition


The expedition's two carracks (da Gama's São Gabriel and his brother's vessel) were purpose-built for the voyage under Bartholomeu Dias' supervision. His experience suggested the task they were undertaking required something more substantial than the caravels he had used. 

The expedition's third vessel, officially the São Miguel, nicknamed the Berrio, commanded by Nicolau Coelho, was a caravel, probably intended for reconnaissance duties. The flotilla was rounded out by a 200-ton storeship under Gonçalo Nunes, that was never meant to go all the way to India and would end up being scuttled in South Africa's Mossel Bay.

The three main ships carried experienced pilots (Pero de Alenquer, Pedro Escobar, João de Coimbra, and Afonso Gonçalves) who used tables and navigational instruments provided by Abraham Zacuto and, maps and sailing directions from Diogo Ortiz, Bishop of Tangier. The fleet also carried three interpreters—two Arabic speakers and one who spoke several Bantu dialects and stone padrões to set up as marks of discovery along the way. Final preparations were supervised by Dias, who accompanied the expedition as far as the Cape Verde Islands.  

The four vessels, carrying a crew numbering around 170, sailed from Lisbon on 8 July 1497 and followed the standard Portuguese route along the African coast of Africa via Tenerife and Cape Verde. The four ships passed the Canary Islands on 15 July and reached São Tiago in the Cape Verdes on the 26th. They remained there for about a week before making what seems to have been a long and quite deliberate detour through the South Atlantic that would avoid adverse currents flowing along the African coast.

Over the ten years that had elapsed since Dias rounded the Cape, it seems safe to assume that unheralded voyages into the southern Atlantic delivered a better understanding of prevailing winds and currents.

Around the Cape

© Ian Hughes 2017