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Bartolomeu Dias Cross - Replica
Boknesstrand district, Eastern Cape

Date:1488 : 1988


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33°43'06.82" S 26°37'26.25" E Alt: 14m

This is the furthest East that Bartolomeu Dias (Bartholomew Diaz) reached in 1488 (on the coast between Boknes and Bushmans River Mouth). 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.

(Gavin MCLACHLAN 2013)


The Discovery of the Original Dias Cross

Article from the journal of the Public Works of South Africa. November, 1941. pp 5-6.

The illustration on the right shows the replica of the Dias Padrao erected at Kwaaihoek, District of Alexandria, on the exact site of the original. The replica was made in Johannesburg. It was cast in white cement in a gelatine mould taken from the original. The base and surrounds were constructed on the site with local materials. Cement for the purpose was transported to the site by ox-wagon. Bronze explanatory plaques in English, Afrikaans and Portuguese have been fixed to the monument.

THE discovery of the Cross or Padrao erected by the intrepid Portuguese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, in the year 1488 on a promontory at what is now known as Kwaaihoek, in the district of Alexandria, its salvage and its reconstruction by experts of the Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, forms one of the romances of our times. Happenings such as this bring flutters of excitement into the austere precincts of the learned and shed a glow of popular interest on subjects which the average man is too inclined to regard as extremely dull. Thus it was that Bartolomeu Dias came into the news again after a lapse of over four and a half centuries.

As a replica of the Dias Cross has recently been erected on the site of the original, it is fitting to recall the story of the Cross and its discovery. It is only a year or two ago that the details of this story were told by Dr. Eric Axelson of the Department of History at the Witwatersrand University.

The Vanished Padrao:

ONE of the most important personalities in this story is Bartolomeu Dias himself, for he provided the mystery by planting his padrao on a site, the whereabouts of which nobody in modern times could at all be sure until Dr. Axelson's discovery. Bartolomeu Dias apparently did not anticipate the opening up of Southern Africa or that posterity in the centuries to come would be at all concerned to find the little stone Padrao which he had transported all the way from Portugal. 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.

The immediate concern of Bartolomeu Dias on that day, March 12th, 1488, was to erect the Padrão to proclaim the sovereignty of Portugal over the coasts he had discovered, to inform subsequent travellers that he, Bartolomeu Dias, had been there before them and to provide proof positive of his claims of discovery to the explorers of rival nations.

The erection of the Padrao was probably hurried, for, much 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 South-West Africa (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.

As the centuries passed the Dias Cross sank lower and lower into the sand. It was broken by the ravages of storms or by destructive Natives [sic]. Sections rolled down the 90-ft. (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. 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.

The Discovery:

ACTING on the advice of Professor Leo Fouche, Dr. Axelson left South Africa for Europe in 1935 after he had been awarded a special scholarship for distinguishing himself in his historical studies at the University. He went to Lisbon to search the archives and libraries there for all available documents relating to the great Portuguese explorers of the fifteenth century, his object being to write a connected history of South East Africa from the day of its discovery in 1488 to 1530 or thereabouts.

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.