The long road south

Now the story starts to roll, like the ships of Bartolomeu Dias. The fleet which sailed south to double the Cape of Storms left in August, and by Boxing Day 1487 was at Golfo de Santo Estevao, St. Stephen’s Gulf. As usual, the name was given because the expedition reached it on that saint’s day.

Elizabeth Bay

Elizabeth Bay

This area, on the wild and rugged coast of Namibia, is now known as Elizabeth Bay. The terrible skeleton coast, so called because remains of ships and whales abound, is now behind us. The small ships and a handful of resolute men are preparing for the worst. But we begin in Lisbon, the previous August, when Alvaro has boarded the second caravel, captained by Joao Infante. – The Second Caravel.pdf

A final note for historical accuracy: Although it’s nice to think this happened exactly 521 years ago, actually it didn’t. The Julian calendar was reformed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, by which time Portugal had fallen under Spanish rule, and the adventures of old King John were long past.

The pope enacted this change in order to correct for the true astronomical year – things had gotten so bad that Easter was converging on summer. He spirited away 10 days, so that the day following (Thursday) October 4, 1582 (October 5, 1582, in the old calendar) would thenceforth be known as (Friday) October 15, 1582. So in the western calendar now in use, Dias’s fleet actually reached St. Stephen’s Gulf on January 4th 1488.

When I wrote The India Road, I spent a good deal of time on dates, calendar changes, tides and lunations. I cross-checked all key calendar dates with weekdays, and wrote a small computer program to make that easy and quick to determine. Boxing Day in 1487 fell on a Tuesday. This book is a novel in the sense that the story was embelished, but it is historical in that the facts are accurate.


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