Saldanha, the man who discovered the Cape

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History in most cases cannot be rewritten, even when the chronicles of day register the incorrect facts.

One historical misconception is that Bartolmeu Dias or even Vasco da Gama discovered the Cape, as suggested in the Adamastor episode of “Lusiadas”, Luis de Camoes epic verses.

That is the tale of the  16th-century Captain António de Saldanha, who was the first European to set anchor in what is today called Table Bay, and made the first recorded ascent of Table Mountain.

The entrance to Table Bay was probably missed by the early Portuguese trading fleets of the last quarter of the fifteenth century en route to India, including Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama, all of whom passed the Cape far out at sea.

It was 15 years after Bartolomeu Dias discovered the passage to the Indian Ocean ,that  Antonio de Saldanha, in the wake of an intense storm, first sailed into Table Bay in 1503.

Chroniclers of Gaspar Correia and Fernão Lopes de Castanheda identify António de Saldanha as a “Castilian nobleman” who arrived in Portugal around 1497, in the household service of the queen Maria of Aragon.

His original Castilian name is unknown, ‘Saldanha’ possibly referring to the Castilian town of Saldaña, which may have been his place of origin.

Antonio Saldanha climbed Table Mountain with the purpose of establishing his position and impressed by the shape of the colossal rock formation, named it “Montanha da Mesa” ,Table Mountain.

From then on the Portuguese navigators in reference to its discoverer called Table Bay “Aguada de Saldanha” or Saldanha’s watering hole.

Joris Van Spielberg

Almost  one hundred years  later , when Holland started the colonial expansion,  the Dutch cartographer Joris Van Spielberg, in a mission to draw maps of nowadays  Western Cape  Coast, sailed in 1596  past Saldanha Bay and  mistook it for the bay ‘discovered’ by Saldanha, and named it after him.

Ironically, Antonio Saldanha never saw the bay that was named after him.

He planned to sail around the Cape of Good Hope on his way to the East but due to a navigation error, he landed in Table Bay.

Another misconception is to refer Captain Saldanha as “Admiral Saldanha”, in confusion with the Brazilian Admiral Saldanha da Gama, whose name was given to various navy  school ships that have sailed around Globe .

Another historical inaccuracy is that Antonio Saldanha died during that Cape expedition in 1503.

He was indeed injured during a skirmish, between local Khoikhoi and Saldanha’s party of Portuguese sailors  in the course of the  inlad excursion to the Table Mountain, but he survived to live until the gracious age of eighty years.

During his restless and colourful long life Antonio de Saldanha was a navigator that guided the fleet of Tristão da Cunha in East Africa and helped Afonso de Alquerque  to explore the Red Sea passage.

He was also captain-major of Sofala and Mozambique Islands, taking part in several military missions in the Gulf of Aden and led the Christian flotilla against the infamous Buccaneer Barbarrossa, during the 1535 campaigns against the Muslim Pirates of the Mediterranean Barbary Coast.

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Ao contrário da crença popular, (ou  do que se poderia inferir do  episódio  do Adamastor cantado  no  épico poema de Luís de Camões “Os  Lusíadas”) nem Bartolomeu Dias nem Vasco da Gama descobriram a Baía do Cabo .

Foi António Saldanha ,um fidalgo de origem castelhana, o primeiro navegador europeu a descobrir  em 1503 a Baía do Cabo e a subir à cordilheira  rochosa, à qual deu o nome de “Montanha da Mesa” pela qual  é ainda hoje conhecida, e a que os navegadores portugueses da época passaram a chamar  de “Aguada de Saldanha”.

Á semelhança de muitos navegadores estrageiros do tempo das descobertas, António Saldanha entrou  ao serviço da coroa Portuguesa no início do século XVI tendo participado  durante mais de trinta anos nas campanhas da expansão lusa na Africa Oriental, no golfo Pérsico e nos mares da índia.

Se não é vulgarmente reconhecido por ter sido o primeiro navegador a chegar ao Cabo e a subir a montanha, por ironia da história é-lhe atribuído o feito de ter descoberto a Baía de Saldanha, enseada onde nunca aportou ou dela teve conhecimento nas demandas náuticas.

O equívoco deve-se ao cartógrafo holandês, Joris van Spilbergen, que ao fazer o levantamento de mapas da região, quase cem anos  depois da chegada de Saldanha ao Cabo confundiu as duas baías e atribuiu erroneamente a descoberta de Saldanha Bay ao navegador castelhano.

Outro lapso de cronicas biográficas seria o facto de António Saldanha ter perecido numa refrega contra os nativos Khoikhoi.

Foi com efeito ferido em combate quando acostou  a região do Cabo mas recuperou dos ferimentos para viver até aos veneráveis oitenta anos.

Nas três décadas ao serviço do rei de Portugal, António Saldanha, por mérito de  conhecimentos náuticos, serviu de guia às esquadras de Tristão da Cunha e de Afonso de Albuquerque, tendo sido também Comandante da guarnição de Sofala e da Ilha de Moçambique .

Participou ainda em diversas batalhas navais contra os árabes no Golfo Áden e nas  lutas pela  hegemonia naval do Mar Mediterrano, chefiando em 1535 a esquadra de navios das nações cristãs contra o terrível pirata islâmico “Barba Roxa”.

Jay Fernandes
Master’s Degree G. Ph. from the University of Lisbon. Academic and teacher. Television , radio and press reporter / commentator

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