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Diogo Cao

Diogo Cao

Diogo Cao was an important Portuguese Explorer who helped lay the foundation for the Portuguese Empire. He made two voyages along the coast of Africa in the 1480s.

He explored the Congo River and the coasts of present-day Angola and Namibia.

Early Life

Diogo Cao

Diogo Cao was born in Vila Real, in the middle of the 15th century. He was an illegitimate son of Alvaro Fernandes or Goncalves Cao, fidalgo of the Royal Household, himself the illegitimate son of Goncalo Cao. 

He married and had four children:

  • Pedro Cao
  • Manuel Cao
  • Andre Afonso Cao
  • Isabel Cao

His Christian name was Jacobus. “Cao” was a nickname meaning “dog”, which means his nickname translated to “Diego the dog”

Exploration and Discovery

Diogo Cao would set out along the coast of Africa to further Portuguese exploration in the mid-late 15th century. 

He would become the first European to see and explore the Congo River. He would also lead expeditions around the West African coast between Cape St. Catherine and Gabon and Cape Cross and almost to the equator to Walvis Bay in Namibia.

First Voyage

Henry the Navigator was the most influential Portuguese maritime leader. His work set the stage for many things to come and would eventually allow for men like Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama to build a trade empire for Portugal.

However, after his initial work, it took some time for the Portuguese to expand on it. When King John II came to power in Portugal he wanted to restart Henry’s work and to do so he sent out Diogo Cao to explore the African coast south of the equator.

Diogo filled his ship with crosses from the Order of Christ that were engraved with the Portuguese royal arms. His plan was to place one in every new place he discovered, thus marking the land for Portugal.

On his way, he stopped in the newly-built Elmina Castle to stock up. However, the Flemish merchant Eustache de la Fosse recalled encountering Diogo Cao in Elmina in 1480. 

He discovered the mouth and estuary of the Congo, probably in August 1482 and marked it with a padrão, or stone pillar erected on Shark Point, attesting to the sovereignty of Portugal. This padrão still stands to this day, albeit in ruins.

He also ascended the great river for a short distance and commenced modest commerce with the natives of the Bakongo kingdom. He was told that their King lived farther upriver.

He sent 4 men to meet the King, kept four natives to serve as ambassadors of Kongo in Portugal, and sailed back down the river to the Atlantic.

Diogo then coasted down along present Angola (Portuguese West Africa) and erected a second padrão, probably marking the termination of this voyage, at Cape Saint Mary.

The first padrão erected at the mouth of the Congo River, the S. Jorge, has been taken by an English ship that sunk, according to indigenous rumors. The second one, the St. Agostinho, still stands today but misses its cross on top.

He returned to Lisbon by 8 April 1484 (on his return he discovered the Island of Annobón), where John II ennobled him, promoting him from esquire to a knight of his household, and granted him much wealth and a coat of arms where two padrões are represented.

The King also asked him to sail back to Congo to pick up the 4 men he left behind

Second Voyage

On Diogo’s second voyage the explorer revisited the Congo and erected two more padrãos on land beyond his previous voyage. The first was at Cabo Negro, Angola, the second at Cape Cross.

The Cape Cross pillar probably marked the end of his progress southward. Diogo Cão also embarked the 4 indigenous ambassadors, that he had promised not to keep for more than fifteen moons. O

Cão ascended the Congo River (which he thought led towards the realm of Prester John), up to the neighborhood of the site of Matadi.

There, in October or November 1485, near the falls of Ielala, he left an inscription engraved on the stone which testifies of its passage and that of his men: “Here reached the ships of the enlightened king John II of Portugal – Diogo Cão, Pero Anes, Pero da Costa”.

What happened to Cao after his second voyage is a bit of a mystery. Some believe he died off Cape Cross while others said he returned to the Congo and made further discoveries. 

A coast map by Henricus Martellus Germanus published in 1489 indicated the location of a padrão erected by Diogo Cão in Ponta dos Farilhões nearby Serra Parda, with the legend “et hic moritur” (“and here he died”).

The Venetian cartographer Pietro Coppo corroborated this location of death in 1520.

The four pillars set up by Cão on his two voyages have all been discovered still on their original site, and the inscriptions on two of them from Cape Santa Maria and Cape Cross, dated 1482 and 1485 respectively, are still to be read and have been printed.

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