The Phoenicians had already been there

Bartolomeu Dias’ expedition also contributed to the discovery of the route to India.

Although Dias himself did not reach that far, he did blaze the trail and managed to prove that it was possible to go further eastwards by sailing around the southern part of Africa. This is what another Portuguese sailor called Vasco da Gama did soon after. But were they really the first people of the North in this part of the world?

According to Herodotus’ record it was the Phoenicians who first sailed around Africa, as early as the beginning of the 6th century BC. Is it possible? Paradoxically a titbit regarded as a nonsense in antiquity gives the biggest credence to Herodotus’ record. It says that, during their journey, the Phoenicians saw the sun in the northern part of the horizon. Hence, they must have at least gone past the equator, already an achievement.

The Phoenicians are described as a nation of the greatest sailors and traders of antiquity. In this respect they dominated in the Mediterranean Basin. Although their homeland was located at the east (Asian) coast, their trade relations and influence spread across the entire ancient world and even far beyond its boundaries. There is some circumstantial evidence which suggests that they managed to get as far as Southern America. This hypothesis is believed to be proved by the inscriptions in the language used by the Phoenicians, which were discovered in the 16th century by the Portuguese during their colonization of the present territories of Brazil.

It is possible to identify similarities between the expeditions of sailor-explorers at the close of the Middle Ages, and the probable voyage of the Phoenicians around Africa. In both cases it was a monarch searching for new trade routes who was the founder and the instigator of the expeditions. The Portuguese were supported by their king, while the Phoenicians by pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt. The Phoenician city-states were under pharaoh’s rule in the 7th century B.C. There is, however, one fundamental difference between the two expeditions, separated by more than 2000 years, and this is the direction. Dias sailed along the western coast of Africa, which is understandable, as he was looking for a route from Portugal to India. Whereas the Phoenicians began their journey by sailing over the waters of the Red Sea, so first they sailed around Africa from the east and then, having sailed by the southern ends of the continent, they headed for the north, close to the western coast. After that they sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar, called Pillars of Melkart by the Phoenicians and Pillars of Hercules by the Greeks, into the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Herodotus does not give too many details of this expedition. He says nothing about the discovery of the most southward point of Africa, not to mention his omission to name it. However, the direction of the Phoenicians’ course shows that it was them who reached the actual most southward cape of Africa. Taking into consideration their uncanny navigation skills and the ability to determine position relative to the stars, they certainly were able to plot where they were and perhaps felt happy to be returning back home.