Gil Eannes Passes the Point of No Return at Cape Bojador—And Inaugurates a New Era in Exploration

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Gil Eannes Passes the Point of No Return at Cape Bojador—And Inaugurates a New Era in Exploration


The name of Gil Eannes is hardly a household word; nor is that of the place associated with the Portuguese explorer, Cape Bojador. Nor indeed did Eannes discover the cape: the place had been known for many years. To journeyers of Eannes's time, Bojador represented an unbreachable barrier, a point of no return, and it was the achievement of this reluctant hero to pass that invisible boundary in 1434. In so doing, he opened new territory not only on land but in the mind, and thus made possible the golden age of Portuguese exploration, with all its glories and horrors.


Located at 26°08' N, 14°30' W, or about 100 miles (160 km) south of the Canary Islands, Cape Bojador—"the Bulging Cape"—juts into the Atlantic from the west coast of Africa. Today it is part of the territory of Western Sahara, claimed by Morocco, in which it constitutes a central geographic mark, dividing the region between its northern third, Saguia el Hamra, and its southern two-thirds, Río de Oro.

The region's first exposure to the outside world probably occurred in about 600 b.c., when according to Herodotus (c.484-c.420 b.c.), Egypt's pharaoh Necho II (r. 610-595 b.c.) commissioned a group of Carthaginian mariners to circumnavigate the African continent. If indeed this voyage occurred, the sailors would most certainly have passed by the cape, which juts some 25 miles (40 km) from the African mainland. Further contact may have occurred during a voyage of Hanno (fifth cent. b.c.) down the west coast of Africa.

During medieval times, Sanhajah Berber tribes established their dominance in the area, only to be overtaken by Bedouins from further east. There was little other competition, however: squeezed as it was between the ocean and the desert, the area around Cape Bojador was hardly worth the trouble of conquering it. Added to this was the fearsome reputation the cape had acquired in the eyes of mariners.

The Arabs called the place Abu khatar, meaning "father of danger," and indeed Cape Bojador became the site of many a shipwreck. The reason for this was a network of reefs surrounding the cape, which created a sort of net for catching ships. As distant as a league (5 kilometers) from shore, the sea was only a fathom (about 2 meters) deep, and as though the shallows were not forbidding enough, the northern side of the cape was subject to violent waves and currents, while fogs and mists often covered the region as a whole. Strong prevailing winds made it almost impossible for a ship to return north of the cape once it had passed it, rendering the spot truly a point of no return—or, in the parlance of European sailors in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the "Green Sea of Darkness."


The story of Eannes (fl. 1433-1445), and his feat in passing Cape Bojador, is inextricably tied with that of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). A man who, more than any other individual, deserves the credit for initiating the Age of Exploration, Henry himself never traveled further from home than Tunis, and certainly never took part in any of the expeditions and voyages that he helped organize. Yet from his informal "school" in Sagres, on the extreme southwestern tip of Portugal, ships went out to what were then the edges of the known world: the Azores, the Madeiras, the Canaries—and beyond.

The first stop beyond the Canary Islands was Cape Bojador, which, in addition to posing a profound physical barrier, constituted an even more formidable psychological one. At that time conventional wisdom maintained that the Sun was boiling hot at the Equator. Thus even if a ship could get past Cape Bojador—which in fact is just above the Tropic of Cancer, some 2,000 miles or 3,200 kilometers north of the Equator—the equatorial Sun would eventually burn it to powder. Furthermore, should a vessel somehow make it past all other hazards, its crew would most surely meet unspeakable monsters in the subequatorial region known as the Antipodes.

The latter supposition was the result of impeccable medieval logic: since all men had descended from Adam and Eve, and since it was impossible to cross the Equator, all creatures in the Antipodes must necessarily be something other than human. Indeed, to live in the fearsome waste dubbed Terra Incognita, a being must surely be monstrous. Finally, there was the possibility that Africa itself blended into Terra Incognita, meaning that even if a ship got past all other obstacles, its crew would find themselves unable to sail further.

A fascinating figure who lived on the cusp between the medieval and modern worlds, Henry was driven as much by crusading fervor—a desire to win the souls of unknown lands to Christ—as by an urge to breach physical boundaries. Beginning in 1418, when João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira first caught sight of Porto Santo in the Madeiras, sailors from Henry's school had been edging further southward; yet Cape Bojador remained a forbidding wall against further exploration. By the early 1430s, Henry had determined to cross the barrier represented by the cape, and for the job he chose Eannes.

The latter had grown up in Lagos, near Sagres, and had served Henry from boyhood as a squire. Thus the prince was certain of Eannes's loyalty when in 1433 he ordered him to sail past the cape. In today's terms, this would be equivalent to a deep-space mission, and Eannes was no doubt terrified as he embarked. In any case, he did not get far on his first voyage: after reaching the Canaries, he returned to Portugal. The prince, however, was not willing to accept defeat: in 1434 he sent Eannes out again, this time with the charge, "Make the voyage from which, by the grace of God, you cannot fail to derive honor and profit."

Setting out in a small fishing boat—the larger Portuguese barcas would not come into use until later in the decade—Eannes managed to round the cape by sailing far to the west. Instead of the world's edge, he found himself on a calm sea. After skirting the cape, he landed on the desert coast and collected one of the few living specimens available, a plant that came to be known among the Portuguese as "St. Mary's roses." This he brought back to Henry's court as proof that he had landed.

Eannes returned a hero, and no doubt Henry and the Portuguese people showered him with riches and acclaim. Certainly he would have deserved such, given the fact that he had opened the way to the world beyond Cape Bojador. In 1435 he and Alfonso Gonçalves Baldaya sailed past Bojador, where they saw human and camel tracks, at that time the most southerly signs of life known to Europeans. Baldaya continued further south, and traded for sealskins, the first commercial cargo brought back to Europe from West Africa.

Eannes last appears on the pages of history on August 10, 1445, when he left Portugal with an armada of caravels—a new, sturdier sailing vessel that replaced barcas—bound for the island of Tidra off the coast of what is now Mauritania. There the Portuguese forces did battle with the Muslim inhabitants, a conflict in which Eannes may have died. In any case, he had opened the way for Portuguese vessels to move ever southward, and by 1456 Alvise Cadamosto (1432-1488) had reached the Gambia River, far down the coastline from Bojador. Just 32 years later, in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500) rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524) sailed around the cape to India.

Stirring as these victories were, however, the exploration of West Africa is mingled with the taint of African slavery. The Portuguese captured their first natives in 1441, and it appears that in 1444, Eannes himself took part in an expedition to seize some 200 slaves near Cape Blanco, first reached in the preceding year. During the half-century up to 1500, some 300,000 people were captured in Africa, and as the modern age dawned, so did the era of modern chattel slavery. Though outlawed throughout Europe during the 1700s, the enslavement of Africans in the New World would continue until Cuba and Brazil finally outlawed the institution in the 1880s.

Also in the 1880s, the area around Cape Bojador became a Spanish colony. Despite its barrenness, the region had become the cause for a territorial dispute between Spain and Portugal from about 1450, and this rivalry continued even as the two Iberian countries' influence as world powers of exploration waned. While Britain, France, and other nations helped themselves to more desirable spots in Africa, Spain in 1860 signed the treaty of Tetuan with Morocco, which gave it rights to the region that came to be known as the Spanish Sahara.

Though it officially annexed the area in 1884, Spain did not fully occupy it until three decades later, when it took advantage of the fact that other nations' attentions were diverted by World War I. In 1957 Morocco began to press greater claims over the Spanish Sahara, and the discovery of phosphate deposits increased the seriousness of the dispute. Finally in 1975 Spain relinquished it, and thus Cape Bojador may justly be called the place where European exploration and colonization in Africa both began and ended. In the decades that followed, the territory would see sustained conflict between new claimants: Morocco, Mauritania, and native Polisario rebels. Today the Western Sahara is one of the most sparsely populated regions on Earth, with some 208,000 people on more than 100,000 square miles (259,000 square km).


Further Reading


Bradford, Ernie. A Wind from the North: The Life of Prince Henry the Navigator. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.

Prestage, Edgar. The Portuguese Pioneers. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1933.

Zurara, Gomes Eanes de. Conquests and Discoveries of Henry the Navigator; Being the Chronicles of Azurara. Edited by Virginia de Castro e Almeida, translated by Bernard Miall. London: Allen & Unwin, 1936.

Internet Sites

Granger, David A. "The Atlantic Slave Trade: Crime of the Millennium." Stabroek News [Guyana], October 17, 1999.

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Gil Eannes Passes the Point of No Return at Cape Bojador—And Inaugurates a New Era in Exploration

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