S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Mesquita Perestrelo, Manuel de (geographical exploration)

Born: 1510, Alenquer, near Lisboa, Portugal.
Died: 1580, Alenquer, Portugal.

Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo, Portuguese navigator, was the son of Pero Sobrinho de Mesquita and his wife Francisca Perestrelo, a relative of Christopher Columbus's first wife. Manuel first sailed to Portuguese India in 1547 and returned the following year. He sailed to India again in 1549. In 1553 he once more left for India, returning in the S. Bento (St Benedict), in a squadron commanded by Fernao Alvarez Cabral. After sailing from Cochin (now Kochi), India, on 1 February 1554 the ship was severely damaged in stormy weather and on 24 April the crew were forced to run it ashore in a sinking state on the Transkei coast, at the mouth of the Msikaba River (latitude 31o 20' S). The survivors, 98 Portuguese and 224 slaves, set out a few days later to march to Mozambique in the hope of being picked up by a Portuguese trading vessel. They headed inland, but thirteen days later again reached the coast, having crossed the Mzimvubu River with great difficulty. There they found the remains of the wreck of the S. Joao, which had stranded in June 1552 and of which some survivors had managed to reach Mozambique on foot, where they were rescued. The survivors of the S. Bento continued up the coast, sometimes harassed by the local inhabitants, but sometimes able to trade with them for food. Those unable or unwilling to continue were left behind, while a few stragglers from the S. Joao party joined them. Their leader, Cabral, drowned while the party crossed the Tugela River. They were unable to cross the St Lucia estuary at its mouth and were forced to walk right around St Lucia Lake. Eventually, on 4 July 1554, 62 emaciated survivors reached the south-eastern shore of Delagoa Bay (now Baia de Maputo). When a trading vessel finally visited the bay in November there were only 25 survivors left to be rescued, including Mesquita Perestrelo. After spending a few months trading for ivory in the bay the ship with the survivors reached Mozambique Island, the main Portuguese stronghold on the east coast, early in April. On his return to Portugal Mesquita Perestrelo wrote an account of the incredible journey, Naufragio da nao Sam Bento... (Coymbra, 1564), which contained information on the region traversed and its inhabitants. It was the first book devoted exclusively to events that happened on South African soil. After several re-publications in Portuguese it was translated into English by G.McC. Theal (1898).

In 1562 Mesquita Perestrelo led a squadron to the fortress Sao Jorge de Mina in present Ghana and stayed there in command. A year later he was arrested for an unknown offence and jailed in Lisboa. However, he escaped and fled to Spain, and from there petitioned King Sebastiao for pardon. This was granted in 1569 and he was appointed captain of the Moluccas (now part of Indonesia). He sailed in 1570, in command of a galleon, and after remaining at Mozambique for some time reached the spice islands in 1571. At the end of his three-year term he proceeded to Goa, the capital of Portuguese India. There, as a result of further Portuguese shipwrecks on the African coast, he received instructions from King Sebastiao to explore the south-east coast of Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Correntes (c. 24oS), to find places where ships could shelter during gales.

Leaving Mozambique Island in a small vessel on 22 November 1575 he travelled down the coast, reaching the Cape on 28 January 1576, and returned to Mozambique on 13 March 1576. The method used in his rapid survey was to sail along the coast as close as necessary to make observations, stopping each night if the weather allowed. He had no means to determine longitude, while distances could only be estimated by dead reckoning. His chart, which is rather crude, shows the coast from Cape Agulhas to Algoa Bay trending too much to the north, and the east coast of South Africa too far to the west. Furthermore, he believed that the S. Bento was wrecked at the same river mouth where Bartholomeu Dias* had turned back on his journey of 1488, and had trouble reconciling the latitudes of points along the Eastern Cape coast. The latitudes of other notable coastal features, determined with a marine astrolabe, were fairly accurate, though some were more than half a degree in error. He closely observed a number of headlands and bays, sketched the land horizon as seen from the sea at eight important places so that mariners might recognise them, took soundings in bays, and took compass bearings of land features from suitable anchorages. In these respects his account was more valuable than earlier ones by Joao de Lisboa* and others. He described Cape Agulhas and Cape Infante, and named the adjacent St Sebastian Bay after the King. There he admired the sheltered water at the mouth of the Breede River, which seemed to him large enough to house a large fleet, and where both fish and fresh water could be obtained. Every suitable anchorage along the coast was described with reference to the wind directions against which it provided shelter. Among other features he named St Francis Bay and the Bay de la Goa (later corrupted to Algoa Bay), with its small island Cruz (now St Croix). For the coast of the Transkei and Natal he depended mainly on his overland journey in 1554. He was able to provide a good description of Delagoa Bay because of his earlier stay there, and strongly recommended it to ships requiring shelter.

Though his original report is lost, four later copies survived. The report, with sketches and a chart, was much used by later navigators despite its inaccuracies. From 1621 several abridged editions were printed. The report was published in full only in 1898, when it was translated into English by G.McC. Theal and included in his Records of South-Eastern Africa (1898).

List of sources:
Axelson, E. (ed.) et al. Dias and his successors. Cape Town: Saayman & Weber, 1988.

De Kock, W.J. Portugese ontdekkers om die Kaap. Kaapstad: Balkema, 1957.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 3, 1977.

South African bibliography to the year 1925, Vol. 5. Cape Town: South African Library, 1991.

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Theal, G.McC. History of Africa south of the Zambesi... Vol. 1: The Portuguese in South Africa from 1505 to 1795 (3rd ed.) London: Allen & Unwin, 1916.

Theal, G.McC. Records of South-Eastern Africa, Vol. 1, 1898.

Compiled by: C. Plug