The Cape Route, the route around Africa, the Carreira da Índia or the European-Asian sea route, used to be among the world's most important routes of commerce. The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama is generally credited as the first to complete it in 1498.
Ancient and medieval scholars disagreed whether the Atlantic and Indian Ocean were connected. According to Herodotus, an expedition sent by Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II and manned by Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa around 600 BCE.
The 15th century expansion of the Ottoman Empire disrupted commerce along the Silk Road, and encouraged Europeans to find a new route to Asia. The voyages of Columbus aimed for Asia, but instead established European contact with the Americas. Vasco da Gama's discovery of the Cape Route, as well as the Columbian voyages, inspired the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation.
Most of the Portuguese Empire was founded along the route, as well as most other European colonies on the continent before the late 19th century scramble for Africa. Overseas trade made the Mediterranean and the Silk Road less important for Eurasian commerce (leading to a decline of the Italian city-states), and shifted power to western Europe.
The Suez Canal, completed in 1867, created a shortcut between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. The Suez route was most useful to steamships (famously described in Around the World in Eighty Days), and put an end to the Age of Sail. In the 21st century, the Cape Route is still in use by sailing yachts, and by Capesize ships — the largest vessels, which cannot pass through the Suez Canal.
In some conflicts, vessels have been refused passage through the Suez Canal, resorting to the Cape Route instead, including the Russian navy during the Russo-Japanese war, the Yanagi submarine missions linking Germany and Japan during World War II, British vessels during the Suez crisis, and Israeli vessels when their access to the Straits of Tiran was also cut off by Egypt.
Leaving Europe at south-west Portugal, south-west Spain or Gibraltar, sailors will hit the Canary current southward along the African coast. They will also catch the north-east trade winds, sooner in late summer, since wind systems move north and south with the seasons. There is no need to keep to the coast past the westerlies, except for visits to West African ports. As the trade wind is reached, it can be followed out on the ocean, possibly calling at islands off the African coast, such as Madeira, Canary Islands and Cape Verde.
Between the north-east and the south-east trade winds, there is a belt of calms and unreliable light winds, the doldrums (or in modern speech: the Intertropical Convergence Zone). Without a motor, it can take a week or more to get suitable wind to get past it.
The south-east trade wind should be picked up east or south enough not to have to beat up it, i.e. don't go north of the Nordeste of Brazil. You can well stay much more east if winds and seas permit. The objective is to reach the southern westerlies at some suitable spot to head for South Africa. You might want to visit Tristan da Cunha en route. Like the trade winds, the westerlies reach the farthest north in late northern hemisphere summer.
The Agulhas Current is a strong current along the south-eastern coast of South Africa. To avoid it, steer well south before again turning east after your visits to the Cape Provinces. Turning north, you hit the Mozambique Current in the Mozambique Channel west of Madagascar. If you timed right, you will then get the south-west monsoon, which takes you to India. A faster option is to sail nearly to Australia by the westerlies and then turn due north, but until the marine chronometer had been developed in the mid-18th century and become standard, it was very difficult to know when to turn, and many ships hit shallows and rocks off West Australia as they didn't turn in time, which is why the ordinary Cape Route continued to be used also eastbound.
The return is by the north-east monsoon. Now the Mozambique Current and the Agulhas Current work to your favour, but you may have to beat against the westerlies, especially in southern hemisphere winter.
There is a northbound current along the western coast of southern Africa, which you might want to follow sailing by the south-east trade wind. Eventually you will take to the ocean and sail more or less north-west until you reach the doldrums, somewhere before or by West Africa. You might want to go via Saint Helena, Cape Verde and the Azores, from where you get to Europe by the northern westerlies. Remember the Canary Current off West Africa: keep off the coast. If you go too far to the west you would have to beat the north-east trade wind or, to avoid that, go north via the Caribbean and catch the westerlies from there or further north, which is not the Cape Route.
- 1 Lisbon, Portugal was the starting point for most Portuguese expeditions
- 2 Gibraltar for arrival through the Mediterranean
- 3 Madeira
- 4 Tenerife, Canary Islands
- 5 Cape Verde
- 6 Dakar, Senegal
- 7 Tristan da Cunha: an island about halfway between Cape Town and Buenos Aires, this is the most remote human settlement in the world, but on the route!
- 8 Saint Helena (island)
- 9 Salvador, Brazil: Prevailing winds and currents on the South Atlantic take ships south of St Helena island westwards across to Bahia.
- 10 Lüderitz, Namibia
- 11 Cape Town, South Africa
- 12 Zanzibar, Tanzania: a major port for Arab traders and later also for Europeans
- 13 Mombasa, Kenya
- 14 Malindi, Kenya: After being turned away from Mombasa, it was here where the explorer Vasco de Gama landed. A pillar stands where he came ashore. Malindi become important as the Indian Ocean trade networks developed; the town was visited by the fleet of Zheng He, and became an important port for the Portuguese, but later declined as the European colonisation progressed.
- 15 Kozhikode (Calicut), India: Long an important port on the Maritime Silk Road; the fabric calico first reached Europe from here and is named for the town.
- 16 Goa, India: Portugal's first colony in Asia, now a state of India.