As Europe struggled out of the feudal system that followed the sacking of Rome by the barbarians in 400 AD and into the renaissance, it looked east to satiate its re-awoken taste for exotic goods. But Europe had little direct access with India, China, Japan and the Spice Islands. Instead, traders in the Middle East controlled trade between East and West. In an effort to circumvent the Middle East and gain access to cheaper goods, European nations began searching for other safe, fast and cheap ways to acquire those trade items for which demand was growing. Attempts to gain control of the dangerous terrestrial trade routes had failed and so people looked to the sea and Europe entered its Age of Exploration. Ships were dispatched both east and west of Europe in an effort to reach the rich Spice Islands, porcelain markets, textile factories and other goods which European markets craved.
In the context of South Africa’s history, it is the voyages around the African continent that most influenced change. The exploratory voyages of Bartholomew Diaz in 1489 and Vasco Da Gama in 1499, opened the way for a flood of seaborne trade that had profound consequences for South Africa, the African continent and the world in general. Diaz was the first European to round the southern tip of Africa in Portugals’ attempts discover an all sea route to the East. Evidence seems to suggest that he got as far as Mossel Bay before returning home. Da Gama followed soon after and continued across the India Ocean to the East in 1499. Portugal’s pioneering explorers gave her the edge in the race for eastern markets and she quickly became a major power in Europe. But others followed quickly as the rest of Europe realised the potential of direct trade with the East.