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Alvise Cadamosto

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Alvise Cadamosto, also known as Alvise Ca’da Mosto, Luigi da Cadamosto or Luigi da Cada Mosto (1432-1488) was an Venetian merchant and navigator who under the patronage of the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator embarked on voyages to western Africa, exploring the coastal areas of the present-day countries of Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. He produced an account of two of his voyages, the Navigazioni, published posthumously in Italy in 1507, where he provides descriptions of the local costumes, fauna and flora of that part of Africa.

A member of a merchant family, Cadamosto acquired his navigational skills on the voyages he made between Italy and the commercial ports of the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and Flanders. In August 1454, while travelling from Venice to Flanders, Cadamosto’s three galleys were caught in a storm off Cape St. Vincent and had to take shelter in a bay near Cape Sagres. When Henry the Navigator (at that time living at nearby Raposeira) learned about the presence of the ships, he sent one of his secretaries, Antão Gonçalves, to meet the commander of the galleys. His main purpose was to show to the merchants samples of Portuguese goods, such as sugar and dragon’s blood from Madeira Island. Accompanying Gonçalves was Patrizio di Conti, a Venetian consul in Portugal. During the meeting Gonçalves and Conti alluded to the expeditions sponsored by Prince Henry to the West coast of Africa and how they had created new commercial possibilities. The two men informed Cadamosto that foreign merchants were welcomed by the Prince to travel to these lands under a licence, whose terms were explained to him.

After this contact, Cadamosto was invited to meet Prince Henry in his estate at Raposeira, where the prince invited him to join the Portuguese in their exploration voyages. Cadamosto, curious to see new lands, quickly accepted Henry’s invitation, returning to his ship to take his belongings and to buy some goods which he needed to trade in Africa.

First voyage

Seven months after meeting Henry, on 22 March 1455, Cadamosto left Lagos aboard a caravel fitted out by the prince, having as his final destination the “kingdom of Gambia”, where according to reports provided to Henry by black Africans brought to Portugal gold could be found in large quantities.

Joining him as master of the ship was Vicente Dias, a seafarer who in 1445 commanded a caravel that participated in the military expedition to the Gulf of Arguin. The licence attributed to Cadamosto gave him the right to keep one-half of the profits of the voyage.

Three days later after the departure, Cadamosto arrived on Porto Santo island where he spent two days, before sailing to the nearby Madeira Island. These two islands, recently colonized by the Portuguese, were the object of an elaborated description from Cadamosto that represents an important historical source for the early history of this archipelago. From Madeira Cadamosto proceeded to the Canary Islands and from there to Cape Blanco, before arriving at the mouth of the Senegal River.

According to Cadamosto, the Portuguese had since 1448 traded with two Senegalese Wolof kingdoms, Walo and Kayor, and had already sailed up the Senegal River. The trade took place on an unidentified anchorage of the Kayor kingdom known in Portuguese as “As Palmas de Budomel”, located somewhere between the mouth of the Senegal River and Cape Verde. It was on this area that Cadamosto made a stop before going to Gambia. Following the established procedures, he sent a message inland to the ruler, announcing his arrival and his desire to trade (on this part of Africa trade was in the hands of local rulers). Surprisingly, the king of Kayor, who Cadamosto names “Zucholin”, came in person, escorted by 15 horsemen and 150 warriors on foot. As a sign of good will, Camosto received from the king a girl aged about 13 to serve him, spending the next month as his guest.

After his stay, Cadamosto headed south, to the Gambia. Off Cape Verde he met two caravels sailing south; one of them was commanded by a Genoan merchant who lived in Portugal, Antoniotto Usodimare, also under the patronage of Henry and the other by an unidentified navigator. The three ships decided to join forces to explore the Gambia River.

Once at the estuary of the Gambia, the three caravels sailed up the river. From the start, they were treated with hostility by the native Mandinka people, who believed that the Europeans were cannibals. About 40 miles up the river, the caravels were attacked by arrows sent by Mandinka warriors from their canoes; in retaliation the caravels bombarded the natives. After the attack, the crew demanded to return home. At the mouth of the Gambia, Cadamosto made important astronomical observations: he noted how the [Pole Star] was low on the horizon and became the first European to sight the constellation of the Southern Cross, not visible from the Northern Hemisphere.

Second voyage

In March 1456 Cadamosto and Usodimare left Lagos on two caravels, accompanied by a third belonging to Henry. The navigators were given explicit orders by the prince to head directly to the mouth of the Gambia River and to sail as far upstream as they could.

On the second voyage no stops were made on Madeira and in the Canaries. At the proximity of Cape Blanco, a storm took the caravels far from the African coastline. According to Cadamosto, this incident led to the discovery of two islands of the Cape Verde archipelago, but his claim has been disputed by some historians. Since the islands were uninhabited, it was decided not to waste more time on them and to sail to the mouth of the Gambia.

The three ships entered the estuary of the river and proceeded upstream. This time no hostile reactions from the natives occurred. However, a sailor named Andrea died of fever, probably malaria; he was buried on an islet on the river named “Ilha de São Andrés” (today known as James Island). More deaths by this fever soon followed. Thanks to presence in the expedition of a native Mandinka interpreter, peaceful relations were established with the locals who informed the Europeans that the ruler of this land lived in a place reached after a journey of 9, 10 days inland. Cadamosto names this ruler as Batimansa, “the king of Bati”.

The Batimansa was friendly to the Europeans and allowed his people to trade with them. On his account Cadamosto notes how the Mandika people were happy to trade goods that in Europe were considered cheap for slaves. However, the gold that they came looking for was barely seen. The stay at the country of the Batimansa was made short when some sailors got sick with a mysterious fever and Cadamosto ordered the caravels to leave. Once they had reached open sea, the fever of the sailors disappeared. Because of this, it was decided to explore the regions south of the Gambia River. Two days later, the caravels reached the estuary of the Casamansa River, named after the local ruler, the Mansa. Further south other rivers were found, the most important of which had such a wide estuary that was named Rio Grande ("Large River"), today known as the Geba. While the caravels were anchored on the estuary of the Geba, the Europeans were approached by natives of the region travelling on canoes. Since none of the interpreters understood the language of these people, Cadamosto decided that it was time to return to Portugal. On the return voyage, a quick stop was made on the Bissago Islands, off the mouth of the Geba.

It is believed that Cadamosto made other voyages to Senegambia on the following years, but no record of them was made. He lived in Portugal until 1463, before returning to Venice where he died in 1488.