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Cape CrossA place that has been known as Cape Cross for many years is a barren desert promontory near 22 degrees southern latitude, some 130 km north of Swakopmund in present-day Namibia.

Here, Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão went ashore in early 1486 to plant a massive cross into the sand, as per common practice then. The object of his discovery must soon have appeared terribly dreary to him. As far as the eye could see, only inhospitable wasteland stretched towards the south, a thoroughly unpromising perspective. Moreover, the coast was heavily exposed to wind and surf and thus utterly dangerous. The Portuguese turned back home.

It was the fourth cross Cão had set up in Africa, earlier ones already gracing the coasts farther up north. The Portuguese were the great explorers of that era who had done a thorough job along the west coast of the African continent way ahead of the discovery of the Americas. In 1460 they had set foot upon Cabo Verde, Africa’s westernmost point, and 15 years later, after having learnt that no flaming hell would devour them in the south, they reached the mouth of the mighty Congo. The cargoes they brought back from these voyages of discovery were so profitable that King João dispatched another big expedition, which left Lisbon in 1482. It was under the leadership of said Diogo Cão, a trusty tough veteran who also commanded the subsequent voyage south in 1485.

The wooden crosses erected in prominent locations were called padrão (plural, padrões) by the Portuguese. They not only served as navigational aids but also as Christian symbols and, last not least, as marks of colonial annexation. All newly discovered African territory was matter of factly added to the motherland and the savages living there were expected to rejoice over that privilege. The new fleet of Diogo Cão already carried crosses made of limestone because the wooden ones rotted away too fast. They measured more than seven feet in height and weighed at least 800 pounds. It must have meant quite some toil for the poor sailors to take those monsters ashore, but the crosses were to stand forever after, according to the conceptions of the Portuguese. The one at Cape Cross was indeed still standing in 1893, albeit at a heavy list, from which it was only delivered by Captain Becker.

A decade before, the seizure of the region by the German Empire had commenced, in which large wooden boards with the Imperial coat of arms had been erected along the coast, a task entrusted to naval vessels. In 1884 the gunboat Wolf landed at the cape, but the cross was not noticed. It even remained in hiding during further explorations of the coast in search of a usable harbour, although it had been wellknown to earlier seafarers. Something got into motion only when Captain Gottlieb Becker of the light cruiser Falke interrupted his voyage from Togo to Cape Town there in January 1893 to look for a safe landing place. During a thorough reconnaissance of the Bay of the Cross the sailors stumbled upon Diogo Cão’s ancient navigational mark, half submerged in the sand and heavily decayed. Since Captain Becker was a man of action, he realized that the cross was no longer of any use as a beacon, but of great antiquary value and had to be saved from further destruction. He therefore had it carried aboard the Falke, transporting it to Cape Town and eventually to Douala, whence it was taken to Wilhelmshaven by the steamer Stettin. From there it found its way through various institutes and museums, surviving two world wars and finally ending up in the German Technics Museum in Berlin, where it can be admired to this very day.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - January 2015 Issue
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