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Portuguese consulate visits historic Diaz Cross at Wits

- Wits University

The cross serves as a historical reminder of Portugal's voyages around the southern African coast in the 15th century.

The Consulate-General of Portugal in Johannesburg took a trip down memory lane when it visited the historic Dias Cross at the William Cullen Library on Wits University's Braamfontein Campus East.

The Diaz Cross in the Willem Cullen Library at Wits University

Ambassador Manuel Carvalho and his team were elated to lay eyes on the famous cross nestled in the library's foyer. The cross was erected in 1488 at what is now known as Kwaaihoek in the Eastern Cape.

"They would erect several of these crosses along the coastlines of Africa as proof that they were there and as symbols of Christianity," said Carvalho.

The Portuguese consulate visit the Diaz Cross at Wits University

History tied to the cross

Intrepid explorer Bartolomeu Dias erected the cross, known as Padrão de São Gregório, in the Eastern Cape, the most easterly point of his voyage. 

It was customary for the Portuguese explorer of the 1470s and 1480s to carry up to half a dozen stone pillars or crosses during his journey.

Historical papers claim that these crosses or Padrãos were strategically placed in locations where voyagers claimed territory and generated revenue from said territories. Furthermore, they were erected partly as proof that the navigator had reached the neighbourhood he maintained.

The Padrão de São Gregório is one of 11 Padrão's erected in the late 1400s along African coastlines.

Why Wits?

The cross stood at Kwaaihoek until the 16th century but records of the relic since then ceased to be mentioned until the discovery of its fragments in the 20th century. The broken pieces were discovered in 1938 by Professor Eric Axelson, a former staff member of Wits.

The cross was later reconstructed and given to the University to keep in the foyer of the William Cullen library. Despite being declared a National Monument in 1939, the relic tends to go unnoticed by visitors.

Senior Librarian Margaret Atsango said that several records and documents bearing information on the cross was carefully laid out in display boxes below the relic for a treasure hunt exercise in September.

"We've left them there since the treasure hunt to attract students, staff and visitors who walk in here. It is unfortunate that most people don't know how important this relic is. That's why the displays are visible at the entrance so visitors have an idea of what they're looking at," said Atsango.

The Dias Cross is South Africa's oldest historical monument held within Wits University.