Over the edge of the world


Beneath the towering cliffs of Cape Bojador, just south of the Canary Islands, the Atlantic boils and foams in constant fury. Shoals of sardines flashing in the tumult give the water the appearance of molten metal. Seas crash into unseen gullies and explode like geysers into spume-laden columns.

This to the seamen of old was the gateway to hell. Beyond it lay the sea of Darkness, peopled with sea monsters and the spirits of dead…the edge of the world.

The powerful whirlpool raging along the 15-mile reef provoked such terrifying legends, that from 400 BCE (400 BC) to the 15th century it slowed the pace of exploration down the west coast of Africa. The Pillars of Hercules-the Straits of Gibraltar-marked the western limit of the Mediterranean and beyond them, the discoverers advanced timorously, at an average rate of less than a mile a year.

Then, in 1434, Infante Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Henry the Navigator, who chafed and scoffed at the superstitions, persuaded one of his captains, Gil Eanes, to find out what actually did lie south of Bojador. The spectacular fury which had terrorized seamen for so long was caused, he believed, by nothing more than sinister than rough seas pounding against the cliffs. But he couldn’t explain that the effect was heightened by a northerly swell coming into collision with an offshore wind, for the knowledge was ahead of his time.

Gil Eanes’ crew feared, but he answered their fears with reason and common-sense. He set course for the supposed “end of the world”-and plunged over the edge.

The result must have surprised the faint-hearted among his crew, for in 24 hours (not a long time in early sailing standards), they cleared the sinister Bojador barrier and broke out into calm waters, with not a monster in sight. Their fears now behind them, the navigators steered east and were rewarded with a sight of a new unexplored coast reaching out before them.

It had taken Europeans about a thousand years to reconnoiter 900 miles southwards from the Gates of Hercules. Gil Eanes’ bold and fearless approach into the dreaded Sea of Darkness opened a door to a new surge of discovery, and the remaining 5000 miles of West Africa’s coastline were mapped in less than 70 years!

Source and Reference: The Reader’s Digest Book of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts


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