Hermenegildo Capelo : biography
Hermenegildo de Brito Capelo was born in Palmela, Portugal, in 1841, and died in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1917. He was an officer in the Portuguese Navy and a Portuguese explorer, helping to chart territory between Angola and Mozambique in southern Central Africa that was unknown to Europeans in the 1870s and 1880s. Alongside Roberto Ivens, he is famous for being the first European to cross Central Africa from coast to coast between Angola and Mozambique.
Hermenegildo Capelo later rose to become aide-de-camp to King Luis I of Portugal and afterwards to King Carlos I and, later still, vice-admiral. His military career ended in 1910 when King Manuel II of Portugal was exiled.
Journeys of exploration
In 1875, Luciano Cordeiro, the founder of the Lisbon Geographic Society (Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa) created the Portuguese National Commission of Exploration and Civilization of Africa (‘), more commonly known as the Commission of Africa. Cordeiro’s aims were to awaken public awareness of Portugal’s African colonies and to raise funds by public subscription for the scientific-geographic expeditions necessary to define a single political Portuguese territory in Africa. These expeditions led to the recognition of the Kwango River and its relations with the Zaire River. They led also to the charting of the hydrographic basin of the Zambezi River, which helped to complete the map of southern Africa. By writing in defense of the Portuguese position in Africa, he helped to create a European expansionist movement, the Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa.
The political motivation of these expeditions anticipated the historic Berlin Conference which took place in 1885. Explorers of all European nations had launched themselves into rivalry for territorial gains, compelling Portugal to urgently review its own colonial position and the effectiveness of its presence in Africa. Portuguese ambitions to incorporate the area between Angola and Mozambique into a larger Portuguese territory led to Britain issuing the British Ultimatum to Portugal in 1890.
Benguela and the lands of Iaca
Hermenegildo Capelo was chosen on May 11, 1877, to direct a scientific expedition into Central Africa alongside the marine official Roberto Ivens and Serpa Pinto. Under the auspices of the Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa, this expedition aimed at "…the study of the Kwango river and its relations with the Zaire [Congo River] and with the Portuguese territories of the west coast…", as well as exploration of the region south and southeast of the source of the Zambezi river and the Kunene river.
On July 7, 1877, Hermenegildo Capelo, Roberto Ivens and Serpa Pinto set out, but later disagreed over the aims of the expedition. For Serpa Pinto it was to explore eastwards until they reached Mozambique. Capelo, however, saw it as an objective to reach Pretoria and possibly Durban in South Africa and the expedition divided. Capelo and Ivens explored the region of Bié and up to the lands of Iaca, having delimited the course of the Luando, Kubango and the Tohicapa rivers. On March 1, 1880, Lisbon received a triumphant communication from Hermenegildo Capelo and Roberto Ivens. The success of the expedition was recorded in the book De Benguela às Terras de Iaca (From Benguela to the Lands of Iaca).
From Angola to the coast of Mozambique
Following a consolidation of gains in the region of the Bié Plateau and the Zambezi river and reaching the Victoria Falls, Hermenegildo Capelo and Roberto Ivens were stimulated and keen to embark upon a second, ambitious expedition.
The necessity of creating a general atlas of the Portuguese colonies led Pinheiro Chagas, at the time Overseas Minister, to create, on April 19, 1883, a Commission of Cartography. One of its intentions was to map a commercial route between Angola and Mozambique. This objective was decided upon on November 5 and the commission proceeded to make the necessary arrangements. The choice of two marine officials for this important mission was complicated by the uncertainty of what they would have to face, thus making age, as well as mapping skills and enthusiasm, an important factor in the choice. Hermenegildo Capelo and Roberto Ivens were chosen to carry through this new exploration of Africa.