Exploring the Atlantic: Portuguese and Spanish Voyages Before Columbus

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Exploring the Atlantic: Portuguese and Spanish Voyages Before Columbus

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African Coast. Portuguese navigators spearheaded Europes ventures into uncharted waters at the dawn of the age of exploration and expansion. From their homeland at Europes southwestern tip, early-fifteenth-century Portuguese mariners set out on voyages along the unfamiliar coast of Africa. Eventually these efforts would culminate in the late fifteenth century with two landmark voyages: Bartholomeu Diass 14871488 journey to the Cape of Good Hope at Africas southern tip and the 14971499 expedition of Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach the ports of India by sailing around Africa. It is doubtful, however, that Prince Henry the Navigator and his contemporaries had in mind any such grand scheme to reach India. The earliest fifteenth-century Portuguese voyages appear to have been inspired by more-immediately tangible goals such as religious crusades against Muslim North Africa and securing direct access to the gold of central Africa.

Atlantic Wind Patterns. Fifteenth-century Portuguese expeditions found that it was quite easy to sail southwest from Portugal down the coast of Africa. However, returning to Portugal by backtracking along the same route, they discovered, was nearly impossible. This was because prevailing winds along the coast of northwestern Africa typically blow from the northeast, part of a pattern that meteorologists call the northeast trade winds. By trial, error, and accident, however, Portuguese vessels through the course of the fifteenth century gradually discovered that the return journey became somewhat easier if instead of returning directly to Portugal along the African coast they ventured far to the northwest out into the Atlantic Ocean. There, in the middle of the North Atlantic, the Portuguese found more convenient winds, the westerlies, that blew strongly from the west and made the return to Portugal a much quicker trip. It is likely that the uninhabited Azores, one-third of the way across the Atlantic Ocean, were in fact first sighted sometime in the 1420s or 1430s by Portuguese sailors taking this rather circular route home from the African coast. By the later decades of the fifteenth century, Portuguese mariners had become familiar with the clockwise wind patterns of the Atlantic: the prevailing northeast trade winds in the tropical latitudes and the dominant westerlies of the North Atlantic. During his years in Portugal in the 1470s and 1480s, Christopher Columbus learned about these wind patterns in his discussions with navigators. For the early-sixteenth-century Spaniards who sailed in Columbuss wake, the clockwise wind patterns of the Atlantic provided an ocean highwaythe carrera de Indias as the Spanish called itthat carried them to their newly established empire in the Americas and back home again.

Atlantic Islands. Fifteenth-century Portuguese voyages thus led not only to greater familiarity with the African coastline but also to increasing knowledge of the various island groups in nearby ocean waters. The existence of some of these islands such as the Canaries had been known to Europeans for centuries. Others, including the faraway Cape Verde Islands and the Azores, were in fact first discovered by the fifteenth-century expeditions. It was in these Atlantic archipelagoes that Portugal and Spain took their first steps toward global empires, establishing patterns of occupation and colonization that would be followed later in the Americas and elsewhere. In the previously uninhabited Madeira Islands, for example, the Portuguese in the middle decades of the fifteenth century gradually developed a colony centered economically on the production of sugar. The Portuguese sugar plantations in the Madeiras relied heavily upon imported African slave labor. This marked the beginning of a colonial slave trade that would over the coming centuries carry millions of Africans away from their homes to faraway lands, where they would be put to forced labor in the emerging empires of European states. For their part the Spaniards began to stake nominal claims to the Canary Islands in the early 1400s. Unlike the Madeiras, however, the Canaries had long been inhabited, and the native Canarians often resisted Spanish incursions. Beginning in the 1470s various Spanish expeditions launched vigorous attacks to conquer the Canarians and establish stable colonies on the islands. Those natives who resisted were enslaved, foreshadowing later Spanish treatment of native populations in many regions of the Americas.

Source

J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (Cleveland: World, 1963).

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Exploring the Atlantic: Portuguese and Spanish Voyages Before Columbus

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