Voyages of Exploration: Portugal

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Voyages of Exploration: Portugal


Ceuta. King John I of Portugal was a popular ruler who defeated neighboring Castile in 1411 and temporarily ended a long string of wars between Portugal and Castile. He had a politically beneficial marriage to Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt, with whom he had six children: Edward, Pedro, Henry, Isabel, John, and Ferdinand. In 1414, the three oldest sons were at the age to make a name for themselves on the battlefield, but Castile was no longer a threat. Instead, they planned an attack on the North African city of Ceuta, a Moorish city strategically located south of the Straits of Gibraltar at the western entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. The plan was based in part on youthful pursuit of adventure, greed for the wares of Ceuta, and a crusading mentality that encouraged Christians to attack the Muslims. Ships were outfitted in the summer of 1415 when, on the eve of the scheduled departure, Queen Philippa died unexpectedly of the plague. Four days later, hundreds of vessels set sail in order to fulfill the queen's purported death wish of conquering the Ceuta infidels. Bad winds and a severe storm scattered the fleet and caused some to question the wisdom of sailing so soon after the queen's death. The remaining ships regrouped and finally reached their destination one month after setting sail. Ceuta fell in one day.

Henry the Navigator. Prince Henry, better known to modern readers as Henry the Navigator, participated in the capture of Ceuta. However, his more important contribution to exploration is that he purportedly gathered scholars, navigators, and mapmakers at Sagres, on the peninsula of Saint Vincent overlooking the Atlantic. Henry did not actually establish a “school of navigation” at Sagres, but he certainly perpetuated the image of scientific navigation by overseeing Portuguese exploration along the West African Coast. Under Henry's supervision, Portuguese sailors were the first Europeans on record to reach the Atlantic islands of Madeira (1418) and the Azores (1427). Henry's captains led the way down the western coast of Africa: Gil Eanes rounded the dangerous Cape Bojador (1434); Nuno Tristao sighted Cape Blanc (1442), discovered the mouth of the Senegal River (1444), and explored the mouth of the Gambia River (1446); Dinis Dias reached Cape Verde and explored Palmas Island (1444); Ca'da Mosto was perhaps the first to land on the Cape Verde Islands (1456); and Pedro da Sintra sighted and named Mount Auriol in Sierra Leone (1460). Modern historians have been critical of Henry's role in Portuguese exploration, but they cannot deny that the Portuguese made tremendous advances in shipbuilding and exploration during his lifetime.

Gomes Eanes de Zurara. The fourteenth-century Portuguese chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zurara wrote both a history of Ceuta and a chronicle of Portuguese exploration. The chronicle of exploration opens with praise for “that most glorious conquest of the great city of Ceuta.” He clearly believed that the conquest of Ceuta was the defining origin of Portuguese expansion. According to Zurara, Ceuta was the catalyst for exploration and Henry was the most influential person in Portugal's voyages of discovery, Zurara outlines six factors that motivated Henry: (1) curiosity about lands beyond the Canary Islands; (2) opportunity to profit from trade; (3) knowledge of the extent and power of the “infidels”; (4) discovery of Christian rulers who could support Henry in the war against non-Christians;

(5) conversion of people to Christianity; and (6) the desire to fulfill the predictions of Henry's horoscope. The “heavenly wheels” were aligned such that Henry “should toil at high and mighty conquests, especially in seeking out things that were hidden from other men.” Zurara offers the portrait of Henry as a medieval man hoping to serve God, grow rich, and fulfill his astrological potential.

Motives. God and greed were two obvious motives for most Renaissance explorers. Crusading zeal, the quest to find the legendary kingdom of Prester John, an appetite for Guinea gold, the acquisition of African slaves, and the pur-suit of spices were clearly motives for the Portuguese. Portuguese exploration was also motivated by several political, economic, and geographical factors that distinguish it from other early exploration. Politically, Portugal was united during the fifteenth century, whereas most European territories were involved in dynastic wars. The Portuguese Crown encouraged, financed, and protected both those sailing on the voyages and those who invested in the voy-ages. The Crown supported exploration for new trade routes in part because the expanding Ottoman Empire was limiting European access to Indian spices. The Portuguese wanted to bypass the Muslim traders and deal directly with India. Their location on the Iberian peninsula left them particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in Muslim trade. The Iberian peninsula was geographically well placed for European overseas expansion in general, and Portugal was well situated for sailing down the West African coast because that is the direction of the prevailing winds that blow down the West African coast, toward islands in the Atlantic, and eventually across to Brazil. Moreover, the westerlies, winds that blow from west to east across the Atlantic Ocean, were easily caught in the Americas and comfortably sailed back to Portugal.

Technology and Innovations. Portugal's unique geographical location allowed the Portuguese to monitor mari-time inventions from the northern Baltic to the Levant in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. This knowledge fostered the invention of new maritime technologies and, more importantly, the employment of innovations practiced else-where. The most famous adaptations include: placing a central rudder on the stern post of the keel (Scandinavians), utilizing a magnetic needle and compass (Arabs), using a three-sided lanteen sail (Levanters), and navigating from portolan charts with compass and rhumb lines (Italians).

Modifications. In the mid fifteenth century, Portuguese shipbuilders combined Baltic and Mediterranean construction and rigging in the caravels and naos. Caravels were further modified with complicated combinations of square and lanteen sails in order to simplify return voyages from Guinea. The ability to sail in the open seas also forced innovations in navigation. With the exception of the Gulf of Guinea, the West African coast follows a north-south direction that forced navigators to calculate latitude. The Pole Star, or North Star, was used as a reference point and a simple quadrant was used to calculate latitude. By the death of Prince Henry in 1460, Portuguese ships were as far south as Sierra Leone and the Pole Star was barely visible above the horizon.

Southern Cross. Astrolabes, a sighting instrument perfected in the Muslim East for calculating celestial coordinates, were used to measure latitude based on the height of the sun. King John II appointed a commission in 1484 to improve the necessary calculations and to draft tables of declination suitable for Portuguese travel. These charts were effective only if the sun was visible at noon. By 1500, Portuguese mariners were aware of the Southern Cross, the Southern Hemisphere's equivalent to the North Star. Vasco da Gama employed an Arab pilot for his voyage across the Indian Ocean and Portuguese captains after da Gama were eager to employ native navigators to help them sail and chart foreign seas. The flexibility to adapt technology and techniques allowed the Portuguese to develop a major presence in eastern trade routes.

Fortified Trading Posts. Historians debate where Columbus exactly landed on his first voyage, but there is little debate about the locations of Portuguese landings. The Portuguese kept meticulous records of landfall and left wooden crosses, and later stone pillars, to mark the spots. King John II established the practice of marking landfall as a sign of possession and superiority in the early 1480s. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Portuguese accumulated a tremendous amount of information about navigation and trade routes. They used this information in a different manner than the other major European nations of exploration. Nations with greater populations, such as France and England, signed treaties and created colonies, whereas the Portuguese preferred to establish “factories,” or trading stations. The establishment of forts to protect trading stations evolved into the creation of feitorias, or fortified trading posts. Portuguese explorers sought defensible points that were strategic for military or trade purposes. They then established as small a force as was necessary to hold the fort. In some areas of the Indian Ocean they avoided any actual settlement and opted instead to control a trading point on a nearby island. The control of the Indian city of Gao and other key points allowed the Portuguese to profit from trade without incurring the tremendous cost of military occupation. This successful strategy proved to be a weakness in the seventeenth century, when the Dutch and English began to capture Portuguese forts and dominate trade.

Bartholomeu Dias. Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and dispelled the Ptolemaic belief that the Indian Ocean was a landlocked sea. Prior to 1488 the Portuguese had gained control of several islands off the African coast. These islands were financially rewarding as locations of actual production, as trading bases, and as centers for the growing slave trade, but they offered no new trade routes to India. Bias's voyage suggested that the Portuguese could reach India by sea. Moreover, Dias sailed correctly around dangerous Cape Agulhas, south of the Cape of Good Hope. He found a route to India and the safest way to round the extremely treacherous southern point of Africa. The journey was also revolutionary in that it proved that the South Atlantic wind system was symmetrical with the known pattern of the Northern Hemisphere. Prince Henry the Navigator's motives were remarkably similar to those of Dias, who claimed that he had sailed “to give light to those who are in darkness and to grow rich.”

Sea Route to India. The Portuguese gave the southern cape of Africa the name The Cape of Good Hope “for the promise it gave of the finding of India.” The idea of a sea route to India was further supported by a written report based on overland travel to Eastern Africa. The same year that Dias had departed for his famous voyage, King John II sent two Arabic-speaking Portuguese on separate land journeys to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and India. Pero da Covilha visited the Malabar Coast of India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the eastern coast of Africa. On his return trip, he stopped in Cairo and sent a written account to Portugal in 1492. The sea report of Dias combined with the overland report of Covilhã offered solid evidence that the Portuguese could sail south and then east to India.

Treaty of Tordesillas. The same year Covilha's account was written, a Genoese captain named Christopher Columbus sailed under Spanish colors on a voyage on which he claimed had reached islands off the eastern coast of Asia. The Crowns of Castile and Portugal found themselves in a heated competition to claim rights to newly dis-covered areas. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas solved the debate by dividing the world into a western area for Castile and an eastern area for Portugal. John II and his advisers began planning an eastern voyage to India that would pass the Cape of Good Hope.

Christians and Spice. In 1495 Manuel I became king of Portugal and inherited the plans for da Gama to sail to Asia. Two well-armed ships were built specifically for the voyage and two other ships were modified for the trip. In 1497 Gama departed with four ships on a two-year voyage. For the first ninety-six days Gama sailed beyond the sight

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of land. The decision to stay away from the African Coast after he reached Sierra Leone allowed him to make landfall less than one hundred miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope. It also opened his voyage with what was at that time the longest European voyage out of sight of land (nearly three times as long as Columbus's near-mutinous sailors had experienced). The fact that he could continue without mutiny is evidence of the seafaring abilities of the Portuguese. Da Gama rounded the Cape and headed north along the African coast until Malindi. At Malindi he employed Ahamad-Ibn-Madjid, an Arab pilot who was familiar with the Indian Ocean. Ibn-Madjid sailed da Gama straight to Calicut, a major trade center, where the Portuguese were surprised to find North African merchants who spoke their language. When asked what had brought them to Calicut, the Portuguese responded “Christians and spices,” the same duo that had motivated Prince Henry almost a century earlier. After a three-month stay in Calicut, Gama returned home. Only two of the four ships made it back to Portugal and they carried only small amounts of spices. Yet, the ships also carried a treasury of knowledge that would allow the Portuguese to achieve naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean.


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Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonisation from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229-1492 (Houndmills, U.K.: Macmillan Education, 1987).

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

J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

A. J. R. Russell-Wood, A World on the Move: The Portuguese in Africa, Asia, and America, 1415-1808 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993).

Geoffrey Vaughan Scammell, The First Imperial Age: European Overseas Expansion, c.1400-1715 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).