The quest for wealth and power brought Europeans to Indian shores in 1498 when Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese voyager, arrived in Calicut (modern Kozhikode, Kerala) on the west coast. In their search for spices and Christian converts, the Portuguese challenged Arab supremacy in the Indian Ocean, and, with their galleons fitted with powerful cannons, set up a network of strategic trading posts along the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. In 1510 the Portuguese took over the enclave of Goa, which became the center of their commercial and political power in India and which they controlled for nearly four and a half centuries. [Source: Library of Congress]

Portugal began expeditions in 1418. Vasco de Gama rounded Cape of Good Hope in 1497 and reached India in 1498. David Zax wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Globalization began, you might say, a bit before the turn of the 16th century, in Portugal...It was Portugal that kicked off what has come to be known as the Age of Discovery, in the mid-1400s. The westernmost country in Europe, Portugal was the first to significantly probe the Atlantic Ocean, colonizing the Azores and other nearby islands, then braving the west coast of Africa. In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first to sail around the southern tip of Africa, and in 1498 his countryman Vasco da Gama repeated the experiment, making it as far as India. Portugal would establish ports as far west as Brazil, as far east as Japan, and along the coasts of Africa, India and China.”

Portugal began expeditions in 1418. Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 and reached India. The Portugese trading empire was established with seizure of Goa in 1510 and expanded with the capture of Malacca in1551. Portugal reached Japan in 1542. It would be a serious error to think that Portugal's global ambitions were purely benevolent, or even economic, says UCLA historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam: "The Portuguese drive was not simply to explore and trade. It was also to deploy maritime violence, which they knew they were good at, in order to tax and subvert the trade of others, and to build a political structure, whether you want to call it an empire or not, overseas."

When different cultures have encountered each other for the first time, there has often been misunderstanding, bigotry, even hostility, and the Portuguese were not alone in this regard. The Japanese called the Portuguese who landed on their shores "Southern Barbarians" (since they arrived mostly from the south)...Not long after Portuguese missionaries converted many Japanese to Christianity, Japanese military rulers began persecuting the converts, forcing them to tread on these fumi-e ("pictures to step on") to show they had renounced the barbarians' religion.

During the Age of Discovery Portugal was a tiny kingdom with less people that Tulsa Oklahoma has today. Portugal defined its borders in the 13th century, early by European standards. The Portuguese themselves were relatively open minded mix of many ethnic groups. Descendants of Celts, Iberians and Englishmen, they intermarried with Arabs, Africans and Asians. Christian, Jews and Muslims all lived in Portugal and the Muslim influence help enrich the Portuguese with knowledge of literature, exploration and geography that had been lacking in mediaeval Europe. [Source: The main source for this article is Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Why Portugal Was the First Major Seafaring Nation

One of the important factors that led to Portugal's leadership in the Age of Discovery was its geographical location. Unlike Italy, Spain and Greece, it was isolated from the Mediterranean trade routes. Instead it faced the Atlantic and Africa. "The Portuguese people, then, naturally faced outward," wrote Daniel Boorstin in The Discoverers, "away from the classic centers of European civilization, westward toward the unfathomed ocean, and southward toward a continent that for the Europeans was also unfathomed.”

The mythical first inhabitant of Portugal was Lusus, one of Bacchus's drinking buddies. The great Portuguese sea-faring epic, The Sons of Lusus, begins: "This is the story of heroes who, leaving their native Portugal behind them, opened a way to Ceylon, and further, across seas no man had ever sailed before."

Another explanation why Portuguese were pioneering explorers is that most of Europe was embroiled in battles and civil strife for much of the 15th century when the Age of Discovery was launched. Spain was fighting the Moors, the Turks were attacking Italy and Austria and France and Britain were fighting each other in the Hundred Year War. Portugal, on the other hand, was a united kingdom with relatively few internal problems and enemies. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

"The Portuguese voyages around Africa, and, it was hoped, to India," wrote Boorstein, "were based on risky speculative notions, rumors, and suggestions. Unknown lands would have to be skirted, used as supply bases for food and water en route. The journey would go where Christian geography threatened mortal dangers, far below the equator. Portuguese discoveries, then, required a progressive, systematic, step-by-step national program for advances through the unknown...The Portuguese achievement was the product of a clear purpose, which required heavy national support. Here was a grand prototype of modern exploration.” [Ibid]

Prince Henry the Navigator

Prince Henry the Navigator is credited with opening the way for the Age of Discovery. He lead crusades against the Moors and captured Cueta in Morocco in 1415, the first piece of land conquered by a Portuguese in another continent. He set up forts along the Moroccan coast as far south as Agadir (Mazagan, or El Jadida, which was held until 1769), where Magellan was lamed in battle and Albuquerque perfected his fighting skills. It was also from here that Portugal began probing the African coast and set up plantations in Madeira which brought sugar to Europe. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Prince Henry the Navigator, who is considered pioneer of the Age of Discovery, never went on an exploring expedition himself. Seemingly a religious man, he lived like a monk, reputedly died a virgin, and was found wearing a hair shirt on the day of his death. "Prince Henry the Navigator," wrote Boorstin, "was a curious combination of a bold heroic mind and an outreaching imagination, with an ascetic stay-at-home temperament. Frigid to individuals, he was passionate for grand ideas. His talent of obstinacy and his power to organize proved essential for first great enterprise of modern history."

According to Prince Henry's astrologers, wrote the 15th century historian Gomes Eanes de Zurara, he “was bound to engage in great and noble conquests, and above all he was bound to attempt the discovery of things which were hidden from other men, and secret...The noble spirit of this Prince was ever urging him both to begin and to carry out very great deeds.. he had also a wish to know the land that lies beyond the isles of Canary and the Cape called Bojador...it seemed to him that if he or some other lord did not endeavor to gain that knowledge, no mariners or merchants would ever dare to attempt it, for it is clear that none of them ever trouble themselves to sail to a place where there is not a sure and certain hope of profit."

Prince Henry and Military Conquest of Cueta in Morocco

Henry's father, King John I, captured the Portuguese throne in 1385 and founded the Aziz dynasty after he defeated the King of Castile with the help of British archers at the Battle of Aljubarrota. Known both as John the Great and John the Bastard, he strengthened his alliance with the British by marrying the English woman, Phillippa of Lancaster, who according to a Portuguese historian "found the court a sink of immorality" and "left chaste as a nunnery." Henry, born in 1394, was the third of her six sons.

To celebrate signing a peace treaty with Castile in 1411, King John wanted to host a year-long jousting tournament with knights from all over Europe. His sons and advisors decided that such a celebration was too expensive and convinced John to instead launch a crusade against Ceuta, a Muslim fortress near Gibralter in present-day Morocco. There he could be forgiven for killing Spanish Christians in Castile by "washing his hands in the blood of the infidel”—Muslims in Morocco. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

The 19-year-old Prince Henry was given the task of building the fleet that would carry the Portuguese across the Mediterranean to Cueta. Assisted by superior weapons and numbers, British archers, fragments of the True Cross and an auspicious eclipse of the sun, the Portuguese stormed Cueta on August 24, 1415 and sacked the city suffering only a handful of deaths while piles of Muslim bodies filled the streets.

Cueta and Hints of What Lay Beyond in Africa

The launching pad for the Portuguese Age of Discovery in many ways was the capture of Cueta. Cueta had been an important caravan stop with 24,000 shops selling Muslim tapestries, Oriental rugs, gold, silver, silks and spices such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves and ginger—all brought in by caravans. After the Portuguese Christianized the city the caravans stopped coming and Portugal failed to profit by its conquest. Prince Henry, however, was intrigued by the riches he found there. He began studying caravan routes and learned about "the silent trade" which assisted people, who spoke different language, to bargain and make deals.

The 20-day Muslim caravans that traveled between Morocco and the Senegal River by traversing the Atlas Mountains employed "the silent trade." After arriving from the north, traders from Cueta left separate piles of salt, cheap manufactured goods and beads made from Ceutan coral. After retreating local tribesmen, who dug gold from local strip mines, put small mounds of gold next to each pile of Moroccan goods. The Moroccan traders then took the gold beside a pile if they thought the deal was fair or reduced the number of items in a pile. The Moroccans then withdrew and the tribesmen either accepted the deal or reduced the pile of gold. The process continued until a deal was made.

What Motivated Prince Henry

After being denied the opportunity to finish a crusade on Gibralter that he already begun Prince Henry retreated as far away as possible from the Lisbon court to Cape Saint Vincent at the southwestern tip of Europe. Here at Sangres, Henry remain for the next forty years, assembling maps from information brought to him by his explorers.

There is no proof that Prince Henry planned to find a sea-route around Africa to India. It seems that he was drawn more by making the unknown known. He hoped to make Portugal rich by dominating the trade routes from Africa and Asia. He also hoped to continue the Crusades by uncovering information about the Muslim empire and hopefully, one day, linking up with Prester John.

Many scholars claim the Prince Henry was not interested in exploration and discovery as much as he was interested in profit. They say he was more interested in plundering Morocco than spreading Christianity and his voyages down the African coast began in earnest only after gold was discovered and it was realized that slave trading was profitable. Henry helped set up a fort on Aguin island in the middle of the 15th century that produced 1,000 slaves a year. He made money by taxing and licencing (a sure thing) trade not on uncertain voyages of discovery. His captains only had ventured as far south as Sierra Leone when he died in 1460. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

It is perhaps more accurate to give credit for Portugal’s place in the Age of Discovery to King John II (1481-95) who helped finance Diogo Cão's voyages down the coast of Africa to the mouth of the Congo River, Dias's 1487 journey around the Cape of Good Hope and finally Da Gama's trip to India which was achieved in 1497 two years after his death. One of the irony's of history is that Dias returned from his journey in 1488, when the Portuguese king was having discussions with Columbus about a westward journey to the East Indies. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Prince Henry’s School of Navigation at Sangres

Sea captains, mariners, mapmakers, instrument-makers, compass-makers, shipbuilders, carpenters and other craftsmen came to the navigation school that Prince Henry established in Sagres. Muslims, Arabs, Italians from Genoa and Venice, Germans, Scandinavians and even tribesmen from the west coast of Africa were invited to Sangres to share their knowledge. From Venice, Henry's brother Pedro, brought back a copy of Marco Polo's travels along with a map "which had all the parts of the earth described, whereby Prince Henry was much furthered." [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

In Prince Henry's time, the compass was known but it was associated the powers of the occult. At Sagres it was tested along with other instruments to see if it aided navigators. The people at Sagres also perfected the quadrant, developed more accurate mathematical tables, and invented several new instruments. The Southern Hemisphere problem was overcome by the Spaniard Joseph Vizinho, who meticulously recording the height of the midday sun along the Guinea Coast of Africa in 1485. Tables of these observations, printed in the Almanach Perpetuum, guided Portuguese explorers for the next 50 years.

Prince Henry's mariners were urged to keep accurate logbooks and charts and record everything they saw on the coast.Jehuda Cresques, a Catalan Jew from Majorca, was brought in to oversee the whole process. Spain also established a navigation schools.

For some the famed School of Sangres was overrated. Portuguese scholar Luís de Albuquerque told National Geographic: "Astronomical tables, improved instruments, charting the ocean—all of these came after Henry. Celestial navigation, Portugal's major contribution to opening the world developed with the volta da Mina, the return from Mina”—the return trips between Africa and Portugal. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Trips to the Edge of Atlantic Unknown

It appears that the Atlantic islands—the Azores, the Canaries and the Madeiras—were discovered by Genoese sailors in the mid 1300s. The Azores were one third of the way across the Atlantic to the New World.

One of the first men to suggest that it was possible to reach Asia by sailing around Africa was a Venetian merchant named Nicolo de' Conti who traveled for 25 years in the Middle East and South Asia beginning in 1419. At the end of the 15th century maps began showing a sea route around Africa for the first time.

The edge of the known world in the early 15th century was Cape Bojador (Portuguese for "Bulging Cape") on the west coast of Africa just south of the Canary Islands and present-day Morocco, about 1000 miles south of Portugal. Described by Boorstin as a "barrier of the mind," Cape Bojoador was difficult to see and was surrounded by treacherous currents and reefs but it was no more difficult to navigate than a number of other obstacles well known to Portuguese sailors. North of the cape were lifeless deserts.

According to Zurara the reason why no ship had gone beyond this cape "was not from cowardice or want of good will, but from the novelty of the thing and the wide-spread ancient rumor about this Cape, that had been cherished by the mariners of Spain from generation to generation...For, said the mariners, this much is clear, that beyond this Cape there is no race of men nor place of inhabitants...and the sea so shallow that a whole league from land it is only a fathom deep, while the currents are so terrible that no ship once passed the Cape, will ever be able to return."

Zurara also wrote, "For certainly it cannot be presumed that among so many noble men who did such great and lofty deed for the glory of their memory, there had not been one to dare this deed for the glory of their memory...these mariners of ours...[were] threatened not only by fear but by its shadow, whose great deceit was the cause of very great expenses."

Early Portuguese Voyages Down the African Coast

Beginning in the 1430s navigators sailing under the Portuguese flag explored Africa’s west coast all the way to the Cape of Good Hope in present-day South Africa, which they rounded in 1488. Between 1424 and 1434, Prince Henry sent fifteen expeditions to round Cape Bojador but each returned with some excuse for venturing past the "the inconsequential but threatening cape."

Finally in 1434, Gil Eannes, a squire in the prince's household, made it around Cape Bojador by venturing out to sea and then southwards. Before he even realized it he had past the cape. "In that voyage," wrote Zurara, "he doubled the Cape, despising all danger, and found the lands beyond quite contrary to what he, like others, had expected. And although the matter was a small one in itself, yet on account of its daring it was reckoned great."

After this "barrier of the mind" was breached, Henry's mariners began venturing further and further south. In 1435 Eannes traveled far enough down the coast his crew saw footprints of camels and people but no inhabitants. In 1441, two other navigators made as far as 250 miles north of present-day Dakar, Senegal, where brought back two captured natives.

After Dinis Dias rounded Cape Verde, the western tip of Africa, in 1445 something like 25 Portuguese ships ventured to Africa every year. By 1457 the Venetian captain Alvise da Cadamosto had accidently discovered the Cape Verde islands and explored the Senegal and Gambia rivers. Cadamosto encouraged others to follow him with his descriptions of elephants, hippopotamuses and exotic tribes. There is a good chance that many voyages were unrecorded in accordance with Portugal's "policy of secrecy" to keep their discoveries quiet.

Portugal and the Early Slave Trade

The Portuguese brought their first slaves back to Europe from the west African coast in 1444. Two hundred Africans sold in the markets of Lagos, Portugal. Before the mid 17th century the Portuguese had taken 1.3 million slaves from Angola alone. By the mid-1800s perhaps 12 million Africans had "survived shipment to the New World." [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Describing the first boatload of slaves Zurara wrote: "Mothers would clasp their infants in their arms, and throw themselves on the ground to cover them with their bodies, disregarding any injury to their own persons, so that they could prevent their children from being separated from them." Zura added "they were treated with kindness, and no difference was made between them and free-born servants of Portugal.” These slaves were taught trades, he said, converted to Christianity and many intermarried with the Portuguese.

The human trade for the first time demonstrated that Prince Henry's squandering of the kingdom's funds had finally shown some profit. "Then those who had been the foremost to complain grew quit, and with soft voices praised what they had so loudly and publically decried...And so they were forced to turn their blame into public praise; for they said it was plain the Infant was another Alexander; and their covetousness now began to wax greater."

Exploration Of the African Interior After Henry the Navigator’s Death

After Prince Henry died in 1460, Portuguese exploration was put on hold for about a decade. Under Prince Henry's nephew, King Alfonsi V, Portuguese explorers began venturing further south in 1469 at a rate of about 300 miles a year for five years. Much of the exploring in the period was done a wealthy Lisbon citizen named Fernão Gomes, who was given a monopoly on the Africa trade. Gomes' son John, became King John II in 1481. When he took the throne Portugal had started accumulated great wealth from the cargoes of pepper, ivory, gold and slaves that were brought back from Africa. By this time the Guinea Coast of West Africa was divided into the Grain Coast (named after pepper which was considered the "Grain of Paradise"), the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast and the Slave Coast.

With his bulging treasury King John II was able to finance expeditions into the interior of Africa that made it as far as Timbuktu. A Portuguese fort was built near the gold mines in the interior of the Gold Coast (Ghana). The mouth of the Congo was reached by Diogo Cão in 1480-84, when the custom of planting a cross on nearly discovered territories began.

The Portuguese explorers thought the great rivers they discovered—the Senegal, the Gambia and the Niger—might be the legendary "Western Nile" which lead to the kingdom of Prester John. These hopes were flamed when the kings of Benin reported that received gifts bearing small crosses from a kingdom twelve months journey to the east (probably Ethiopia).

Return from Mina (Volta da Mina) is a reference to the voyage back from a trading post in Ghana. The currents and winds were so treacherous along the African coast that mariners swung out into the open sea in the Atlantic west of Azores to pick up the westerly winds back to Lisbon. Using the North star as a reference point and an astrolabe to calyculate their latitude the mariners were, for the first time, able to navigate in the open sea.[Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Pero da Covilhã; the Marco Polo of Africa

King John II financed a two-man overland expedition to find Prester John and the passage to India led by Pero da Covilhã (1460?-1545?), "a man who knew all the languages which may be spoken by Christians, Moors or the heathen." Disguised as Muslim honey traders, the two men entered the Muslim Empire in Egypt. Covilhã reached India, where he witnessed thriving trade in Arabian horses, spices, fine cottons and precious stones. On the return journey he traveled down the east African Coast as far south as Sofala, a port opposite Madagascar. His companion Paiva disappeared on a journey to Ethiopia, looking for Prester John.

After returning home, Covilhã was ordered by King John II to go to Ethiopia. After a short visit to Mecca he made it to Ethiopia, which was ruled not by Prester John but by Alexander "Lion of the Tribe of Judah, a King of Kings." Covilhã became so useful to the king he became a sort of Marco Polo of Africa. Convinced he would never see his Portuguese wife and children again Covilha married an Ethiopian woman who bore him several children.

In his letter to King John, Covilhã wrote: "that his [the king's] caravels, which carried on trade in Guinea, navigating from land to land, and seeking the coast of this island [Madagascar] and of Sofala, could easily penetrate into these Eastern seas and come to make the coast of Calicut [India], for there was sea everywhere." This was seen as an indication that it was possible to round the southern extension of Africa.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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