19.2.2: Portuguese Explorers
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese explorers were at the forefront of European overseas exploration, which led them to reach India, establish multiple trading posts in Asia and Africa, and settle what would become Brazil, creating one of the most powerful empires.
Compare the Portuguese Atlantic explorations from 1415-1488 with the Indian Exploration, led by Vasco da Gama from 1497-1542
- Portuguese sailors were at the vanguard of European overseas exploration, discovering and mapping the coasts of Africa, Asia, and Brazil. As early as 1317, King Denis made an agreement with Genoese merchant sailor Manuel Pessanha, laying the basis for the Portuguese Navy and the establishment of a powerful Genoese merchant community in Portugal.
- In 1415, the city of Ceuta was occupied by the Portuguese in an effort to control navigation of the African coast. Henry the Navigator, aware of profit possibilities in the Saharan trade routes, invested in sponsoring voyages that, within two decades of exploration, allowed Portuguese ships to bypass the Sahara.
- The Portuguese goal of finding a sea route to Asia was finally achieved in a ground-breaking voyage commanded by Vasco da Gama, who reached Calicut in western India in 1498, becoming the first European to reach India.
- The second voyage to India was dispatched in 1500 under Pedro Álvares Cabral. While following the same south-westerly route as Gama across the Atlantic Ocean, Cabral made landfall on the Brazilian coast—the territory that he recommended Portugal settle.
- Portugal’s purpose in the Indian Ocean was to ensure the monopoly of the spice trade. Taking advantage of the rivalries that pitted Hindus against Muslims, the Portuguese established several forts and trading posts between 1500 and 1510.
- Portugal established trading ports at far-flung locations like Goa, Ormuz, Malacca, Kochi, the Maluku Islands, Macau, and Nagasaki. Guarding its trade from both European and Asian competitors, it dominated not only the trade between Asia and Europe, but also much of the trade between different regions of Asia, such as India, Indonesia, China, and Japan.
- Cape of Good Hope
- A rocky headland on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa, named because of the great optimism engendered by the opening of a sea route to India and the East.
- Vasco da Gama
- A Portuguese explorer and one of the most famous and celebrated explorers from the Age of Discovery; the first European to reach India by sea.
Portuguese sailors were at the vanguard of European overseas exploration, discovering and mapping the coasts of Africa, Asia, and Brazil. As early as 1317, King Denis made an agreement with Genoese merchant sailor Manuel Pessanha (Pesagno), appointing him first Admiral with trade privileges with his homeland, in return for twenty war ships and crews, with the goal of defending the country against Muslim pirate raids. This created the basis for the Portuguese Navy and the establishment of a Genoese merchant community in Portugal.
In the second half of the 14th century, outbreaks of bubonic plague led to severe depopulation; the economy was extremely localized in a few towns, unemployment rose, and migration led to agricultural land abandonment. Only the sea offered alternatives, with most people settling in fishing and trading in coastal areas. Between 1325-1357, Afonso IV of Portugal granted public funding to raise a proper commercial fleet, and ordered the first maritime explorations, with the help of Genoese, under command of admiral Pessanha. In 1341, the Canary Islands, already known to Genoese, were officially explored under the patronage of the Portuguese king, but in 1344, Castile disputed them, further propelling the Portuguese navy efforts.
In 1415, the city of Ceuta (north coast of Africa) was occupied by the Portuguese aiming to control navigation of the African coast. Young Prince Henry the Navigator was there and became aware of profit possibilities in the Saharan trade routes. He invested in sponsoring voyages down the coast of Mauritania, gathering a group of merchants, shipowners, stakeholders, and participants interested in the sea lanes.
Henry the Navigator took the lead role in encouraging Portuguese maritime exploration, until his death in 1460. At the time, Europeans did not know what lay beyond Cape Bojador on the African coast. In 1419, two of Henry’s captains, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, were driven by a storm to Madeira, an uninhabited island off the coast of Africa, which had probably been known to Europeans since the 14th century. In 1420, Zarco and Teixeira returned with Bartolomeu Perestrelo and began Portuguese settlement of the islands. A Portuguese attempt to capture Grand Canary, one of the nearby Canary Islands, which had been partially settled by Spaniards in 1402, was unsuccessful and met with protests from Castile. Around the same time, the Portuguese began to explore the North African coast. Diogo Silves reached the Azores island of Santa Maria in 1427, and in the following years, Portuguese discovered and settled the rest of the Azores. Within two decades of exploration, Portuguese ships bypassed the Sahara.
In 1443, Prince Pedro, Henry’s brother, granted him the monopoly of navigation, war, and trade in the lands south of Cape Bojador. Later, this monopoly would be enforced by two Papal bulls (1452 and 1455), giving Portugal the trade monopoly for the newly appropriated territories, laying the foundations for the Portuguese empire.
India and Brazil
The long-standing Portuguese goal of finding a sea route to Asia was finally achieved in a ground-breaking voyage commanded by Vasco da Gama. His squadron left Portugal in 1497, rounded the Cape and continued along the coast of East Africa, where a local pilot was brought on board who guided them across the Indian Ocean, reaching Calicut in western India in May 1498. Reaching the legendary Indian spice routes unopposed helped the Portuguese improve their economy that, until Gama, was mainly based on trades along Northern and coastal West Africa. These spices were at first mostly pepper and cinnamon, but soon included other products, all new to Europe. This led to a commercial monopoly for several decades.
The second voyage to India was dispatched in 1500 under Pedro Álvares Cabral. While following the same south-westerly route as Gama across the Atlantic Ocean, Cabral made landfall on the Brazilian coast. This was probably an accident but it has been speculated that the Portuguese knew of Brazil’s existence. Cabral recommended to the Portuguese king that the land be settled, and two follow-up voyages were sent in 1501 and 1503. The land was found to be abundant in pau-brasil, or brazilwood, from which it later inherited its name, but the failure to find gold or silver meant that for the time being Portuguese efforts were concentrated on India.
Gama’s voyage was significant and paved the way for the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia. The route meant that the Portuguese would not need to cross the highly disputed Mediterranean, or the dangerous Arabian Peninsula, and that the entire voyage would be made by sea.
Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia Explorations
The aim of Portugal in the Indian Ocean was to ensure the monopoly of the spice trade. Taking advantage of the rivalries that pitted Hindus against Muslims, the Portuguese established several forts and trading posts between 1500 and 1510. After the victorious sea Battle of Diu, Turks and Egyptians withdrew their navies from India, setting the Portuguese trade dominance for almost a century, and greatly contributing to the growth of the Portuguese Empire. It also marked the beginning of the European colonial dominance in Asia. A second Battle of Diu in 1538 ended Ottoman ambitions in India, and confirmed Portuguese hegemony in the Indian Ocean.
In 1511, Albuquerque sailed to Malacca in Malaysia, the most important eastern point in the trade network, where Malay met Gujarati, Chinese, Japanese, Javan, Bengali, Persian, and Arabic traders. The port of Malacca became the strategic base for Portuguese trade expansion with China and Southeast Asia. Eventually, the Portuguese Empire expanded into the Persian Gulf as Portugal contested control of the spice trade with the Ottoman Empire. In a shifting series of alliances, the Portuguese dominated much of the southern Persian Gulf for the next hundred years.
A Portuguese explorer funded by the Spanish Crown, Ferdinand Magellan, organized the Castilian (Spanish) expedition to the East Indies from 1519 to 1522. Selected by King Charles I of Spain to search for a westward route to the Maluku Islands (the “Spice Islands,” today’s Indonesia), he headed south through the Atlantic Ocean to Patagonia, passing through the Strait of Magellan into a body of water he named the “peaceful sea” (the modern Pacific Ocean). Despite a series of storms and mutinies, the expedition reached the Spice Islands in 1521, and returned home via the Indian Ocean to complete the first circuit of the globe.
In 1525, after Magellan’s expedition, Spain, under Charles V, sent an expedition to colonize the Maluku islands. García Jofre de Loaísa reached the islands and the conflict with the Portuguese was inevitable, starting nearly a decade of skirmishes. An agreement was reached only with the Treaty of Zaragoza (1529), attributing the Maluku to Portugal, and the Philippines to Spain.
Portugal established trading ports at far-flung locations like Goa, Ormuz, Malacca, Kochi, the Maluku Islands, Macau, and Nagasaki. Guarding its trade from both European and Asian competitors, it dominated not only the trade between Asia and Europe, but also much of the trade between different regions of Asia, such as India, Indonesia, China, and Japan. Jesuit missionaries followed the Portuguese to spread Roman Catholic Christianity to Asia, with mixed success.
- Portuguese Explorers
“Portugese Exploration.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portuguese_discoveries. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Age of Discovery.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Discovery#Portuguese_exploration. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Gama Route 1.” http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gama_route_1.png. Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0.