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The Age of Discovery - Portugal

Up to the fifteenth century the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula were chiefly occupied in slowly moving back the tide of Mohammedan conquest, which had spread nearly throughout the country from 711 onwards. The last sigh of the Moor in Spain was to be uttered in 1492 — an epoch-making year, both in history and in geography. But Portugal, the western side of the peninsula, had got rid of her Moors at a much earlier date — more that 200 years before — though she found it difficult to preserve her independence from the neighbouring kingdom of Castile. The attempt of King Juan of Castile to conquer the country was repelled by João, a natural son of the preceding king of Portugal, and in 1385 he became king, and freed Portugal from any danger on the side of Castile by his victory at Aljubarrota. He married Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt; and his third son, Henry, was destined to be the means of revolutionising men's views of the inhabited globe.

The peoples of western Europe desired the edible spices from the Malay Archipelago and the East Indies to make their coarse and ill-preserved food palatable. They further wished to secure the precious stones from Persia and India; the drugs, perfumes, gums, dyes and woods from the Indies, China and Japan; and the draperies, cloth, rugs and fine steel work from Persia and Asia Minor. The desire for these commodities was awakened by the contact with the East during the Crusades and was exploited by the Italian city-states. Their merchants purchased these products which had been brought from the East through the Red Sea, Asia Minor or Turkestan, took them back to Europe and sold them to distributing merchants.

It was long a venerable tradition in European history that the occupation of the above-mentioned eastern trade-routes by the Turks following 1453 constituted the chief cause of the downfall of the Italian city-states and of the subsequent development of attempts to discover new routes to the East. Prof. A. H. Lybyer has shown, however, that Thorold Rogers' and M. D'Avenel's statistics of prices following 1453 indicate no appreciable effect of Turkish occupation on the volume or prices of commodities coming from the East to Europe, and further calls attention to the fact that the Turks did not occupy the southern routes until nearly a generation after overseas communication had been established with the Indies.

Rather, it seems that the chief cause of overseas exploration was the jealousy of the western and northern European powers and merchants toward the Italian monopoly of the Eastern trade. The Portuguese under Henry the Navigator and Diaz began, in the middle of the 15th century, the explorations which ended in the successful voyage of Vasco de Gama to India in 1498. To find the sea path to the treasures of Arabia and of India, till then only known through faint echoes of almost forgotten tradition, was one of the main objects to which Prince Henry devoted his life. The goal which he thus set before himself was at an unknown distance, and had to be attained,through dangers supposed to be insurmountable, and by means so inadequate as to demand a proportionate excess of courage, study, and perseverance.

Prince Henry was both prompted in the design, and assisted in the execution, by the most positive assurances of the extent of the African continent, southward, and of the consequent communication of the eastern and western seas, from the Arabians; and more particularly from the works of Abulfeda. While governor of Ceuta, he had learned much from the Moors respecting the African nations to the south. This confirmed him in the idea he had conceived of pushing discovery southwards, for he had already sent out vessels which had succeeded in doubling Cape Non, the previouslimit of southern navigation, and coming in view of Cape Bojador. On his return from Ceuta, Don Henry fixed his abode at Sagrez, near Cape St. Vincent, where he would always have the ocean in view; and to the end of his life (in 1463) he kept his thoughts directed on the one object of African discovery.

The west coast of Africa had long been the Eldorado of maritime explorers. While the mediaeval cloister cartographers were sketching this region into their picture maps as one unknown, and, for reasons imaginary, one unknowable, mariners of the Mediterranean lands were feeling their way along the coast from headland to headland, bringing back report in word and in sketch which eventually found place in those remarkable sailing charts, or portolani, to which reference has been made. It is not possible to be altogether certain of the distance to which mariners had coasted southward before Prince Henry's day, perhaps much farther than the known written records tell. It is generally accepted that for Africa's Atlantic coast Cape Bojador marked the southern limit of geographical knowledge in the early years of the fifteenth century. The island groups—the Madeira, the Azores, and the Canaries —to the west were discovered, or perhaps, one can better say, were rediscovered, before 1400, but there are difficulties in attempting to assign these rediscoveries to certain definite voyages.

The scientific and practical appliances which were to render possible the discovery of half a world had yet to be developed. But with such objects in view Prince Henry collected the information supplied by ancient geography, unweariedly devoted himself to the study of mathematics, navigation, and cartography, and freely invited, with princely liberality of reward, the co-operation of the boldest and most skilful navigators of every country." He also established an observatory and a school of navigation at Sagres, the latter under Messer Jacome of Majorca. When Prince Henry died, at Sagres, on November 13, 1460, he had been working steadfastly and unswervingly at his glorious task for upwards of 40 years. His motto was "Talant de bien faire " ("the desire to do well"), and he had done his work so well, so thoroughly, and with such rare ability, that nothing fell out of gear when he died. The course of discovery remained unbroken.

Portuguese discoveries along the coast from 1340 to 1498 began from Cape Sagres and Lagos, Portugal, point of embarkation for voyages of exploration under Prince Henry "the Navigator" (1394-1460). Portuguese discovery dated from the Canary Islands (1340, with the beginning of Spanish control in 1405), Madeira Islands (1351, rediscovered and colonized in 1419), Azores Islands (1351, rediscovered and colonized in 1431 and 1448). It was not till 1433 that Cape Bojador was passed, and as the sea beyond that promontory, contrary to expectation, was found to be calm and tranquil, the progress of southern discovery was rapid.

Cape Verde was first made known by a Portuguese expedition sent out by Prince Henry, the navigator, in 1445, and during the years immediately following many vessels were dispatched from Portugal on further explorations in the same direction. One of these vessels may have reached the coast of Brazil as early as 1447. In Antonio Galvano's work on "The Discoveries of the World," published in the middle of the sixteenth century, a Portuguese ship is stated to have been driven westward in 1447 by a great tempest, and borne to an island from which gold was brought home.

This statement, if unsubstantiated, could not be accepted; but it has been corroborated by a manuscript map, preserved at Milan, dated 1448, and drawn by the well-known cartographer, Andrea Bianco, of Venice. In addition to the Portuguese discoveries on the African mainland, this map shows, southwest of Cape Verde, a long coast line with the designation "Authentic Island," and an inscription to the effect that it stretched fifteen hundred miles westward. This map was made in London, and may contain information obtained from Portugal about the voyage recorded by Galvano. Opposed to this view, it has been urged that the reported existence of gold in the direction named would have impelled Prince Henry to renewed adventures in the west; but the unquestioned incident of Cabral proves that such an occurrence was certain to take place, sooner or later; and it cannot be said, therefore, that the story told by Galvano is improbable.

Cape Blanco (1441) and the island of Arguin (1444) by Nuno Tristam (Tristão), Cape Verde (1446) and Cape Verde Islands (1449) by Dinis Diaz (Diogo Dias or Diego Gomez), Sierra Leon, or Serra de Leão by Pedro de Cintra (1462), St. George or São Jorge da Mina on the Gold Coast (1471), Island of St. Thomas, or São Tomé (1471), Benin, Nigeria (1472), Island of Fernando Po (Bioko) (1484), the mouth of the River Congo (1484), Cape Padrano (1484), Cape of Good Hope by Bartholomew Diaz (1486), Cape Agulhas (1486), Natal Bay (1497) and Mozambique (1498) by Vasco de Gama.

In 1484 Diego Cam, one of the greatest of early maritime explorers set out from Portugal with instructions to go beyond Cape Santa Catarina, where Gomez had terminated his five years' contract. He sailed at length into the mouth of a large river, which the natives called Zaire, marked by Canerio as "rio de manicogo," and which later received the name Congo. Here he erected a stone column bearing a cross and the arms of Portugal, with an inscription in Latin, Portuguese, and probably Arabic. In the year 1485, Cam set out again, accompanied by Martin Behaim, a distinguished mathematician and geographer, best known for his globe of 1492.

The river Congo and the Gold Coast were discovered, and in 1471 the Portuguese monarch, Don John II, assumed the title of Lord of Guinea. This prince, being now convinced that there must be a termination of the African continent, resolved to make every effort to reach it, and thus to open a route to India. From one of the envoys of the native kings who visited the Portuguese Court, information was received that far to the east of the countries hitherto discovered there was a great Christian king. This brought to mind the mediæval tradition of Prester John, and accordingly the Portuguese determined to make a double attempt, both by sea and by land, to reach this monarch.

By sea the king sent two vessels under the command of Bartholomew Diaz, while by land he despatched, in the following year, two men acquainted with Arabic, Pedro di Covilham and Affonso de Payba. Covilham reached Aden, and there took ship for Calicut, being the first Portuguese to sail the Indian Ocean. He then returned to Sofala, and obtained news of the Island of the Moon, now known as Madagascar. With this information he returned to Cairo, where he found ambassadors from João, two Jews, Abraham of Beja and Joseph of Lamejo. These he sent back with the information that ships that sailed down the coast of Guinea would surely reach the end of Africa, and when they arrived in the Eastern Ocean they should ask for Sofala and the Island of the Moon. Meanwhile Covilham returned to the Red Sea, and made his way into Abyssinia, where he married and settled down, transmitting from time to time information to Portugal which gave Europeans their first notions of Abyssinia. The voyage by land in search of Prester John had thus been completely successful. In 1488, King John II sent out three vessels, under the command of Bartholomew Diaz, to make the attempt. Leaving the Congo, Diaz proceeded southwards along the coast, till a tempest came on which drove him out to sea in a southern direction. At the end of thirteen days the tempest ceased, and they then steered eastwards in order to recover the land. But to their amazement, after proceeding for some days, they still saw nothing before them but a wide ocean. They then steered northwards, and soon fell in with the land. They had in effect, without being aware of it, passed the Cape in quest of which they had sailed.

Bartholomew Diaz had reached the southern point of Africa, but tempests compelled him to return. He therefore called it the Cape of Tempests. But when the king received the good tidings, he cried out: "No ! it must be called Cape of Good Hope, for now the way by sea to India is found." Circumstances prevented the king from following up this discovery of a route to India, and it was not till the reign of his successor, Emmanuel, that the project was resumed. In 1497, Vasco da Gama, a gentleman of the royal household, sailed from the Tagus with a squadron of three ships, with orders to make every effort to reach the coast of India; and after a voyage of less than eleven months he arrived at Calicut on the coast of Malabar.

The court of Portugal resolved to lose no time in taking advantage of this brilliant discovery, and early in the following year a fleet of thirteen ships, carrying twelve hundred men, under the command of Alvarez Cabral, sailed from the,Tagus. The circumstance of eight Franciscan friars being put on board, and the admiral being instructed to waste with fire and sword every country that would not listen to their preaching, shows that religious fanaticism, even more than the spirit of commerce, actuated the councils of the Lusitanian monarch.

By keeping out to sea in order to avoid the coast of Africa, Cabral had the good fortune to discover Brazil in South America. In his passage round the Cape of Good Hope he encountered fearful tempests, in which he lost four of his ships, on board of one of which was the intrepid Diaz, who first had passed that formidable promontory. Cabral reached Calicut with only six ships ; but this force, and the account of the power of Portugal given by some Hindoos whom Gama had carried away and Cabral had brought back, induced the local prince to treat him with respect, and he was allowed to establish a factory in Calicut.

The Moluccas, or Spice Islands, were discovered in 1511, after the Portuguese had seized Malacca. By 1521 the Portuguese had full possession of the Spice Islands, and thus held the trade of condiments entirely in their own hands. The result was seen soon in the rise of prices in the European markets. Whereas at the end of the fifteenth century pepper, for instance, was about 17s. a pound, from 1521 and onwards its average price grew to be 25s., and so with almost all the ingredients by which food could be made more tasty. One of the circumstances, however, which threw the monopoly into the hands of the Portuguese was the seizure of Egypt in 1521 by the Turks under Selim I, which would naturally derange the course of trade from its old route through Alexandria.

The emperor of China, for their services against a pirate, allowed them to settle on the peninsular of Macao, near the city of Canton. They also discovered and opened a trade with the islands of Japan, from which, however, their religious bigotry at length caused their expulsion, and a massacre of their native converts.

As soon as the discovery of the New World was announced, the Pope was appealed to, to determine the relative shares of Spain and Portugal in the discoveries which would clearly follow upon Columbus's voyage. By his Bull, dated 4th May 1493, Alexander VI. granted all discoveries to the west to Spain, leaving it to be understood that all to the east belonged to Portugal. The line of demarcation was an imaginary one drawn from pole to pole, and passing one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands, which were supposed, in the inaccurate geography of the time, to be in the same meridian. In the following year the Portuguese monarch applied for a revision of the raya, as this would keep him out of all discovered in the New World altogether; and the line of demarcation was then shifted 270 leagues westward, or altogether 1110 miles west of the Cape Verdes.

The discovery of an unknown and unsuspected continent so far south created great interest, and Amerigo Vespucci [who had sailed for Spain a few years previously] was sent out in 1501 by the King of Portugal as pilot of a fleet which should explore the new land discovered by Cabral and claim it for the Crown of Portugal. His instructions were to ascertain how much of it was within the line of demarcation. Vespucci reached the Brazilian coast at Cape St. Roque, and then explored it very thoroughly right down to the river La Plata, which was too far west to come within the Portuguese sphere. Amerigo and his companions struck out south-eastward till they reached the island of St. Georgia, 1200 miles east of Cape Horn, where the cold and the floating ice drove them back, and they returned to Lisbon, after having gone farthest south up to their time.

Taking advantage of her priority in explorations in this region Portugal occupied the Spice Islands and several of the East Indies and established a partial monopoly over this valuable trade. The Portuguese dominion, according to the magnificent language of their historians, extended from the Cape of Good Hope to the frontiers of China, along a coast 12,000 miles in extent. But this only means that they had forts and factories at various points of this range of coast; for they prudently refrained from the acquisition of territory. They had various settlements on the east coast of Africa, Ormuz in the Persian Gulf, Goa and other places in India; they were also on the Ganges in Bengal; they had factories in Ceylon.

The Indian Ocean became, for all trade purposes, a Portuguese lake throughout the sixteenth century. But her internal strength was not equal to the strain imposed by this over extensive and rapid external expansion. She lacked the naval power to defend her trading monopoly; she was unable to organize a systematic and competent distributing service for the Eastern commodities; she had few commodities to be taken East in exchange for materials purchased; and a corrupt officialdom made it impossible for her to control unscrupulous traders. Her decline invited foreign aggression, and in 1580 Portugal was annexed to Spain and held in subjection for 60 years.

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Page last modified: 01-10-2012 15:26:19 ZULU