Perched on the southwestern part of the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal has turned to the limitless Atlantic Ocean as its only outlet to the rest of the world. As early as 1341, Portuguese sailors had made their first forays into the tempting waters that stretched beyond their coasts, exploring the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa.
Rival Spain would later conquer the Canaries later, but the Portuguese had already taken the world advantage in shipbuilding, navigation and cartography. Shortly after the dawn of the 15th century, Portugal under the ambitious King John I turned to Morocco, the Muslim fortress considered the gateway to gold, spices and other riches. incalculable in Africa and beyond.
The capture of Ceuta and the impact of Henry the Navigator
In 1415, a Portuguese fleet crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and captured the heavily fortified Moroccan port of Ceuta, heralding Portugal’s arrival on the world stage. In the decades to come, John’s son, Prince Henry the Navigator, funded numerous expeditions along the west coast of Africa, aimed at spreading Christianity and enriching Portugal with the profits from the gold, spices and slaves. By Henry’s death in 1460, Portuguese sailors and settlers had reached today’s Sierra Leone and formed active colonies on the islands of Porto Santo, Madeira and the Azores.
The momentum of Portuguese maritime exploration slowed down somewhat after Henri’s death, but picked up steam under the reign of his grand-nephew, King John II. In 1487, on a mission to find a river route from Portugal to India, Bartolomeu Dias led the first successful sea voyage to the southern tip of Africa, bypassing the Cape of Good Hope and sailing for a few days before turn around.
Christopher Columbus and the Treaty of Tordesillas
Returning to Lisbon at the end of 1488, the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus was among the spectators as Dias shared tales of his historic journey with the court of John. Columbus, who received his navigation training in Lisbon and had been married to a Portuguese woman, tried to interest John in his own proposal to find the resource-rich Indies by sailing west. But the Portuguese king rejected the idea, leaving Columbus to seek support from the rival monarchs of John, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain.
In 1494, the year after Columbus made his triumphant return to Europe after reaching what are now the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, negotiators from Portugal and Spain met in a small town Spanish to share control of what they called the “New World.”
According to the Treaty of Tordesillas, a vertical line was drawn across the Atlantic Ocean about 345 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands, located off the northwest coast of Africa and controlled in the era by Portugal. Spain claimed all the lands west of the line; Portugal all lands to the east, including the coast of Brazil, which at the time had not yet been officially “discovered”. (Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral would reach Brazil in 1500, which has prompted historians to speculate that in fact Portugal already knew of its existence on an earlier expedition and had used that knowledge to push the boundaries of the treaty more West.)
Although Spain and Portugal largely respected the Treaty of Tordesillas, it would be ignored by other European powers, including Britain, France and the Netherlands in the future. In addition, the treaty completely ignored up to 50 million people who already lived in the Americas and who would suffer the devastating consequences of European expansion.
Vasco da Gama reaches India
In 1497 Vasco da Gama led four ships and nearly 170 crew members along the route followed by Dias, this time turning even sharper into the southern Atlantic to catch the favorable currents needed to cross the Cape of Good Hope. Plagued by hunger, scurvy and other dangers of the journey, they made their way up the eastern coast of Africa, stopping in Mozambique and other ports in present-day Kenya. With the help of a local navigator, da Gama and his ships crossed the Indian Ocean to reach Calicut, India, in May 1498.
Da Gama’s success opened the first sea route to India from Europe, paving the way for a new era of global trade and colonialism. On subsequent expeditions, da Gama and others established a Portuguese network of trading posts and fortresses in East Africa and India, using brute force against the local Muslim and Hindu populations when they did. have seen fit. The port of Lisbon quickly became bustling with ships carrying prized spices like cinnamon, ginger, black pepper and saffron, as well as other valuable goods.
Portugal’s golden age is coming to an end
At the start of the 16th century, Portugal was the most prosperous nation in the world, thanks to its exploits of navigation, exploration and conquest. From India, his ships pushed further east, reaching the Spice Islands (Indonesia) in 1512 and China in 1514.
A few years later, the sailor and navigator Fernão de Magalhães (anglicized as “Magellan”) proposed to take a route west to the Spice Islands around the tip of South America. After Portugal’s King Manuel I rejected him, Magellan (like Columbus before him) turned to Spain instead.
Magellan died in the Philippines, but one of his ships returned to Spain in 1522, completing the historic effort to sail around the world and marking the beginning of the end of Portugal’s rule over the seas.