The beginning of Portugal's pioneering role in world exploration may be traced back to as far as 1279, when King Diniz set out to improve Portugal's emerging navy. He invited a Genoese sea captain to Portugal and placed him in charge of developing the mercantile and naval fleets. He also ordered the Atlantic coastline planted with trees to provide timber for the ocean-going fleets he envisioned in Portugal's future. In 1341, a fleet of three vessels sailed from Lisbon and explored the Canary Islands, off the northwestern coast of Africa. Although the expedition showed no profit and Castile later gained control of the islands, this voyage was the first official exploring expedition by a European state. Portuguese captains soon became the best in Europe, sailing the most maneuverable ships and applying the latest innovations in the fields of navigation and cartography.
For many centuries there had been three main trade routes from the east to the Mediterranean and Europe -- a long overland journey from China across Central Asia to the Black Sea, by ship from India to the Persian Gulf, and then overland over Baghdad or Damascus to Mediterranean ports. Once goods reached these ports, they were then monopolized by the northern Italian city-states, especially Venice or Genoa, which distributed the products throughout Europe.
Spices were more a necessity than a luxury to Europeans. During winter, they had to eat meat from animals that had been slaughtered in the fall. Much of this meat was spoiled by the time it was consumed, and spices, especially pepper, could disguise the taste and smell. Prices in Europe for these goods were high, and profits were good. The Portuguese hoped they could find their own route to the Indies and break the Venetian stranglehold.
Because of their ignorance of the large size of the African continent, the Portuguese were obsessed with conquering Morocco in North Africa, which they saw as a stepping stone to control the gold trade. As a result, Prince Henry the Navigator laid plains to conquer the Moroccan trading port of Ceuta. A fleet of two hundred vessels landed troops outside the walls of the city, and it fell to the Portuguese in 1415 after just one day of fighting. From here on, Prince Henry the Navigator set Portugal on its course towards overseas expansion. He established a center for study of navigation, naval architecture, and astronomy at Sagres in southern Portugal, where they developed a powerful ship called the caravel. Its advantage over the older ships was its triangular sail, which could be trimmed to allow the ship to proceed in either cross or head winds. Prince Henry began dispatching ships into the Atlantic with orders to proceed as far as possible, map the coast or any islands sighted, and return. Soon, one of his captains came across the islands of Madeira and Azores.
Many uneducated people believed in sea monsters, huge whirlpools, a searing sun and boiling waters in the outer regions of the Atlantic Ocean that killed anyone who came close. Prince Henry ordered one of his most trusted captains, Gil Eanes, to round Cape Bojador, the feared place, where some believed boiling waters produced an intense heat which no man could survive. It is said that Eanes turned back fifteen times before finally passing it in 1433. Within a decade after Eanes' breakthrough, Prince Henry's ships began to bring gold dust and slaves back from the African coast. When Prince Henry died in 1460, some 1500 miles of African coastline had been discovered and partially mapped, and the Azores and Madeira Islands were active colonies. In the next two decades, Portuguese captains made more progress, venturing down the northwestern coast of Africa past present-day Sierra Leone and Liberia into the Gulf of Guinea. At this time, the Portuguese were enjoying a tremendous advantage over other European nations in both ship design and navigation. They had been able to determine their latitude by sighting the North Star through an Astrolabe and measuring the apparent distance of the star from the horizon. Eventually, they were also able to explore waters south of the equator where the North Star was not visible. These improvements in navigational instruments and methods led to refinements in the field of cartography. Portuguese maps of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were the best in Europe, and foreign spies in Lisbon often attempted to buy or steal them. As a result, the Portuguese had to safeguard their maps by giving them the status of state secrets. A royal decree forbade the circulation of maps showing the sailing routes south of the Congo River in Africa.
In 1487 Bartholomeu Dias sailed from Lisbon with two caravels and a supply ship, and became the first to round the African continent. He sailed on for a few days, but fearful of running out of food and exhausted by the freezing weather, he turned back. He arrived in Lisbon in December of 1488 and told King John's court of his marking of the southern extent of Africa. Among those present was a Genoese navigator - Christopher Columbus. Columbus was disheartened to hear the news because he had come to the king to present him his own proposal for reaching the Indies by sailing west. The king did hear him and established a committee consisting of geographers, mathematicians and cartographers to look into it. There was reason to believe there were undiscovered islands to the west, since from time to time, various unknown objects drifted onto the shores of the Azores, other islands, and even mainland Europe. It was well known by educated men that the earth was round, so land to the west was a certainty, but no one knew how far it was. The width of Asia, which Columbus proposed to reach, was unknown so there was a strong possibility that he would sail off into the setting sun, never to be seen again. The king rejected Columbus for this reason, and also because he had already invested a good deal of money in the African route to the Indies. Dissipation of royal resources would be dangerous, and demands by Columbus to be made the Admiral of the Ocean Sea and be given the hereditary title of viceroy of all lands he discovered, as well as one-tenth of the profits he brought back, may have also deterred the king, who had many competent navigators in his own realm. Columbus went off to seek his fortunes in Spain, where he got the support he wanted. Columbus' first voyage brought him to San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, part of several island groups later referred to as the West Indies, which he took to be the outer reaches of Asia. On his return to Europe, Columbus rushed to Lisbon, where he told a fantastically embellished story of jewels and gold-roofed houses he found, which would have been put in Portugal's hands if only the king had believed him. The king believed little of what Columbus claimed beyond the fact that new islands had been discovered.
In 1494 Portugal and Spain signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the world into Portuguese and Spanish hemispheres along a north-south line 370 leagues west of the Canaries. An earlier draft had set the line 270 leagues from the islands, but Portugal insisted on a more distant line. This has led scholars to speculate that Portugal must have had some knowledge of the geography of South America, perhaps as a result of a voyage prior to Columbus', because the new line later put Brazil into its possession.
The Portuguese king then chose Vasco da Gama to lead the first Portuguese expedition around Africa to India. After a prayer service in Lisbon on the banks of the Tagus River, Da Gama's fleet of four vessels set sail on July 7, 1497. One of the ships carried supplies for three years, and the crews consisted of 168 men, including convicts assigned to especially dangerous work. His fleet had been out of sight of land for ninety-six days - the longest such a voyage ever made to that time - until it finally landed at St. Helena Bay. Sighting a new coastline on Christmas Day, they gave it the name of Natal ("Christmas" in Portuguese). He reached Calicut on May 14, 1498, and spices were taken on board. As disease and accidents began to take a toll on his men, Da Gama set sail for Portugal on August 29, 1498. He reached Lisbon in September 1499, concluding a voyage of two years and two months. Of the 168 men who had begun the voyage, 44 returned. Despite this loss, Da Gama was finally able to do what Eanes, Dias, Columbus and others had tried before -- reach India by sea and join the Old World to the even older civilizations of Asia, until then isolated by the Islamic powers of the Middle East. This historic voyage drastically changed Europe and the course of world history.
The Portuguese king, Manuel I, proclaimed Da Gama's discoveries throughout Europe and immediately took for himself the grand title of Lord of Conquest, Navigation, and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India. Lisbon's harbor became one of the busiest in Europe during his rein, as spices such as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and saffron were prized commodities in the India-Europe trade. King Manuel was referred to as "Manuel the Fortunate" because his rein finally saw the creation of the Asian empire for which his predecessors had long labored. The wealthy king delighted in exotic pleasures. He was the first Christian king to own an elephant and a rhinoceros, and paraded in the company of an Iranian retainer, who rode with a leopard perched on his horse. There were also great achievements in architecture during his reign. A new style emerged, named after the king - Manueline Architecture. This is seen today in Lisbon's Jeronimos Monastery and Belem tower, in Batalha's monastery, and in many churches around the country.
Just six months after Da Gama's return, Pedro Alvares Cabral set out from Lisbon with the largest fleet yet assembled, piloted by the best navigators in Portugal. The departure was an occasion of grand and solemn ceremony. Cabral followed the same route as Da Gama, but a storm caused him to touch land somewhere else - South America or more precisely, the area of today's Brazil. Historians are still debating, however, whether Cabral truly discovered Brazil, or whether Portugal already knew of its existence. There's a possibility that Cabral merely conducted an official mission of "discovery" to assert a proper claim. One ship was ordered to return to Lisbon with the news, and Cabral set sail for India. Once in India, Cabral took on cargo and headed home. Only six ships out of the original thirteen returned to Lisbon, but the rich cargo of spices more than paid for the lost vessels.
Later, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit Japan, arriving accidentally in 1543 when a storm drove a trading ship onto the island of Tanegashima. The Japanese were fascinated by the Portuguese, and in particular by their mustaches, odd clothes, and the unoriental size of their noses. Buttons, which were unheard of in Japan, also attracted their attention. Japanese paintings from about this time, now in Lisbon's Ancient Art Museum, emphasize these "oddities." The Portuguese later sold Chinese silk for Japanese silver, since the two great Asian powers could not bear to deal with each other.
The Portuguese also gathered pepper from Malabar and Indonesia; mace and nutmeg from the Banda Islands; cloves from the Moluccas, cinnamon from Ceylon; horses from Arabia; among other precious commodities. From Brazil to Japan, stately cargo vessels voyaged to distant ports to gather exotic goods for the warehouses of Lisbon. Although Portugal's monopoly came to an end in the seventeenth century, Portugal still had a foothold in India until the 1960s and in Africa until the 1970s. The first European empire lived to be the last, and Portugal will forever be known as the Land of Discovery.
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