The Portuguese in Brazil Part 1 (to 1500)

Lynne Booker


E PORTUGUESE IN BRAZIL PART I:  THE LAND OF THE TRUE CROSS - The story of the Portuguese voyages of discovery and of the development of Portugal´s  seaborne empire is one of the wonders of human endeavour.


Trade in spices, slaves, gold, and jewels brought immense wealth, making tiny Portugal at two separate times in her history the wealthiest country in Europe. Arguably the biggest success for Portugal in terms of Empire was the discovery and colonisation of Brazil. Portugal imposed its language and culture on a new country nearly a hundred times the size of the metropolitan homeland.  It is nowadays commonplace to hear Brazilians expressing their incredulity that so small a country as Portugal could ever have counted the immense Brazil among her colonial possessions.


Real Politik

Following the reconquest of the Algarve (from the Moors) in 1249, Portugal and Castile agreed their mutual frontier, which is mostly the frontier they enjoy today.  In itself this permanency represents no mean achievement since Spain is Portugal´s only neighbour and is over five times as big. Perched at the southwestern edge of Europe, small in both population and area, Portugal has always been threatened by Castilian aggrandisement and was forced to look outwards as a means of preserving her identity.


Portugal´s struggle for independence and esteem

With the victory over Castile at Ajubarrota on 14 August 1385, D João I re-established Portugal´s independence  and institutionalised the long lasting alliance with England. His middle class supporters enjoyed Portugal´s continued independence while the Portuguese nobility was always inclined to favour union with Castile.   It was in order usefully to employ his bellicose nobility that D João I began the reconquest of ´The Other Algarve  at Ceuta in 1415.  In the name of God and in pursuit of glory and wealth, D João I sent many of his nobles to sea, under the leadership of his son Infante D Henrique (the Navigator).  By the time of D Henrique´s death in 1460, southward exploration had reached present day Sierra Leone.


D João II:  the Perfect Prince or the Portuguese Machiavelli? 

When D João II came to the throne in 1481 he faced the same problem that D João I  had overcome - that of a too powerful aristocracy.  And like his greatgrandfather, D João II aligned himself with the townsmen and middle classes.  His powerful kinsman, the Duke of Bragança was arrested and executed for treason in 1484; the King personally stabbed to death his cousin and brother in law the Duke of Beja and Viseu; and a further 80 nobles were condemned and their wealth confiscated.  He has the reputation  o mais forte e mais invicto rei que teve Portugal (the strongest and most unconquered king that Portugal ever had). He was clearly not a man to be trifled with.


Carving up the world 

At the Treaty of Alcáçovas in 1479 O Infante D João had negotiated peace with Castile; the subsidiary clauses were immensely significant.  It was agreed that Portugal give up any claim to the Canary Islands, and Castile recognised Portuguese sovereignty over the Azores and Madeira.  It was also agreed that all new discoveries south of a line of latitude to the south of the Canaries would be Portuguese, and all new discoveries to the north of that line would be Castilian.  D João declared that if his men apprehended any Castilian ship on the Guiné coast, the crew of that ship would be thrown overboard.


The king could now concentrate on active exploration along the African coast.  In 1482 he sent out Diogo Cão who explored 1450 miles of the African coastline as far as present day Angola.  With cartographical information provided by the Venetian Fra Mouro, D João II became convinced at this time that  India could be accessed by sea from the South Atlantic Ocean, and that the spice trade monopoly of the Venetians could be broken.   Camões was in no doubt of D João II´s importance in the explorations.  The king despatched Bartolomeu Dias in August 1487 to southern Africa and it was Dias who definitively established that Africa could be circumnavigated.


Secrets and spies

Between the return of Dias in 1488 and the voyage of Vasco da Gama in 1497 elapsed nine years which are shrouded in mystery. The effort which had driven the explorations thousands of miles southwards had suddenly disappeared.  It is possible that these nine years might have been frittered in military expeditions to Morocco, or in the negotiations needed for the Treaty of Tordesilhas (1494), or the King might have lost energy and direction because of his undoubted illness, possibly because of poison, after the death of his only son. El-Rey depois da morte do Príncipe polla muyta tristeza, e grande sentimento que por ella teve, ou por peçonha que lhe deram, como muytos sospeitaram, nunca mais foy bem sam, wrote Garcia de Resende the chronicler.  Because of D João II´s strong line at the Tordesilhas negotiations, the most likely explanation for this pause is that he pressed his explorers to research the wind and current patterns of the South Atlantic. The fact that there is a reference to brazilwood as early as 1492 is a powerful indicator of early knowledge of the South American mainland. There was a good reason why such exploration should be shrouded in secrecy – the Castilians were seeking the same goal of the route to India.  Any information on the route to India was top secret!


Christopher Columbus - A Portuguese spy? 

When Christopher Columbus returned from his historic voyage in 1492 he made his landfall at Lisbon.  He spent days in the company of D João and separately with D Leonor the Queen, and even when he set sail again for Spain, he made a short stop at Faro, much to the frustration of his crew.  D João II encouraged Columbus in the belief that his transatlantic discoveries were in fact the East Indies.  It may even be that Columbus was a Portuguese, working secretly on behalf of the Portuguese king  to mislead the Castilians in their exploration.  At Lisbon D João made preparation to send a fleet to the Caribbean.  The islands discovered by Columbus were clearly in the Portuguese sphere as defined by the recent Treaty of Alcáçovas.


Another carve up:  Tordesilhas 1494

All of which made it imperative to renegotiate the Alcáçovas treaty.  D João was satisfied to give up any claim to the West Indies, since these were not the islands he was looking for.  But when the Valencian Pope Alexander VI (Roderic de Borja i Borja  - the father of Lucretia Borgia) suggested a division of the world from north to south, the dividing line to run 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, D João immediately agreed to the new idea, with the proviso that the line should be 370 leagues to the west of the Cape Verdes.  This alteration was accepted by Castile and sanctified by the Bull Ea Quae in 1506.  D João made this demand because he well knew as a result of the years of exploration, that the land we know as Brazil was awaiting discovery.


Spanish steps in Northern South America

It is easy to disregard the intense rivalry that existed between the two Iberian crowns in their ambition to achieve a passage to the East Indies.  At the same time as Portugal was planning her first expeditions to India, Castile sent Columbus (1492), Pinzón (1499), the revolting Ojeda (1499) and Vespucci (1499) to conduct exploration in the west and on the coast of the South American continent.  And it seems that D João II was eager to encourage the Spanish in their mistaken belief that they had reached Cipangu, or Japan as Columbus thought.  Confident that Brazil was well within the bounds set at the Treaty of Tordesillas, D João had encouraged Columbus to believe that he had discovered the East Indies.  At the same time, Portuguese sailors were establishing the geography and climatology of the South Atlantic.


D Manuel I – O Venturoso (The Fortunate)

With D João II´s untimely death D Manuel I was lucky to preside over the accomplishment of Portugal´s greatest design in the East and the laying of the foundations of the Portuguese presence in Brazil. D Manuel left undisturbed D João´s plan for the triumphant voyage of Vasco da Gama who reached Calicut in 1498.  Da Gama followed the route that became established as the carreira da Índia (not following the coast of Africa but swinging out southwestwards to catch the prevailing winds that would take the fleet round the Cape of Good Hope).   After the 9 years apparent lull in explorations, da  Gama had fulfilled the dreams of D João II.  On 9 March 1500, only 7 months after da Gama´s return a new, imposing  fleet under the leadership of Pedro Álvares Cabral set out from the Tagus.  On 14 March the fleet reached the Canaries, the Cape Verde Islands on 22 March and on 21 April land was sighted near present day Porto Seguro in Brazil.  This new country was named the Land of the True Cross.


First reactions

Pero Vaz de Caminha, Cabral´s scribe, described the land they had discovered as flat and full of large woods with an ´infinitude of waters´. The Portuguese quickly got on terms with the natives and a few were taken on board ship where bows, arrows, parrots and feather cloaks were swapped for hats, bracelets and sheets of paper.  A large wooden cross bearing the royal arms was erected and Mass was celebrated.  Cabral immediately sent back to Lisbon a small supply ship bearing his news.  And before he continued his journey to India, he marooned two degradados on the coast of Brazil.  (It was common practice to take convicts on such voyages – they could be given the dangerous jobs.  If they survived, it was possible that they might later be pardoned.)  The King of Portugal now found his hands full to overflowing - the India trade, the gold of Guinea in West Africa and the continuing wars in Morocco – and Portugal simply did not have the resources to exploit this new opportunity in Brazil.  Gold and spices were not in evidence – only red brazilwood, parrots and monkeys, and this was a discovery that could clearly be shelved for the present.


Rewriting the history books?

The life of D João II was filled with intrigue.  Was he poisoned by his wife in retaliation for his murder of her brother?  Was his decision to take the waters at Monchique in October 1495 significant?  Did Cristóvão Colon know where he was going and did he report back to D João because he was working for the Portuguese king?  In a recently published book*, historians claim that D João II knew of the existence of Brazil before Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered it in 1500 and that Cristóvão Colon was a Portuguese spy in the pay of D João II.   It is certain however that when D João II died on 25 October, 1495 at Alvor here in the Algarve, Portugal had lost a king of immense character and energy, the king who had ensured that Brazil would in due course be Portuguese.


*  Grandes Enigmas da História de Portugal.  Vol 1 (Eds Miguel Sanches de Baena and Paulo Alexandre Loução).  Ésquilo 2008. 


Os Lusíadas 

An epic in 1102 verses by Luís Vaz de Camões (1524 - 1580)  divided into ten cantos. It celebrates the history of Portugal and also the history of Portuguese expansion into the East.  Camões participated in the imperial expansion of the Portuguese as far as Goa, Malabar, the Red Sea, Malaca and the Spice Islands   When he was shipwrecked in the Far East, he came ashore holding his manuscript high above his head - he wrote some of this epic in Macau.  By the time Shakespeare began to write, Camões was already dead   The language of his poetry is similarly dated and difficult.    His comparisons and imagery are rooted in the Classics and in Ancient History.    He is the Portuguese equivalent of Cervantes and perhaps of Dante.


Os Lusíadas Canto IV verse 60:

Porém, despois que a escura noite eterna

Afonso aposentou no Céu sereno,

O Príncipe que o Reino então governa

Foi Joanne segundo o Rei trezeno.

Este, por haver fama sempiterna,

Mais do que tentar pode homem terreno

Tentou, que foi buscar da Roxa Aurora

Os términos, que eu vou buscando agora


Yet after the long dark night D Afonso passed away

To his rest in peaceful heaven

The Prince who ruled the Kingdom

Was João the Second, our thirteenth King

D João, to his everlasting fame,

Tried more than any earthly man

To seek out the boundaries of the Rosy Dawn,

That I [Vasco da Gama] am now on my way to find