Doubling the world: The Portuguese explorations

Lynne Booker


Adam Smith, the great Scottish economist of the 18th century, described the discovery of America and the passage to the East Indies via the Cape of Good Hope as the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. 


The Iberians changed the course of world history in the 15th and 16th centuries when they took to the sea. The maritime expansion of Europe and Christendom marks the beginning of the modern world and, according to C R Boxer, Portugal’s early success is one of the great enigmas of history. By the mid 16th century Portugal dominated more of the world and more of its trade than any other country. Boxer made the comparison between the space exploration of the late 20th century and Portugal’s voyages of discovery in the 15th century:  in each case, there were decades of effort and investment without the certain knowledge of potential gain. 


Infante D Henrique

Although Henry the Navigator is credited with the genius of the inception of Portugal’s long age of discovery, he was certainly guided in his initial voyages and conquests by his father D João I, the founder of the dynasty of Avis. D João took charge of the early discoveries in Madeira and the Azores and it was not until D João’s death in 1433 that we find D Henrique exercising more personal control over the voyages of discovery. (See get real August 26, 2008.) 


The ‘other’ Algarve 

Portugal’s interest in Morocco endured many years; there were Portuguese in Morocco for 354 years (1415 – 1769) and their occupation was longer than the British have held Gibraltar (305 years, 1704 – today). During these 354 years Portugal held up to 10 coastal fortresses and the Moroccan adventure held their attention even when da Gama and Cabral were conducting their famous voyages to India and Brazil. 


It was not until major defeats at Mamora (1515) and Safim that D Manuel I began to think of withdrawal from the Moroccan conquests. The Portuguese effort in North Africa was one of the legacies of Henry the Navigator, because it was he who impressed the young D Afonso V (o Africano) with the importance of the crusade in Morocco; for the serving soldier, a North African posting was very unpopular because there were few opportunities for getting rich or even for valorous conduct and many serving in Morocco were in fact criminal exiles. (See get real January 27, 2009.)


The Other Algarve experienced the depth of imperial stupidity in 1578 when D Sebastião, an unbalanced youth of 24 years, decided to take up the challenge of crusade in North Africa and led his people to defeat and his dynasty to extinction at the Battle of the Three Kings at Alcácer Kibir. The outcome was enormous ransom costs for those Portuguese taken alive, and 60 years of Spanish captivity for the country as a whole. 


What began as an extension of the Christian re-conquest of Iberia, when D João I led his troops in the conquest of Ceuta in 1415, ended in disarray when in 1769 the Marquês de Pombal ordered the abandonment of Portugal’s last outpost, Mazagão, in the face of constant Muslim attack, and the transfer of its citizens to Vila Nova de Mazagão on the north bank of the Amazon.


The scent of the east

 After the first voyage of Vasco da Gama in 1498 to the west coast of India and his triumphant return, D Manuel I (o Venturoso - the lucky - as he is known in Portugal) called himself the lord of the conquest, navigation and commerce of Asia, Persia, India and Ethiopia. This was a grandiloquent title for what was never a large operation in Asia, and the Portuguese in India were attacked by not only the mapilla (the Muslim merchant network) but also by the Egyptians and the Venetians whose monopoly in the spice trade they had broached. By breaking the Egyptian/Venetian monopoly, Portugal earned for itself and its king the position of the wealthiest country in Europe; with these riches, the king built architectural masterpieces such as the Torre de Belém and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Lisbon which are still there for us to enjoy today. 


Portugal had arrived in the Indian Ocean with a number of objectives: to expand the reach of the faith; to ally with Prester John against the Muslim threat in North Africa; to get rich with Indian products such as pepper; to keep the Spanish out of the lucrative spice trade. And, except for Prester John, they succeeded mainly through the strategic genius of D Manuel and his advisers, and the sheer military ability of their first commanders in the East, D Francisco de Almeida and Afonso de Albuquerque. They enforced Portuguese domination of the sea lanes and a number of strategic strong-points on Asian shores. Portugal’s last Indian outposts, Goa, Damão and Diu were taken by India in 1961. 


Gold rush in Brazil

Discovered by Pedro Álvares Cabral on his way to India in 1500, Brazil was nearly too much for Portugal to handle. Mesmerised by their adventures in the East, by their fortification of coastal Morocco and by the gold producing parts of sub-Saharan Africa at São Jorge da Mina and Sofala, it is possible to detect some diffidence on the part of the government – what on earth were they to do with Brazil? Divide it into captaincies; take all the brazil wood; keep out the French (who at one point occupied Rio de Janeiro Bay and called it La France Antarctique); fight off the Dutch (who occupied north east Brazil for over 30 years)? 


Where Spain had made enormous profits out of the silver and gold of Mexico and Peru, for 200 years Portugal was disappointed to have only the sugar and coffee crops of Brazil. No self-respecting Portuguese planned to emigrate in order to work on a farm – this was not the route to riches. But in the 1690s gold was discovered in the province now known as Minas Gerais, and the discovery sparked off the world’s first major gold rush. After the gold rush, gemstones were discovered and created another rush for gemstones, and controlling these immense riches, during the first half of the 18th century Portugal became, for the second time in its history, the richest country in Europe. Millions of pounds worth of gold was shipped to Portugal and was used to pay for some of the greatest buildings of the era, such as the Convent Palace at Mafra. It was said that the king of the time, D João V, far from being able to turn stone into gold, had the knack of turning gold into stone!


Holding on - Portugal in Africa

 By 1900 virtually the whole of Africa was under European control (the only exception being Liberia) and Portugal had staked its claims on the ground to those territories considered Portuguese since the late 15th century. Even so, these territories, many times bigger than the home country, stretched the administrative capacity of tiny Portugal to breaking point and beyond. Since the irrevocable loss of the Brazilian Empire in 1825, Portugal began to consider that a part of the Portuguese soul was in the African colonies. (See get real  April 15, 2008)


The last of Portugal’s empires came to an end in 1974 after the Carnation Revolution in metropolitan Portugal. The estado novo had conducted an increasingly solitary war against the freedom movements of its five African colonies (Angola, Cabo Verde, Guiné Bissau, Moçambique, São Tomé and Príncipe) since 1961, although it was in Guiné that the worst of the fighting took place. Over the 13 years of war Portugal lost about 8.500 (many of them died as a result of accident rather than through enemy action) and many more were left crippled. If Dr Salazar had heeded the messages of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and had felt for himself the winds of change blowing over Africa, it could have been so different. 


Macau & East Timor - the last scraps of Empire

The City of the Name of God of Macau in China was in many respects an accidental addition to the Empire, and its Portuguese nature was not recognised by treaty with China until 1887. It followed on the heels of Hong Kong and became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic in 1999. 


The last of Portugal’s interests in the Spice Islands, East Timor, emerged from Portuguese rule in the most harrowing way. Soon after the Carnation Revolution, Indonesia invaded East Timor and attempted, by fair means or foul, to incorporate the territory as its 27th province, declaring that its action was anti-communist. Indonesia was fully supported by the west, but over the next 20 years the military occupation of East Timor became more brutal. It was not until 2002 that Timor-Leste joined the United Nations (soon after Switzerland) and is still the newest country in the UN. 


A Chinese Map or a Pope’s Elephant 

In his controversial book, ‘1421:  The Year China Discovered the World’, Gavin Menzies argued that the Portuguese knew what they were looking for - they had a world map made by the Chinese. Did such a map exist and does its existence give the answer to the enigma of Portugal’s successful explorations? 

With the closure of the land routes to Cathay known by Marco Polo and other explorers of the 12th and 13th centuries, there was both an imperative and an opportunity to go by sea to find the treasures of the East. The new kingdom of Portugal had rid itself of 500 years of Moorish rule and with new cartographical skills was well placed on the Atlantic to spread the Christian word and to find new treasures. 


In 1479, the innovative Treaty of Alcaçovas put an end to the war between Portugal and Castile and also detailed which bits of the world each would have. And, as more discoveries were made and the shape of the world determined, there were further necessary amendments in the treaties of Tordesillas in 1494, Vítoria (1523) and Saragossa (1529). 


With the Pope’s blessing, the world had been split between the two Iberian powers. As each newly elected pope came to power, monarchs sent missions of obedience to Rome, and Portugal’s mission of 1514 was the richest and most splendid ever seen in Rome. It included a white elephant called Hanno which delighted both the Pope and the citizens of Rome. Hanno was an Indian elephant which had made the voyage to Portugal from Goa in 1513. D Manuel got what he wanted, but eventually the Portuguese overextended themselves - they had too much Empire for their human and economic resources. They never had enough ships and, by the end of 16th century, the Portuguese could not enforce any kind of order; they became one of a number of trading interests in Asia. The protestant Dutch and English had forced their way into the spice trade of the Indian Ocean. 


A continuing mystery

How did this small country on the edge of Europe have the energy and the foresight to take up the task of crusade and conquest, of monopoly trade and occupation, of being the first in to empire and arguably the last out? Almost 600 years of continuous Empire, from that first medieval conquest of Ceuta in the year of Agincourt, until Timor-Leste finally made it as an independent nation. Is the answer to the enigma a Chinese map, the energy of a new dynasty wishing to make its mark on the world stage or the hand of fate? 


Many people have heard of such famous explorers as Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan (really Fernão Magalhães) but very few have heard of Fernão Mendes Pinto (1509 - 1583) whose book A Peregrinação (The Pilgrimage or Wandering Journey) was published in 1614. It is an autobiographical work which details his astonishing journeys to the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, China, The Great Wall, India, and Japan. 


In 1537 he was on the India fleet to Diu then to the Red Sea; he was imprisoned by Turks and sold in Yemen; taken to Ormuz, where he was bought back by the Portuguese; served in the navy and arrived in Goa. In 1539 he was at Malacca as Portugal’s ambassador. Between 1539-42, Pinto spent time in the Gulfs of Siam and Tonkin as a pirate; he raided into China near Peking and was condemned to a year’s hard labour on the Great Wall. In 1542 he returned to Japan, introducing the arquebus there (this weapon had an immense effect in the Japanese civil wars at the time). In 1550-1 Pinto returned to Japan with St Francis Xavier and began the evangelisation of that country. 


In 1554 he became a Jesuit and donated his wealth to the Order and also gave money for the foundation of a church. In 1557 he abandoned the Jesuits and escaped by sea in a Chinese junk but was cast away in Japan. In 1557 he was sent to Burma and captured again before fleeing to Goa and in the same year, on a mission to Java, he was shipwrecked and enslaved before finding his way to Siam. By 1558 he was back in Portugal where he married, settled down and began to write his memoirs. Many people consider his tales to be so tall that they are incredible.So incredible that the Portuguese pun on his name is: Fernão, mentes? Minto!  Fernão, Are you lying?Yes I am!