Elliot Fernandez

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The Portuguese discoveries

Portugal became the first European kingdom to develop an overseas expansion in the process of territorial expansion.
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Elliot Fernández

Elliot Fernández

He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).

07/07/2021 | Last update:

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Late Middle Ages idea of the world

At the end of the late Middle Ages, in the 15th century, knowledge of the Earth was very limited. There were maps where the European continent was depicted along with Asia and Africa (although there was no idea of the actual extent of Africa). Europeans placed the centre of the world at Jerusalem. When the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus found it necessary to seek funding for his voyage, one of his justifications was to connect Europe directly with Asia (the passage through Constantinople was blocked by the Ottomans). Columbus’ new route, he argued, would serve to accumulate wealth to reclaim the Holy City. The Portuguese discoveries opened the way to maritime navigation for the other European monarchies.

Before the Portuguese and Castilians, the Scandinavians had already reached North America, although these voyages were not reflected in the Mediterranean. At the beginning of the 14th century, Europeans were in an expansionary phase, at a time when the Mediterranean was becoming too small. It was a small sea indeed. The need arose to seek new routes across the Atlantic. The first targets were the islands of the Azores and the Canaries, conquered between 1312 and 1380. These islands formed a triangle known as the “Atlantic Mediterranean”.

This first push led to the discovery of a series of islands in this space:

  • Canaries in 1312 by a Genoese expedition led by the navigator Lancelotto Malocello. Europeans in medieval times actually rediscovered the Canaries because they were already known to the Romans. The Castilians began to conquer the islands from 1402 until 1494;
  • Madeira between 1418 and 1420, colonized by the Portuguese;
  • Azores between 1427 and 1432. Systematic conquest;
  • Cape Verde Islands between 1456 and 1460.

Besides all these real islands, a whole list of mythical islands, the product of legends, emerged in the geographical thinking of the time:

  • San Baranda Island. It appears on 58 maps between 1367-1667;
  • Brazil Island. Found on 89 maps between 1325-1667;
  • Island of the Seven Cities;
  • Antilia / Antilla Island. This island interested Columbus (he thought that there was land after Antilla). The mythical space of the Antilla was rather strong, and appeared until he designated a real space, “Las Antillas”.

Europeans also made use of myth in respect to Asia. They invented a whole series of myths and legends about Asia. For this reason, between the 12th and 15th century, Europeans felt a physical need to know the Asian world. They thought that Asia was the Garden of Eden. There was talk of the mythical space of India too. A real yearning existed to know much more about Asia. The most widespread legends:

  • Literature around the figure of Alexander the Great. His figure was a tremendous success;
  • The figure of the apostle St. Thomas. It was believed that the apostle died a martyr’s death in India;
  • Prester John, a very popular figure at the beginning of the 13th century in Germany. We are in the final years of the Crusades. What was most needed to defeat the Muslim enemy was to find a Christian ally in Asia who could attack the Ottomans from behind. This led to the legend of Prester John, a very ambiguous figure: King-priest. If he could be contacted, the Ottoman enemy could be defeated. Although there was never any trace of Prester John, the legend was so powerful that Europeans strongly believed that he did exist, though he had not been sought in the right place. From the 15th century onwards, the legend claimed that Prester John was in Africa and that he was the Emperor of Ethiopia.

Marco Polo’s travels

In the Middle Ages, one European undertook several journeys to Asia: the Venetian Marco Polo (1254-1324). Based on his travel experiences, he wrote one of the most influential books of the time:Il Milione. His book was to have great significance. Marco Polo had dealings with the grandson of Genghis Khan (1162-1227), Kublai Khan, ruler of the great Mongol Empire. The Mongols allowed Europeans to pass through their territory so that Europeans could reach China. Thanks to Marco Polo, a two-century period opened up which allowed Europeans to travel with certain guarantees. Marco Polo’s journey to Asia took place between 1271 and 1295. He spent 24 years away from home.

Marco Polo
Mosaic of Marco Polo

Marco Polo’s outward journey was overland. It took him three years to reach China. Consequence: the idea he conveyed in his book was that Asia was a vast territory. Marco Polo’s idea was that China reached as far as modern-day America. He was also the first European to have news of Japan (Cipangu was the name used by the Chinese), but he was wrong to say that Japan was very far from the Chinese coast. For 15th century Europeans, the Japan they imagined was really the island of Cuba.

Viajes de Marco Polo
Marco Polo’s journey. In red the outward journey (by land) and in green the return journey (by sea).

The return journey, and this was Marco Polo’s great virtue, was by sea. He came across many islands. He went as far as the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, he was the first to reach the Indian Ocean.

The figure of Marco Polo, thanks to his book published in 1307, was a tremendous success. The idea he conveyed was that there was a Great Khan in Asia, a man of great wealth. However, the reality was that in 1368 the Chinese Ming dynasty defeated the Mongols. There was no more the Great Khan. Between 1348 and 1353 the whole of Europe was affected by the Black Death, which caused a great economic and demographic contraction. It was not until the 15th century that the voyages of discovery of the world began. This all coincided with the Muslim expansion of the entire area along the route connecting Europe with Asia.

Ideas about the Great Khan also appeared in John Mandeville‘s “The Book of the Wonders of the World”, published in 1360.

After Marco Polo’s time, the problem for Europeans was that the Ottomans would not let them reach the Persian Gulf. It was the Portuguese who first came up with a solution in the 15th century to reach the Indian Ocean and then Asia: by turning around in Africa. The problem was that no one knew what the real dimensions of Africa were like. This idea cost the Portuguese eighty years of trials, between 1415 and the voyage of Bartolomeu Dias in 1480.

It was in these years that voices appeared in Europe saying that instead of travelling through Africa to reach Asia, it might be easier to cross the Atlantic. It was a competition among Europeans to find the fastest route. To get to Asia there was already the eastern (longer) route, but the Ottomans were becoming more and more obstructive.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in America, the first reaction was that he had arrived in the wrong territory. The Castilians had a hard time discovering America. For a few years, it seemed that Columbus was the big winner. Columbus recovered erudite geography. He used authors of classical geographical thought. He made the most use of the French cardinal Pierre d’Ailly and his work “Imago Mundi” (1410). Columbus owned an edition of this book. The work was a kind of encyclopaedia of the geographical knowledge of the time. From this work, Columbus became acquainted with the Greek Pliny and Strabo.

In 1410, the work “Geography” by Ptolemy (Greek from Alexandria), dated from the 2nd century AD, was translated into Latin. Ptolemy was the last great Greek geographer. This Latin translation was rather important, as it taught 15th century Europeans how to draw maps using a cartographic projection based on longitude and latitude coordinates. Columbus did not know Ptolemy directly, but had studied him from another author: Pope Pius II (Enea Piccolomini). His 1458 work, “De Europa”, includes the latest developments in geography. He advocated the possibility of circumnavigating Africa and thus connecting Europe with Asia (via the Indian Ocean) by sea.

The background to Portuguese Atlantic seafaring


The Genoese fleet was the first to organize an annual expedition to Flanders and England, crossing the dangerous Strait of Gibraltar. It was part of the commercial expansion of the Republic of Genoa. From this year onwards, the Genoese realized that it was crucial to have an operational base in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. Little by little, a Genoese colony was established in the south of the peninsula. When Columbus needed money to finance his voyage, it was the Genoese bankers established on the peninsula who lent him the money.


Genoese navigators decided to search for the route linking Genoa to India by the sea. The first to try it were the brothers Vandido and Ugolino Vivaldi. They used the typical ship employed for sailing in the Mediterranean, the galley. They failed without leaving any trace of their expedition: they never returned to Genoa. Likewise, they set out on the voyage unprepared, as they did not know the characteristics of the Atlantic Ocean, and the galley was not adapted to sailing in the Atlantic. Not only that, but they were in too much of a hurry to be the first to do it.

The question of financing: Genoa only allowed the Vivaldi brothers to undertake one voyage. If there was any luck, it could be repeated, if not, there would be no second chance. Columbus was that, too.


A Mallorcan navigator, Jaume Ferrer, set out on a voyage to Rio de Oro (Western Sahara). The idea of this territory appeared on a map of 1339 by the Mallorcan cartographer Angelino Dulcert, who drew a river south of the Sahara (probably the Niger) where gold was produced. He referred to a state, Mali, which controlled gold production. Jaume Ferrer wanted to avoid the Muslim intermediaries. He signed a contract to “go to the river of gold”. Ferrer also had a galley at his disposal. He had no experience in Atlantic navigation and was given only one chance. It is not known where he reached the African coast. He got lost. It is said that he reached Cape Bojador. Beyond the Canaries, it is not known what lay beyond.

Neither Genoa, with its particular model of expansion via commercial colonies throughout the Mediterranean, nor the Crown of Aragon’s model of the Empire in the Mediterranean (conquest of territories) achieved their objectives. Both models failed in their attempt to establish a new sea route to reach a goal outside the Mediterranean.


Two Mallorcan navigators, Francisco Desvalers and Domingo Gual, were the first Mediterranean navigators to undertake a voyage to the Canary Islands, using a model of ship typical of the Atlantic, the Coca (they sailed very slowly, always with the coast in sight).

In the 15th century, the Portuguese took the model of the coca and transformed it into the caravel.

Portuguese age of sail in the Atlantic

Portugal was the first European kingdom to develop an overseas expansion in the process of territorial expansion. They had no choice but to go beyond Europe. It was the Portuguese who found the route to Asia by sea. The Portuguese project began with the conquest of Ceuta in 1415 and culminated with the arrival in China in 1516. It took them a century.

Historiographical debate

  • Pierre Chaunu: What does Portuguese expansion mean? His thesis is that Portugal mixed adventure and exploration (chivalric component) with material interests. They were trying to discover new lands to colonize and also wanted gold.
  • Fernand Braudel: How did Braudel explain Columbus’ gamble? In order to differentiate Columbus from the Portuguese case, Braudel claimed that the Genoese navigator was motivated above all by religious interests. This idea is not entirely true. Columbus was aware that he had only one chance. Besides the fact that Columbus was gambling on a single voyage, it was very difficult for him to find financing, and he had to use every possible argument to try to convince those powerful people who had to lend him money. Among these were religious arguments: Columbus claimed that he would be the bearer of the Catholic religion in Asia. Yet the real goal was wealth. Not a single priest went on his first voyage.

As the Portuguese embarked on an overseas adventure, they had no choice but to confront the myths typical of the Middle Ages. Geographical myths dating back to Greek times. The Portuguese confronted these myths by means of an absolute novelty in the century of Humanism. What did they use to combat the myths? The experience of the voyage.

In 1492, the Venetian cartographer Fra Mauro, a well-informed man, uttered a phrase: “I no longer believe everything Ptolemy says”. What was modern in this new era was the exploration. Modernity came from Portugal. Columbus ended up learning to sail thanks to Portugal.

Mapa de fray Mauro
Fra Mauro’s map of 1459 (inverted, south is at the top). The map represents Asia, Africa and Europe.

Why was Portugal forced to expand overseas?

  1. If Portugal wanted to find new lands, it could only do so in the Atlantic islands. The conquest of Ceuta did not work.
  2. Another option was trade, although Portugal came too late. The Mediterranean trade was tightly controlled by the Catalans and Italians, who had already split up everything. Trade with the north was controlled by the Germans.

The only option left to the Portuguese was to go further afield: islands and beyond the Atlantic.

In the 15th century, the kingdom of Portugal was not damaged by any civil war. Politically, it cannot be compared with any other political context in the 15th century. Portugal experienced the century of discovery.

Henry the Navigator (1394-1460)

Portugal was fortunate to find a character who made a personal commitment to discovery. Conquering new territories was important and gave prestige. Discovering was also interesting. Henry was the third son of the King of Portugal. As he was not the heir, he was not intended to be the new King of Portugal. He could retire from political life, although he was at the same time an Infante of Portugal. What he did was to go to the south of the country, to the city of Sagres. There he organized a Court of the Discoveries: a group of people who had the aim of furthering the process of exploration.

Henry set up a parallel court in Sagres. There, he succeeded in creating a circle of people made up of cartographers and navigators at his service. Vasco da Gama was the first navigator to reach India directly. He crowned the whole process.

Indian historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam argues that what happened at Sagres has been read too prettily. It probably wasn’t all that much.

Stages of African discovery

Historical chronology elaborated by Damiao Peres and Jaime Cortesão.

Viajes de descubrimiento de Portugal
Portuguese discovery journeys

1) Conquest of Ceuta 1415 – arrival to Cape Verde in 1444

The first push was not so much exploratory as conquering. First step: conquest of North Africa. How to make a profit? By the razzia, the booty. It was an easy way of getting gold. The problem the Portuguese encountered was if they thought that by controlling Ceuta, they would control all the trade in the area, they were wrong. After the conquest of Ceuta, the Muslims cut off all trade relations with the Christians there. Ceuta was not profitable. In the short term, it seemed to work (for the booty) but in the long term it did not.

Change of plans for the Portuguese: conquest of Madeira and the Azores. The Portuguese impulse towards the islands was such that they tried to occupy Gran Canaria on three occasions (1425-1427-1437). These were the years of the Castilian occupation of the Canary Islands. When the Portuguese began to really travel south, they realized that having these islands to rest on their journeys south was key. Herein lies the importance of having these islands.

Viajes de descubrimiento en 1434
Discovery journeys in 1434

The Portuguese navigator Gil Eanes was the first to sail past Cape Bojador. What did he discover? On his outward voyage to Cape Bojador, he noticed that the southerly winds were favourable. Yet, on his return to Portugal, he had to sail further inland. In this way, more miles were sailed, but it took less time to return. This was called the “Vuelta do Mar”. What the Portuguese discovered was the wind regime, a modern navigation technique. The aim was to save time. The winds in this area run like the hands of a clock.

The Portuguese soon realized that they had to perfect the type of ship to make these voyages. They adapted the old models from the Middle Ages and in the 15th century developed the Caravel, a perfect ship for ocean sailing. The caravel is large enough to make it a safer ship, but small enough to be easily manoeuvred. The Portuguese introduced the central rudder. Being a larger ship, they could carry 3 masts (they could set more sails). The ship was faster and safer. The ship’s gunwales were higher. The capacity was also larger.

Merchant ships for the time being only had an exploratory function. What were they loaded with? Food and water. Columbus carried food for fifteen months and water for six months. On Vasco da Gama’s first voyage, it is estimated that he carried 2.5 tonnes of food for each crew member.


New voyages were undertaken between 1434-37. Each year, the Portuguese discovered some new 300 kilometres of African coastline.


Again they go on conquering voyages. They tried to conquer Tangiers, but did not succeed. Here, it became clear to them that they had to stop the process of conquest and start exploring.

In 1441, they reached Cabo Blanco. The navigator was Nuño Tristao. For the first time, the Portuguese found something to profit from: 234 people were taken from Cabo Blanco and sold as slaves in Lisbon. What Henry the Navigator did was to order all the captured Africans to be baptized as Christians. The slave trade quickly became the choice of 100% of the sailors of the time.

In 1444, the Cape Verde Islands were reached.

2) Sierra Leone 1444 – Congo River 1475

Between 1444 and 1448, exploration of the African coast continued. However, between 1448 and 1455 the process of Portuguese discovery slowed down. The causes were:

  1. Years of systematic exploration followed years of exploitation of these new territories. Fuel, gold, slaves and ivory had to be found and trade organized;
  2. Political reasons. Portugal pursued a very cautious policy. When they realized that the African explorations could bring great profits, they wanted to protect themselves and control the new territory in the form of a monopoly. They did not want any other European country to take advantage of Africa. Portugal made sure that news of what it was doing reached outside its sphere. And it took great care to ensure that the highest authority of the time, the Pope, was favourable to its interests. In 1455, he obtained from Pope Nicholas V the bull “Romanus Pontifex”. All the territories south of Cape Boujdour were the exclusive property of Portugal. Once the bull was obtained, the voyages resumed.


The time of the halt after the death of Henry the Navigator. King Alfonso V was not quite sure what was to be done with the process of discovery. The parallel court in Sagres moved to Lisbon. The new monarch had to take over the whole project of expansion in Africa, and he was not quite sure how to go about it. In the end, his decision was:

  • He opted for the simplest solution: to find a private navigator and conclude a contract with him. In 1469, a contract was signed with Fernão Gomes (a Lisbon merchant). For six years (1470-1475), Gomes undertook to organize voyages of discovery and to discover 500 km of coastline every year (30,000 km in total). Counterpart: the monopoly of trade on the coast of Africa for Portugal. It was a barbarity.

By the time the infant Henry the Navigator died, in 1460, they had reached Cape Palmas. In the Gomes period, the navigator Lopes Gonçalves reached Cape Santa Catalina (located south of the Gabon River) in 1475.


The Kings of Portugal never again ceded African trade to a private individual. In 1475, the Portuguese had conquered Ceuta sixty years earlier, and it did not seem that this process would end here. From this moment on, the Portuguese asked for help from other experts, as their goal was still to reach Asia, but this target remained elusive for the time being.

3) Dias and de Gama’s period (1475-1490)

Portugal was forced to slow down the process of discovery because the country was momentarily involved in the War of the Castilian Succession. Henry IV of Castile had two candidates for the throne: Joanna la Beltraneja (his daughter), married to the Portuguese King Alfonso V, and what was to become Isabel I la Católica, sister of Henry IV. Portugal became involved on the losing side. Consequence: Portugal left the conflict because it was no longer in its interest. It ended with the signing of the 1479-1480 “Alcáçovas-Toledo” treaty with Castile (which established Portugal’s pre-eminence over the Atlantic).

The Portuguese wanted a treaty in which Castile undertook not to invade its African waters. What did this mean for Castile? Portugal already had the papal bull, but Castile did not seem to heed it. Papal authority was falling.


In 1481 King Alfonso V died, and was replaced by John II of Portugal. At this time, an important change took place. John II looked for a navigator, an ambitious man, who made three voyages: Diogo Cão. Between 1482-1486, he made three voyages in a row:

  • First voyage to the estuary of the Congo River, in 1482-83;
  • Second voyage to Santa Maria between 1484-86;
  • Third voyage to Cape Cross in 1486-86.

When Diogo Cão returned from his second voyage, he carried with him the news (later found to be false) that he had finally reached Southern Africa. On his third voyage he was proved wrong. This was the argument used by the King of Portugal to tell Columbus that he was not interested in his project, given the prospect that he had already reached Southern Africa. This explains why, in 1485, Columbus went to Castile to ask for funding for his exploration.

When it was discovered that they had not reached Southern Africa, the King of Portugal began to get nervous. It was seventy years since the voyages of discovery had begun in Africa, and they had still not reached the south of the continent. A very curious thing happened. The king was so nervous that he finally resorted to a legend. In 1487, the King of Portugal decided to send two emissaries to search for the legendary Prester John. They sent two emissaries, Alfonso de Paiva and Pero da Covilha with the following mission:

  • They are sent in the direction of Cairo, travelling through the Red Sea along the routes used by Arab traders. They arrive in Arabia (Aden). Not only that, but they investigate the sea routes in the area;
  • Paiva went to Ethiopia and Covilha in southern India and managed to land at Kolkata.

What happened to Paiva is far from clear. All we know about Covilha is that between 1490 and 1491 he was in Cairo. He had managed to return from India and somehow managed to send a report to the King of Portugal, yet the story is far from clear. Paiva had disappeared.

What Covilha would do from 1492 onwards was to go to Ethiopia, where an emperor in the image of the legendary Prester John was located. The story is not very straightforward. It is said that in 1520 the Portuguese, who had already arrived in China, sent a first official embassy to Ethiopia and there they met an old gentleman who spoke Portuguese.

The fact is that John II not only trusted Pavia and Covilha, but he also put his faith in a new navigator: Bartolomeu Dias.

Bartolomeu Dias undertook a voyage between 1487 and 1488 that was key to understanding the arrival in Southern Africa. Dias’ option was a bit more of the same. He travelled along the African coast. He was the first to reach the Cape of Good Hope, but he went beyond the southern tip. It took him practically a year to reach the south, always with favourable winds. What he discovered there he called “the cape of storms”. It was the King of Portugal who christened it the “Cape of Good Hope”. It took Bartolomeu Dias a year to return, with contrary winds, until he reached Cape Verde, where he could make a round trip via the Azores.

According to the historian Luis Adão de Fonseca, Dias’ intuition from this voyage was as follows:

  • In the southern Atlantic, the winds work the same way, but blowing in a counter-clockwise direction;
  • In the Gulf of Guinea, instead of following the coastline, he sensed that by entering the ocean they would find favourable winds, which after turning around would take them further south to Africa. When making this turn, if the wind was rather strong, it took you to Brazil, which seems to be the fact that it happened in 1500.

This system was no longer applied on his voyage, but on Vasco da Gama‘s. And what was done to return to Portugal? What was done from Vasco da Gama’s voyage of 1497-1499 onwards was:

  • When you were in Southern Africa, instead of returning along the coast, you would follow a straight line, favourable to the winds, which would take you past Cape Palmas. From there, you would set out on the return trip from Gil Eanes. The Portuguese called this system a doble vuelta (double turn);
  • The outward voyage was carried out according to the vault that Bartolomeu Dias intuited: always from Cape Palmas. Return, Gil Eanes’ return.

How the seas work

Mechanical (empirical) type. A law can be applied to it. It is a foreseeable type (this is modern). But it should be noted that it occurs at the first moment when the monarch sends for the legendary Prester John.


The Portuguese already knew how to reach Southern Africa and already had knowledge of the Indian Ocean. Why did it take them so long to make the first direct voyage to Asia? Between 1497 and 1499 the first direct Lisbon-India voyage was made. It turns out that Columbus in 1492-1493 claimed that he had reached an island in Asia. This put the Portuguese offside and forced them to sign a treaty with Castile, the famous Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Now the Portuguese had to better secure their voyage to Asia.

In 1495 John II died, and the new king was Manuel I. All this explains why the Portuguese made their first voyage in 1497.

Los descubrimientos de Portugal
Portugal’s discoveries

Vasco da Gama

He came from the lower nobility. A change came with his expedition of four ships of 148-170 men. They sailed up from Cape of Good Hope to Malindi, and from there to Kenya, where they set off on a direct route through the Indian Ocean to Kolkata (India).

One-way journey to India. Duration 9-10 months. Arrived in Kolkata, where they spent three months trying to establish positive contacts with Muslim merchants. There was no good understanding. They had a clear idea from the trip: if Portugal wanted to control trade in the area, they would have to fight the Muslim world. In 1498, they returned to Portugal, taking a year. A remarkably long voyage.

Of the four ships, two were lost. Of the crew, half of the men were missing. This cost was worrying, because they were sailors. Too high a human cost. They would take note of this.

In August 1499, Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal. Columbus had already fallen out of favour. In 1500 a second voyage to India was organized, led by Pedro Álvares Cabral, a voyage on which Portugal discovered Brazil by chance.

In 1502, a second voyage was made by Vasco da Gama. They were huge fleets. About 18 ships. He carried a war fleet in India. Among other exploits of the voyage (1502-04) they encountered a ship loaded with Muslim pilgrims heading for India. They raided the ship, stole all the money, and eventually sank it with all the crew inside. Idea of the fight against the Muslim.

The Portuguese model of colonization was largely the same as that applied by Columbus in the Caribbean. In Sierra Leone (Ghana), the Portuguese built a fortification, “El Mina”, in 1482, as they clearly wanted to better control the trade in the area. As they could not find any materials there, they sent ships with worked stones from Portugal and built the castle in one year. They did not want to nor could they conquer Africa, yet they could make pacts with areas of Africa to make trade deals. This was the Portuguese model. Everything indicates that Columbus travelled in 1482-1483 to El Mina. It was the model he would have in mind when he set out on his voyage to America.

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