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The Portuguese navigators who discovered the world.

The Portuguese navigators who discovered the world.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe gradually emerged from the Middle Ages. Monarchies became richer, artists could express themselves more freely, ideas spread more easily thanks to printing, new trade routes were created in Europe first of all and then towards India and China, the first large commercial companies were created.

The Spanish, Portuguese and Italians were the first to charter ships to discover new trade routes to India and China. The French and Dutch soon joined them to avoid the creation of monopolies in maritime trade.

In Portugal, explorations began very early. As early as 1325, King Alfonso IV of Portugal encouraged maritime trade and launched the first expeditions. But it was not until 1414 and the capture of Ceuta in Morocco that the Portuguese embarked on major explorations intended to compete with the commercial land routes through the Sahara.

Portuguese and Spanish maritime routes in the 16th century


In less than a century, the entire globe was covered by new maritime routes. More than 50 Portuguese navigators distinguished themselves in their discoveries, but history will mainly remember the names of Henry the Navigator, Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco de Gama and Magellan.


Henry the navigator (1394-1460)

Henry was born a Portuguese prince, the third son of King John I of Portugal. In 1414, his father entrusted him with the conquest of Ceuta (Morocco) in order to stop the harassment of the Portuguese coast by Moorish pirates. Once the city was taken, Henry discovered all the riches that had arrived in Ceuta from the trade routes of the Sahara.

o Infante D. Henrique na conquista de Ceuta - Jorge Colaço


Back in Portugal, he established himself in 1416 on the peninsula of Sagres and did not stop concentrating all the maritime knowledge of the time. A school of geography and navigation was created under the aegis of Jehuda Cresques, the best cartographer of the time.

The port of Lagos was transformed into a shipbuilding center and was equipped with an observatory that perfected the sails of the caravels and contributed to the progress in the art of navigation.

Sagres peninsula


Appointed Governor of the Order of Christ, the name of the Order of the Temple (Templars) in Portugal in 1420, he now has access to the necessary financial resources. The great explorations can begin and Henry sends his first ships.

  • In 1427, Diogo de Silves, one of its captains, discovered the Azores which were quickly colonized.
  • In 1434, Gil Eanes passed Cape Bodajor which was the furthest point known to Europeans on the African coast.
  • In 1444, Dinis Dias (father of Bartolomeu Dias) passed Cape Verde and crossed the southern limit of the desert thus bypassing the commercial routes held by the Muslims and offering direct access to slaves and gold from Mauritania.

From 1452 onwards, gold arrived in large quantities by this maritime route and the first Portuguese cruzados minted competed with the Italian ducats and became an accepted currency in the Christian and Muslim world.

Henry - São Vicente de Fora 15e siècle


In 1460, Henri died in Sagres, without descendants, having never sailed and never having made any discoveries by himself.

Less than 30 years after his death, benefiting from all the discoveries and techniques developed by Henri, Bartolomeu Dias passed the Cape of Good Hope, Vasco de Gama reached India and Christopher Columbus, influenced by the success of the Portuguese, discovered America.


Bartolomeu Dias (1450-1500)

Bartolomeu Dias is the son of Dinis Dias, one of the captains of Henry the navigator who first passed Cape Verde.

As a young man, he studied mathematics and astronomy but very soon, King John 2 of Portugal entrusted him with the task of pursuing explorations along the African coast in order to establish a route to India, as the land routes were now in Turkish hands after the capture of Constantinople.

Bartolomeu Dias

In 1487, he passed the current Namibia, the southernmost point mentioned on the maps of the previous expeditions. Continuing southward, he was caught in a violent storm and wandered in the Atlantic Ocean for 13 days.

Taking advantage of the Antarctic winds and sailing northeast, he reached the coast 800 km east of the Cape of Good Hope, which he passed on the high seas without realizing it.

Cape of Good Hope - South Africa


Wishing to continue his route to India and therefore to the East, he informed the crews of his 3 ships who revolted and demanded the return to Portugal by the West. He thus crossed the Cape of Good Hope from East to West.

Back in Lisbon in 1488, marked by these 13 days of wandering in the Atlantic, he named this cape the Cape of Storms, but King John II named it the Cape of Good Hope, hoping that this discovery would finally open the road to India.

Adamastor, the spirit of the Cape of Good Hope - Palace of Buçaco.


In 1497, Bartolomeu Dias accompanied Vasco de Gama on his voyage of discovery of the Indies. In 1500, he travels with Pedro Alvares Cabral on the famous voyage that will make him take possession of Brazil.

Continuing its route to India, it was again caught in a storm near the Cape of Good Hope and, this time, disappeared at sea.


Vasco da Gama (1469 - 1524)

Vasco da Gama was born in Sines into the Portuguese nobility. As a young man, he went to Evora to study mathematics, astronomy and navigation. In 1480, he joined his father in the Order of Santlago de l'Epée whose master was the future King of Portugal: John II of Portugal.

Vasco de Gama

In 1492, Vasco de Gama, sent on a mission by the King to Setúbal, seized the French ships moored there in retaliation for exactions committed in Portuguese waters.

In 1497, the king entrusted him with 4 ships and 200 men with the mission of definitively establishing the maritime route to the Indies. He took a course that led him off the coast of Brazil and then reached the African coast following the trading posts established by Bartolomeu Dias. He crossed the Cape of Good Hope and landed in May 1498 on the beach of Kappad in India.

His voyage, if it makes it possible to establish the connection towards India, is a commercial failure. The Zamorin of Calicut (City State of India) refused him the commercial advantages he asked for. He had to leave three months later, taking hostages to guarantee his safety.

On his return, he was nevertheless covered with honors, recognized as the discoverer of the maritime route to India and named Admiral of India by the King.

In 1502, he left Portugal with a fleet of 20 ships full of goods. This expedition will be violent with the assault of ships, the murder of pilgrims traveling to Mecca and the bombardment of the port of Calicut. In spite of this, the Zamorin of Calicut did not submit, the Christians of the Indies promised by Vasco da Gama remained untraceable and the hope of finding the Kingdom of the Priest John disappeared.

Vasco de Gama in Calicut - Tapestry


This voyage marked the beginning of the Portuguese colonial empire, which displeased King Manuel I who condemned the nobility who favored mercantilism over the Christian mission. Vasco de Gama entered into disgrace.

This disgrace lasted 20 years until the new King of Portugal, John III, appointed him Viceroy of the Indies. In 1524, he undertook his third voyage but died shortly after his arrival.


Fernando de Magellan (1480 - 1521)

Fernando de Magellan was born in 1480 in Porto, into a family of the Portuguese nobility. At an early age, his father obtained his admission to the court of Queen Eleanor of Viseu where he was taught navigation and astronomy.

Fernando de Magellan


Appointed as a pensioner of the king's household on the fleet of Francisco de Almeida, he left Lisbon in 1505 for the Indies. He took part in various battles and engaged in the pepper trade before returning to Lisbon in 1513.

A few months later, he was sent to Morocco as part of the Portuguese troops in charge of seizing Azemmour. Accused of illegal trade with the Moors, and unhappy that his trade projects were not recognized, he asked his King to release him from his obligations.

He then decided to offer his services to the King of Spain, the young Charles V who was only 18 years old at the time. Magellan proposed to the young King to open the spice route from the West, which would allow him to establish a new trade route without damaging relations with his Portuguese neighbors, who were sailing to the East.

A fleet of 5 ships is entrusted to Magellan. This fleet left Seville on August 10, 1519. The crews were made up of Spaniards but also Portuguese, Italians, Greeks and French.

Magellan leaving Seville


Of the 237 men who made up these crews, only 35 survived to complete the first world tour.

The main events that take place during these 3 years of expedition are the following:

  • 15.08.1519: The fleet of 5 ships and 237 men of crew leaves the port of Seville.

  • 13.12.1519: After a brief stop in the Canary Islands, the fleet disembarked in the bay of Santa Lucia in Brazil, today known as Rio de Janeiro.

  • 31.03.1520: In his attempt to bypass South America, surprised by the cold, Magellan decided to winter in Argentina in Puerto San Julián.

  • 01.04.1520 : Doubting the existence of a passage to the West and their chances of survival in the southern cold, part of the fleet mutinies. Magellan nevertheless kept control of the situation and after a few fights sentenced 40 sailors to death. The sentence was not carried out because it would have jeopardized the continuation of the voyage.

  • 03.05.1520: Magellan decided to send one of his ships in recognition but the Santiago was wrecked. Three months later, Magellan decided to resume his route towards the south with the 4 remaining ships.

  • 21.10.1520: Magellan saw a Cape which marked the entry of a passage towards the West: the Cape of the Virgins. It will take him more than one month to cross this passage surrounded by cliffs.
  • 08.11.1520: In the middle of the passage leading to the west, the pilot of the San Antonio rebelled against his Captain, dragged the crew into the mutiny, deserted and made his way to Seville carrying his cargo of food and goods.
  • 28.11.1520: Magellan, at the head of the 3 remaining ships enters the Pacific Ocean. Magellan did not underestimate the immensity of this ocean, on the other hand, to his great surprise, it is empty. In fact, by lack of chance, he will never cross one of the numerous islands which are present there.

  • 06.03.1521: After 4 months of navigation, reached by the scurvy, close to the famine, the 3 ships reach the Marianas where the crews can disembark and refuel after having been plundered by the natives come to their meeting.

  • 27.04.1521: Magellan moved his 3 ships to the island of Cebu where the King willingly converted to Christianity with his people. His neighbor, the King of the island of Mactan refused to submit. Magellan then undertook an expedition during which he succumbed to a wound caused by a poisoned arrow.

  • 02.05.1521: It is from now on Juan Sebastian Elcano who commands the expedition but only 113 men are still alive and valid what is insufficient to handle 3 ships. The commander then resigns himself to burn the Concepcion. The 2 other ships take the wide.

  • 08.11.1521: The 2 ships landed on the shores of the Moluccan islands known to the Portuguese for more than 15 years. The ships were loaded with spices but only the Victoria left the anchorage. The Trinidad, victim of a leak, was forced to stay on site for repairs.

  • 06.09.1521: Under the command of Elcano, the Victoria docked in Sanlucar de Barrameda in Spain after crossing the Indian Ocean and rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Only 18 men were on board, the stopovers in the Portuguese trading posts having taken their toll of prisoners.

Some crewmen will join Seville, freed by the Portuguese or embarked on the Trinidad, bringing to 35 the number of surviving men of this first world tour.

Replica of the Victoria, the first ship to sail around the world


The Victoria was the first ship to complete a full circumnavigation of the globe, but the expedition was an economic disaster, the political benefits were almost nil, and the route to the Indies via the west was abandoned.

Magellan's journey


It will be necessary to wait 58 years and Francis Drake so that a 2nd turn of the world is carried out borrowing the Strait of Magellan to join the Pacific Ocean.

Only the piercing of the Panama Canal in 1914 will bring a satisfactory solution to the passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.


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