The Portuguese Voyages of Discovery

Helen Wallis charts the Portugal's astonishing success in voyages of exploration between 1415 and 1520

Alberto Cantino's world map (1502)In 1655, Sir Richard Fanshaw introduced the English public to Luis de Camoes’ epic of Portuguese maritime literature, The Lusiads, originally published in 1572. Conveyed in Fanshaw’s 'sprightly, gallant style' (as Sir Richard Burton described it), Camoes conjured up the vision of Portugal's search for empire:

Armes, and the Men above the vulgar File Who from the Western Lusitanian shore
Past ev'n beyond the Trapobanian-Isle
Through Seas which never Ship had sayld before;
Who (brave in action, patient in long Toyle,
beyond what strength of humane nature bore)
'Mongst Nations, under other Stars, acquir'd
A modern Scepter which to Heaven aspir'd.

Two centuries later Richard Henry Major, Keeper of the Department of Maps and Charts in the British Museum, documented in '1868 the life of Prince Henry of Portugal and its results, 'comprising the discovery, within one century, of half the world'. More recently the historian of Portuguese exploration and discovery, Jaime Cortesão, in1960 summed up as follows Henry's achievements: 'We can assert that with the Infante D. Henrique begins a new and decisive epoch in the history of geography and of Mankind.'

Henry (1394-1460), the second son of John I and his English Queen Philippa, set Portugal on the way of overseas exploration and empire. Despite his epithet 'the Navigator', coined by Major, Henry never travelled beyond Ceuta in Morocco, where he participated in the capture of the Moorish stronghold in 1415. His role was to fulfil his horoscope, as Gomes Eannes de Zurara described it, to be 'a great conqueror, and a searcher out of things hidden from other men."

Under his direction, Portuguese ships made the discovery of Guinea, passing in 1421 Cape Nun (28°N) and in 1434 rounding Cape Bojador. By 1445 Dinis Dias had navigated the mouth of the river Senegal and Cape Verde. Alvise de Cadamosto, a Venetian in Henry's service, sailed in 1455-56 to the Gambia and Rio Grande and sighted the Cape Verde Islands, and Pedro de Sintra in 1462, two years after Henry's death, ached beyond Sierra Leone.

Lack of documents impeded for many years researches into Henry's motives and achievements. When Zurara's Cronica do descobrimento e conquista dn Guiné, dated 1453, completed after 1460, came to light in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, in 1837 and was published in 1841, a picture of Henry emerged which, despite the patriotic and eulogistic style, established him as one of the great figures of the early Renaissance: 'Assuredly I know not where to look for a Prince that shall bear comparison to this one'. Henry's aims are revealed as the desire to learn about the lands beyond Cape Bojador, to crusade against the Moslems, to open up new commerce, and to find a Christian prince as ally. It is now regarded as probable that beyond these he conceived well before the end of his life the plan to reach India. The world map of Fra Mauro, made in Venice in 1457 to 1459, has an inscription in south-west Africa reporting that Portuguese navigators had visited those coasts and made charts which were sent to Fra Mauro from Portugal. Fra Mauro also stated his belief in an open sea way from the Atlantic to the 'Sea of India' and drew Africa with a southern cape.

When King John II came to the throne in 1481, the aim of exploration was unambiguously 'the Indies'. Two voyages of Diego Cão, 1482-84 and 1485-87, took the Portuguese to the Congo and then to Cape Cross in 21° 50'S. In 1487-88 Bartolomew Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, so named (it has long been asserted') by King John on Dias' return, but according to Duarte Pacheco Pereira, the chronicler in Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis (1505), it was named by Dias himself, because there the coast turned northwards and north-eastwards, 'which gave indication and expectations of the discovery of India'.

These voyages, like the earlier ones, are not well documented. The record derives primarily from sixteenth- century chronicles and maps of non- Portuguese origin, for only a few Portuguese charts survive. Only two Portuguese charts dating from the fifteenth century record these discoveries. One is a chart oft western Europe and West Africa to the Congo by Pedro Reinel, 1483, the earliest signed Portuguese chart known. The other is an anonymous chart of the last decades of the fifteenth century covering the coasts of France to the Gulf of Guinea. Yet many Portuguese charts must have been made on the voyages, and afterwards to record their results. Although Henry's 'School of Sagres' is now regarded as a romantic hypothesis rather than established fact, Henry employed astrologers, astronomers, mapmakers and pilots, including (according to Pacheco) 'Mestre Jacob' of Majorca (Jafuda Cresques, son of Abraharn Cresques), as a cosmographer and expert in the art of navigation. What happened to the Portuguese charts is a matter of speculation. The policy of secrecy imposed by the Portuguese government to keep charts out of the hands of foreigners and the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 partial answers but do not fully explain the presumed disappearance of what must have been a remarkable corpus of material.

As a result of these losses, we rely mainly on foreign charts made as copies of Portuguese charts. Those oft the fifteenth century were Italian, notably Venetian, for the merchant houses in Venice watched with interest and growing concern the progress of Portuguese discovery. An example in the chart 'Ginea Portugalexe', copied by Cristoforo Soligo circa 1490 from a lost Portuguese original and presented in a Venetian atlas which belonged to the Cornaro family (British Library, Egerton MS 73). This chart shows the furthest south point reached by Cao and marks by crosses the stone pillars set up as acts of possession. The manuscript world map of Henricus Martellus Germanus, circa 1490 (BL, Add MS 15760) adds the further statement that Cão died there, and depicts the discoveries of Bartolomew Dias round the Cape of Good Hope. This ranks as the first map based on Ptolemy's world map to be revised to show Africa as a peninsula with an open Indian Ocean to replace the land locked sea. Study of the sea charts and of documents in Portugal enabled the South African historian Eric Axelson to discover in 1938 east of l3ushman's River at 'Cabo do Padram', Dias' final padrão set up in 1588.

Under King Manuel, successor to John II, Vasco da Gama navigated the route to India between 1497 to 1500. Following in 1500 on a more south-westerly course on the instructions of Vasco da Gama the second fleet under Pedro Alves Cabral fell in with Brazil. These discoveries are recorded on the manuscript chart acquired secretly in Lisbon in 1502 by Alberto Cantino, agent of the Duke Ercole d'Este. This ranks as the earliest Portuguese map displaying Portugal's discoveries in the western and the eastern parts of the world.

The search for the seaway under Henry and his successor represents the most sustained effort in exploration in the great age of discovery. It was also revolutionary in its effects on the history of navigation. The voyages along the coast of Africa established the custom of sailing by open sea and were the first to use astronomical navigation. Alvise Cadamasto in 1456 is the first navigator to report taking the altitude of the Pole Star. The charts of Soligo, circa 1490, are the first to display lines of latitude as well as the radiating network of loxodromes. The Portuguese became the leading authorities in the development of navigational science. Pedro Núnes, mathematician of Coimbra and Cosmographer Major, published in 1537 two important treatises which explained to pilots how to use charts, and especially, how to navigate by loxodromes (rhumb lines).

The commercial results of the discoveries were epoch making. With the return of Vasco da Gama from his voyage to India the Portuguese went on to establish in the East a great empire, its capital the city of Goa, conquered in 1510. Antonio de Abreu and Francisro Serrão sailed in 1511 to 1512 to Java and the Moluccas (Spice Islands). Pedro Reinel's chart of 1518 is one of the earliest to depict these discoveries. The commercial centres and naval bases of the Portuguese empire were later to be recorded by order of Philip III, 1632, in the Livro do Estado da India Oriental, with plans by Pedro Barreto de Resende, Knight, and charts by Pedro Berthelot, pilot of the Dutch fleet who transferred to Portuguese Service and became Cosmographer Major of the State of India (BL, Sloane MS 197).

Although Portugal came to concentrate her activities on the south Atlantic and the route to the Orient, she also explored westward from Europe, discovering the Azores in 1431. The appearance of the large islands of Antillia and Satanazes on a Venetian chart of the Atlantic, 1424, by Zuane Pizzigano, which was brought to light in 1950, raised the question whether the islands represented an early Portuguese discovery of the West Indies. Armando Cortesão and Samuel Eliot Morison argued in friendly debate the case for and against Portugal's priority in the discovery of America, with Morison finally agreeing the point that 'without the preliminary work of the Portuguese, the first voyage of Columbus could not have attained its object'.

The Portuguese went on to make various contributions to the exploration of the north Atlantic and of north American coasts. In 1499 João Fernandes lavrador of the island of Terceira in the Azores sailed to Greenland, which was named 'Labrador' in his honour, and the name was then transferred to the American continent. Gaspar and Miguel Corte Real reached Terre Verde (Newfoundland) in 1501, hence the 'Terra del Rey de Portuguall' marked on the Cantino map, 1502. A little before 1521 Joao Alvares Fagundes, a Portuguese nobleman explored the region of Newfoundland. Shortly afterwards he or his associates discovered the Bay of Fundy, which Diego Homem, cosmographer and Portuguese emigré, evidently using material from Fagundes, drew on the chart of the north Atlantic in his magnificent world atlas made for Queen Mary of England, 1558 (BL Add MS 5415A).

Some years later one of the most skilful of Portuguese pilots, Simão Fernandes, born at Terceira, transferred to England after Spanish service which had taken him to the east coast of north America. As chief pilot for Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke ventures of 1584, 1585 and 1587, he contributed to the failure of the first English settlement on American soil. His chart of the Atlantic copied for the geographer John Dee in 1580 helps to explain the choice of the Carolina Outer flanks for the site of the colony (BL, Cotton Roll XII 48). In the south Atlantic the major Portuguese discovery, that of Brazil (1500), was probably accidental, but it is possible that Cabral was expecting to find land in this region. The geo- political background was now a factor in the planning of Portuguese exploits. In 1493 the Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI had decreed by papal bull that Spain had a right to all non-Christian lands west of a line drawn 100 Leagues west of the Azores or Cape Verde Islands, while Portugal could claim all to the east oft the line. In the Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494, the two powers agreed to shift the line to a position 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Portugal had thus a strong motive for discovering land to the east of the line in the south Atlantic.

Significantly, the Cantino map, 1502, the first to mark the line of demarcation, shows Cabral's discoveries in Brazil immediately to the east of the line, with the Corte-Reals' similarly placed in the north Atlantic. In the light of the political division of the world it was logical also for Portugal to decline to support Ferdinand Magellan in his project for a westward passage to Asia. Thus while Magellan ranks with Vasco da Gama as the greatest of Portuguese explorers of all time, the glory of the first circumnavigation, 1519 to 1522, fell to Spain.

One final puzzle which remains unresolved has been the subject of debate for two hundred years; namely, the question whether the Portuguese in the 1520s discovered Australia. In the following decade the great landmass of 'Java-la-Grande' appeared to the south of the eastern archipelago on a number of charts, several of which mark it as a Portuguese discovery. These charts, however, were French, derived mainly from the Dieppe School of hydrographers whose work in the period 1540 to 1570 was unsurpassed in European chart-making. The Dieppe charts were based on Portuguese sources as revealed by the numerous Portuguese place names recorded. They present a remarkable picture of Portuguese discoveries throughout the world, providing circumstantial evidence that a Portuguese chart-maker was working at Dieppe in collaboration with the French. The fact that the land of Java-la-Grande does not appear on Portuguese charts of the period has been explained, as usual, by the policy of secrecy.

The British hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple in 1786 was the first to suggest that Java-la-Grande represented Australia. Learned societies in London and Paris carried on the discussion as newly discovered maps were added to the corpus. Today while scholarly opinion remains divided Kenneth Mclntyre has brought the controversy to the attention of a wider public with his popular book, The Secret Discovery of Australia. Portuguese Ventures 200 years before Captain Cook, (1977). He argues that the Dieppe maps and other evidence prove the early Portuguese discovery of Australia and that the discoverer was probably Gomes de Sequeira on a voyage of 1525.

The problem remains to explain how the French in Dieppe obtained the information about such a discovery. To this researches on one of the most notable Dieppe works, the Boke of idrography of Jean Rotz, 1542, provides, an answer (Royal MS 20.e.IX). Rotz superimposed on a Portuguese chart of the type in use at Dieppe discoveries made on the voyage of Jean Parmentier from Dieppe to Sumatra (known also as Taprobana) in 1529 to 1530. Rotz himself probably sailed on the voyage. There is evidence that Parmentier's men obtained in Sumatra intelligence and charts recording a Portuguese expedition which reached Sumatra in 1528 after exploring the coasts of Java-la- Grande. That Java-la-Grande was Australia cannot be proved, but is probable. A local voyage of this kind might well not enter the mainstream of Portuguese chart-making. Whatever the identity of Java-la-Grande, it can be said that through the agency of the Dieppe hydrographers the Portuguese added what appeared to be fifth continent to the map of the world.

Portugal has done full honour to her remarkable heritage. In 1960 the magnificent atlas Portugaliae Monumenta Cartographica, edited by Armando Cortesão and Avelino Teixeira da Mota, comprising facsimiles of all the Portuguese charts in the world, was published to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator's death. In the same year a world congress on the history of the discoveries was held in Lisbon. In 1983 the Portuguese government under the auspices of the Council of Europe organised at Lisbon the 17th European exhibition of Art, Science and Culture on the theme 'The Portuguese discoveries and Europe of the Renaissance'. The Lisbon waterfront provided a series of displays starting at the monastery of Madre de Deus, proceeding to the Casa des Bicos, the National Museum of Ancient Art, the Monastery of Jeronimos and ending at the fortress of St Vincent at Belem. It documented with a wealth of items, from tapestries to charts, the great discoveries made in the era of Henry and his successors. It was indeed a pilgrimage through history.

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