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'Things hidden from other men' - The Portuguese Voyages of Discovery

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

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.'


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Historical dictionary: Portugal


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