Arabia and India, from the Miller Atlas, Portugal, c.1519.

Arabia and India, from the Miller Atlas, Portugal, c.1519.

The First Global Empire

Poor and small, Portugal was at the edge of late medieval Europe. But its seafarers created the age of ‘globalisation’, which continues to this day.

In the dying years of the 15th century Portugal surprised the world. Vasco da Gama's landfall on the Indian Coast in May 1498 was so unexpected that it strained credibility. A garbled rumour reached the Venetian diarist Girolamo Priuli that 'three caravels belonging to the king of Portugal have arrived at Aden and Calicut in India and that they have been sent to find out about the spice islands and that their captain is Columbus'. His initial response was a mixture of shock and disbelief: 'This news affects me greatly, if it's true', he wrote. 'However I don't give credence to it.' Priuli was registering the first reaction to a seismic shift in the comprehension of our planet: Gama's voyage had finally demolished the ancient authority of Ptolemaic geography, which held the Indian Ocean to be a closed lake.

Priuli's misattribution anticipated the extent to which Columbus has come to dominate the historiography of the age of discoveries. While 1492 is conventionally the watershed moment, the largely forgotten role of the Portuguese in begetting the early modern era is also immense. For a century they led the way in connecting the hemispheres and giving its people a new sense of their place in the world. Alongside the age of Columbus, there is an equally significant Vasco da Gama era of history.

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