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   Chapter 4 PIONEER WORK OF PORTUGAL (1400-1527)

The American Nation: A History — Volume 1: European Background of American History, 1300-1600 By Edward Potts Cheyney Characters: 25961

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The great period of explorations, of which the discovery of America was a part, lay between the years 1485 and 1520, between the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope by Diaz and the circumnavigation of the globe by the ships of Magellan. Long before this period of fruition, however, there was a significant movement of discovery, and an important acquisition of knowledge, experience, and boldness in exploration. This early dawn, preparatory to the later day, consisted in a series of discoveries on the west coast of Africa, due to the energy of the Portuguese and to the enlightenment of their great Prince Henry.

Portugal was especially fitted to be the pioneer in modern maritime exploration. Without geographical or racial separation from the rest of the Iberian peninsula, the national distinctness of Portugal was largely a matter of sentiment gathering around the sovereign. The nationality of Portugal had been created in the first place by the policy of its rulers, and preserved by them until the growth of separate material interests, a national language and literature, and traditions of glorious achievements confirmed the separateness of the Portuguese nationality from that of Spain.

The desire to hold aloof from other Spanish countries turned the attention of the king of Portugal to more distant alliances, and the open western seaboard naturally suggested that these should be with maritime states. In 1294 a treaty of commerce was signed with England. A century later, 1386, a much closer alliance with that country was formed and a new treaty signed at Windsor. [Footnote: Rymer, Foedera, II., 667, VII., 515-523.] This was followed in the next year by a marriage between the king of Portugal and Philippa, daughter of the English John of Gaunt and first cousin of King Richard. This "Treaty of Windsor" was renewed again and again by succeeding English and Portuguese sovereigns and remained the foundation of their relationship until it was superseded long afterwards by still closer treaty arrangements. With Flanders, Portugal had frequent peaceful intercourse, both in trade and in diplomacy. A Venetian fleet also called from time to time at the harbor of Lisbon on the way to and from England and Flanders, and thus brought Portugal into contact with the great Italian republic, and may have aroused an interest in far Eastern trade products of which loaded the galleys.

The contract before referred to by which Emanuel Pesagno was made hereditary lord high admiral, in 1317, continued to be fulfilled by the descendants of the first great admiral through the whole fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and kept up a constant connection with Genoa. [Footnote: M. G. Canale, Storia del Commercio, Viaggi, &c., degl' Italiani, book II., chap. x., etc., quoted by Payne, New World, 96.] Thus the associations of Portugal were with a line of seaboard states extending from England to Italy. After 1263 the maritime interests of the Portuguese kings became more distinct by their conquest from the Moors of the kingdom of Algarves, giving them a southern as well as a western sea-coast. [Footnote: Stephens, Hist. of Portugal, 81.] It was at Sagres, on Cape St. Vincent, which juts out into the open Atlantic Ocean on the extreme southwest of this province, that Henry, the fifth son of John II. of Portugal, established his dwelling-place in 1419, and created a centre of maritime interest and a base of exploring effort which was of world-wide influence. Henry was duke of Viseu, lord of Cavailham, viceroy of Algarves, and grand master of the Order of Christ. He had no wife or children; his private estate was, therefore, available for the expenses of exploring voyages; and projects of geographical discovery became his chief occupation. Whatever other duties or services were required of him on account of his membership in the royal family, he always returned to Sagres and to his exploring expeditions. He possessed also the interest and support of his father and brother, who successively occupied the throne. After his death his work was carried on by his nephew, King Alfonso V. The work of Henry was, therefore, substantially the concern of the whole royal family of Portugal for three generations. [Footnote: Major, Prince Henry the Navigator, chaps. iv., vi., xiii., xviii.]

Prince Henry "the Navigator," as he has come to be called, gathered around him a body of men trained as sailors; he learned the use of charts and instruments, taught these arts to his captains, and ultimately made the neighboring port of Lagos the most famous point in the world for the departure and return of exploring expeditions. [Footnote: Nordenskiold, Periplus, 121 A. For discussion of divergent views of Prince Henry's "school of navigation," see Beazley.] During forty years expedition after expedition was equipped almost yearly and sent down along the west coast of Africa, in the effort to solve its mystery and, if possible, to sail around its southern extremity.

In the process of exploration Prince Henry was governed by some of the strongest of human impulses. The crusading spirit was hot within him, and he hoped to continue in Africa the old struggle of the Portuguese Christians against the Moorish infidels. Gentler missionary ideals caused him to plan to spread Christianity into new lands, and to make connection with Prester John, the Christian ruler of the India which lay to the eastward of Africa. [Footnote: Hakluyt Soc., Publications, 1899, cvi.-cxii. Murara, Discovery of Guinea, chaps, vii., xvi.] His interest in trade was equally strong; he was familiar with the internal trade of Africa, and he lost no opportunity of developing traffic along the sea-coast. [Footnote: Azurara, Discovery of Guinea, chap. vii]

Yet it was the instinct of the explorer that inspired Prince Henry with the steady devotion to his life work. The fine curiosity which placed geographical discovery above all material gain, and rewarded his captains, not in proportion to what they had accomplished, but in proportion to the efforts they had made to carry the boundaries of knowledge farther, kept him and them intent on the work of exploration. [Footnote: Bourne, "Prince Henry the Navigator," in Essays in Historical Criticism, 173-189.] Henry possessed, at the beginning of his explorations, little more than the traditional geographical conceptions of the later Middle Ages. Besides some twelve or fourteen extant fourteenth-century maps drawn by Italian draughtsmen, which were probably all known to Henry, his brother Pedro gave him one which has since disappeared, which had been constructed at Venice, and which "had all the parts of the world and earth described." [Footnote: Major, Prince Henry, 62.] He was probably also familiar with the classical tales of the circumnavigation of Africa.

Besides this he had some important personal knowledge. During a Portuguese invasion of the Barbary states of Africa in 1415, in which Prince Henry served with his father and brothers, and later when he was himself in command, he found that there were caravan routes whose termini were at Ceuta and other Mediterranean towns. From the Sahara and the Soudan, across the desert, came caravans to the Mediterranean coast bringing gold, wine, and slaves, and news of trading routes far to the southward.

Moreover, these routes extended to rivers and seacoasts unknown to Europeans, which must, nevertheless, be connected with the open Atlantic Ocean, and might well be on the southern shore of that continent. "He got news of the passage of merchants from the coast of Tunis to Timbuctoo and to Cantor on the Gambia, which inspired him to seek those lands by way of the sea." [Footnote: Diego Gomez, quoted in Beazley, Introduction to Azurara's Chronicle (Hakluyt Soc., Publications, 1899).] "The tawny Moors, his prisoners, told him of certain tall palms growing at the mouth of the Senegal or western Nile, by which he was able to guide the caravels which he sent out to find that river." [Footnote: Ibid.]

The first decade of Henry's efforts, from 1420 to 1430, resulted in little in the way of new discovery. The Madeira and Azores islands were rediscovered and their full exploration and permanent colonization begun. Every year saw one or more caravels sent from Lagos southward to follow the coast of the main-land; but they skirted no shores that were not desert, and turned back baffled by their own fears. Cape Boyador long remained a barrier whose imaginary dangers of reef and shoal served as an excuse for the still more unreal horrors of the "Sea of Darkness."

The next decade saw better results. In 1434 Gil Eannes, one of the boldest of the captains who were growing up in Prince Henry's service, when he reached Boyador, sailed far out to sea, doubled the cape, and, returning to the coast, landed and gathered "St. Mary's roses," and took them home to the prince as a memento of the "farthest South." [Footnote: Azurara, Discovery of Guinea, chap. ix.] The greatest barrier had been passed, that of superstitious dread, and almost every voyage now brought its result of progress farther southward. Soon the boundaries of Islam were passed, for natives were found on the coast who were not Mohammedans.

The third decade saw still further advance. In 1441 Nuno Tristam discovered Cape Blanco, the "White Cape," glistening with the white sand of the Sahara. In 1445 Dinis Diaz, of Lisbon, sailed at last beyond the desert and reached Cape Verd, the "Green Cape," [Footnote: Ibid., chap. xxxi.] fifteen hundred miles down the African coast, and as far from Gibraltar south as Constantinople was east. By this time the captains of Prince Henry had reached the fertile and populous shores where the western Soudan borders on the Atlantic Ocean, and a new obstacle to further exploration revealed itself in the attraction and the profit of the slave-trade.

The first "Moors" or negroes were some ten or twelve captured and brought home in the year 1441 by Antam Goncalvez, to satisfy the curiosity of the prince and to obtain information useful for the further prosecution of the voyages. Others were soon brought for other purposes. Of the two hundred and thirty-five Moors who made up the first full cargo of human freight, the prince gave away the fifty-six which fell to his share as one-fifth, although it is recorded with the somewhat grotesque piety of the fifteenth century that "he reflected with great pleasure on the salvation of their souls that before were lost." [Footnote: Azurara, Discovery of Guinea, chap. xxv.]

There is no reason to believe that Henry planned or wished the development of a trade in slaves; [Footnote: The statement to the contrary in the Cambridge Modern Hist., I., 10, is not deducible from any contemporary evidence.] but labor was scarce on the great estates of southern Portugal, slaves were in demand, and very different desires from those of the prince might be gratified by capturing and bringing to the slave-market of Lagos the unfortunate natives of the newly discovered coasts. Hence one expedition after another, sent out for purposes of discovery, returned, bringing tales of failure to reach farther points on the coast, but laden with human booty to be sold. Private adventurers sought and obtained the prince's permission to send out caravels, and these also brought home cargoes of slaves. Only the most vigorous pressure, exercised on the choicest spirits among the Portuguese captains, served now to carry discoveries farther.

Nevertheless, a basis of interest in distant voyages had been found which had not existed before; and the further exploration of the African coast was certain, even in default of the personal enlightenment and enthusiasm of the Navigator. The expeditions sent by the prince and private voyages made familiar to the mariners of Portugal two thousand miles of coast instead of six hundred as of old. Guinea was eventually reached.

In 1455 the Venetian Cadamosto entered into Henry's service; and, followed closely by Diego Gomez, discovered the Cape Verd Islands and passed so far around the shoulder of northwestern Africa as not only to reach the ends of the caravan routes from Morocco, and to open up trade in gold, ivory, and the products of the Guinea coast, but to suggest that there was open sea now all the way eastward to India. The temporary disappointment of finding that this was not true was left to the successors of Prince Henry, for his death occurred in 1460. But the work was still carried on by his nephew, Alfonso V., and by the next king of Portugal, John II.

A series of bold pilots now passed beyond the whole Guinea coast, crossed the equator, and made their way down almost two thousand miles more of the African coast. The belief became assured that "ships which sailed down the coast of Guinea might be sure to reach the end of the land by persisting to the south"; and stone pillars six feet

high were ordered to be erected at landing-places to indicate possession and mark the stages of the route to the Indies.

Finally, in 1486, Bartholomew Diaz, the third member of his family to take part in the discoveries of Prince Henry, with two vessels sailed the remaining distance on the coast, and passed so far to the eastward that his sailors mutinied and refused to go farther. Diaz then suddenly realized that, notwithstanding the necessity for his return, he had at last found the passage-way to India dreamed of through so many ages and sought for at such heavy cost.

A period of still greater discoveries was already at hand. "It was in Portugal," says Ferdinand Columbus, "that the admiral began to surmise that if men could sail so far south, one might also sail west and find lands in that direction." The Portuguese were so wedded to the search for the southeast route, and it was so nearly achieved at this time, that their interest was but languid in the plans for a search to the westward. Another people therefore took it up, and soon the exploration of the New World was in full tide, and the period of pioneer effort passed into the era of great accomplishment.

Meanwhile Portugal saw the fruition of Prince Henry's work in the circumnavigation of Africa. Ten years later than the exploit of Diaz, in 1496, a fleet sailed from Lisbon under Vasco da Gama which was destined to round the Cape, make its way up the east coast of Africa till familiar parts of the Indian Ocean were reached; then to sail across to India, cast anchor, and secure cargo in Calicut and many other ancient ports; and to return thence safely to its port of departure. [Footnote: The First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, in Hakluyt Soc., Publications, 1898.] The Portuguese search for a new route to the lands of Eastern products was thus successful; and once found, this path became familiar. The fleet of Cabral in 1500 immediately followed that of Da Gama, and, driven to the westward as it sailed to the south, discovered Brazil, as a casual incident of its successful voyage to India. Thus, if the voyage of Columbus had never been undertaken, America would have been found within less than a decade.

Albuquerque followed around the southeast passage in 1503; a permanent traffic between Portugal and India was established, and thereafter yearly fleets of merchant and war vessels rounded the Cape. Soon most of the points of vantage of the Indies were in Portuguese control- Ormuz, Diu, Goa, Ceylon, Malacca-and the enterprising little western state had trade settlements in Burma, China, and Japan. [Footnote: Hunter, Hist, of British India, I., 110-133.] The private path of the Portuguese ultimately became the public highway of the nations. Spain, Holland, England, and France sent fleets around the Cape of Good Hope, and made use of the route to the East which the Portuguese had discovered.

The actual progress of scientific knowledge and practical equipment for navigation made at Sagres, Lagos, Lisbon, and on the seas, during the voyages sent out by Prince Henry and his immediate successors, is unfortunately not accurately known; but some glimpses of it may be obtained. "In his wish to gain a prosperous result of his efforts," says an almost contemporary historian, "the Prince devoted great industry and thought to the matter, and at great expense procured the aid of one Master Jacome from Majorca, a man skilled in the art of navigation and in the making of maps and instruments, and who was sent for, with certain of the Arab and Jewish mathematicians, to instruct the Portuguese." [Footnote: De Barros, Decadas da Asia, quoted in Beazley, Henry the Navigator, 161.]

When trained Italian navigators applied to Henry, as was the case with the Venetian Cadamosto, they were readily taken into his service, and he sent word by them that he would heartily welcome any other such volunteers. When the prince's work fell into the hands of his nephew, King John, the latter appointed the German Behaim, of Nuremberg, who lived in Lisbon from 1480 to 1484, to be one of the four members of his "Junto de Mathematicos." It was Behaim who introduced to the Portuguese the improved ephemerides calculated by the German Regiomontanus, and printed at Nuremberg in 1474. He also improved the astrolabe and the staff, drew charts and made globes, and accompanied one of the West- African expeditions in 1489. [Footnote: Major, Prince Henry the Navigator, 326-328.] Diego Gomez, one of Henry's captains, remarks, in describing his voyage of 1460, "I had a quadrant with me and wrote on the table of it the altitude of the arctic pole, and I found it better than the chart; for though you see your course of sailing on the chart well enough, yet if once you get wrong it is hard by map alone to work back into the right course." [Footnote: Quoted, in Beazley, Henry the Navigator, 297, 298.] Azurara also contrasts the incorrect charts with which Henry's sailors were provided before their explorations with those corrected by the later observations. [Footnote: Azurara, Discovery of Guinea, chap. Lxxvi.] His navigators, therefore, used the compass, the quadrant, and carefully constructed charts; but their advances in the use of this equipment are not recorded.

The first portolano to note the discoveries on the coast of Africa made by the Portuguese was that of Gabriele de Valsecca, of Majorca (1434- 1439). A map drawn by Andrea Bianco, of Venice, at London in 1448, seems to have been intended especially to indicate them, as it gives twenty-seven new names along the coast to the south of Cape Boyador. But the map which was distinctively the outcome of the new discoveries was the so-called "Camaldolese map of Fra Mauro," drawn by Mauro, Bianco, and other draughtsmen during the year 1457, in the convent of Murano in Venice. King Alfonso of Portugal himself paid the expenses of its construction, and sent charts showing the recent discoveries. It included all the new knowledge obtained up to that time by Prince Henry's explorers. It is the first large map drawn with the exactness and the reliance on observed facts of the portolano, notwithstanding the fact that it included a larger part of the earth's surface in its field than any earlier map. Though disappointing in some respects, it stands in the forefront of improved modern maps, and not unworthily represents the advance made in the knowledge of the world's surface as a result of the Portuguese efforts up to that time. The scientific importance of the discoveries of the Portuguese and the intellectual alertness of the Italians are alike illustrated by an incident that occurred at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1491. Columbus having explained to the sovereigns his scheme for a western voyage to reach the Indies, most of the Spanish prelates who were present declared his ideas heretical, supporting themselves upon the authority of St. Augustine and Nicholas de Lyra. Alessandro Geraldini, an Italian, preceptor of the royal children, who was standing behind Cardinal Mendoza at the time, "represented to him that Nicholas de Lyra and St. Augustine had been, without doubt, excellent theologians but only mediocre geographers, since the Portuguese had reached a point of the other hemisphere where they had ceased to see the pole-star and discovered another star at the opposite pole, and that they had even found all the countries situated under the torrid zone fully peopled." [Footnote: Mariejol, L'Espagne sous Ferdinand et Isabelle, 96.] In ship-building Henry and his navigators made positive progress. The Venetian Cadamosto testifies that "his caravels did much excel all other sailing ships afloat." Many varieties of vessels are mentioned in the records of Prince Henry's time-the barca, barinel, caravel, nau, fusta; the galley, galiot, galeass, and galleon; the brigantine and carrack. Of all these the caravel became the favored for the long, exploring voyages. It was usually from sixty to one hundred feet long and eighteen to twenty-five feet broad, and of about two hundred tons burden. It had three masts with lateen sails stretched on the oblique yards which were swung from the masthead, and was steered, at least partly, by the turning of these great, swinging sails. [Footnote: Revista Portuguesa, Colonial (May 20, 1898), 32-52, quoted by Beazley, Introduction to Azurara's Chronicle (Hakluyt Soc., Publications, 1899, p. cxii.).] John II. encouraged the immigration of English and Danish ship-builders and carried improvements still further. The greatest service to navigation done by Prince Henry and his successors was that of providing a school of sea-training. Not only were the whole group of early Portuguese explorers, Henry's own captains, "brought up from boyhood in the household of the Infant," [Footnote: Azurara, Discovery of Guinea, chap xiii.] but there was scarcely a name great in navigation in the succeeding period which had not in some way been connected with these voyages. Diaz, Da Gama, Albuquerque, Da Cunha, Cabral, and the other captains who made the Portuguese empire in the East, Magellan, who found still another way to India by the southwest; Estevam Gomez, who sailed to the arctic seas; Bartholomew and Christopher Columbus-were all taught or practised in that school. Columbus lived in Lisbon from 1470 to 1484, married there the daughter of Bartholomew Perestrello, the discoverer and captain-general under Prince Henry of Porto Santo in the Madeiras; and, besides his voyages on the Mediterranean and to England and Iceland, went repeatedly to the coast of Guinea and lived for some years in the Madeiras. Between 1477 and 1484 he was regularly engaged in the maritime service of the Portuguese crown. Besides these great names, many navigators who had only local repute or have remained nameless were Portuguese in birth and training, and belonged to the same maritime school. In 1502, close upon the English grants of exploring and trading rights to the Cabots, came a similar concession to "Hugh Elliott and Thomas Ashehurst, merchants of Bristol, and to John Gunsalus and Francis Fernandez, Esq., subjects of the king of Portugal." [Footnote: Rymer, Foedera] The expedition of the French captain De Gonneville to Brazil, in 1503, was guided by two Portuguese pilots; [Footnote: Pigeonncau, Hist du Commerce, II, 50.] and twenty of the sailors on Magellan's Spanish fleet of 1519, besides the commander, were Portuguese. [Footnote: Navarrete, Coleccion, II, 12] Three vessels from Dieppe, under Portuguese pilotage, in 1527, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and visited Madagascar, Sumatra, and the coast of India. [Footnote: De Barros, Decadas da Asia (Madrid ed., 1615), 42 decade, book V., chap, vi., 296.]

Actual skill in navigating vessels was increased and developed to a high degree in the struggle with the adverse maritime conditions on the coast of Africa. The violent and disturbing currents, the terrible surf of the beaches, the cyclones of the Guinea coast, the trade-winds, which were always head-winds to the mariners returning from the south- west, the uncharted reefs and bars, all favored a school of seamanship which trained the Portuguese and Italian sailors to meet far worse difficulties than those likely to confront them in the later and more distant voyages to the westward.

Other experiences of the Portuguese were later utilized by the Spaniards in their American colonies. The slave-trade was a sombre precedent, followed only too readily; the system of grants of newly discovered territory to captains or contractors who would continue its discovery or conquest, exploit its resources, and pay to the crown a large share of its products was followed, somewhat intermittently, in the West Indies and Central and South America. [Footnote: Bourne, Spain in America, chap. xiv.]

One of the permanent lessons of the Portuguese explorations was the need for and effectiveness of royal or quasi-royal patronage. Italian expeditions bore no fruit and could bear none, for this requirement of patronage was but ill-afforded by her merchant cities or even by her merchant princes. It was impossible for Venice or Genoa to take a part in the new discoveries and follow the new lines of trade, not only because of their unfavorable geographical position, not only because they were then engaged in a desperate military and economic struggle to retain their old Levantine trade conquests and connections, not only because their wealth and prosperity were deeply smitten by their mutual struggles and their common losses from the repeated blows of the Ottoman conquest, but because Italy had no royal family to take under its patronage distant discovery, conquest, trade, and colonization. Italy furnished most of the knowledge, the skill, and the individual enterprise that made the great period of explorations; but Portugal, under the leadership of her great prince, was its true pioneer.

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