After the death of Henry “The Navigator” in 1460, the expeditions stopped for 11 years. Many explorers had the courage to continue the ambitious project, highlighting the advance of Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama in a mission full of adventures and misadventures.

Beginning in 1471, the Portuguese crown resumed travel through commercial concessions such as that of Admiral Fernão Gomes, who leased the exclusive right to navigate Guinean waters and exploit the lands that were found. As a condition, he was required to discover at least 100 leagues of coast for each year during this contract.

This agreement turned out to be the most convenient for both parties, as Fernão Gomes managed to overcome the rains and the absence of wind in the equatorial latitudes, and entered the Gulf of Guinea from the east. On these trips, his captains traveled the entire coast until they reached Cape Santa Catarina and the Gabon estuary in the southern hemisphere. In turn, Fernando Poo glimpsed the Bay of Biafra, and Lopo Gonçalves did the same with Cape Lopo. They also meet the islands of São Tomé, Príncipe, and Annobon.

1. The Gulf of Guinea marked the advancement of the explorations of Fernão Gomes. Source:

With the careful advance of Portugal along the African coast, the sailors were leaving stone monoliths called padrões topped by a Christian cross with inscriptions in Romance, Latin and Arabic, whose purpose was to claim the Portuguese sovereignty of the discoveries. The padrões that Diogo Cão erected in his expeditions along the coasts of Angola and Namibia are very famous, specifically in Cape Santa María and Cape Cross. Cão was the first European to discover the Congo River, navigating a stretch from its mouth.

Bartolomeu Dias and the ‘Cape Stormy’

In 1847 another of the most important events in the history of European navigation took place, this time carried out by Bartolomeu Dias. The Portuguese explorer surpassed the last limit, marked by Diogo Cão in Namibia, and was diverted towards the south for 13 days because of a heavy storm. When the weather allowed them to turn east to meet the African coast again, it did not appear, and they decided to head north until, after several days, they sighted land. However, to the bewilderment of Bartolomeu Dias himself, the coast was no longer to the east, but to the west. They had surrounded southern Africa, and now they were in the waters of the Indian Ocean.

This news was fantastic for Portugal: they had found the connection between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and the trade route to the East Indies was closer. But despite this extraordinary discovery, Dias’ fleet did not advance much further. His crew demanded returning home almost unanimously, and the expedition leader had no choice but to agree.

2. Map of Africa in ‘Cosmographia’, by Sebastian Münster, published in Basel in 1559. Source:

On the return journey they were able to travel the South African coast that they did not explore because of the storm, and discovered the prominent and rocky southern tip of the continent, which was named ‘Cape Stormy’, and later renamed ‘Cape of Good Hope’ by the monarch John II of Portugal.

The passage from the southwest to the Indian Ocean was thus discovered, after 70 years since the discovery of Madeira, breaking the wall of ignorance that prevented access by sea to the East Indies.

Competition with the Crown of Castile

In 1492, unexpected news put the future of Portuguese travel in danger: the Castilians claimed to have reached the Indies by a new route, and before Portugal did it. It was about the discovery of America for Europeans thanks to the voyage of Christopher Columbus, and that at first it was confused with the lands of Southeast Asia.

Portugal protested against such discovery, arguing that they had priority of rights in that part of the world. The Treaty of Alcazobas signed in 1479 by Alfonso V of Portugal and the kings Fernando of Castile and Isabel of Aragon, divided the territories of the Atlantic Ocean known to date, but did not mention new discoveries. From here, there are several interpretations: one of them states that the treaty only speaks of the ‘Sea of ​​Africa’, that is, of the waters that surrounds the coasts of the African continent, and others believe that the entire Atlantic was granted to Portugal , with the exception of the Canary Islands.

The Alexandrine Bulls

Following the medieval criteria of the time, Pope Alexander VI intervened to mediate the dispute with what we now know as the Alexandrian Bulls of 1493 −also known as the Bull of Donation. In these bulls, the Pope ceded to the Crown of Castile the islands and territories discovered and for discover for their evangelization, as long as they did not belong to any Christian king. He drew a meridian line, from pole to pole, 100 leagues west of the Azores Islands, from where the Castilians could claim new lands, while the Portuguese could do the same to the east of that meridian. In addition, the Crown of Castile would have priority if they reached the eastern territories of Asia earlier.

Naturally, this concession from the Pope did not please the King of Portugal, who threatened to go to war. Fortunately, the armed conflict could be avoided with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which offered Portugal a more favorable distribution than that of the Alexandrian Bulls. In accordance with this new treaty, the meridian that separated territorial claims was extended to 370 leagues, but this time from the islands of Cape Verde.

3. Distribution of the world between Castile and Portugal. Source:

However, the definition of the Tordesillas line was a continuous headache for both kingdoms, who always tried to interpret the agreement to their own benefit. To begin with, the island of Cape Verde from where the 370 leagues would begin to be measured is not specified, not to mention the lack of consensus about the true size of the earth’s sphere, which made it impossible to calculate how many leagues corresponded to a degree of longitude.

As a result, the treaty was reinterpreted at their convenience and the Portuguese tried to get ahead of the Castilians using the new route to the Indian Ocean that they had found thanks to Bartolomeu Dias.

Vasco da Gama

Manuel I of Portugal, nicknamed ‘O Venturoso’ −’the lucky one’−, wanted to continue with the exploration of the Atlantic and the development of commercial monopolies in Africa. The monarch decided to trust Vasco da Gama as captain of the expedition that set out in search of the Indies in 1497.

For the first time, the position of captain major was joined to that of diplomat and held military functions. The King of Portugal was aware that the chances of reaching the Indies were very high, so Vasco da Gama was provided with letters addressed to the Governor of Calicut to establish political and economic agreements.

They left Lisbon on July 8th, 1497 with two ships named São Gabriel and São Rafael, a caravel named Berrio, and an auxiliary ship of unknown name. Seven days later they reached the Canary Islands, non-stopping, and from where they divided because of a thick fog, to end up meeting again, days later, in the islands of Cape Verde.

They sailed without interruption for three months, heading south, towards the center of the Atlantic to avoid the equatorial calms of Guinea and the southeastern trade winds, until they reached 30° S, where they turned east. On November 22nd, they managed to see the Cape of Good Hope, although the east wind prevented them from passing it directly. They had to turn south first, following in the footsteps of Bartolomeu Dias’ first expedition.

4. Padrão photographed in Cape of Santa Maria, Angola.

The endeavour led by Vasco da Gama anchored in San Blas Bay (now Mossel Bay) on November 25th. There they got rid of the auxiliary ship and distributed the load among the rest of the ships. Also, they erected a padrão as a witness to their journey, although the natives destroyed it the next day.

Unexplored territory

On December 16th, the fleet surpassed the last place reached in Bartolomeu Dias’ journey, and they continued heading north trying to follow the East African coast. Despite the strong currents that hindered their advance (Agulhas Current), Vasco da Gama and his cartographers managed to add 70 leagues of coast to their maps by Christmas Day, which is why the coast received the name of Natal.

After discovering the Copper River on January 11th, 1498, they arrived at the mouth of the Zambezi River on January 25th, suffering the first symptoms of scurvy. After repairing the ships and enjoying a month’s rest, the travelers reached the island of Mozambique on March 2nd, where they first encountered Arab merchants and Muslim inhabitants. These inhabitants believed that the Portuguese also professed the religion of Allah, and the Sultan of Mozambique granted them two pilots who knew the waters of the Indian Ocean, a great help for da Gama’s endeavour. However, one of them deserted when they discovered that the expedition was, in fact, Christian.

Again, the equatorial calms delayed the advance of the ships, which did not reach Mombasa (Kenya) until April 7, and a day and a half later, to Malindi. At the latter port, they incorporated a highly experienced Gujarati pilot into their fleet, who guided them to Calicut on a quiet 23-day open sea voyage. Finally, on May 20th, Vasco da Gama and his companions reached their destination on the west coast of India, where they erected a padrão and were received by the Zamorin, who was the Hindu governor of the region.

The disappointment and the return of Vasco da Gama

Unfortunately, the great expedition’s objective did not end as the Portuguese had wished. The reception of the Zamorin was not reciprocated to the same level by the Europeans, whose gifts seemed inappropriate and the behavior of Vasco da Gama did not please the leaders of Calicut. The mission to reach a commercial agreement with the city failed, partly due to hostility from Muslim merchants, and partly because the merchandise offered, which had been very successful on the African coast, was not in demand in this part of the world. To make things worse, the Portuguese mistakenly believed that the Indians were Christians when they left Lisbon.

5. Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India, with the dominant atmospheric patterns. Source:

The return to Portugal was precipitated by the tensions created in the failed diplomatic attempt. At the end of August, at the worst time of the year to navigate the Indian Ocean, during the monsoon rainy season, da Gama’s expedition set sail back together with six Hindus who would be presented to King Manuel. Unsurprisingly, the monsoon complicated the journey in such a way that it took them three months to cross the Arabian Sea, the same journey that only took them 23 days three months ago.

On March 20th, 1499, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and shortly thereafter the two ships that made up the fleet were separated by a storm, and never met again. The Berrio arrived in Lisbon on July 20, while the São Gabriel docked in the Azores first, where Vasco da Gama stayed for two months before arriving in Lisbon on September 9th.

The return trip was fraught with problems: of the 170 crew members who left Portugal, many perished en route, largely due to scurvy, and only 55 returned; the São Rafael ship had to be destroyed as a result of the lack of sailors; and Paulo, da Gama’s brother, passed away in the Azores Islands before being able to return to Lisbon.

King Manuel I awarded Vasco da Gama the title of Dom, a pension of 1000 cruzados, various estates, and a profitable marriage to Catarina de Ataide.

Naturally, later fleets commanded by Vasco da Gama himself and Pedro Alvares Cabral were sent to Calicut. These new trips were much more fruitful for the interests of Portugal, although, it seems, violence was more present to combat Arab competition in the Indian subcontinent.

The discovery of Brazil

Precisely, Pedro Alvares Cabral is considered the discoverer of the Atlantic coast of what is now Brazil, on April 22th, 1500. His trip was not for exploratory purposes, it was a endeavour with a very clear objective: trade with India . However, 44 days after leaving Lisbon, and following the western Atlantic route advised by Vasco da Gama himself, Cabral ran into the coasts of the South American continent. Such was the amazement of the Portuguese expedition, that they thought it was an island and that is how it was named Ilha de Vera Cruz (‘Island of the True Cross’).

But there is some controversy about who was the true discoverer of Brazil. Other documented expeditions reached the South American coasts a few months earlier: the Castilians Vicente Yáñez Pinzón and Diego de Lepe. On one of his Columbian voyages, Yáñez Pinzón left Palos de la Frontera (Huelva), passing through the Canary Islands and Cape Verde until he lost sight of the Polar Star, and was diverted south by rough seas. This is how on January 26th, 1500, Yáñez Pinzón and the crew of ‘La Niña’ sighted the northern coast of Brazil and landed at Cape Santa María de la Consolación (today Cape of Saint Augustine, in Pernambuco).

Unfortunately, the Crown of Castile could not claim authorship of these discoveries due to the Treaty of Tordesillas, since these territories were located in the Portuguese area of ​​influence delimited by the pact.

The journey of the Andalusian pilots continued west, until they reached the mouth of the Amazon River and the Orinoco River, but we will talk about these adventures in other chapters.


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