*In memory of Francisco Saraiva, today a little further, but always in our hearts*

The Portuguese dominance in the Atlantic during the 15th and 16th centuries is due to the ability of its rulers to adapt to the complex geographical circumstances and the problems their economy faced. Portugal’s population and resources at this time were limited, so its industrial production was insufficient to allow the country to prosper. This scenario only left place for trade as an economic boost, a trade that had to be maritime by force, given the bad relations with its neighbor: Castile.

Big problems require big solutions

The most demanded products in Europe increased in price because of the long roads they had to travel. Customs duties, the cost of intermediaries, and the increasing risks of political instability, made Eastern trading companies very unattractive. The continental roads were infested with dangers, and later the Turkish advance closed them completely. That is why it was necessary to find an alternative path across the ocean, specifically the Atlantic.

1. The Ottoman Empire controlled the known land and sea routes to the East. Source: mundoantiguo.net

Fortunately, the knowledge of the seas during the Middle Ages had expanded with respect to the Iron Age. The expansion of the Arab world in North Africa and the Mediterranean forced Europeans to find new seas to navigate and thus developed trade associations and active communication channels, thanks to the creation of the Hanseatic and Flemish navies, which expanded through the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and beyond the English Channel.

Portugal, opposed to Castile after the battle of Aljubarrota, could only establish trade routes by sea. Necessity made navigation the only way of trading with the rest of the world. On the other hand, the existence of a renewed critical spirit at the end of the 14th century did not tolerate superstitions or the fanciful testimonies of some sailors regarding the limits of distant lands and seas. This empiricist will required observation to document events and, therefore, opened the door to curiosity and exploration.

Henry ‘the Navigator’

In this context, the prince Henry of Portugal, known in history as Henry ‘the Navigator’, was the driving force behind navigation beyond the mapped confines. His interest in geography comes from the European travels of his brother Pedro, who provided him with details about the Ottoman danger in the East, and from copies of Marco Polo’s travels that took him to Portugal in 1428.

Henry’s motivation was to discover lands located to the south of the Canary Islands, in addition to the search for new markets where Portugal could obtain new products and countries to establish diplomatic relations with, to spread the Christian faith.

The School of Sagres: a myth?

The prince is said to have settled in Sagres, where he founded a nautical and cartography school, along with an astronomical observatory. However, from the 20th century on, various historians such as J. Tomé da Silva have questioned its existence, due to the lack of archaeological and documentary evidence. The Portuguese chronicler Zurara wrote the biography of Henry, whom he held in great esteem. His works have the great layers of heroism and epic typical of the Renaissance, and he has always magnified the life of the Portuguese prince.

The testimony of Duarte Pacheco Pereira, who participated in the Portuguese exploration projects, explains that Henry sent for Jacomé de Mallorca, an expert Mallorcan cartographer. Historically, Jacomé has been mistaken for Jafuda Cresques, son of the illustrious Abraham Cresques –author of the Catalan Atlas of 1375–, but Jafuda’s death is recorded in 1410, making it impossible for him to participate in the Portuguese endeavour. Along with them, other renowned experts such as Juan de Castro, Alvise Cadamosto or Antón Gonçalves were part of the exploration project. Henry pretended to instruct the Portuguese sailors in the face of the new voyages they planned.

2. Copy of the Catalan Atlas published in Barcelona in 1959. Source: Wikipedia.com

João de Barros, one of the first great historians of Portugal, describes Henry’s house as a center where privileged members of society were welcomed and gathered. His words relate a school of nobles rather than a teaching school. In fact, João did not find any direct reference to the School of Sagres or an exact geographical location.

Starting in the 20th century, this question was approached from a much more critical and historiographical point of view, highlighting the lack of evidence about the School. Furthermore, it is suspected that it could be an idea clumsily propagated by the lack of diligence since the centuries 15th to 19th, and even a legend intended by political and academic elites.

The first discoveries

The Madeira Islands were the first to be drawn on Portuguese maps. The navigators João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira found the islands by chance when their ships were diverted by a storm. As a way of gratitude for finding refuge on one of their islands, they named it Porto Santo.

Although it is very likely that there was already previous knowledge about the archipelago, the Portuguese were the first to map and populate them, a task carried out by Zarco and Teixeira together with the nobleman Bartolomé Perestrello between 1418 and 1419.

On the other hand, it seems that the Azores archipelago was rediscovered in 1427 by Captain Gonçalo Velho, although other sources affirm that it was Diego de Silves in the same year. In any case, it is not clear whether the Portuguese found the islands by chance or they already had evidence of their existence. What we do know is that the royal charter of 1439 authorized Henry ‘the Navigator’ to populate the islands, a task that Captain Velho carried out together with the settlers and their sheep.

3. Azores archipelago. Source: travel-in-portugal.com

The western group of islands –Flores and Corvo– was discovered in 1452 by Diego de Teive, who thought that it was a new archipelago and named them Ilhas Floreiras, meaning ‘Flower’s Islands’.

The «Cape of Fear»

Henry’s effort to sail south was considered madness at the time. It should be remembered that the stories spread by the Arab world drew a daunting panorama for those who dared to venture into the equatorial latitudes: the sea ended in a puddle of mud consumed by the heat; treacherous currents, reefs and eddies.

The limit of the known and safe world was marked by Cape Bojador, located on the coast of Western Sahara. According to the chronicler Zurara, Gil Eanes managed to overcome the ‘Cape of Fear’ in 1434 after 15 attempts, finally breaking the psychological barrier for the navigation of the West African coast.

From this point, the captains hired by Henry traveled the coasts of Africa towards the south, discovering geographical accidents of great relevance that allowed to draw safe courses in the search for new places to exploit.

Cape Verde and Henry’s latest discoveries

This is how Alfonso Gonçalvez Baldaia expanded the cartography to Pedra da Galé, discovering the Río del Oro (Gold River), which turned out to be an arm of the sea where no gold was found, although the name prevailed.

Dinis Dias discovered Cape Verde in 1445, a name given by the exuberant vegetation of these lands, and on that same trip he reached the mouth of the Senegal River. Nuno Tristão continued to Cabo Blanco (Ras Nouadhibou) and came across what was probably the Gambia River in 1446. Portuguese explorers tried to enter the waters of most of the rivers they encountered, because they thought that some could be connected with the Nile River.

4. Map with the Portuguese discoveries of Henry ‘the Navigator’. Source: Britannica.com

By 1448 the slave trade was so profitable that Henry decided to build a fort and factory on the Isle of Arguin, off the coast of Mauritania.

The last explorations sent by the prince corresponded to those of the Venetian Alvise Cadamosto and Diogo Gomes. This company continued to the Geba River (Guinea-Bissau) and was the first European expedition to reach the Cape Verde Islands, the westernmost point of Africa.

Pedro de Sintra discovered the jagged coastline of Sierra Leone (meaning ‘Lioness Mountains’), a name that he himself gave to these places due to the similarity between the sound of thunder in the mountains and the roar of lions.

Before Henry’s death, the expeditions had already reached Sierra Leone, but many of the objectives that had been set were not achieved. The little profit generated by trade, the failed conquest of the Canary Islands, which remained in the hands of Castile, and the resounding failure in the attempts of evangelization, are the great disappointments in this first period. At least the colonizations of Madeira and the Azores were successful, and his efforts in finding new markets laid the foundation for future expeditions.







Roca-Bruzzo, Pere. (2019). The School of Sagres. The construction of a historiographical myth.. Nuevas de Indias. Anuario del CEAC. 4. 81. 10.5565/rev/nueind.52.


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