The history of Portugal’s ground-breaking association with the seas spanned a hundred years from 1415-1515. Widely labelled as the Age of Discovery, this epoch-making period saw Portuguese navigators sail across uncharted seas to break out of the confines of Europe and discover the New World.
The ships that carried them into the great unknown, or the fearful void, were the wide-hulled caravels and powerful naus built using the world’s most advanced skills and state-of-the-art technology in the shipbuilding yards of Lisbon.
The Age of Discovery began in 1415 when Portugal conquered Ceuta on the north coast of Africa and culminated in 1500 when Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil, followed by their arrival at Malacca and Macau in 1515.
It fell to Prince Henry the Navigator, supported by his father King João I and his successors, to bring about the scientifically organised mission of the discoveries, which the whole nation involved itself in.
The first caravels were built in and sailed from Lagos in the Algarve coast as part of a vast plan of maritime exploration that first aimed to reach Guinea, where gold was mined, to be continued with the circumnavigation of Africa in an effort to reach India, including the navigation of the Atlantic in the hope of finding a first sea route to Asia.
Portugal’s Atlantic islands were among the first lands to be colonised. From 1420, Madeira began to acquire the importance that would give it a prominent position in the European sugar trade in the second half of the 15th century. The Azores, the Cape Verde islands and Portuguese Guinea were discovered as the ships explored southward along the African coast.
It took great tenacity to pass the stormy Cape Bojador in the western Sahara, an achievement that gave rise to legends about the edge of the world but would eventually open important trade routes.
Gil Eanes tried once but turned back. A pilot recruited by Henry the Navigator, he persisted and eventually fulfilled his mission. In 1434, he courageously struck westward from the Cape, far into the unknown ocean, then steered south again to complete one of the most important achievements of this phase of the Portuguese Discoveries.
The year 1488 became a second crucial turning point when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Torments, later called the Cape of Good Hope because the nation was confident his unexpected achievement had laid open the first sea route to India.
Vasco da Gama, the explorer whose voyages are celebrated in the 16th-century epic poem ‘Os Lusíadas’ (The Lusiads in English) by Portugal’s national poet, Luís Vaz de Camões, led the Portuguese navigators to India in 1498.
Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Goa in 1510, laying the foundation of Portugal’s eastern empire. Following the spice routes, the well-armed Portuguese naus fought the Arabs and drove many of their traders from the seas.
Allied with the Chinese and opposing the Muslims, the Portuguese occupied Malacca, the principal port of distribution for goods from the Far East, in 1511, and it was during this period that China ceded Macau to Portugal.
The human aspect of Portugal’s contact with peoples, civilisations and cultures so different from its own is in itself a fascinating subject but the fundamental importance of trade during this era should not be forgotten. Each spring, ships laden with goods made in Europe, including textiles, for Malabar. The date of departure was determined by the Indian monsoons. Setting sail too early, in January or February, was as equally problematic as leaving too late, from May to December.
When the voyages ran smoothly, the returning naus, bringing oriental goods from Malaca, Macau, Goa and other lands dominated by the Portuguese, would be greeted in Lisbon eighteen months to two years later. At this time, the Portuguese capital replaced Venice as the European centre of trade for pepper and other spices as well as silk, pearls and diamonds, the feats of the discoverers having greatly extended the limits of international trade.
From 1519—22, Fernão de Magalhaes, known in English as Ferdinand Magellan, led the first voyage to circumnavigate the globe, although he died before returning to Lisbon.
However, the discovery and colonisation of America was too great a demand for Portugal, then a small nation of little more than a million people and faced fierce competition from the Castillians, who were bent on navigating the American coast after Cabral’s discovery of Brazil.
Travellers to Lisbon can soak up some of this ground-breaking maritime history by visiting Belém (indicated on the map below), an enchanting riverside district located to the west of the city centre. When the great 15th- and 16th-century explorers left Portugal for all four corners of the world, this is where their voyages began.