Portuguese discoveries, navigators and explorers (15th-16th centuries)

Portuguese discoveries, navigators and explorers (15th-16th centuries)

In the phenomenon that historians have long called " The Great Discoveries ", the browsers and explorers Portuguese are pioneers. In fact, from the first decade of the 15th century, Lusitanian ships began to sail along the western coasts of Africa, a continent that they would finally bypass at the end of the century to enter the Indian Ocean and settle there permanently. . At the same time, in the context of rivalry with Spain, Portugal discovered its America, with what would become Brazil, and failed in China at the beginning of the 16th century.

The caravel, ship of discoveries?

The Caravel is a low tonnage sailing vessel with a wide bow and a tall, narrow stern castle. With a shallow draft, it nevertheless allows you to sail along the coast. The caravel is often seen as the ship of the great explorers. However, under this term are grouped several types of boats which are distinguished by technological advances gradually allowing sailors of the time to venture into the ocean.

For voyages to Africa, the term "caravela" appears in sources only from the 1440s onwards. It can be assumed that before, navigators used the same type of ships as in the Mediterranean. The caravel as such is even replaced by the nave (nau in Portuguese) after the voyage of Bartolomeu Dias in 1488. Then came the time of the carracks in the 16th century. At each stage the ships are bigger and bigger, but also better armed, which is decisive for Portuguese projects in the Indian Ocean.

Portuguese sailors sail along Africa

The capture of Ceuta in 1415 can be seen as the first step leading the Portuguese to explore the coasts of Africa. The context then is the end of the Reconquista, but also the rivalry with Castile and Aragon.

With the help of Genoese and Norman sailors, the Portuguese settled first in Madeira (1419), in the Azores (from 1427) and then in Cape Verde (1444); Cape Bojador passed in 1434 by Gil Eanes. It was then the known limit of navigable seas. The intrepid Portuguese navigators set out to explore the African coast, in search of the "land of gold". In 1460, Sierra Leone was reached as well as the Cape Verde Islands and the Portuguese soon established trade relations with Guinea, procuring precious goods (gold, ivory, gum) as well as slaves. The exploration was encouraged by the Infant Henry known as "the Navigator" (1394-1460), to whom legend attributes the founding of a navigation school in Sagres.

The death of Henry the Navigator did not stop Portuguese explorations, but they were slowed down for a time, notably because of tensions with Castile. The movement resumed under the reign of John II from 1481. He ordered Diogo Cao to continue along the African coast to the mouth of Zaire, joined in 1483. The same year, the navigator reached the future Angola, before returning to Portugal.

The decisive step, however, is crossing the Cape of Good Hope. The fleet of three caravels was entrusted to Bartolomeu Dias, who left Lisbon in August 1487. The navigator first doubled the course without realizing it at the beginning of the year 1488. Then, despite his desire to continue, he had to listen to its crews and leave after a brief foray into the Indian Ocean. The fleet returned in December 1488. The sea route to India is now open.

Portuguese explorers in the Indian Ocean

The first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 changed the situation. The Spaniards become real rivals, and Pope Alexander VI takes the initiative to calm things down between the two Iberian powers. Negotiations lead to the signing in 1494 of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divides the world between the Spanish and the Portuguese, to the chagrin of the other European powers, France in the lead.

The door to the Indian Ocean opened by Dias, we must now take advantage. This time, it was under the leadership of King Manuel I that the Portuguese embarked on new explorations. The first is the famous voyage of Vasco da Gama, who left Portugal in 1497 and reached Calicut, India, on May 20, 1498. Other voyages followed, by Gama but also other more belligerent navigators like Afonso de Alburquerque , which leads armed expeditions to Cochin, Goa and Malacca (conquered in 1511), as well as in the Persian Gulf. It was the beginning of the establishment of a Portuguese empire in the Indian Ocean, thanks to a network of strongholds on the coasts.

This control of the Portuguese annoys the Spaniards, particularly in relation to the spice routes. This is the main reason for the journey of Magellan (1519-1522), a Portuguese commissioned by Spain to join the Moluccas (islands rich in spices) behind the Portuguese. However, in the first decades of the 16th century, when Cortes conquered Mexico for Charles V, the Portuguese failed to gain a foothold in China, the Tome Pires embassy being massacred on the orders of the Ming emperor.

Portuguese America: Brazil

The Kingdom of Portugal could not allow the Spanish rival to build an empire in what would later be recognized as a "New World". There is, however, a great deal of chance in the “discovery” of Brazil by Cabral in April 1500.

The success of Vasco da Gama's trip pushes Manuel I to organize a new, much larger expedition. The goal is the same as that of the previous trip, but during the great loop (or volte) in the South Atlantic, when the fleet sets off west to descend towards the Cape of Good Hope, an unknown land is sighted, called “the Island of the True Cross”. Yet it is Brazil that the Portuguese sailors are approaching! A ship reaches Lisbon to announce the news, then the fleet sets off again to its original destination: the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese did not settle in Brazil until the 1530s, however, and quickly used the country to develop the slave trade from Africa.

The period 1415-1515 is sometimes called “the Portuguese century”. This is the moment when the small Lusitanian kingdom launches an assault on the seas of the globe, skirting then bypassing Africa, before entering the great commercial networks of the Indian Ocean, then settling there by strength. In 1500, Brazil was “discovered”, the only place in the Americas where Portugal managed to gain a foothold. The Spanish rival indeed began the conquest of a huge colonial empire with the first voyage of Columbus, then the successes of Cortes and Pizarro. The next century will be that of Spain.


- Mr. Chandeigne (dir), Lisbon outside the walls. 1415-1580. The invention of the world by Portuguese navigators, Autrement, 1990.

- M. Chandeigne, J-P. Duviols, On the road to Columbus and Magellan. Ideas received on the Great Discoveries, Le Cavalier Bleu, 2011.

- P. Boucheron (dir), History of the world in the 15th century, Fayard, 2009.

- "Les Grandes Découvertes", L’Histoire, special issue, 355, July-August 2010.

Video: How did early Sailors navigate the Oceans?