Sea Route to India

Portugal Table of Contents

After the death of Prince Henry, the Portuguese continued to explore the coast of Africa, but without their earlier singleness of purpose. A dispute had arisen among the military aristocracy over whether Portugal could best achieve its strategic objectives by conquering Morocco or by seeking a sea route to India. Duarte had continued his father's Moroccan policy and undertook a military campaign against Tangiers but was unsuccessful. Afonso V ordered several expeditionary forces to Morocco. In 1458 he conquered Alcázarquivir; in 1471 he took Arzila, followed by Tangiers and Larache. Afonso's successors continued this policy of expansion in Morocco, especially Manuel I (r.1495-1521), who conquered Safim and Azamor. The Moroccan empire was expensive because it kept Portugal in a constant state of war; therefore, it was abandoned by João III (r.1521-57), except for Ceuta and Tangiers.

In 1469 Afonso V granted to Fernão Gomes a monopoly of trade with Guinea for five years if he agreed to explore 100 leagues (about 500 kilometers) of coast each year. A number of expeditions were carried out under this contract. In 1471 Portuguese sailors reached Mina de Ouro on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) and explored Cape St. Catherine, two degrees south of the equator. Mina de Ouro became the chief center for the gold trade and a major source of revenue for the crown. The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe were also discovered in 1471, and Fernão do Pó discovered the island that now bears his name in 1474.

During the reign of João II, the crown once again took an active role in the search for a sea route to India. In 1481 the king ordered a fort constructed at Mina de Ouro to protect this potential source of wealth. Diogo Cão sailed further down the African coast in the period 1482-84. In 1487 a new expedition led by Bartolomeu Dias sailed south beyond the tip of Africa and, after having lost sight of land for a month, turned north and made landfall on a northeast-running coastline, which was named Terra dos Vaqueiros after the native herders and cows that were seen on shore. Dias had rounded the Cape of Good Hope without seeing it and proved that the Atlantic connected to the Indian Ocean.

In the meantime, João sent Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva, who were versed in warfare, diplomacy, and Arabic, on a mission in search of the mythical Christian kingdom of Prester John. Departing from Santarém, they traveled to Barcelona, Naples, and the island of Rhodes, and, disguised as merchants, entered Alexandria. Passing through Cairo, they made their way to Aden, where they separated and agreed to meet later in Cairo at a certain date. Afonso de Paiva went to Ethiopia, and Pêro da Covilhã headed for Calicut and Goa in India by way of Ormuz, returning to Cairo via Sofala in Mozambique on the east coast of Africa. In Cairo he learned from two emissaries sent by João II that Afonso de Paiva had died. One of the emissaries returned to Portugal with a letter containing the information Pêro da Covilhã had collected on his travels. Da Covilhã then left for Ethiopia where he was received by the emperor but not allowed to leave. He settled in Ethiopia, married, and raised a family. The information provided in his letter complemented the information from the expedition of Bartolomeu Dias and convinced João II that it was possible to reach India by sailing around the southern end of Africa. He died during preparations for this voyage in 1494.

Manuel I assumed the throne in 1495 and completed the preparations for the voyage to India. On July 8, 1497, a fleet of four ships commanded by Vasco da Gama set sail from Belém on the outskirts of Lisbon. The expedition was very carefully organized, each ship having the best captains and pilots, as well as handpicked crews. They carried the most up-to-date nautical charts and navigational instruments. Vasco da Gama's fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope on November 27, 1497, and made landfall at Natal in present-day South Africa on December 25. The fleet then proceeded along the east coast of Africa and landed at Quelimane in present-day Mozambique in January 1498, followed by Mombasa in present-day Kenya. An Arab pilot directed the fleet to India. After sailing for a month, the fleet reached Calicut on the Malabar coast in southwest India. In August, after sailing to Goa, the fleet left for Portugal, arriving in September 1499, two years and two days after the departure.

In 1500 Manuel organized a large fleet of thirteen ships for a second voyage to India. This fleet was commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral and included Bartolomeu Dias, various nobles, priests, and some 1,200 men. The fleet sailed southwest for a month, and on April 22 sighted land, the coast of present-day Brazil. Cabral sent a ship back to Lisbon to report to Manuel his discovery, which he called Vera Cruz. The fleet recrossed the Atlantic and sailed to India around Africa where it arrived on September 13, 1500. After four months in India, Cabral sailed for Lisbon in January 1501, having left a contingent of Portuguese to maintain a factory at Cochin on the Malabar coast.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress