Portugal and Spain led the way in early exploration for two main reasons. First, they were the earliest European recipients of Arab math, astronomy, and geographic knowledge based on the works of the second century A.D. geographer, Ptolemy. Second, their position on the southwest corner of Europe was excellent for exploring southward around Africa and westward toward South America.
Portugal and the East (c.1400-1498)
- Portugal started serious exploration in the early 1400’s, hoping to find both the legendary Prester John as an ally against the Muslims. At first, they did not plan to sail around Africa, believing it connected with a great southern continent. The guiding spirit for these voyages was Prince Henry the Navigator whose headquarters at Sagres on the north coast of Africa attracted some of the best geographers, cartographers and pilots. However, Henry never went on any of his expeditions, but he was their sponsor.
- The exploration of Africa offered several physical and psychological obstacles. For one thing, there were various superstitions, such as boiling seas , monsters, and Cape Bojador, which many thought was the Gates of Hell. Also, since the North Star, the sailors’ main navigational guide, would disappear southwards sailors were reluctant to cross that line. Therefore, early expeditions would explore a few miles of coast and then go back to Sagres. This slowed progress, especially around Cape Bojador, where some fifteen voyages turned back before one expedition in 1434 finally braved its passage without being swallowed up. In the 1440’s, the Portuguese found some, gold and started engaging in the slave trade. In 1445, they reached the part of the African coast that turns eastward for a while. This raised hopes they could circumnavigate Africa to reach India.
- In 1460, Prince Henry died, and the expeditions slowed down for the next 20 years. However, French and English interest in a route around Africa renewed activity on Portugal’s part. By now, Portuguese captains were taking larger distance from the coast. One captain, Diego Cao, explored 1500 miles of coastline. Portuguese confidence grew that Africa could be circumnavigated.
- In 1487 Bartholomew Dias was blown by a storm around the southern tip of Africa (which he called the Cape of Storms, but the Portuguese king renamed the Cape of Good Hope). When Dias relocated the coast, it was to his west, meaning he had rounded the tip of Africa.
- The Portuguese sent Vasco da Gama with four ships to sail to India. Da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in three months. Da Gama found an Indian pilot who led the Portuguese flotilla across the Indian Ocean to India in 1498. Da Gama managed to get one shipload of spices and then headed home in August 1498. It took over a year, until September 1499, to get back to Portugal, but he had proven that Africa could be circumnavigated and India could be reached by sea.
- Subsequent Portuguese voyages to the East reached the fabled Spice Islands (Moluccas) in 1513. Also in 1513, the Portuguese reached China, the first Europeans to do so in 150 years. They won exclusive trade with China, which had little interest in European goods. In 1542, the Portuguese even reached Japan and established relations there.
- As a result of these voyages and new opportunities, Portugal would build an empire in Asia to control the spice trade.