During the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal was a leading European power, ranking with England,France and Spain in terms of economic, political, and cultural influence. Though not predominant in European affairs, Portugal did have an extensive colonial trading empire throughout the world backed by a powerful thalassocracy.
July 25, 1415, marked the beginning of the Portuguese Empire, when the Portuguese Armada departed to the rich trade Islamic center of Ceuta in North Africa with King John I and his wife Phillipa of Lancaster and their sons Prince Duarte (future king), Prince Pedro, Prince Henry the Navigator (born in Porto in 1394) and Prince Afonso, and legendary Portuguese hero Nuno Álvares Pereira. On August 21, 1415, Ceuta, the city on the coast of North Africa directly across from Gibraltar, was conquered by Portugal, and the long-lived Portuguese Empire was founded.
The conquest of Ceuta had been helped by the fact that a major civil war had been engaging the Muslims of the Magrib (North Africa) since 1411. This same civil war between the Muslims prevented a re-capture of Ceuta from the Portuguese, when Muhammad IX, the Left-Handed King of Granada, laid siege to Ceuta and attempted to coordinate the forces in Morocco and attempted to get aid and assistance for the effort from Tunis. The Muslim attempt to retake Ceuta was ultimately unsuccessful and Ceuta remained the first part of the new Portuguese Empire. However, further steps were taken that would soon expand the Portuguese Empire.
In 1418 two of the captains of Prince Henry the Navigator, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, were driven by a storm to an island which they called Porto Santo ("Holy Port") in gratitude for their rescue from the shipwreck. In 1419, João Gonçalves Zarco disembarked on Madeira Island. Uninhabited Madeira Island was colonized by the Portuguese in 1420.
Between 1427 and 1431, most of the Azorean islands were discovered and these uninhabited islands were colonized by the Portuguese in 1445. A Portuguese expedition may have attempted to colonize the Canary Islands as early as 1336, but Castile objected to any claim by the Portuguese to the Canary Islands. Castile began its conquest of the Canaries in 1402. Castile expelled the last Portuguese from the Canary islands 1459. The Canary Islands would eventually be part of the Spanish Empire.
In 1434, Gil Eanes turned the Cape Bojador, south of Morocco. The trip marked the beginning of the Portuguese exploration of Africa. Before the turn, very little information was known in Europe about what lay around the cape. At the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th, those who tried to venture there became lost, which gave birth to legends of sea monsters. Some setbacks occurred: in 1436 the Canaries were officially recognized as Castilian by the Pope; earlier they were recognized as Portuguese. Also, in 1438 in a military expedition to Tangier, the Portuguese were defeated.
However, the Portuguese did not give up their exploratory efforts. In 1448, on a small island known as Arguim off the coast of Mauritania, an important castle was built, working as a feitoria, a trading post, for commerce with inland Africa. Some years before the first African gold was brought to Portugal, circumventing the Arab caravans that crossed the Sahara. Some time later, thecaravels explored the Gulf of Guinea which lead to the discovery of several uninhabited islands: Cape Verde, Fernão Póo, São Tomé, Príncipe and Annobón.
On November 13, 1460, Prince Henry the Navigator died. He had been the leading patron of all maritime exploration by Portugal up to that time. Immediately following Henry's death, there was a lapse of further exploration. Henry's patronage of explorations had shown that profits could be made in trade which followed the exploration of new lands. Accordingly when exploration was commenced again private merchants led the way in attempting to stretch trade routes further down the African coast.
In 1470s, Portuguese trading ships reached the Gold Coast. In 1471, the Portuguese captured Tangier, after years of attempts. Eleven years later in 1482, the fortress of São Jorge da Mina in the town of Elmina on the Gold Coast in the Gulf of Guinea was built. (Setting sail aboard the fleet of ships taking the materials and building crews to Elmina on this trip in December 1481 wasChristopher Columbus.) In 1483, Diogo Cão reached and explored the Congo River.
The New World
In 1484, Portugal officially rejected Christopher Columbus's idea of reaching India from the west, because it was seen as unreasonable. Some historians have claimed that the Portuguese had already performed fairly accurate calculations concerning the size of the world and therefore knew that sailing west to reach the Indies would require a far longer journey than navigating to the east. However, this continues to be debated. Thus began a long-lasting dispute which eventually resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain in 1494. The treaty divided the (largely undiscovered) world equally between the Spanish and the Portuguese, along a north-south meridian line 370 leagues (1770 km/1100 miles) west of the Cape Verde islands, with all lands to the east belonging to Portugal and all lands to the west to Spain.
A remarkable achievement was the turning of the Cape of Good Hope by Bartolomeu Dias in 1487. The richness of India was now accessible. Indeed the name of the cape stems from this promise of rich trade with the east. In 1489, the King of Bemobi gave his realms to the Portuguese king and became Christian. Between 1491 and 1494, Pêro de Barcelos and João Fernandes Lavrador explored North America. At the same time,Pêro da Covilhã reached Ethiopia by land. Vasco da Gama sailed for India, and arrived at Calicut on 20 May 1498, returning in glory to Portugal the next year. The Monastery of Jerónimos was built, dedicated to the discovery of the route to India.
In the spring of 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral set sail from Cape Verde with 13 ships and crews and a list of nobles that included Nicolau Coelho,Bartolomeu Dias and his brother Diogo, Duarte Pacheco Pereira (author of the Esmeraldo) along with various other nobles, nine chaplains and some 1,200 men. From Cape Verde they sailed southwest across the Atlantic. On April 22, 1500, they caught sight of land in the distance.They disembarked and claimed this new land for Portugal. This was the coast of what would later become the Portuguese colony of Brazil.
However, the real goal of the expedition was to open sea trade to the empires of the east. Trade with the east had effectively been cut off since theConquest of Constantinople in 1453. Accordingly, Cabral turned from exploring the coasts of the new land of Brazil and sailed to the southeast back across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope. Cabral reached Sofala on the east coast of Africa in July 1500. Later in 1505, a Portuguese fort would be established here and the land around the fort would become the Portuguese colony of Mozambique.
Then they sailed on to the east and landed in Calicut in India in September 1500. Here they traded for pepper and, more significantly opened European sea trade with the empires of the east. No longer would the Muslim Ottoman occupation of Constantinople form a barrier between Europe and the east. Ten years later in 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque after attempting and failing to capture and occupy Zamorin's Calicut militarily, conquered Goa on the west coast of India.
João da Nova discovered Ascension in 1501 and Saint Helena in 1502; Tristão da Cunha was the first to sight the archipelago still known by his name 1506. In 1505, Francisco de Almeida was engaged to improve the Portuguese trade with the far east. Accordingly, he sailed to East Africa. Several small Islamic states along the coast of Mozambique, Kilwa, Brava and Mombasa were destroyed or became subjects or allies of Portugal. Almeida then sailed on to Cochin, made peace with the ruler and built a stone fort there.