Portuguese Discoverers


Meanwhile King John, carrying on Prince Henry’s work, kept sending his discovery voyages farther down the west African coast. Diogo Cão reached the mouth of the Congo (1480-84), and began the customs of setting up stone markers (padrões), surmounted by a cross, as proof of first discovery and tokens of Christian faith.

These advances down the coast brought new rumors of the famous but still unseen Prester John. While Prince Henry’s first objective was to move into the unknown, another objective, his chronicler Zurara reported, was “to know if there were in those parts any Christian princes, in whom the charity and the love of Christ was so ingrained that they would aid him against those enemies of the faith.” This conjectural potential ally must have been Prester John, whose “letter,” as we have seen, had been circulating in Europe for two centuries. By this time the locale of the legendary priest-king had been transferred from “furthest Asia” to Ethiopia. Whenever one of Prince Henry’s voyages found another great river – the Senegal, the Gambia, the Niger – debouching on the west coast, he found new hope that this at last might be the “Western Nile” that would lead to Prester John’s Ethiopian Kingdom. […]

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

As we have noted, when mariners advanced below the equator they could no longer see the North Star, and so had to find another way to determine their latitude. To solve this problem King John, like Prince Henry, collected experts from everywhere, and set up a commission headed by two learned Jewish astrologer-mathematicians – a Portuguese dividend from the persecutions across the border in Spain. In 1492, when the Spanish inquisitor-general Torquemada gave Jews three months to convert to Christianity or leave the country, the brilliant Abraham Zacuto left the University of Salamanca and was welcomed to Portugal by King John II. Zacuto’s disciple at Salamanca, Joseph Vizinho, had already accepted the King’s invitation ten years before, and in 1485 had been sent out on a voyage to develop and apply the technique of determining latitude by the height of the sun at midday. He was to accomplish this by recording the declination of the sun along the whole Guinea coast. The most advanced work for finding position at sea by the declination of the sun, as would be necessary in sailing below the equator, was the Almanach Perpetuum which Zacuto had written in Hebrew nearly twenty years before. After Vizinho translated these tables into Latin, they guided Portuguese discoverers for a half-century.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

The Gomes contract, we know, produced an impressive annual series of African discoveries – around Cape Palmas at he continent’s southwestern tip, into the Bight of Benin, the island of Fernando Po at the eastern tip of the Guinea coast ant then down southward across the equator. It had taken Prince Henry’s sailors thirty years to cover a length of coast that Gomes, under his contract, covered in five. When Gomes’ contract expired, the King gave the trading rights to his own son, John, who became King John II in 1481, opening the nest great age of Portuguese seafaring.

King John II had some advantages that Prince Henry had lacked. The royal treasury was now enriched by the feedback of imports from the west African coast. Cargoes of pepper, ivory, gold, and slaves had already become so substantial that they gave their names to the parts of continent that faced the Gulf of Guinea. For centuries these would be called the Grain Coast (Guinea pepper was known as “Grains of Paradise”), the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, and the Slave Coast. King John protected Portuguese settlements by building Fort Elmina, “the mine,” in the heart of the Gold Coast. He supported land expeditions into the interior, to the cack-country of Sierra Lione and even as far as Timbuktoo. And he pushed on down the coast.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

Prince Henry’s death caused only a brief hiatus in the exploring enterprise. Then in 1469 King Alfonso V, Prince Henry’s nephew, in financial difficulty, found a way to make discovery into a profitable business. In an agreement quite unlike any we have heard of before between sovereign and vassal, Fernão Gomes, a wealthy citizen of Lisbon, committed himself to discover at least one hundred farther leagues, about three hundred miles, of the African coast each year for the next five years. In return, Gomes obtained a monopoly of the Guinea trade, from which the King received a share. The rest of the story has the inevitability of a steadily rising curtain. Discovery of the whole west African coast by the Portuguese now was a question no longer of whether but of when.

The supposed Portuguese policy of secrecy poses tantalizing problems for the historian because the policy itself seems to have been kept secret. When we chronicle Portuguese advances into the hitherto unknown, we must wonder whether any particular Portuguese voyage was unrecorded because of this “policy of secrecy” or simply because it was never made. Portuguese historians have been understandably tempted to treat the absence of a record of pre-Columbian voyages to America as a kind of evidence that such voyages really were made. […]

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

When Dinis Dias rounded Cape Verde, the western tip of Africa, in 1445, the most barren coast had been passed, and the prosperous Portuguese trader with west Africa soon engaged twenty-five caravels every year. By 1457 Alvise da Cadamosto – a Venetian precursor of the Italian sea captains like Columbus, Vespucci, and the Cabots who served foreign princes – advancing down the coast for Prince Henry had accidentally discovered the Cape Verde Islands and then went up the Senegal and Gambia rivers sixty miles from the sea. This Cadamosto proved to be one of the most observant as well as one of the boldest of Prince Henry’s explorers. By his engaging accounts of curious tribal customs, of tropical vegetation, elephants, and hippopotami, he enticed others to follow.

At the time of Prince Henry’s death in Sagres in 1460 the discovery of the west African coast had only begun, but it was well begun. The barrier of groundless fear had been breached in what became the first continuous organized enterprise into the unknown. Prince Henry therefore is properly celebrated as the founder of continuous discovery. For him each new step into the unknown was a further invitation.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

Having broken the barrier of fear “and the shadow of fear,” Prince Henry was on his way. Year after year he dispatched expeditions, each reaching a bit farther into the unknown. In 1435, when he sent out Eannes once again, this time with Afonso Baldaya, the royal cupbearer, they reached another fifty leagues down the coast. There they saw footprints of men and camels, but still did not encounter the people. In 1436, when Prince to interview at Sagres, he reached what seemed to be the mouth of a huge river, which he hoped would be the Senegal of “the silent trade” in gold. They called it the Rio de Ouro, even thought it was only a large inlet and not a river, for the Senegal actually lay another five hundred miles farther south.

The relentless step-by-step exploration of the west African coast proceeded year by year, although commercial rewards were meager. In 1441, from Prince Henry’s household went Nuno Tristão and Antão Gonçalves, reaching another two hundred fifty miles farther to Cape Branco (Blanco) where they took two natives captive. In 1444 from that area Eannes brought back the first human cargo – two hundred Africans to be sold as slaves in Lagos. […]

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

When Gil Eannes reported back to Prince Henry in 1433 that Cape Bojador was in fact impassable, the Prince was not satisfied. Would his Portuguese pilots be as timid as those Mediterranean or Flemish sailors who plied only the familiar ways? Surely this Gil Eannes, a squire whom he knew well in his own household, was made of bolder stuff. The Prince sent him back in 1434 with renewed promise of reward for yet another try. This time, as Eannes approached the cape he steered westward, risking the unknown perils of the ocean rather than the known perils of the cape. Then he turned south and discovered that the cape was already behind him. Landing on the African shore, he found it desolate, but by no means the gates of hell. “And as he purposed,” Zurara reported, “so he performed – for in that voyage he doubled the Cape, despising all danger, and found the lands beyond quite contrary to what he, like others, had expected. And although the matter was a small one in itself, yet on account of its daring it was reckoned great.”

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

At home in Sagres Prince Henry knew that he could not conquer the physical barrier unless he first conquered the barrier of fear.

He would never reach farther into the unknown unless he could persuade his seamen to go beyond Cape Bojador. Between 1424 and 1434 Prince Henry sent out fifteen expeditions to round the inconsequential but threatening cape. Each returned with some excuse for not going where none had gone before. At the legendary cape the sea bounced with cascades of ominous red sands that crumbled from the overhanging cliffs, while shoals of sardines swimming in the shallows roiled the waters between whirlpools. There was no sign of life along the desert coast. Was this not the very image of the world’s end?

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

When we look at a modern map of Africa, we look long and need a magnifying glass before we can find Cape Bojador (Portuguese for “Bulging Cape”), on the west coast, just south of the Canary Islands. Some thousand miles north of the continent’s greatest westward bulge we see a tiny bump on the coastal outline, a “bulge” so slight that it is almost imperceptible on maps of the full continent. The sandy barrier there is so low that it can be seen only when one comes close, where was no worse than a score of other barriers that skillful Portuguese sailors had passed and survived. But this particular Cape Bojador they had made their ne plus ultra. You dare not go beyond!

When we see the enormous risky promontories, the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn, that European seafarers would manage to round within the next century, we must recognize Bojador as something quite else. It was a barrier in the mind, the very prototype of primitive obstacles to the explorer. […]

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

2

Beyond the Threatening Cape

Unlike Columbus, who would aim straight for the Indies, Prince Henry the Navigator had a larger, a vaguer, and more modern destination – true to his horoscope. […].

We have no evidence that Prince Henry had in mind the specific purpose of opening a sea-way around Africa to India. What beckoned him was the unknown, which lay west and southwest into the Sea of Darkness and southward along the uncharted coast of Africa. The Atlantic islands – The Azores (one-third of the way across the Atlantic Ocean!), the Madeiras, and the Canaries – had probably been discovered by Genoese sailors in the mid-fourteenth century. Prince Henry’s efforts in that direction were less an enterprise of discovery than of colonization and development. But when his people landed in Madeira (madeira means wood) in 1420 and set about clearing the thick woods, they set a fire that raged for seven years. Although they never planned in that way, the potash left from the consumed wood would prove a perfect fertilizer for vineyards of the Malmsey grapes imported from Crete to replace those forests. The justly famous “Madeira” wine was the lasting product. Yet, as his stars foretold, Prince Henry was by nature and by preference not a colonizer but a discoverer.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987

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