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I think I first saw this monument when I was about 14 years old or at least that is when I first distinctly remember the Padrao. I have now seen it and Lisbon numerous times. Growing up my parents told me about some of Portugal’s history and in school in the US I learned some brief details.
However, it was not until I recently completed a 21 page research paper (I grossly overshot the 10 page requirement) for a Portuguese scholarship that I became aware of what this monument actually represented.
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos was inaugurated in 1960 with the presence of 32 ships from 14 nations. The monument is built in the shape of a bow with sails arching high on the concrete tower. Along both the eastern and western edges stand the most historical explorers from Portugal’s Age of Discovery, that took place between the early 1400’s and late 1500s’.
At the very tip stands Infante Henrique of Portugal, the Duke of Viseu, or more commonly, Henry the Navigator. Together they venture forward into the unknown – the ocean. Directly behind the Padrão dos Descobrimentos is a limestone gift from South Africa. The gift is the Rosa dos Ventos (Compass Rose) made from a rare beige limestone only found in Sintra, Portugal.
Should you be interested in learning about the rather overlooked history of an empire that once discovered and then came to own half the world, I suggest you read on. I hope you will enjoy the article.
Portugal: The Country that Discovered Half the World
The Portuguese language can be found in places very far from the country, such as Brazil in South America or East Timor in Indonesia. Streets in India have Portuguese names like Rua de Saudades in Goa, India. Islands in the middle of the Atlantic are home to Portuguese architecture, food and its people. In the African countries of Angola and Mozambique you can find comfort in the predominately Portuguese cuisine thousands of miles from Portugal.
Off the southern coast of China in Macau you can find a judicial system based on the judicial system of Portugal, reflecting their occupation of the area until 1999. One of the most remote islands in the world, Saint Helena, is recorded as being discovered by João da Nova in 1502. No matter how far you travel from Portugal you can find traces of an empire that spanned from Europe to South America and to the far reaches of Asia.
There are various reasons for the growth and subsequent wealth of this once great power. Portugal is ideally located on the western most tip of Europe and roughly fifty percent of the country has coastline to the Atlantic Ocean. The friendship between England and Portugal extends back to 1373 with the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 and this has proved critical in Portugal’s history for independence, especially from the always threatening Spain.
Some countries excelled in the arts, metallurgy, invention, and/or architecture. Portugal’s genius, innovation and courage were realized at sea. Between 1415 and 1578 the Portuguese navy was the most advanced on the planet and they made this apparent through discovery, conquest, and trade which brought extreme wealth to the country.
Infante Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, also known as Henry the Navigator, was instrumental in Portugal’s ambition and exploration. Henrique was himself ambitious and one could say he valued education very much. These two traits, backed by the wealth of his family, transformed into a center of innovation and intellect. He was geographically curious, employed intelligent men to create accurate maps, and made any and all information available to the captains that sailed for him.
The spark that triggered Portugal’s Age of discovery is undoubtedly the conquering of Ceuta. Currently an autonomous city-state belonging to Spain, Ceuta was in a strategic location along the Strait of Gibraltar because it offered control of one of the main outlets of the trans-African Sudanese gold trade and could allow Portugal to bypass its competing neighbor, Castile (present day Spain). 
It was not too soon after conquering Ceuta that Portugal suffered as this territory became an economic drain on the Portuguese treasury. However, this first step at colonialism is regarded as the most important. This gave Portugal a glimpse as to what it could gain from expansion. They saw gold, textiles, spices and other valued resources that they could potentially access.
Like any Duke of the time, Infante Henrique was interested in gold. Due to the caravans passing Ceuta and heading straight to Tangier, Henrique ordered exploration in an attempt to find the source. The expedition carried out by Joao Goncalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira resulted in the unintentional discovery of Madeira. Henrique ordered this island to be populated immediately due to the ongoing battle for claim over the Canary Islands. Madeira could be considered the first discovery by the Portuguese during their Age of Discovery and proved profitable after Henrique ordered the plantation of sugarcane and Sicilian sugar beet; this drew in trade with the Flemish and Genoese.
In the year 1427 a Portuguese captain named Diogo de Silves noted the location of islands he viewed in the Atlantic Ocean. Henrique was keen for further exploration in the name of Portugal and thus ordered Goncalo Velho Cabral to set sail for these islands and to report back their exact location and any information he gathered.
In 1431 Cabral discovered the eastern most selection of islands in the island chain now known as the Azores; Cabral turned back due to weather conditions. He returned shortly thereafter to colonize the islands and claim them for Portugal. The islands did not seem to be vital to the Portuguese because colonization took place over two centuries.
Beyond the north Atlantic and Africa, Europeans did not know anything about the “southern seas.” Cape Bojador was not successfully crossed until 1434 by Gil Eanes, commissioned by Henrique. The voyage was unsuccessful the first time but, Gil Eanes was able to complete the task with the then revolutionary barquentine-caravel and sail roughly 150-250km beyond this point. This marked the first successful crossing of Cape Bojador by Europeans and gave the Portuguese access to the northwestern African coast.
Nuno Tristao and Antao Goncalves furthered the expeditions down the western African coast under the direction of Henrique. They reached Cape Blanco in 1441. By 1444 Dinis Dias rounded Cap-Vert which thereby marked the passing of the southernmost boundary of the Saharan Dessert. This achievement was important because it allowed the Portuguese to bypass Muslim land-based trade routes. Slaves and gold were brought back to Portugal and the first gold coin minted in Portugal, the cruzado, was created. Portugal profited heavily from this and as such it probably further increased interest to explore.
The year 1456 was very important during the Portuguese Age of Discoveries. A Venetian captain named Alvise Cadamosto, hired by Henrique, stumbled upon the uninhabited Cape Verde islands when a storm along the west coast of Africa forced them out to sea. During that same trip he sailed deep upriver of the mouth of the Gambia River which he had discovered in 1455. Cadamosto was the first European to sail up the Gambia River.
The previous year had been met with failure when they were received by serious opposition from the local people of the area. It remains unclear why they were unsuccessful with the locals one year but successful the next. Cadamosto continued further down the West African coast and became credited with the discoveries of the Casamance River, Cape Roxo, Cahcheu River, Geba River and the Bissagos Islands off of present day Guinea-Bissau. This was one of the largest exploratory advances made during Portugal’s Age of Discovery.
Exploration after Cadamosto continued down the West African coast to Central Africa. In 1460 Pedro de Sintra was able to reach present day Sierra Leone and map the surrounding areas of what is now Freetown Harbour. Not until 1495 did the Portuguese build and establish an active trading post.
In 1461 Henrique passed away and there seems to have been a lull in exploration from 1460 to 1671. An alternative theory could be that there were no important discoveries along the coast from present day Sierra Leone to present day Ghana. In 1469 Fernao Gomes became the successor to Infante Henrique and was granted the monopoly of trade in the Gulf of Guinea with the promise that he would continue to explore at least 161 kilometers of African coast per year for five years.
Fernao Gomes sponsored instrumental explores Joao de Santarem, Pedro Escobar, Lopo Goncalves, and Pernao do Po. Together, these explores discovered Sao Tome, Annobon, and Principe islands off the coast of present day Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. This marks entry into the southern hemisphere and it should be noted here that the Portuguese were the first successful explorers to navigate the southern hemisphere by using the Southern Cross in 1471.
The Southern Cross is an important point to mention when discussing the Portuguese and their Age of Exploration. Using the Southern Cross to accurately estimate position at sea had never been done before by Europeans because the Portuguese were the first to sail south of the equator. By sailing south of the equator, the North Star, or Polaris, was no longer visible and moved past the horizon.
Prior to reaching the southern hemisphere the north star was the only celestial means by which to calculate true north (magnetic north by compass is different from true north). The Sothern Cross was used with the improved upon astrolabe and Ephemeris, by Abraham Zacuto, to guide Portuguese sailors south of the equator. The improvements made by Zacuto allowed the calculation of latitude, which had also alluded European sailors up until that point. Thus, the Portuguese revolutionized oceanic navigation which allowed for further discoveries.
The Portuguese did not make it much further down the coast until 1482 when Diogo Cao discovered the Congo River in present day Democratic Republic of the Congo. The probable reason for this delay in exploration was the absence of a backer or some greater authority with the ambition to send explorers further southward. King Joao II of Portugal revived the goal of Infante Henrique by sending Diogo Cao further south of the equator.
On this first voyage in 1482 Diogo Cao discovered the mouth of the Congo River and explored it upstream to an unknown distance, but it was likely a short distance. Cao finally stopped at Cape Saint Mary in present day Angola before returning to Portugal. Diogo Cao returned two years later to explore further south. Cao would eventually stop at Cape Cross in present day Namibia.
Europeans had never progressed down the African coast like the Portuguese. Since antiquity they believed that the Indian Ocean was separate from the Atlantic Ocean and could not be reached by sea. This was a problem for anyone that wanted goods from the east like silk or spices. Trade could only be done through the middlemen controlling eastern trade routes which were typically Muslim monopolies. In 1488 the Portuguese discovered this idea to be false when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. Dias made it as far as Aguada de Sao Bras (Mossel Bay) which lies some 400km east of the Cape of Good Hope (renamed from the original “Cape of Storms”). Dias returned to Portugal to share this information.
Ultimately, the Portuguese would not venture beyond this point for another ten years. One of the supposed reasons for this long delay is that after having found the treasured Indian Ocean is thought that the Portuguese were collecting information on how best to reach India. A dispute with Spain on exploration and territory, which would eventually be resolved by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, is also thought to be one of the other main reasons the Portuguese took such a long hiatus from their goal in reaching India.
Pero da Covilha and Afonso Paiva were Portuguese explores but, they were different from the rest. King Joao II sent them eastward via land to collect information on the exact whereabouts of spices, such as cinnamon, and to discover the land of the mythical Prester John. Their journey took them across Europe and down to Morocco and into present day Yemen where they split ways. Covilha continued east and eventually arrived in Cannanore and Calicut in India. Paiva, unfortunately, met his end somewhere and sometime after they parted ways; either in Ethiopia or present day Sudan. Covilha would return to Egypt where he would learn of Paiva’s death.
In Egypt Covilha met with two Portuguese Jews who would return to Portugal with the information collected by Covilha. The information was of extreme importance and would enlighten the Portuguese as to the whereabouts of cinnamon, pepper, and clove in India. Covilha also suggested the route from which to sail after rounding southern Africa and of the whereabouts of present day Madagascar. Covilha would press onward to find the lands of Prester John and would remain in Ethiopia as a well-treated captive for the rest of his life.
The year of 1492 was when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World for Spain. This discovery set in motion further conflict between the Spanish and Portuguese because Columbus claimed that the land he discovered in the present day Caribbean Sea and Central America belonged to Asia.
The reason this was an issue of contention was because the King of Portugal, Joao II, claimed that under the 1479 Alcacovas Treaty, the land discovered by Columbus should belong to Portugal. The important issue King Joao II of Portugal was arguing over [in the Alcacovas Treaty of 1479] pertained to the section which stated that “The lands discovered and to be discovered, found and to be found (…) and all the islands already discovered and to be discovered, and any other island which might be found and conquered from the Canary islands beyond toward Guinea.”
The conflict was settled by the Catholic Monarchs and King and Queen of Castile by the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. This new treaty divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The treaty gave Portugal all the land which might be discovered east of a straight line drawn from the Arctic Pole to the Antarctic, at a distance of 370 leagues west of Cape Verde. Spain received the lands discovered west of this line.
In the original suggestion of the treaty, Portugal was given less meridian distance to claim. King Joao II pushed the line further and this was eventually agreed upon in 1494. Scholars suggest that this was because King Joao II already knew of the location of present day Brazil on the South American continent and had plans to claim the area. The ease at which the Portuguese would eventually land in Brazil suggests this theory to be true.
One of the most pivotal and most important accomplishments by the Portuguese during this era was rounding the Cape of Good Hope, making landfall in Calicut, India and returning to Portugal; this journey is more distant than sailing around the globe at the equator. Vasco da Gama and a crew of more than 150 men spread over four ships accomplished this task in 1499 after having set sail the year before.
One of the most critical obstacles was to sail through the Indian Ocean using Monsoon Winds. Vasco da Gama is said to have recruited a pilot in Malindi (present day Kenya) with knowledge of the winds. Advice about the Monsoon Winds was either ignored or incorrect for their return journey because it took more than four months to cross back to the east coast of Africa after only having taken less than one month to reach Calicut [from present day Kenya]. The original experience by Vasco da Gama in the Indian Ocean likely proved to be extremely valuable for all future Portuguese captains making the trip to India from Portugal.
The endeavor provided Portugal with a clear path to India and opened direct trade for spices that were highly prized in Portugal and throughout Europe in general. Additionally, Vasco da Gama noted the importance of controlling, or at least occupying territory, along the eastern coast of Africa. Clearly the distance of the trip was far and frequent stops to resupply or the need to take shelter from storms would be important. This information spawned further expansion of the Portuguese in Africa.
After Vasco da Gama’s successful trip to India, King Joao II ordered another expedition which was tasked at making landfall in what is now present day Brazil (which makes historians believe King Joao II was very aware of the presence of this continent for a while), setting up a fort near Mozambique, establishing good trading relations in India, and returning with precious spices. The commander who led this expedition was Pedro Alvares Cabral. Cabral did indeed make landfall in present day Brazil [in 1500] while making contact with natives and claiming the territory for Portugal.
It is important to note that he explored a section of this coast and came to the conclusion that the landmass was in fact a new continent. He then proceeded to the African coast and landed in present day Mozambique for repairs to a heavily damaged fleet (due to storms). Cabral then proceeded to Malindi, where he probably picked up pilots like Vasco da Gama had, and would eventually arrive in Calicut, India.
The Portuguese established a trading post under the rulers’ permission but were later met with an attack, for which the ruler of Calicut never sent an apology. Outraged, the Portuguese fired canons on the city and would eventually set the example for European behavior in Asia from thereafter. Cabral would then set out for a neighboring city called Kochi and establish a lucrative trading post there after befriending the ruler of Kochi. Finally, the Portuguese had achieved their dream and secured direct trade with India. Cabral would set sail back to Portugal after leaving a ship behind to procure Sofala (Mozambique).
This expedition proved to be one of the most successful journeys and thus encouraged all future trips. Maybe if the fleet been as unsuccessful as Vasco da Gama, King Joao II might not have continued to finance the long trade route voyage. However, exploration continued even further.
Portuguese expansion and exploration along the eastern coast of Africa, the Indian Ocean, and mid-Atlantic would continue for many years to come. During Cabral’s first voyage to India, Diogo Dias became separated for a time at the Cape of Good Hope. During this separation he sighted present day Madagascar and is credited as the first European to do so. On Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India he would stumble upon the Amirante Islands in 1502 which were most likely uninhabited.
In the year 1503 Fernando de Noronha discovered an archipelago island group (which he named after himself) off the coast of Brazil. Today, that island is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, marking its importance. That same year Afonso de Albuquerque discovered Ascension Island located in between the South American and African continent.
The island was overlooked as anything important for settling and was thus not “claimed” by the Portuguese. St Helena is argued to have been also discovered in 1503 (or 1502) but historical documents are not entirely conclusive and credit the discovery to either Joao da Nova (1503) or Tristan da Cunha (1502); Tristan da Cunha would go on to undisputedly discover the Tristan da Cunha islands in 1506; the islands are presently the most remotely inhabited islands in the world.
In 1505 Gough Island was discovered by Goncalo Alvares and has also become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the year 1505 the Portuguese explorer Lourenco de Almeida established a major trading post and settlement in present day Sri Lanka (Ceylon) which was rich in cinnamon. Lourenco accomplished this by exploiting rivalries between kingdoms of the area. In 1503 Diogo Fernandes Pereira discovered the island of Socotra off the horn of Africa and in 1507 he also became the first known European to discover the Mascarenes archipelago (Mauritius, Reunion, and Rodrigues) off present day Madagascar. This monopoly of discoveries did not go unnoticed or uncontested. The Portuguese were gaining more and more power in the Indian Ocean and their influence was rapidly increasing.
In 1509 the Portuguese were met with a naval battle in the Indian Ocean by the combined forces of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan of Gujarat (western India), the Mamluk Burji Sultanate of Egypt, the Zamorin of Calicut, the Republic of Venice, and the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik, Croatia). The Portuguese defeated them all, proving how much more superior their naval power was in comparison with the rest of the world. This victory was critical in maintaining control of the Indian Ocean and their ever growing profit from the spice trade.
After the battle, the Portuguese Empire expanded again. The Portuguese colonized Goa in India in 1510 and claimed areas in Indonesia such as Malacca, Timor, the Banda Islands, Ambon Island and Seram around 1512. That same year in 1512 Pedro Mascarenhas discovered the uninhabited archipelago of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. It would take the Portuguese more than a decade to come across New Guinea in 1527 while Jorge de Meneses waited out a monsoon storm. The Portuguese would go on to press further into the Indian Ocean and eventually reach China, Japan, and the Philippines.
Jorge Alvares was the first European to sail to China in 1513 (the Romans were the first by land) to open trade relations with the Chinese. Alvares would then become the first to reach Hong Kong. The relationship between the Portuguese and Chinese is bumpy. Initially, they were friendly towards one another and negotiated in profitable trade. Time pasted and tension emerged due to misunderstandings, intolerance towards each other’s differing views, and finally hostility.
European’s have always been aggressors in history and Portugal was no different when things did not go their way. They began to raid merchant ships and capture or kill Chinese people. The Japanese were committing much of the same crimes at the time which intensified Chinese anger with the situation. The response should not have been unexpected. The Chinese captured, killed, imprisoned, and drove the Portuguese out of China. Additionally, they issued a decree banning Caucasians.
Eventually, in 1557, trade and some basic harmony would be restored when the Portuguese acted to protect the Chinese coast from pirate activities. In return, China opened trade again but restricted it to the port of Macau and did not allow the Portuguese to stay onshore for long. Trade relations between the Portuguese and Chinese would remain this way for a long time. Between 1513 and the acquisition of Macau in 1557 many other important events occurred.
In 1519 Fernao de Magalhaes (Ferdinand Magellan) became the first person to lead a circumnavigation expedition from Sevilla. He was a Portuguese-born explorer who served under the Portuguese crown for many years and assisted in numerous battles in India and in conquering Malacca. He married a woman from the region and took a leave of absence, causing him to fall out of favor with the Portuguese crown. Magalhaes probably felt betrayed or angered by this and would eventually settle in Spain.
The Spanish crown, desperate to compete with Portugal in the Indian Ocean and break the monopoly of their spice trade, hired Magalhaes to find a new route to the west by sailing west further than Columbus has sailed. The fleet assembled by Magalhaes would eventually accomplish this task in 1522 but, not without serious cost. Only 1 of the 5 ships that left Sevilla would return to Sevilla and only 18 men of the original 270 would return; this did not include Magalhaes who was killed while discovering the Philippines.
The overall triumph stands as a major historical event. The Philippines were discovered, the Atlantic to Pacific was crossed via the South American continent, and the need for an international dateline became realized. Furthermore, the scope of the world finally became known to Europeans. This important voyage also resulted in the Treaty of Saragossa (1529) which again divided the world between the Portuguese and Spanish.
The Portuguese would keep their claim to Malacca and the invaluable spice trade while the Spanish could claim the Philippines for themselves. This allowed the Spanish a base from which they could trade with the Indies and Asia. Some time would pass before anyone would find Japan to the North of the Philippines, but again, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to land on Japanese soil.
The Portuguese traders Fernao Mendes Pinto, Diogo Zeimoto and Cristovao Borralho became the first Europeans to land in Japan in 1543. The Japanese were fascinated by the Europeans and the Europeans with the Japanese. Trade ensued and the most important item brought to Japan was the arquebus; a handheld firearm with a simple matchlock firing system that the Japanese easily replicated and then manufactured in large numbers. Of further importance was that the Portuguese became middlemen.
The Chinese Emperor had banned trade with Japan due to pirate raids by Japanese boats, so, the Portuguese exploited the situation by trading with China and then with Japan. Naturally, Portugal profited heavily once again by gaining almost exclusive trade with the Japanese. Japan would be the last empire Portugal would profit so well from before the eventual decline of the Portuguese Empire.
On the other side of world the Portuguese had accomplished two other main events of importance. In 1525 Aleixo Garcia became the first European to explore [present day] Paraguay and Bolivia. Garcia crossed the Chaco Plain and penetrated some of the outer defenses of the Inca Empire; accomplishing this feat almost a decade before Francisco Pizarro.
The last event of importance was the exploration of the present day coast of California by Joao Rodrigues Cabrilho in 1542. Cabrilho would explore as far north as the Russian River in northern California before turning back. These explorations and all those discussed before it conclude the discoveries made by the Portuguese Empire during their very prolific age of discovery.
History constantly provides us with predictions for the future. The common expression goes, “history repeats itself.” Great empires come to life and eventually crumble. The Portuguese Empire was no different. The empires’ decline started with the death of King Sebastiao I. No heir to the throne caused a power struggle that concluded with King Felipe II of Spain taking power and uniting the Portuguese and Spanish Empires.
One would think this would preserve the power held by both empires. However, the union was not beneficial to the Portuguese. The oldest alliance in history is between the Portuguese and English. Once Spain and Portugal united they gained a powerful new enemy [called England]; other, more neutral countries towards the Portuguese, such as France and the Netherlands, would also take a more aggressive approach to the Portuguese after the union.
I would speculate that the Spanish King also became less interested in progressing the Portuguese Empire and more interested in expanding his own empire. I would not be surprised if the great wealth of the Portuguese Empire was shifted to furthering the Spanish Empire. King Felipe II must have known that an heir to the Portuguese throne would surface in the future, evoking a rivalry between the two empires once again. Competition between the Portuguese and Spanish was always tense and this situation quelled the tension.
Overall, the Portuguese Empire and its’ long list of explorers provided history with a plethora of accomplishments and advances. The Portuguese were by far some of the greatest explorers in human history. They proved this in a relatively short time between the 1400s and late 1500s by exploring and discovering half of the entire world.
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Photography by: Philip Moreira Photography