The Cantino planisphere, made by an anonymous cartographer in 1502, shows Portuguese geographic discoveries in the east and west

Cruising down the coast

When discussing the Portuguese exploration of the west coast of Africa (and the eventual rounding of the Cape of Good Hope to India), there are a number of significant historical questions to be asked. Unfortunately, these are rarely addressed – instead, there is often only a chronicle of voyages, each one farther than the last.

Why had the Portuguese (or any other European) not ventured south along the coast of Morocco and west Africa earlier than the 14th century? Why did they choose to go when they did? What were they looking for and what did they find? What did it all mean?

The first questions should be answered in terms of motivation, in terms of technology, and in terms of sailing experience. To begin with, no one in Europe expected to access any wealth or trading goods by going south. Spices, silks, and the like came from the east, through Turkey, the Middle East or Egypt. Gold came from the east as well, or from the southeast, across the Sahara Desert.

With no reliable knowledge of the shape of Africa (most speculative maps showed no passage through to the east), it was highly unlikely that access to such wealth would come by sailing south.

Technologically, Europe was working mainly with small to middle-size ships with shallow draughts, which made it easy to land ashore (for supplies) when hugging the coast, and which made it dangerous to sail out into the open Atlantic. Being small, access to supplies was paramount, but the coast of Morocco was not known for being a source of food and water. Wealth, be it in agriculture or minerals, lay to the east and not in the deserts to the south.

Furthermore, sailing off the western edge of land, with strong westerly winds blowing ashore, was fraught with dangers. Ships could (and often were) wrecked on rocks or shallow reefs and against cliffs. Cape Bojador, south of the Canary Islands, was well known as such a treacherous area, and to be avoided.

So why did Prince Henry the Navigator organise expeditions to the south in the 15th century? First of all, it was possible that gold, and possibly spices, and perhaps slaves just might be available along the west coast of Africa. Second, this area was an extension of Al-Garb, the northwest sector of Africa (i.e., Morocco and its hinterlands) which has always been of great interest to the Portuguese monarchy, as a source of new lands, as an object of Christian crusades, as an extension of the Algarve, as an outlet for (younger) nobility denied office and lands back at home.

The Canary Islands had been known since ancient times, and the discovery of Madeira was also enticing for further travel in this direction.

As well by the 15th century, the technology of ships was more advanced, so that the Portuguese (and others) now had larger ships more stable in the open waters of the Atlantic, and able to carry more supplies (and thus needing fewer landings for resupplying during a voyage). The discovery of the Azores by Portuguese fishing fleets was the first indication that this technology could lead to real successes.

And this technology was not especially, at this time, capital intensive. Everyone could more or less be on the same footing, whether from a large country or a small one. Everywhere, ship building was a coastal industry, requiring traditional skilled labour but not insurmountable investments. Portugal could produce a smaller number of ships than say Spain, but they could produce ships of equivalent capacity.

But why was it that the Portuguese and not others sailed down the coast of Africa? Essentially, it was because this area of unexplored lands was on its doorstep.

The English, Dutch, and French were more interested in northern Europe, and in moving eastward through the Baltic.

The Spanish looked east and were caught up in the power struggles of the Mediterranean, seeking to usurp the Italians’ (Genoese, Florentines, Venetians, Napolese) trade with the Middle East. So, there was little competition to Portugal’s advances to the south; in fact, it was the only direction in which it could venture.

Over time, news of the Portuguese advances, their new access to gold, slaves and spices from both Africa and the Indian Ocean reached and stimulated other nations to follow suit. The Dutch and the English, two of the most advanced sea-faring nations of the 16th century sent their ships to try to syphon off some of the wealth the Portuguese had discovered. The Spanish, however, had tapped into the Americas which had large amounts of gold easily taken, and they were willing to let Portugal sail the longer route around Africa to get their wealth.

Then, what happened next? In the 16th century, the technology of sailing ships advanced even further, with larger hulls, sturdier structures, and a larger capacity to carry provisions and cargo over longer distances. The technology was not beyond Portugal’s capabilities, but where Portugal was disadvantaged was in the necessary capital to build and sail such ships, at least in the numbers that the English, Dutch, and Spanish were able to launch.

It should also be remembered that wooden ships had a very short life span – they were easily wrecked, sunk by storms, or damaged in battle, but also they tended to fall apart after about 20 years. The reason why ship-building was such a widespread enterprise along the coasts of Europe (and later the Americas) for centuries was because of the constant need to renew the fleet, be they small fishing boats or large ocean galleons.

With more limited man-power, and fewer bottoms to put to sea, Portugal ended up only with a series of trading posts along the coasts of Africa, along the coast of the Indian sub-continent, and among the islands of the Far East. In the trade wars – where were often real wars – the more powerful fleets of other nations were able to muscle out the Portuguese traders and close down these posts. The numbers rose quickly in the early 16th century and declined almost as fast.

Unlike other European nations – probably again because of the lack of capital to finance the ventures – Portugal did not colonize the hinterland beyond their trading posts. Local indigenous peoples came to the posts on the coast to trade and returned home again.

Portugal did not try to “claim” the interior lands as their own, the way the British, French, and Spanish did, and so it was these latter who set up real colonies controlling and settling the hinterland as well as the coast. And in this way, the Portuguese did not found an empire like the other European countries.

The single exception was Brazil, discovered by accident by ships swinging westward across the South Atlantic in order to catch favourable winds to take them north and back east to Lisbon. And the fortuitous north-south “dividing line” (Treaty of Tordesillas, 1492) meant that the then unknown bulge of Brazil would be within the Portuguese sphere of influence rather than the Spanish. Still, it took much longer for the Portuguese to emigrate to Brazil in large enough numbers to actually call it a colony than it did for other countries to establish their areas of control outside Europe.

What it meant was that Portugal was left behind, unable to compete because of the lack of wealth and natural resources to finance an empire. Left with only trading posts and islands around the world, Portugal was a mere shadow of the Spanish, French and British Empires.

It was not until the 19th century that Portugal tried to establish itself in Africa on a broad territorial basis (having lost Brazil in the 1820s) but that was an empire very thinly manned on the ground and, in the end, undefendable by a small poor nation on the edge of Europe.

By Ron B. Thomson

Prince Henry the Navigator
The Cantino planisphere, made by an anonymous cartographer in 1502, shows Portuguese geographic discoveries in the east and west