The Portuguese begin to move into towns and towards the coast leading to the rise of future great cities such as Lisbon and Oporto. As the population crowds towards the foreshores there is the realisation that the ocean is to be their future bread basket – providing not only the fish to feed them, but the potential for trade, profits and wealth.
Coastal trade grows and becomes a central part to economic life. One of the outcomes is innovation in the methods of trade. The first is a prototype of maritime insurance sponsored by King Dinas I (a keen trader himself with his own trading fleet). When introduced this scheme proscribed the payment of a percentage of each cargo to cover future unexpected losses. Royal patronage and encouragement is soon turned to shipbuilding. Subsidies are provided for the local manufacture of ships in Lisbon and Oporto.
With this royal support sea trade flourishes, reaching even further afield, embracing the English and creating long term close ties (reinforced by the Treaty of Windsor in 1373 between the two countries). By 1410 a wide variety of goods are routinely being traded -wine, olive oil, dates jewels, pearls. The Portuguese reach out further with the King’s ships traveling to such places as Norway, Flanders and Genoa. All this is fine, but something more fundamental is happening; and you have to look into the holds of the ships to discover it. What you see is grain and cereals. At this time Portuguese ships increasingly carrying food staples back to Portugal.
Sea trade is now essential to feed the population (likely driven by the increasing urbanisation and movement to the coast of the population). And feeding a country is always central to political stability. Indeed, soon the King mandates that returning ships must bring products such as cereals back to Portugal on return trips as opposed to higher value goods.
So with sea born trade and trade is here to stay, Portugal increasingly transforms itself into a seafaring nation, investing in all of the required skills to allow its merchants to venture deeper and deeper into the unknown Atlantic ocean.
But trouble lies ahead… with increasing reliance on the seas, comes insecurity…
Byte 5: Discovery – Portugal Reaches Out to Africa – 1410-1420AD
What has Ceuta, northern Africa, barely 20 km across the straight of Gibraltar got to do with the Discovery of Terra Australis?
Let’s find out…
In 1400 Ceuta is an exotic port town of ”walled palaces and gardens”, busy with the activities of “merchants, officials and navigators”. This vibrant Moorish port city is a melting pot of cultures with peoples from such exotic places as Ethiopia, Alexandria, Syria and more doing business within its walls.
So why, in 1415, in one of the first expansionary oceanic expeditions of Europe, is a fleet of some 200 Portuguese ships and 50,000 men sailing to this city with war on their minds?
The reasons are many-fold. Residual tensions from the Moorish invasion of Europe certainly still existed, with both sides alternately trading with each other across the Mediterranean as well as undertaking open acts of piracy. Portugal at this time is locked out of any African claim by an agreement in 1291 between Castile and Aragon (at that time it made no claims) and yet it is increasingly reliant on trade and the supply of cereals from Northern Africa for its survival. Ceuta, it is thought is also an excellent defensive position against the Moors, as well as providing excellent access to the profits of Saharan and Mediterranean trade.
So, with all of the above on their minds, and after much debate and urging by some of the younger, more hot headed fidalgos mancebos (nobles) there commences six years of preparations for this attack. This includes the building of a great fleet of more than 200 ships, powering the growth of the country’s ship building expertise.
Finally, in 1415, the Portuguese King launches his seaboard attack. Catching Ceuta by surprise, it takes no more than a day to drive out the Moors and sack the city. Soon after the victors gather in a general council and debate if the city should be held or abandoned (leading some weight to the argument that this was little more than “robbery and a corsair adventure” and the winning of spurs by the son’s of King John I).
In the end the council decides to hold the city and so Portugal appoints its first overseas Governor, the Count of Viana, leaving with him a force of a little more than 2,500 men. Soon the surrounding Muslim’s besiege Ceuta, but against the odd, the Count manages to hold the city. From here the Portuguese begin to tentatively explore and trade along the Northern Atlantic African Coast, also providing a base for noble born Portuguese corsairs to attack local Muslim traders (a long held custom of both sides).
So, for the first time, sea-born power delivers Portugal (and Europe) its first overseas beach-head in Africa. And a stage for one of King John’s sons to launch his career…
Enter, Henry the Navigator…who would launch the Portuguese into the unknown…
A small digression before we meet Henry the Navigator… any discovery of Terra Australis is also linked to the evolution of shipbuilding technology … and around the 13th & 14th century things were changing…
In the northern waters of Europe cogs evolved from the Celtic flat bottomed boat. The cog was a perfect load carrier, square rigged, carrying up to around 140 tonnes of cargo. By the 13th century, with the growth in in the scope of European trade, the cog appeared in Mediterranean waters. However, with its single mast, its handling left something to be desired and was largely relegated as a cargo work-horse.
However, the cog influenced the development of the carrack which adopted the rudder of the cog and added a lateen rig to the mizzenmast. Carracks became the first true ocean going vessel, with the stability and size to withstand the rigors of the deeper ocean. Carracks that were used by the Portuguese as they first ventured along the West African coast in the Atlantic.
These caravels started out quite small at 50 tonnes, but grew larger and, in the 14th century, adopted similar rigging of the carrack (a foresail, square mainsail and lateen mizzen). The main reasons it was also chosen by the Portuguese for exploration were its speed, ability to sail windward and its maneuverability. Indeed, it was in carracks and caravels that Columbus set out in for America in 1492.
And so, under the sponsorship of Henry the Navigator, Portugal now had the technology to venture past the north coast of Africa to the far ends of the earth…
Byte 7: Discovery – Henry the Navigator – 1430-1460AD
It is 1417 when Prince Henry, son of King João of Portugal, accepts the governorship of the Order of Christ. This order, set up in 1319 following the suppression of the Templar’s by Pope Clement in 1311, provides the resources for Prince Henry to change the future of ocean going exploration.
Following the conquest of Ceuta in Northern Africa, Henry begins a personal mission to extend the reach of the Holy Faith of Jesus Christ. With his spurs won in battle, he is pushes for further expansion. The Azores, the Canary Islands and more specifically down the West African coast. But he first sets his sights on going past Cape Bojador, just south of the Canaries, whose reefs and currents are the limit of previous expeditions. Finally Henry’s urgings (and promises of rewards) drive Gil Eannes (originally his household servant) past this psychological barrier hence opening up the rest of the Atlantic African coast.
In the 1420’s, with an increasing mercantile motive, Henry drives Portuguese exploration down the coast of Africa at the same time bringing cartographers and instrument makers to the town of Sagres in southern Portugal to boulster the expeditions he sponsors.
Soon after, his brother, Prince Pedro returns from a wide ranging European trip, with a copy of Marco Polo’s Travels which he translates for Henry. Does it excite him with a vision to reach India and far of lands? The truth is unclear. But we do know Henry continues to use his resources to innovate and seed the exploration of West Africa. He adopts the use of the caravel as his vehicle of exploration and in 1444 a vessel finally returns with 200 slaves – a hint of the wealth to come.
However, by the time of Henry’s death in 1460 Portugal has probably only reached as far as Sierra Leone.
But Portugal is about to launch forth into the oceans with even more vigor…
Byte 8: Discovery – Discovery without Glory – 1497-1500AD
The legacy of Henry the Navigator continues as the Portuguese creep tentatively down the west coast of Africa during the latter half of the 15th century.
But the year 1497 marks a turning point. This is the year Vasco de Gama departs Lisbon with a fleet of four ships, a crew of 170 men and an ambition to reach the Indian ocean and India itself.
After several months of sailing he pulls wide and south, gets favorable winds and passes around the Cape. In this part of the voyage he undertakes one of the longest trips out of sight of land. Some three months. However, with determination and perseverance he finally enters the Indian ocean.
But in these waters he is not alone.
Whilst these waters are new to Europeans, a complex set of Muslim trading routes crisscross the Indian ocean. And so, inevitably, old habits and prejudices ebb into these waters. De Gama is barely into the Indian ocean when he undertakes blatant acts of piracy against unarmed Muslim traders as he passes up the East Coast of Africa. He also comes into conflict with the natives of Mozambique and Mombassa in his search for stores and supplies. De Gama’s conduct from here on in is closer to the behavior of pirates and corsairs, as opposed to glorious explorers.
In May 1498 de Gama reaches Calicut in India with the aid of a local pilot. Here he comes into conflict with the Zamorin of Calicut and the intrigues of local Moorish traders, the latter being threatened by the Portuguese trade ambitions. A tenuous trading outpost is established before he departs for Portugal (all the men left behind to man this post are destined to be murdered).
It takes some two years for de Gama to return to Lisbon where the King hails him a hero. But in truth he arrives with many of his crew lost to the hardships of the voyage, few goods of value and further acts of piracy under his belt (on the return voyage he attacks, burns and sinks the Miri - a ship transporting wealthy Muslin merchants).
So, despite the inglorious nature of their advances, the Portuguese & Europe is one step closer to discovering the “land down under”… the only question is who would be first?
The race has begun…