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…