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Torres Passage

So here we are in the year 1600….

Has Australia been discovered by Europeans already? Are we all done with this search for the Land Down Under?

The Portuguese are the most likely discovers’ at this stage you must say. But exactly when did it happen and who was it?

And if they did why have they not announced such a momentous achievement to the world?  Why is not some dashing Portuguese discoverer hailed as a hero in the texts of the time?  One argument regarding Portuguese silence is that this discovery was treated as a state secret. Too valuable to share with their competitors. Sharing routes of expeditions to the East was severely punished at the time.

But if no one has reached the shores of Australia, how do we explain the following description by Cornelius Wytfliet of this Great Southern Land in  “Descriptionis Ptolemaicae Augmentum”, published in 1598:

“The “Australis Terra” is the most southern of all lands, and is separated from New Guinea by a narrow strait. Its shores are hitherto but little known, since after one voyage and another, that route has been deserted, and seldom is the country visited unless when sailors are driven there by storms. The “Australis Terra’ begins at two or three degrees from the equator, and is maintained by some to be of so great an extent, that if it were thoroughly explored, it would be regarded as a fifth part of the world.”

It is within reason that Australia had been accidentally visited during the sixteenth century and this is supported by the Dieppe maps to an certain extent. One French map of dated 1542, presents an outline that might support at least one Portuguese ship sailing from Cape York to Tasmania.

So in the year 1600 we have boastful claims of seamen and privateers, a few intriguing charts and the statement of Cornelius Wytfliet as milestones of achievement.

However, let’s  move into a new century. Here, surely, we are bound to find a  seaman we can be more confidently say sailed within sight of, or strode ashore on, this Great Southern Land.

Enter Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, a Spanish seaman with an unshakable belief in the existence of the Great Southern Land. In 1598 he petitioned King Phillip III of Spain to commission an expedition to find this mythical continent. Successful in gaining the King’s assent, he sails three ships from Peru in 1605 to claim this continent for Spain and the Church. Second in command was Luis de Torres.

All was not well, however, on Quiros’s ship. During the voyage it appears Quiros’s crew mutinies, and he is forced  to sail back to Peru, leaving Torres in command of the remaining two ships.

Torres was known as an able seaman. He apparently searched for his lost commander and then sailed towards the southern coast of New Guinea through the strait that now bear his name. Intriguingly, he did seem to know of the strait – that it would lead him back to the open seas and to eventually the Philippines. This knowledge again leads to the prospect that someone, most likely the Portuguese, has previously circumnavigated New Guinea and charted their voyage.

But  did Torres hug the New Guinea coast line, or venture along the Australian Coast line further to the south? Strong arguments exist; based on the prevailing winds (north east trade winds) that he is likely to have sailed through the Endeavour Straight, past Thursday Island. This would have put him in sight of Cape York, the northern tip of Australia.

Torres did not claim to discovery Australia. If he saw it he did not recognise his find. Indeed, much of his account of his trip gathered dusk in the Spanish archives and his voyage achieved little celebration. That is until by various hands, it is likely his notes found there way in the 1760’s to Joseph Banks and then to Captain Cook .

On the other hand, Torres’s disappearing Captain Quiros, announced in 1610 that he had discovered the large southern continent. In doing so he proclaimed it “Austrialia del Espiritu Santo” (in honour of Phillip III, a member of the “House of Austria”).

So is Torres our discoverer? Or, at least first European to sight Australia?  Well, the argument although not conclusive, is sound.

However, you get that sneaking feeling, that just by knowing the strait between New Guinea and Australia existed, that those Portuguese had probably been there before.  And if the trade wind logic applies to Torres, well it must apply to the Portuguese as well.

I am suspecting we may never know…but let’s keep searching anyway ….

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Joao de BarrosJoão de Barros sits down to write a manuscript about the Portuguese in India and Asia around 1550, and some 225 years later a Mr John Mason, of Belfast, rides along the coast of Southern Australia near  Warrnambool. What is the connection?

Well, it starts with the noted historian Barros, writing his work Décadas da Ásia, where he mentions a Portuguese sailor named Cristóvão de Mendonça.

Mr. Mason, on the other hand writes of a curious site as he rides his horse along the coast in 1846. A ship wreck.

Mr. Mason writes:

“Sir, Riding along the beach from Port Fairy to Warrnambool in the summer of 1846, my attention was attracted to the hull of a vessel embedded high and dry in the Hummocks, far above the reach of any tide.  It appeared to have been that of a vessel about 100 tons burden, and from its bleached and weather-beaten appearance, must have remained there many years.  The spars and deck were gone, and the hull was full of drift sand.  The timber of which she was built had the appearance of cedar or mahogany.”

So we come to the view that the Portuguese in fact discovered Australia in 1522.  That  Mendonca sailed the eastern coast of Australia in 1522, and that the Mahogony ship so described by Mr Mason is really a wrecked Portuguese caravel.

Dieppe MapsAnd the glue to this story?  The Dieppe Maps. A number of world maps produced in Dieppe, France between the 1540s and 1560s. These exquisite maps were thought to be based on Portuguese maps, based on such travels as Mendonca and Testu to name but two potential sources.

So, from such sources comes the punch line: in 1521-4 Mendonça captained a fleet of three caravels which eventually sailed and charted the east coast of Australia.

Why is this not widely known?  The theory is that at the time the Portuguese jealously guarded such cartographic knowledge. It was their nations so called “competitive edge”.  Such knowledge was only drawn into the hands of other nations through bribery and corruption. Such was the way we think the resultant chartings of Mendonca’s voyage found their way into the Dieppe maps (where there is said to be a good representation of parts of Queensland).

Furthermore, it is thought that one of Mendonça’s caravels met its doom near Warrnambool the wreck having been variously sighted (although no longer) and dubbed the legendary “Mahogany ship”.

So we have the enticing story, albeit with thin evidence, that perhaps the French and/or the Portuguese have well and truly “pipped Captain Cook to the post” in discovering Australia…

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Spice IslandsSo here we are in the first half of the 1500’s and our story centers around the Spice Islands.  We have the Portuguese, the Spanish and the French on stage, with the British and the Dutch soon to make their entrance.  Not far to the south, still shrouded in mystery, is the Great Southern Land hidden by what we know today as Papua New Guinea.

So what draws these European’s to this far away group of islands?

Spices of course. Spices such as cloves, nutmeg and mace among others. All of these grew on a number of volcanic islands of the Moluccas; now the known as the Maluku Province – a part of the modern day nation of Indonesia.  Highly valued and highly priced, they have been traded with distant Europe since Roman times.

Archaeology points to these Islands having contact with such far away lands as the Indian subcontinent since at least 200BC. By the time Europe reaches the islands directly, trade involves a web of Chinese and Muslim interests – all keenly aware of the profits to be made.  And profits there were. Spices reaching Europe would be marked up by around 1000%.

Not bad business, despite the distance and risks!

In  1511 Afonso de Albuquerque defeats the last Sultan of Malacca and drives him from the city thus ending around 100 years of Sultinate rule and providing a base for Portuguese (and Christian) expansion across the island group.  Soon the Banda Islands are located and sailed for with profits clearly in mind (the only known source of nutmeg and mace).

Nutmed & ClovesSo commences the Portuguese establishment of forts and trading stations throughout the islands and the European battle for “spicery”.

So why not add just a dash of Spanish, Dutch and English to this “spicy” dish of history…

But one thing is clear, it is not the spirit of adventure that is driving this story forward. It is  the naked quest for profit, driven by greed and avarice…. so disappointing really…


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Portuguese PleetThe 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…

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Henry

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.

Sierra LeoneHowever, 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…

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A small digression before we meet Henry the Navigator who will do much to push Europeans into the deeper oceans… any discovery of Terra Australis is also linked to the evolution of shipbuilding technology… and around the 13th & 14th century things were changing…

The Bayeux Tapestry of 1070 gives us our first clues of the type of ships in use during the middle ages. It is clear from the tapestry and other sources that the evolution of ship design was influenced by the North Men, or Vikings.
By the thirteenth century the longship had developed into a fighting galley with low castles at the stem and the stern. The Italian galley, for example, at that time was around 40m long, had a width of 5m and carried 120 oarsmen and up to 50 sailors.  It featured a single mast and a triangular sail.
Vessels were generally pretty lightly armed. Some carried small missile weapons with the crew living together on the deck. Squeezy! The galley as craft of these time were known was both a tool of war and trade and continued to evolve and grow in size and firepower to around the 16th century.

In the northern waters of Europe ships known as 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 only a single mast its handling left something to be desired and was largely relegated as a cargo carrying 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 from their shores along the West African coast in the Atlantic.

During the 14th century another Mediterranean boat becomes central to our story of exploration. It was a lighter three masted Mediterranean lateener known as a Caravel. The origin of the Caravel is not clear, but is thought to have been influenced by Moorish ships design.

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 towards the far ends of the earth…and a continent unknown…

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CeutaWhat 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…


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