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Portugal in the period of discoveries

Portugal in the period of discoveries (1415-1499)

Before describing in outline the course of the discoveries which were soon to render Portugal the foremost colonizing power in Europe it is necessary to indicate the main causes which contributed to that result. As the south-westernmost people of Europe, the Portuguese were the natural inheritors of that work of exploration which had been carried on during the middle ages, chiefly by the Arabs. They began where the Arabs left off, by penetrating far into the Atlantic. The long littoral of their country, with its fine harbors and rivers flowing westward to the ocean, had been the training-ground of a race of adventurous seamen. It was impossible, moreover, to expand or reach new markets except by sea: the interposition of Castile and Aragon, so often hostile, completely prevented any intercourse by land between Portugal and other European countries. Consequently the Portuguese merchants sent their goods by sea to England, Flanders, or the Hanse towns[?]. The whole history of the nation had also inspired a desire for fresh conquests among its leaders. Portugal had won and now held its independence by the sword. The long struggle to expel the Moors, with the influence of foreign Crusaders and the military orders, had given a religious sanction to the desire for martial fame. Nowhere was the ancient crusading spirit so active a political force. To make war upon Islam seemed to the Portuguese their natural destiny and their duty as Christians.

It was the genius of Prince Henry the Navigator that coordinated and utilized all these tendencies towards expansion. Prince Henry placed at the disposal of his captains the vast resources of the Order of Christ[?], the best information and the most accurate instruments and maps which could be obtained. He sought to effect a junction with the half-fabulous Christian Empire of “ Prester John” by way of the “Western Nile[?],” i.e. the Senegal, and, in alliance with that potentate, to crush the Turks and liberate Palestine. The conception of an ocean route to India appears to have originated after his death. On land he again defeated the Moors, who attempted to re-take Ceuta in 1418; but in an expedition to Tangier[?], undertaken in 1436 by King Edward (1433-1438), the Portuguese army was defeated, and could only escape destruction by surrendering as a hostage Prince Ferdinand, the king's youngest brother. Ferdinand, known as “the Constant,” from the fortitude with which he endured captivity, died unransomed in 1443. By sea Prince Henry's captains continued their exploration of Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1433 Cape Bojador[?] was doubled; in 1434 the first consignment of slaves was brought to Lisbon; and slave trading soon became one of the most profitable branches of Portuguese commerce. The Senegal was reached in 1445, Cape Verde was passed in the same year, and in 1446 Alvaro Fernandes[?] pushed on almost as far as Sierra Leone. This was probably the farthest point reached before the Navigator died (1460). Meanwhile colonization progressed in the Azores and Madeira, where sugar and wine were produced; above all, the gold brought home from Guinea stimulated the commercial energy of the Portuguese. It had become clear that, apart from their religious and scientific aspects, these voyages of discovery were highly profitable. Under Alphonso V (1443-1481), surnamed the African, the Gulf of Guinea was explored as far as Cape St Catherine[?], and three expeditions (1458, 1461, 1471) were sent to Morocco; in 1471 Arzila (Asila) and Tangier were captured from the Moors. Under John II (1481-1495) the fortress of São Jorge da Mina[?], the modern Elmina, was founded for the protection of the Guinea trade in. Diogo Cam[?], or Can, discovered the Congo in 1482 and reached Cape Cross in 1486; Bartolomeu Dias doubled the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, thus proving that the Indian Ocean was accessible by sea. After 1492 the discovery of the West Indies by Columbus rendered desirable a delimitation of the Spanish and Portuguese spheres of exploration. This was accomplished by the treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494) which modified the delimitation authorized by Pope Alexander VI in two bulls issued on the 4th of May, 1493. The treaty gave to Portugal all lands 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. As, however, the known means of measuring longitude were so inexact that the line of demarcation could not in practice be determined (see J. de Andrade Corvo in Journal des Sciencias Mathematicas, xxxi. 147-176, Lisbon, 1881), the treaty was subject to very diverse interpretations. On its provisions were based both the Portuguese claim to Brazil and the Spanish claim to the Moluccas (see History of the Malay Archipelago[?]). The treaty was chiefly valuable to the Portuguese as a recognition of the prestige they had acquired. That prestige was enormously enhanced when, in 1497-1499, Vasco da Gama completed the voyage to India.

While the Crown was thus acquiring new possessions, its authority in Portugal was temporarily overshadowed by the growth of aristocratic privilege. After the death of Edward, further attempts to curb the power of the nobles were made by his brother, D. Pedro, duke of Coimbra, who acted as regent during the minority of Alphonso V (1438-1447). The head of the aristocratic opposition was the duke of Braganza, who contrived to secure the sympathy of the king and the dismissal of the regent. The quarrel led to civil war, and in May 1449 D. Pedro was defeated and killed. Thenceforward the grants made by John I were renewed, and extended on so lavish a scale that the Braganza estates alone comprised about a third of the whole kingdom. An unwise foreign policy simultaneously injured the royal prestige, for Alphonso married his own niece, Joanna, daughter of Henry IV of Castile[?], and claimed that kingdom in her name. At the battle of Toro, in 1476, he was defeated by Ferdinand and Isabella[?], and in 1478 he was compelled to sign the treaty of Alcantara, by which Joanna was relegated to a convent. His successor, John II (1481-1495) reverted to the policy of matrimonial alliances with Castile and friendship with England. Finding, as he said, that the liberality of former kings had left the Crown. “no estates except the high roads of Portugal,” he determined to crush the feudal nobility and seize its territories. A cortes held at Evora (1481) empowered judges nominated by the Crown to administer justice in all feudal domains. The nobles resisted this infringement of their rights; but their leader, Ferdinan, duke of Braganza, was beheaded for high treason in 1483; in 1484 the king stabbed to death his own brother-in-law, Ferdinand, duke of Vizeu; and 80 other members of the aristocracy were afterwards executed. Thus John “the Perfect,” as he was called, assured the supremacy of the Crown. He was succeeded in 1495 by Emanuel (Manoel) I, who was named “the Great” or “the Fortunate,” because in his reign the sea route to India was discovered and a Portuguese Empire founded.

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