Project 500 Years
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Project 500 Years

Notes on the early Portuguese Empire

I decided to launch this project (Project 500 Years) in the last days of 2020, with the theme of “500 years ago”. That was why I started the daily postings here in 1520. But of course, all the stories I’ve been tracking here have important antecedents. U.S. Americans and other Westerners like to date the beginning of the “global” or modern era to 1492 CE, the year of the first contact between the Genoese mariner Christopher Columbus and the shoreline and peoples of what was later named the Americas. Columbus was sailing on behalf of Ferdinand and Isabella, who in that same year were able to capture Granada, the last of the previously numerous Muslim-ruled city-states in the Iberian Peninsula.

Columbus’s contact with the “New World” was of course momentous, inaugurating as it did a whole era of imperial expansion and imperial looting/rapine that helped to consolidate the emergence of a single and powerful Spanish state at home. However, Ferdinand and Isabella were not the first European powers to undertake armed, long-distance, maritime expeditions that established economic and trading outposts in places very, very far from Europe. That “honor” belonged to Portugal, another heavily Catholic state that grew up in the Iberian Peninsula in land “reconquered” from Muslim rulers- which in Portugal’s case has happened a 350 years before 1492, namely in 1139.

1563 Portuguese navigational map of Iberia, West Africa, etc.

The first Portuguese naval expedition beyond Europe was the one that “Henry the Navigator” undertook in 1415, to capture from its Muslim ruler the rock-fortress of Ceuta, which lies just across the Straits of Gibraltar from Gibraltar, in present-day Morocco. (That’s a tilework portrat of the event, in the banner above.) The Wikipedia entry on the Portuguese Empire tells us that the main goal of nearly all of Portugal’s overseas expeditions was to establish trading-posts, not to control land. But Ceuta was not a good place for a trading-post, so Henry and the other Portuguese adventurers whom he financed and supported pushed on around the west coast of Africa to see what else they could find, exploring all the islands they discovered as they went, too.

Under Henry’s sponsorship, Portuguese mariners reached the Atlantic islands of Madeira (1419) and the Azores (1427.) In these islands, described as “largely unpopulated”, the Portuguese started to establish actual settlements, producing wheat for export to Portugal.

But, per Wikipedia, the Portuguese ships sailing down the west coast of Africa were soon,

bringing into the European market highly valued gold, ivory, pepper, cotton, sugar, and slaves. The slave trade, for example, was conducted by a few dozen merchants in Lisbon.

In the process of expanding the trade routes, Portuguese navigators mapped unknown parts of Africa, and began exploring the Indian Ocean. In 1487, an overland expedition by Pêro da Covilhã made its way to India, exploring trade opportunities with the Indians and Arabs, and winding up finally in Ethiopia. His detailed report was eagerly read in Lisbon, which became the best informed center for global geography and trade routes.

In 1452 and 1455, successive papal edicts gave Portugal a monopoly right to trade with these African lands. Also, per Wikipedia, “A major advance that accelerated this project was the introduction of the caravel in the mid-15th century, a ship that could be sailed closer to the wind than any other in operation in Europe at the time.”

While pushing down the west coast of Africa, the Portuguese were laying the basis not only for the transatlantic trade in enslaved persons that would mark the following 400 years but also the importance of sugar as a commodity much prized by European consumers. We will certainly be looking in more depth into the role that sugar played in the development of Western capitalism/imperialism, later on. But here’s what Wikipedia tells us about its 15th-century, Portuguese origins:

Expansion of sugarcane in Madeira started in 1455, using advisers from Sicily and (largely) Genoese capital to produce the “sweet salt” rare in Europe. Already cultivated in Algarve, the accessibility of Madeira attracted Genoese and Flemish traders keen to bypass Venetian monopolies. Slaves were used, and the proportion of imported slaves in Madeira reached 10% of the total population by the 16th century. By 1480 Antwerp had some seventy ships engaged in the Madeira sugar trade, with the refining and distribution concentrated in Antwerp. By the 1490s Madeira had overtaken Cyprus as a producer of sugar. The success of sugar merchants… would propel the investment in future travels.

These Portuguese sea-captains had also racked up other momentous navigational discoveries- 32 years before Magellan rounded the tip of South America in 1520: “In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa, proving false the view that had existed since Ptolemy that the Indian Ocean was land-locked. Simultaneously Pêro da Covilhã, traveling secretly overland, had reached Ethiopia, suggesting that a sea route to the Indies would soon be forthcoming.”

And all that had happened before 1492!

Once Ferdinand and Isabella captured Granada that year, and almost simultaneously sent Columbus’s expedition across the Atlantic, Spain and Portugal realized they needed to reach agreement on how to divide up the spoils of trans-oceanic imperial rapine. They did that in 1494, in the seminal Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided all the newly-discovered lands outside Europe between the two powers along a meridian line described as lying “370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands.” That line was about halfway between the Cape Verde islands (already held by Portugal) and the islands reached by Columbus, which are today’s Cuba and Hispaniola.

Under Tordesillas, the lands to the east of the line could be seized, settled, and used by Portugal and the lands to its west, by Castile/Spain. (The other side of the world would later be similarly divided between the two powers, in the 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza.)

One of the consequences of Tordesillas was that Spain had no direct access to the lands of West Africa which proved such productive “slave-harvesting grounds” for the Portuguese and the numerous other- generally non-Catholic- European powers that emerged, and that all became heavily invested in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Spain did have access to the mineral wealth- gold and silver- of the former Aztec and Inca Empires, and to the (usually forced) labor of the Native peoples of those areas. Spanish settlers in the New World could, and did, also buy enslaved persons from Portuguese, English, Dutch, or French slave-traders. They just couldn’t seize them directly from Africa itself.

… Then, in 1497, the Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama set out from Portugal, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, picked up a local pilot in East Africa, and continued under his guidance to Calicut in south-western India, which he reached in 1498. In 1500, another Portuguese captain made landfall in Brazil, immediately claiming it for Lisbon. However, most Portuguese adventurers remained more heavily focused on the fabled- and until then, Muslim-dominated- “spice routes” of the Indian Ocean, and the twenty years following 1500 saw the establishment of more than two dozen Portuguese trading posts ringing the entire Indian Ocean and pushing deep into present-day Indonesia and up the eastern coast of China.

Dates of establishment of Portuguese outposts

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Helena Cobban looks at seminal developments in world history, from 1415 till today, with periodic musings on what it all means.

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Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Senior Fellow, Ctr for International Policy. Fuller bio at my Wikipedia page.

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