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A bem da Nação

Navegadores, descobridores

Luís Soares de Oliveira, Embaixador (1)

Quatro perguntas sobre os Descobrimentos feitas pelos Editores Europeus de Anuários e as respostas que lhes foram dadas.


Question: Were The Portuguese maritime discoveries the beginning of the Modern Era ?

Answer: - The knowledge acquired as a result of the maritime discoveries, namely the exact size and shape of our Planet, the distribution of its land masses, the identification of the maritime routes connecting them, the consciousness of the diversity of human races and cultures, of the variety of plants, trees, animals, climates and telluric systems contributed largely to change men’s perception of the world and his place in it. The global view began to take shape. The profitability of intercontinental trade came to the attention of the political economists. Adam Smith, always with a keen eye for wealth creation, wrote: “The discovery of America and that of the passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope are the two greatest events recorded in the history of mankind”. Probably this was an overstatement, but traders and financiers took it in consideration and began to look outwards.

However, most important still were the defeat of superstition and the triumph of reason.  The old myths that cautioned man against adventures into the high seas fell one after the other. Man learnt to follow his own thinking and to question established wisdom. The results thus obtained proved the merit of rationality.  Attitudes changed:   man realized that his destiny was, to a large extent, in his own hands and that he could modify his own condition. No question, the age of discoveries heralded the beginning of a new era; while sailing the oceans, the Portuguese were opening the door to Modernity. 

The Iberian geopolitical fallacy

Question: Portugal turned its energy towards the high seas in order to offset the centripetal pressure of the powerful kingdom of Castile, which surrounded it?

Answer: - Apparently such theory has geopolitical substance, but the facts do not support it. At the time the Portuguese went to sea (1415), the other Iberian Christian crowns - Castile and Aragon - were still tied down in the war against the Islamic kingdoms (taifas) existing in Southern Spain. It was not until the conquest of Granada in 1492, that this fight came to an end. By then, Portuguese navigators had already found the southern passage connecting the Atlantic with the Indian Ocean and were also frequenting the North Atlantic fishing banks. The Portuguese of the XV century behaved as if they had nothing to fear from the Castilian side and as if the  eventual union of the Iberian Christian crowns would be a natural development. Crown fusion projects through marriage between first born offsprings of the royal families were contemplated on both sides of the border and occasionally consummated in one or the other of the royal beds [2]. The kings of Portugal helped their Castilian in-laws, in the fight against the Nazari kings of Granada in many ways. Portuguese troops were active at some of the decisive battles. But their best contribution was the conquest of Ceuta, on the Moroccan coast, the first Portuguese overseas expedition. The moment Islamic powers lost control of this sea port across the Straits of Gibraltar and were cut off from North African logistic support, the end of the Islamic establishments on the Northern side of the Mediterranean was a question of time. Taifa rulers’ fate was sealed.

If there was a geopolitical motive driving the Portuguese into the  sea, it was not an iberian one. Up to almost the end of the XVI century, Portugal and Castile acted as two comrades in arms.  The division of the World in two well defined areas reserved for the discoveries and exploration of each crown (Treaty of Tordesillas, of 1494) is an eloquent proof of the harmony and wisdom that prevailed in the relationship of the Iberian states. [3]

Real motives

Question: So, if geopolitical motives had no part here, what were the motives that drove the Portuguese into the maritime adventure?

Answer: - Judging from what is known regarding Portuguese behaviour overseas after acquiring control of the Oceans, we have to admit that faith and trade were paramount among their motives.  Until mid XVI century, the preoccupation of securing the monopoly of the sea route for the Eastern trade led the Portuguese to gigantic sacrifices,  almost unbelievable acts of gallantry and gave coherence to their action overseas.  The same was true regarding their proselytizing zeal. In either case, the attitude taken reflects acceptance of the undisputed priority of either of these objectives.

Of course, there were other factors. The Order of Christ, the Portuguese branch and heir of the Temple, was very influential at the time in Portugal. The Temple had been created to defend overseas Christianity and Christian places against the Islamic expansionist pressure. Forced by circumstances to many centuries of domestic activity, the order was anxious to resume its role. The idea of reaching the Islamic world through the back door, establishing a second front in the Indian Ocean, was most probably theirs. Prince Henry, as the Master of the Order, naturally felt compelled to pursue the institution’s objective.  He could do it. Abundant information and means, including financing, were then available to the Order of Christ. It was not by accident that the ships sent out to the wide Ocean in search of remote countries carried the red cross of the Order of Christ emblazoned full length on their sails.

The Crown itself had good reasons to adopt an expansionist project. John I, father of Henrique, the navigator, had been chosen heir of the crown by what we can describe as a popular vote. According to the aristocratic laws of royal succession, his legitimacy was doubtful. He had people’s support, but he needed also to gain the respect of the aristocracy. In those times such respect went for the rulers who succeeded in enlarging the territorial dimension of the state.  Furthermore, the Portuguese military class was going through a crisis. From the XII to the XIV century, they fought and eventually expulsed the Islamic authorities from Portuguese territory, and then what? They became redundant, condemned to idleness. The conquests did not alter the land tenure regime. Local people, including the Moorish, remained masters of their farms and estates. With one or two exceptions, feudalism was nonexistent in Portugal. Deprived of vast territorial domains, the influence - and very existence - of the military class that grew and prospered during the two previous centuries was doomed, unless the Crown could devise some other big military venture.

The Jewish community, another influential sector of Portuguese society in medieval times, also took a keen interest in the discoveries. Jews had been financing commercial voyages ever since biblical times. It was an area of their expertise. They knew better than anybody else how to make this practice secure and profitable. But not only financing. Some of the great Jewish scholars previously residing in Spain came to Portugal after the Inquisition initiated bloodshed on the other side of the border. The Portuguese king, John II, welcomed them and found immediate employment for their skills, especially those connected with the maritime activity. He promised them freedom of religion and protection in his realm. Unfortunately, his successor – Manuel I – equivocated on this point. 


Question: Such class motives and private interests could however exist anywhere. So, why was Portugal the first? Was there something unique, specifically Portuguese?

Answer: Certainly yes! Unlike Spain and other countries, in Portugal there was no need to empty jails in order to staff the ships going after the unknown, the terrae incognitae.  As the poet Fernando Pessoa said, the Portuguese understood that “navegar é preciso” - sailing the deep seas was essential. It was not only the way to meet the Future - out went the sailors and the people prayed: “sail on, sail on; our Future is hanging on thy fate” - but was also a form of self realization. To the questions put to him by the mythological Lord of the Seas - “who are you?”, “what are you doing here?” -, the skipper of the Portuguese caravela answered:

Aqui ao leme sou mais do que eu:

Sou um Povo que quer o mar que é teu [4]

(1) Retired


[2] An attempt to unify the two crowns through the marriage of the widower Afonso V, King of Portugal and Isabel, the Catholic, failed. Isabel opted for Fernando, King of Aragon, among other reasons because Afonso was too old. Afonso mobilized his troops and sustained in arms his pledge to the hand of Isabel, but was defeated by his rival at the battle of Toro [1476]. However, his son João II - who never approved of his father's quixotic adventure - was soon to re-establish good relations with Isabel.

  [3] With time, the Portuguese evaluation of the Iberian union changed, but only after a Hapsburg king, holding both the Portuguese and the Spanish sceptres, attempted to engage Portugal in European continental disputes (XVII century) and showed great neglect for the overseas possessions. Such attitude went against national sensibility.  Then, and only then, the Portuguese began to realize the colossal value of the empire as a safeguard against the continental   centripetal pull. Two centuries before, at the outset of the discoveries, such understanding would have been an incredible long shot.

[4] Free translation: “Here, at the helm, I am bigger than myself; I am the people who wants the sea that now belongs to you”.


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