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Western Conquerors

The Age of Discovery

Henry the Navigator, prince of Portugal, initiated the first great enterprise of the Age of Discovery - the search for a sea route east by south to Cathay. His motives were mixed. He was curious about the world; he was interested in new navigational aids and better ship design and was eager to test them; he was also a crusader and hoped that, by sailing south and then east along the coast of Africa, Muslim power in North Africa could be attacked from the rear. The promotion of profitable trade was yet another motive; he aimed to divert the African trade in gold and ivory away from its routes across Muslim North Africa and instead channel it via the sea route to Portugal.

Expedition after expedition was sent forth throughout the 15th century to explore the coast of Africa. In 1445 the Portuguese navigator Dinís Dias reached the mouth of the SénégalI. In 1455 and 1456 Alvise Ca' da Mosto made voyages to Gambia and the Cape Verde Islands. Prince Henry died in 1460 after a career that had brought the colonization of the Madeira Islands and the Azores and the traversal of the African coast up to Sierra Leone. Henry's captain, Diogo Cão, discovered the Congo River in 1482. All seemed promising; trade was good with the riverine peoples, and the coast was trending hopefully eastward. Then the disappointing fact was realized: the head of a great gulf had been reached, and, beyond, the coast seemed to stretch endlessly southward.

However, in 1487, Bartolomeu Dias, rounded the Cape of Storms in such bad weather that he did not see it, but emerged from the storm seeing the coast stretching northeastward; before turning back, he reached the Great Fish River, in what is now South Africa. On the return voyage, he sighted the Cape and set up a pillar upon it to mark its discovery.

Ten years later, Vasco da Gama, sailed in command of a fleet under instructions to reach Calicut, on India's west coast. This he did after a magnificent voyage around the Cape of Storms (which he renamed the Cape of Good Hope) and along the unknown coast of East Africa. Soon trading depots, known as factories, were built along the African coast, at the strategic entrances to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and along the shores of the Indian peninsula. In 1510 the Portuguese captured Goa and established it as their Asian base. They captured their gateway to the Spice Islands with the capture of Melaka the next year, commanding the straits into the China Sea; in 1511 and 1512, the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, and Java were reached; in 1557 the trading port of Macau was founded at the mouth of the Canton River. Europe had arrived in the East.

The Portuguese method was to rely on sea power based on fortified posts and backed by settlements. Portuguese ships, sturdy enough to survive Atlantic gales and mounted with cannon, could easily dispose of Arab and Malay shipping. The bases enabled the Portuguese to dominate the main sea-lanes; but Portugal, with fewer than one million people and involved in Africa and South America as well, was desperately short of manpower. Albuquerque turned his fortresses into settlements to provide a resident population for defense.

The three marks of the Portuguese empire continued to be trade, anti-Islamism, and religion. The Portuguese considered that no faith need be kept with an infidel, and to this policy they added a tendency to cruelty beyond the normal limits of what was already a very rough age. Albuquerque was described by one of his own seamen as "one of those men desirous of fame through cruelty." The result was to deprive them of any local sympathy. In religion the Portuguese were distinguished by missionary fervour and hostile intolerance. Racial prejudice was certainly a hallmark of that intolerance - some Africans and Asiatics became Christians and even entered the clergy; but seldom if ever did they rise above the status of parish priests. In other affairs the Portuguese generally treated the dark-skinned peoples as inferiors.

But Portugal was soon over-extended. Empire building in the East did not bring Portugal's crown as much profit as had been anticipated - Portuguese, from viceroys to humble soldiers and seamen, became private merchants and lined their own pockets rather than the royal treasury. The Eastern footholds were expensive to maintain - especially for a small country like Portugal many thousands of miles and many sailing months away. it was therefore the Dutch, the English, and the French who in the long run reaped the harvest of Portuguese enterprise.


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