Occupation of the African Coast, the Atlantic Islands and the voyage of Vasco da Gama

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Occupation of the African Coast, the Atlantic Islands and the Voyage of Vasco da Gama to India


In this topic we will study the portuguese occupation of the African coast, as well as the Atlantic islands, colonised by the Portuguese from the 15th century onwards.

We will also study Vasco da Gama’s voyage, which led to the discovery of a sea route to the Indies.

Since the beginning of the 15th century, the Portuguese had been exploring the African coast and their intention was to set up trading posts that would guarantee trade with these unknown regions.

The main interest of the Portuguese was the search for precious metals, spices and, later, African slaves.

As a result of the advances in knowledge acquired by extending the expeditions that colonised the African coast and the Atlantic islands, Portugal was able to reach India, a region rich in spices.

cape bojador in Africa
cape bojador in Africa

It was Vasco da Gama’s expedition that enabled Portugal to trade with the East. In addition, this expedition proved the viability of a sea route to the East.

Vasco da Gama’s expedition was followed by many others, including Pedro Álvares Cabral’s, which culminated in the “discovery” of Brazil in 1500.

The occupation of the African Coast, the Atlantic Islands

The initial milestone in the occupation of the African coast was the conquest of Ceuta, located in North Africa (present-day Morocco), in 1415.

This conquest was the starting point for Portuguese expansion.

It was from this trading post that the Portuguese carried out their project of occupying and conquering the west African coast of the Madeira Islands, the Azores, Cape Verde and São Tomé.

From this conquest onwards, expansion extended to the entire coast.

Methodical expansion developed along the west coast of Africa and the islands of the Atlantic Ocean.

As a result of the same movement, contact with these two geographical areas resulted in such different situations that it is worth separating them in our presentation.

Recognising the west coast of Africa didn’t happen overnight.

It took 53 years, from Gil Eanes passing Cape Bojador (1434) to the dreaded passage of the Cape of Good Hope by Bartolomeu Dias (1487).

Vasco da Gama’s entry into the Indian Ocean enabled him to reach India, the dreamed-of and illusory India of spices.

The Portuguese then reached China and Japan, where their influence was considerable, to the point where Japanese historians call the period between 1540 and 1630 the “Christian century”.

The Portuguese, in the process of colonising the coast, did not seek to penetrate the continent; their intention was to establish various fiefdoms (fortified trading posts) with the aim of exchanging and trading products with the natives.

The Portuguese did not actually colonise the African continent, as they generally preferred to establish trading posts.

These factories were generally maintained through military intervention.

Without penetrating deeply into African territory, the Portuguese established a series of trading posts on the coast, which were fortified trading posts; this indicates the existence of a situation in which trade was precarious, requiring the guarantee of arms.

The commercial part of the centre was run by an agent called a feitor.

He was responsible for buying goods from native chiefs or merchants and stocking them until they were picked up by Portuguese ships for delivery to Europe.

The option of the trading post practically made it unnecessary to colonise the territory occupied by the African populations, who were well organised from Cape Verde onwards.

Although the Portuguese did not actually penetrate the African coast and did not colonise this area, they did create a series of procedures that ensured effective control of trade in this region.

But if the Portuguese didn’t advance territorially, the Crown organised African trade, establishing a royal monopoly on gold transactions, obliging the minting of coins in a Mint and also creating, around 1481, the Casa da Mina or Casa da Guiné, as a special customs house for African trade.

From the west coast of Africa, the Portuguese brought small quantities of gold powder, ivory, which until then had been traded by Arab merchants through Egypt, the variety of chilli pepper called malagueta and, from 1441 onwards, above all, slaves.

These were initially sent to Portugal and used for domestic work and urban occupations.

The process of colonising the islands was more elaborate.

From the outset, the Portuguese sent settlers to effectively populate them, as well as encouraging sheep farming and the cultivation of sugar cane, wheat and vineyards.

In this way, from the first half of the 15th century, the islands became important advanced colonies in the Portuguese maritime expansion.

The Portuguese, who had already learnt about it, landed in Porto Santo in 1419 and in Madeira in 1420.

A few years later, colonisation began. About a hundred settlers were installed there.

The clearing of the land began immediately.

The small shelters of the first settlers soon became towns: Funchal and Machico were granted charters in 1451.

Wheat, sugar cane and vines were planted in the soil of the old forests.

By 1455 exports to Portugal and the fortresses of North Africa were already considerable.

The pace of development continued apace until the end of the century.

In the Cortes of 1481, it was stated that the previous year twenty foreign ships had left the island laden with sugar, and the King was asked to prohibit the settlement of foreigners, who were arriving in large numbers.

The population, before 1500, already totalled twenty thousand people.

The process of colonising the islands would give the Portuguese experience.

Later, with the colonisation of Brazil, this experience would come in handy, as the Portuguese would adapt the strategies for colonising the islands to the process of settling and colonising Brazil.

The history of the occupation of the Atlantic islands is quite different from what happened in Africa.

There, the Portuguese carried out significant experiments in large-scale planting, using slave labour.

After disputing with the Spanish and losing possession of the Canary Islands to them, they managed to establish themselves on the other islands: Madeira around 1420, the Azores around 1427, the Cape Verde Islands in 1460 and São Tomé in 1471.

On the island of Madeira, two parallel agricultural systems competed for economic predominance.

The traditional cultivation of wheat attracted a considerable number of modest Portuguese peasants who owned their land.

At the same time, sugar cane plantations sprang up, encouraged by Genoese and Jewish merchants and commercial agents, based on slave labour.

The sugar economy eventually triumphed, but its success was short-lived.

The rapid decline was due to both internal factors and competition from sugar from Brazil and São Tomé.

In fact, on this island in the Gulf of Guinea, the Portuguese set up a system of large-scale sugar cane plantations, with many similarities to those created in Brazil.

Close to the African coast, especially the trading posts of São Jorge da Mina and Axim, the island had an abundant supply of slaves.

There were mills there which, according to a description from 1554, had between 150 and 300 captives.

São Tomé was always an entrepôt for slaves coming from the mainland to be distributed in America and Europe, and this ended up being the island’s main activity.

Mapa da Africa de 1593
Map of Africa from 1593

As we saw in the previous paragraphs, the starting point for the colonisation of the African coast was the capture of Ceuta in 1415.

However, much remained to be done before the sea route to the Indies was discovered.

We have also seen that the colonisation of the Atlantic islands provided the experience for the Portuguese to establish latifundia, slave labour and sugar cane monoculture in Brazil in the future.

In the next few paragraphs we will study the various stages that led to the conquest of the African coast, as well as the discovery of the maritime route to the Indies.

Between the years 1421 and 1434, more than 15 Portuguese expeditions failed in their attempt to pass Cape Bojador, on the west coast of Africa.

This obstacle was much more symbolic than technical, as the cape forced navigators to move away from the coast, which at the time was terrifying for navigators, as they feared that the ocean waters were inhabited by diabolical beings.

The main reason for the difficulties in passing Cape Bojador was the Portuguese sailors’ fear of risking themselves in the ocean; close to the coast, the currents, reefs and sandbanks made passing the cape very difficult, if not impossible, for the means available at the time.

And in the open sea, the superstition that the ocean led to the end of the world took away the courage of the most daring.

Overcoming this psychological rather than physical barrier in 1434 was the first great achievement of the Portuguese discoverers – because from then on, the obstacles were difficult to overcome, but everyone believed they could be overcome.

After overcoming Cape Bojador, the Portuguese expeditions progressed year after year in their goal of conquering the coast of Africa.

Dozens of expeditions were organised and in 1444 the navigator Gil Eanes brought the first shipment of slaves from Africa, around 200.

This shipment brought optimism to the Portuguese, as it brought a good profit to the Crown’s coffers.

Furthermore, as a result of this commercial success, Portuguese public opinion was in favour of efforts to colonise the African coast.

After 1445, the Portuguese reached richer regions of the African coast, and from then on their trade prospered.

Twelve years later, a Venetian captain in the service of Dom Henrique discovered the Cape Verde Archipelago and sailed almost 100 kilometres into the interior of the continent via the Senegal and Gambia rivers.

The King of Portugal, Dom João II took advantage of the structure set up by his predecessors.

He built fortifications to protect Portuguese trade on the coast of Africa and financed land expeditions to the interior of the continent.

The naval advance southwards was maintained by Diogo Cão, who reached the mouth of the Congo River between 1480 and 1484.

There was growing optimism in Portugal that, according to Covilhã’s reports, Portuguese ships would be able to reach the east coast of Africa with ease, as there was plenty of food along the coast.

To do so, it was necessary to overcome a great challenge: the Cape of Storms, which would later be called the Cape of Good Hope.

In order to understand more clearly the historical process that led to the expedition of Bartolomeu Dias overcoming the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, we will present a fragment from the book “Os Descobrimentos – Origens da Supremacia Europeia” (The Discoveries – Origins of European Supremacy), by historian Paulo Migliacci. Let’s get to it.

So, in order to open up the desired sea route, King João II carefully prepared a great expedition to circumvent Africa and reach the seas of India.

The project, under the command of Bartolomeu Dias, involved three ships, two caravels and a supply ship.

Bartolomeu Dias transported six Africans captured on previous Portuguese expeditions to Africa, who were to disembark on the coast at regular intervals to make contact with ships in the unexplored regions and start trading.

After disembarking the last of these messengers, Bartalomeu Dias’ ships faced a storm that took them away from the coast, heading south into the open sea.

When the storm ended, Bartalomeu Dias ordered his ships to head east in search of the African coast.

After sailing 700 kilometres without finding land, Bartalomeu Dias set a course to the north, and with another 250 kilometres to go, he found land near present-day Cape Town, in South Africa.

The southern tip of Africa was located. The route to India was practically open.

He followed the coast, which curved north-east, for more than 500 kilometres, opening up a route to the Indian Ocean.

Bartolomeu Dias wanted to continue, but his commanders refused.

Having located the supply ship on the way back through Africa, Dias’ two caravels headed for Portugal, where they arrived in December 1488, sixteen and a half months after their departure.

In Lisbon harbour, Christopher Columbus watched the caravels arrive.

When he heard the news they were bringing, he concluded that it would be useless to try again to get the Portuguese sovereign’s patronage for his voyage to the Indies via the western route, since the eastern route was open to the Portuguese.

Nine years passed between Dias’ return in 1488 and Vasco da Gama’s expedition, the first to reach India in 1498.

The reasons for the delay were, initially, Dom João’s illness and the controversies over the succession, followed later by the king’s death and, finally, the ascension of his son Dom Manuel, o Venturoso, in 1495.

In the meantime, Portugal was also involved in a diplomatic dispute with the Spanish over the territories discovered by Christopher Columbus, which was resolved in 1494 by the Treaty of Tordesillas.

But perhaps the real reason for the Portuguese delay was the realisation of expeditions (so secret that we don’t even have records of them) to map out the best navigation routes across the South Atlantic.

This can be deduced from the route that Vasco da Gama would take, not following the route of the African coast used by Portuguese trading ships, but penetrating deep into the Atlantic to take advantage of the favourable easterly winds that prevailed near the South American coasts.

Mapa do Mundo de 1584
Map of the World from 1584

Discovering the sea route to India – Vasco da Gama’s voyage

After two years of preparations, Vasco da Gama’s expedition to the Indies finally left Portugal.

This expedition was one of the most important for Portugal, as it opened up an unprecedented trade route in the history of European trade with the East.

It also made a significant contribution to the strength of the Portuguese empire.


Another factor that adds importance to this expedition is the fact that a second expedition commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral would be organised after it, culminating in the “discovery” of Brazil.

Regarding Vasco da Gama’s expedition, Paulo Migliacci (1997, p. 44) states that:

After two years of preparations, Vasco da Gama’s expedition, with two square-rigged ships, a Latin-sailed caravel and a supply ship, set sail with 170 crew and provisions for three years.

Leaving Lisbon in June 1497, the ships made a refuelling stop in the Cape Verde Islands and entered the Atlantic, reaching the South African coast 93 days later.

From there, after finding his way northwards and wasting some time negotiating his passage with the Muslim sultans of the coastal cities of Mozambique and Tanzania, Vasco da Gama led his expedition to Calicut.

The expedition led by Vasco da Gama can be seen as the conclusion of the Portuguese effort to navigate the African coast. This endeavour dates back to the time of Henry the Navigator.

The expedition represents the accumulation of maritime knowledge related to previous endeavours, being one of the main fruits of the School of Sagres.

Vasco da Gama drew on the experience of previous navigators, following Bartolomeu Dias’ advice to the letter.

Vasco da Gama was able to take advantage of the favourable winds and reach the Cape of Good Hope as quickly as possible.


Navigating this region was very difficult, as there were no maps or reliable navigational charts to help locate the fleet.

It was therefore necessary for Vasco da Gama to hire a Muslim pilot to guide his fleet to Calicut.

“It is said that the pilot that Vasco da Gama hired to guide him to Calicut was Ibn Majid, the most brilliant of the Arab navigators, who enjoyed the reputation of being the man who knew the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean best”. (MIGLIACCI, p. 45).

The Portuguese reached the Indies after a 70-year endeavour, which was intended to open up the East to European trade, thus destroying the various commercial monopolies that prevailed at the time.

Vasco da Gama’s achievements can be considered superior to those of Christopher Columbus, because Portugal didn’t make its discoveries at random like Columbus.

The Portuguese were extremely careful and scientific in their expeditions.

Portugal’s interest in arriving in India was to secure the spice route, as it had great commercial value.

But what is the meaning of the word spice?

The word is of Latin origin and means specia, a term used by doctors to designate a substance.

“The term later took on the meaning of a very active, very expensive substance, used for various purposes, such as condiment – that is, seasoning for food -, medicine or perfumery.” (FAUSTO, 2007, p. 26).

Spice is associated with the idea of an expensive product; for a while sugar was considered a spice, but with its large-scale production it lost this status.

Nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and especially pepper, which allowed food to be preserved, especially meat, are considered spices.

In the words of Boris Fausto (2007, p. 28), spices were important because:

The high value of spices is explained by the limits of preservation techniques existing at the time and also by dietary habits.

Western Europe in the Middle Ages was “a carnivorous civilisation”.

Large numbers of cattle were slaughtered at the beginning of summer, when the fodder ran out in the fields.

The meat was stored and precariously preserved by salt, smoking or simply by the sun.

These processes, which were also used to preserve fish, made the food unpalatable, and chilli served to disguise its unpleasantness.

Condiments also represented a food flavour of the time, like coffee, which was later widely consumed around the world.

There was even a kind of hierarchy in their consumption: at the bottom, those with an acrid smell, such as garlic and onions; at the top, the freshest spices, with aromatic, mild odours, reminiscent of the scent of flowers.

From the above account, we can imagine the importance of spices in European society in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

Because of this importance, the Portuguese invested a lot of material and human resources in the process of opening up a route to the East.

Vasco da Gama’s expedition made contact with Calicut in India, but was not well received by the local rulers.

“Gama returned to Lisbon in 1499, with two of the four ships and 55 of the 170 men, without having obtained the friendship of the Samorim (rajah, local ruler), which would have meant permission to set up a trading post in the city”. (MIGLIACCI, 1997, p. 45).

In order to better understand the issue of the Indian population’s denial, as well as that of the Muslim merchants in the face of the Portuguese desire to set up partnerships and trading posts in Indian territory, we will introduce a fragment of the book “The Great Explorers – from Christopher Columbus to the Conquest of the African Continent” (2009, p. 94-95).

Difficulties in the Indies

In the harbours of the east coast of Africa, the Muslim inhabitants, and particularly the Arab merchants, aware of the mission’s objectives and the consequences that could result for them, showed open hostility towards the Portuguese.

The same thing happened in India, where the existence of strongly structured states with powerful means of action to hinder the explorer, combined with the ill will of the explorers and the Arab traders, who did everything they could to keep Vasco da Gama away and prevent him from obtaining silk and spices, almost caused the enterprise to fail.

The disappointment of John II’s envoy was much greater than the Portuguese had previously thought, namely that the Muslims only held a fraction of the route leading to the spices and not all the states of India.

Vasco da Gama was forced to realise that the area controlled by Islam was much larger than common opinion had it: entire regions of India were in Muslim hands.

Vasco da Gama also gradually discovers, to his great inconvenience, that the commercial practices to which the Portuguese had become accustomed on the African coasts, i.e. exchanging trinkets for valuables, are ineffective in Indian territory.

Indian merchants only show contempt for glass imitations, which are so much appreciated by Africans.

The investment will therefore be heavier than expected, should the Portuguese gain access to the goods they covet.

Heavier, relatively speaking, because the head of the expedition is in for a good surprise when he realises that all the spices on offer on the spot are derisory compared to their value in the West. After many difficulties, the Portuguese manage to negotiate.

Pepper, cinnamon, ginger and cloves are loaded onto the three largest ships, in large quantities as they take up little space.

Vasco da Gama also carries many stones, bought at a very high price, however, because the Indians have precise knowledge of the value of these goods. 

The return journey takes place in difficult conditions. Vasco da Gama has no knowledge of the monsoon regime.

He embarked in the worst conditions: it took him three months to reach Africa.

The fleet is dispersed. He loses two of his four ships. The crew, exhausted, is struck down by scurvy.

The survivors arrived in Lisbon in August 1499; the costs of the expedition were covered sixty times over by the sale of spices.

The mission brought proof that India could be reached from Africa and the spices delivered to the West without the intermediation of Muslim merchants.

Despite all the difficulties faced by Vasco da Gama’s expedition with the Muslim merchants who dominated a significant part of Indian trade, the path to trade and, above all, profits, seemed to be opening up for the ambitious Portuguese.

It was up to the King of Portugal to organise a new, even larger expedition to strengthen contact with Calicut.

The commander of this expedition would be Pedro Álvares Cabral, who, as well as imposing trade with the Indies by force, would be famous for having “discovered” Brazil.

In this chapter you learnt that:

  • The occupation of the African coast and the Atlantic islands was the result of vast research that involved practically the whole of Portuguese society.
  • Vasco da Gama’s voyage was the discovery of the maritime route to the Indies.

Discover the periods of colonial Brazilian history below:

  1. Portuguese Maritime Expansion and the Conquest of Brazil
  2. Occupation of the African Coast, the Atlantic Islands and the Voyage of Vasco da Gama
  3. Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition and the Conquest of Brazil
  4. Pre-colonial period in Brazil: “The Forgotten Years”
  5. Installation of the Portuguese Colony in Brazil
  6. Installation of the General Government in Brazil and the Founding of Salvador
  7. Monoculture, Slave Labour and Latifundia in Colonial Brazil
  8. Colonial sugar mills in Brazil
  9. The Iberian Union and the Dutch Invasion of Brazil
  10. Foundation of the city of São Paulo and the Bandeirantes
  11. Between the colonial regime and the establishment of the Empire in Brazil
  12. Transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil
  13. The Portuguese Empire in Brazil
  14. Independence of Brazil – Breaking of colonial ties in Brazil
  15. Historical Periods of Brazil

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