Portuguese Maritime Expansion and the Conquest of Brazil

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The Causes of Portuguese Maritime Expansion

1. Introduction

We are beginning our studies in the subject of Brazilian Colonial History. This whole process is marked by problematisations, causes of different kinds that motivated the so-called Portuguese maritime and commercial expansion.

This historical event is of paramount importance if we are to critically understand the process that culminated in the “discovery” of Brazil and, of course, its subsequent colonisation.

This process is the result of a complex historical phenomenon that took place in Portugal at the beginning of the 15th century.

However, in order to understand it, we must study the transformations that took place in Europe from the 12th century onwards, as it was at this time that the European continent began to change as a result of the agricultural expansion and commercial renaissance that had taken place during the Middle Ages.

All these factors will contribute significantly to the change in mentality that will give origin to the Renaissance, contributing to the start of the so-called maritime and commercial expansion.

It was from the pioneering spirit of the Portuguese that various regions were conquered, thus ushering in a new era that would redefine the known world until the 15th century.

It was the Portuguese who were mainly responsible for conquering the African coast, for discovering the sea route, which provided an alternative route to India, and most importantly for us, for conquering Brazil.

In this sense, we need to realise that the conquest of Brazil was not the result of chance, but of a historical process that began much earlier and which led to profound changes in both Portugal and Brazil.

2. Portuguese maritime and commercial expansion was no accident

The process that culminated in Portuguese maritime expansion and, consequently, the conquest of Brazil was very well planned, as Portugal had already been researching and improving its shipbuilding and ocean navigation techniques since the beginning of the 15th century.

3. Why did Portugal lead the maritime expansion?

This project was made possible by several factors, including:

  • the national unity achieved very early on;
  • the geographical position that favoured the great navigations;
  • the difficult access of Portuguese lands to the rest of Europe
  • the internal stability that allowed investment in navigational projects.

Infante Dom Henrique o Navegador

But it was the Sagres School and the creation of a professional structure for discoveries that made the difference. By intensely focussing national energies and resources, Portugal, a poor, sparsely populated and relatively backward country, was able to successfully carry out the task of the discoveries.

The Portuguese state was one of the first modern states founded on the European continent.

Its political, economic, cultural, religious and, above all, identity base was the result of the fight against the Moors, which allowed the centralised state to emerge.

Moors – Arab peoples who lived in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.

From the 13th century onwards, a series of battles defined some of Europe’s borders which, in the case of France, England, Spain and Portugal, remain roughly the same to this day.

Within these borders, the Portuguese state was born as a centralised political organisation, whose dominant figure – the prince – and the bureaucracy on which he relied, took on their own contours that could not be confused with the social groups, even the most privileged, such as the nobility.

This process lasted centuries and reached its decisive point between 1450 and 1550.

This process allowed for the unification of the medieval fiefdoms, facilitating the capitalisation of the state and the consequent investment in a naval fleet, which would provide logistical support for Portugal’s future maritime and commercial expansion.

In addition, the Iberian Peninsula, on which Portugal was located, offered a privileged geographical situation that allowed it to fully dominate the Atlantic Ocean.

Mapa da Europa de 1575
Map of Europe from 1575

Historical maps showing the evolution and territorial expansion of Brazil

Portugal was asserting itself in Europe as a whole as an autonomous country, with a tendency to turn outwards.

The Portuguese already had experience, accumulated over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries, in long-distance trade, although they were still no match for the Venetians and Genoese, whom they would surpass.

In fact, before the Portuguese took control of their international trade, the Genoese invested in its expansion, transforming Lisbon into a major mercantile centre under their hegemony.

The commercial experience was also facilitated by Portugal’s economic involvement with the Islamic world of the Mediterranean, where the advance of trade can be measured by the growing use of currency as a means of payment.

Undoubtedly, the attraction of the sea was encouraged by the country’s geographical position, close to the Atlantic islands and the coast of Africa.

Given the technology of the time, it was important to have favourable sea currents, and these began precisely in Portuguese ports or those in south-west Spain.

In the 15th century, Portugal sought political unification due to the existence of a sense of identity, as the Portuguese realised that the only way to build a strong kingdom was through an autonomous and unified state.

During the entire 15th century, Portugal was a unified kingdom and less subject to upheaval and disputes, in contrast to France, England, Spain and Italy, all involved in wars and dynastic complications.

The Portuguese monarchy was consolidated through a history that had one of its most significant points in the revolution of 1383 – 1385.

Following a dispute over the succession to the Portuguese throne, Lisbon’s commercial bourgeoisie revolted. This was followed by a great popular uprising, the “revolt of the little people”, in the words of the chronicler Fernão Lopes.

The revolution was similar to other events that shook Western Europe at the same time, but it had a different outcome to the peasant revolts crushed in other countries by the great lords.

Portuguese maritime expansion corresponded to the interests not only of the ruling class but also of the working classes. This factor further fuelled the process.

At the beginning of the 15th century, Portugal’s internal conditions created an excellent opportunity, because the expansion corresponded to the interests of all social classes, which together made up the contradictory Portuguese society.

For the people, expansion was above all a form of emigration and represented what emigration had always represented for them: the possibility of a better life and liberation for the “little people”, which had always been a heavy burden and from which they too had always sought to free themselves by seeking out new lands.

In addition, nobles and clerics saw the expansion in a positive light, as new horizons of trade, conquest and evangelisation would allow them to build an even more centralised, strong and, above all, Catholic state.

For clerics and nobles, Christianisation and conquest were ways of serving God and serving the king and for this they deserved the concomitant rewards: commendations, tenures, captaincies, offices, opportunities that in the narrow framework of the metropolis were becoming increasingly rare to obtain.

For merchants, it was the prospect of good business, of raw materials harvested at source and resold at a good profit.

For the king, it was a source of prestige, a good way to occupy the nobles and, above all, the creation of new sources of revenue at a time when the crown’s income had fallen sharply.

The only people left out of this convergence of interests were the farmers, the businessmen of the agricultural holdings, for whom the departure of the farmers from the country represented a rise in the cost of labour.

In Portugal, maritime and commercial expansion came to represent the Renaissance ideal.

With the Renaissance, many of the dogmatic values of medieval life were called into question and the way was opened for discoveries and advances in the fields of geography and applied sciences.

To give you an idea, the Portuguese embarked on a century-long project and reached exactly the destination they were aiming for.

The Spanish were adventurers of discovery, knights of the seas in search of the unexpected.

The Portuguese were sailors of the Renaissance: they studied, planned and calculated. In the end, they triumphed over the unknown and immediately knew what they had discovered.

The best contribution of the Renaissance is not in its challenge to dogma, its recovery of classical knowledge or its artistic progress, but simply in its defence of the right to doubt, and to see the world as man sees it.

Without the Renaissance, there would be no New World, because there would be no new eyes to see it.

Unlike the other emerging states, the Portuguese bet on the great navigations.

The Lusitanians were pioneers in most of the technological aspects of sailing. The Renaissance ideals, which signalled the new times, were expressed in Portugal through maritime conquests and the opening up of new markets for the then decadent European continent.

The Portuguese were the first European peoples, organised in a centralised state in the form of a king or prince, to base their navigations on scientific knowledge.

Despite Portugal being one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, they were the pioneers in overcoming the medieval myth of the “dark sea”.

This myth had always contributed to the construction of a negative view of European peoples in relation to oceanic navigation.

Maritime expansion only took place in Portugal due to the fact that the Portuguese were the first European peoples to promote political unification.

This factor meant that resources were channelled into trade and shipbuilding. It was the state that could become the great entrepreneur, if it achieved the conditions of strength and stability to do so.

It must be stressed that the incentives for the great navigations were not just commercial, or even because the Portuguese state was the first to unite as an autonomous and centralised kingdom.

We must emphasise that there was a very strong spirit of adventure among the Portuguese.

Culturally, the Portuguese had a strong connection with the sea and this factor was decisive in the Portuguese pioneering spirit linked to the great navigations and commercial expansion.

To understand this issue more clearly, the question that motivated the great navigations:

We can see that the impetus for the maritime adventure was not just commercial.

It’s not possible to try to understand it with today’s eyes, so it’s worth thinking a little about the meaning of the word adventure.

Five centuries ago, we were a long way from a world that was entirely known, photographed by satellites, and offered for enjoyment by package tours.

There were continents that were barely or entirely unknown. Entire oceans not yet crossed. The so-called unknown regions concentrated the imagination of European peoples, who glimpsed fantastic kingdoms, monstrous inhabitants and the seat of an earthly paradise.

For example, Christopher Columbus thought that, further inland from the land he discovered, they would find one-eyed men and others with the snouts of dogs.

He claimed to have seen three mermaids jump out of the sea, and was disappointed by their faces: they weren’t as beautiful as he had imagined.

In one of his letters, he referred to people who, towards the west, were born with tails.

In 1487, when they left Portugal to discover the overland route to the Indies, Afonso de Paiva and Pedro da Covilhã took instructions from Dom João II to locate the kingdom of Preste João.

The legend of Preste João, a descendant of the Magi and a staunch enemy of the Muslims, had been part of the European imagination since at least the middle of the 12th century.

It was built on a real fact – the existence of Ethiopia, in East Africa, where there lived a black population that had adopted a branch of Christianity. We shouldn’t take the dreams associated with maritime adventure as despicable fantasies, covering up the truth represented by material interest.

But there is no doubt that material interest prevailed, especially when the contours of the world became increasingly known and practical questions of colonisation became the order of the day.

Another factor that facilitated the great navigations was the invention and development of a special ship for the discoveries: the caravel.

The caravel was unlike anything that had been invented so far. It was designed for ocean voyages, as it was not a cargo ship, but an advanced and safe vessel that allowed navigation in the most varied situations.

It was not a cargo ship, but a vessel designed to travel long distances in unfamiliar waters, and for this it had to be able to sail in unfavourable winds, which the carracks did not have due to their low manoeuvrability and exclusive use of the square sail.

The caravel, using Latin sails (triangular), was more manoeuvrable and still had the cargo-carrying capacity needed to sustain the small crews of the discoverers during the long months they spent at sea.

A caravel usually had between 40 and 50 crew members, while a carrack – which specialised in carrying cargo – had 100, a fighting galley 300, and the galleons of the royal fleets could carry up to 800 crew members.

The manoeuvrability advantages of the Latin sail become clearer with a little explanation of sailing techniques.

A square sail can only be sailed upwind, i.e. with winds blowing behind the ship, at a maximum angle of around 12 degrees to the direction in which the ship is travelling.

The Latin sail, in the system used by the caravels, allows the use of winds at angles of up to 30 degrees in relation to the ship’s direction of travel.

Thus, taking into account that, in regions with unfavourable winds, ships need to sail in a zigzag pattern in order to maintain the general direction of travel, the greater manoeuvrability of caravels lies in their superior ability to sail “against” the wind, zigzagging at a more closed angle to the route.

To summarise, the Portuguese maritime and commercial expansion was not random, but very well planned and the result of a historical process.

4. The main elements of Portuguese maritime and commercial expansion were:

  • the fact that Portugal was the first European country to promote its political and administrative unification;
  • the interests of the various social classes converged towards the great navigations, as well as commercial expansion;
  • The Renaissance ideal was expressed in Portugal through the great navigations;
  • Portugal’s geographical position facilitated the great navigations;
  • the adventurous spirit of the Portuguese and their vocation for sailing;
  • the development and invention of vessels and techniques suitable for oceanic navigation;
  • the absence of wars;
  • Portugal’s contacts with Islamic culture.

We have to understand that the great navigations developed in a continuous process that culminated in the discovery of an alternative route to the Indies and later in the “discovery” of Brazil.

Mapa da Africa de 1593
Map of Africa from 1593

5. Main stages of the Portuguese Expansion:

  • 1415: Conquest of the city of Ceuta.
  • 1419: Portuguese expedition reaches the island of Madeira.
  • 1431: Reconnaissance of the Azores archipelago.
  • 1434: Gil Eanes passes Cape Bojador.
  • 1443: Nuno Tristão reaches the island of Arguim.
  • 1445: Nuno Tristão reaches Senegambia and Dinis Dias passes the mouth of the Senegal River.
  • 1482: Diogo Cão discovers Zaire.
  • 1487: Bartolomeu Dias reaches the South African cape, where he encounters a dangerous storm. For this reason, he calls it the Cape of Storms. This great event opened up the possibility of reaching the Indies. For this reason, the king of Portugal, D. João, decided to change the name of the cape to a more optimistic one: Cape of Good Hope.
  • 1498: Vasco da Gama, commanding a fleet of four ships (S. Gabriel, S. Rafael, Bérrio and a supply barge), reaches the city of Calicut in the Indies.
  • 1500: Pedro Álvares Cabral “discovers” Brazil.

 6. School of Sagres and Prince Henry the Navigator

From the 15th century onwards, Portugal decided to embark on a major national project to explore the Atlantic coast, with North Africa as its initial location.

This project was captained by the fifth son of King João I, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460).

The initial plan evolved into a more ambitious goal, the circumnavigation of the African continent, which would make it possible to reach the Indies, the land of spices, by sea.

Prince Henry was primarily responsible for founding the legendary “School of Sagres” in 1433. This school is considered one of the symbols of the formation of the Portuguese state.

Its foundation represents the power of the centralised state that would come to predominate in Portugal.

The Sagres School was not a formal teaching and training organisation, but a “school” of thought and action.

In his castle, and under the motto “The talent of doing good”, Dom Henrique brought together cartographers and mathematicians to develop the astronomical techniques that would enable ocean navigation.

At the same time, in the shipyards of Lagos, hundreds of men were engaged in shipbuilding, using increasingly perfected techniques for choosing and preparing wood for the various parts of the ships and for sealing the hulls.

With each expedition to the African coast, the information gathered was used to improve maps, navigation techniques and ship design.

The infante, for whom knowledge was the source “from which all good emerges”, held the title of protector of the University of Lisbon and sponsored science professorships.

Acting against the custom of the time, he showed tolerance towards other creeds and races by choosing his collaborators primarily on the basis of their knowledge.

As a result, he attracted many Jewish scholars to his endeavours, who suffered fewer restrictions than Christians when it came to travelling and obtaining information in the Arab world.

Dom Henrique died in 1460 without seeing Africa circumnavigated, but he was recognised internationally for his achievements during his lifetime.

King Henry and the school of Sagres were very important for Portuguese maritime expansion, as they allowed the Portuguese to develop knowledge based on the science of the time.

As well as innovations related to shipbuilding, the Sagres school developed revolutionary techniques through constant study and practical experimentation, linked above all to maritime navigation on the high seas.

These new techniques allowed navigators to move further and further away from the coast, thus enabling greater autonomy to reach lands located on other continents.

Despite this, Portugal only practised cabotage navigation until the mid-1500s, only officially venturing into the “ocean sea” after Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition.

These innovations are referred to by some scholars as “the art of navigation”, as they incorporate previously unknown elements of navigation and orientation.

We will mention some of this new knowledge in the following text:

The information is taken from the book “The Great Explorers – from Christopher Columbus to the Conquest of the African Continent”.

  • Calculating a distance – Navigators know how to assess their ship’s speed. To find out, they throw a rope into the sea, staggered by knots, the end of which remains in place because it is fixed to a piece of lead, then let it slide for a certain time. By renewing the manoeuvre periodically, they are able to calculate the distance travelled each day.
  • Determining the orientation – The question of direction is no longer a problem at the end of the 15th century, since navigators have had a precious instrument, the compass, for a few decades now. The only difficulty is that the changes in the Earth’s magnetic field and the difference between geographic north and magnetic north are still very poorly understood.
  • Calculating a latitude – Calculating latitude is actually relatively well mastered by navigators, who know how to establish the position of an object on the meridian arc thanks to the astronomical point. An optical instrument, an ancestor of the sextant, the astrolabe, was perfected at the end of the Middle Ages, so that it was already usable on board a moving ship.
  • An uncertainty, a longitude – On the other hand, by the end of the 15th century, it was difficult to assess longitude. It can only be known by comparing the local time with the time on the meridian of origin. It wasn’t until 1761 that a very precise clock – a so-called marine clock – was available to obtain a reliable result. Captain Cook was the first to use it.

In this chapter you learnt that: 

  • The causes of Portuguese maritime expansion were not random, but the result of a process of exhaustive research.
  • Infante Dom Henrique and the School of Sagres were fundamental in the realisation of the Portuguese maritime expansion process.

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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