N is for Navigators

1400 map of the Atlantic, from Treaty of Tordesillas. Photo by kajmeister in Lisbon.

Have you ever wondered why the Brazilians speak Portuguese? All of South and Central America were overrun with Spanish colonizers–except for Brazil.

The pope brokered a deal with the countries on the Iberian Peninsula to split the world in two halves. The Portuguese got everything to the east, and the Spanish got everything to the west. Easy peasy. The Treaty of Tordesillas.

The Royal Bastard of Fond Memory

Portugal is the stubborn left arm of land on the Iberian Peninsula, never willing to be absorbed. They have their own language, distinctive music, and naval heroes. They timed their independence well, coming together as a country when Spain was still a shattered group of provinces. It helped to have a royal bastard who reigned for nearly half a century.

King John I was the royal “natural” son of King Ferdinand, who died without heir. Ferdinand’s daughter was put up as monarch, but a civil war ensued and John ended up at the head of the pack. It was just as well. King John of Castile then tried to claim Portugal from another King John, but John fended off John, who then married the daughter of John (of Gaunt). Castile was a strong province of Spain, but not that big. They were also scrabbling against Navarre, Aragon, the Moors in Grenada, and the French always breathing to their north. John of Portugal solidified an alliance with another naval power in England by marrying Philippa, Henry IV’s sister. He then ruled for nearly 50 years, earning the nickname de Boa Memória, Fond Memory. Good times indeed!

Portugese sculpture honoring heroes of geography. Photo from Pinterest.
Close-up of maritime heroes. Photo from Pinterest.

The Third Son, Lots of Time on his Hands

Henry, later nicknamed “The Navigator,” was born the third son of John and Philippa. Usually, the eldest becomes king, the second becomes head of the army, and the third goes into the priesthood, but Henry was more interested in ships than cassocks. The sixth son, another Ferdinand, ended up being called Ferdinand the Holy, so he was the priest. (His brother didn’t do him any favors, but hold that thought).

Henry did navigate. He did aid in the production of the caravel (see F for Fluyt), which was a hardy and nimble oceangoing ship of its age. Henry and his father also pushed back the Barbary coast pirates who were raiding Portugal for slaves to add the African slave trade. That surprised me, too. Apparently, corsair pirates–I always visualize the corsairs in Lord of the Rings–raided all the coasts around the Mediterranean and brought French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese victims down to Africa to be included with all the other Africans sold into slavery. Lots of slaves were sailors, captured by beefier sailors.

Henry and his father captured the port of Ceuta in Morocco, which had been the capital of trade for a while and killed the raiding of Portuguese cities. Thus, African port cities began to be Portuguese.

Image of Prieste John, Emperor of Ethiopia. Photo from wikipedia.

Looking for Gold and Prester John

Prior to Henry, Europeans hadn’t explored very far south in the Atlantic, or at least those who did, didn’t come back. Henry did fund and encourage a group of navigators, like Gil Eanes, who was the first to travel and return from south of the westernmost point of Africa, and others who went all the way west to the Sargasso Sea in the Midwestern Atlantic. Those who went around the desert section of Africa were able to sail inland, towards the Congo and the Niger.

They were looking, in part, for the mythical Prester John, a Christian figure who had built cities of wealth in India or the Orient or Africa or somewhere. They never found Prester John, but they found a lot of gold. So they had money, and they kept looking.

Portuguese myth makers labeled Henry the “Navigator” in homage to what occurred under his watch, although later biographers claimed he wasn’t all that studious and didn’t personally produce maps or have interest in cosmography. He did make for nice statues.

Henry also was in charge of a disastrous mission to capture Tangiers, another coastal city in Morocco. However, that expedition and ensuing battle ended badly, and the Africans wanted the Portuguese to cede Ceuta back (the pirate capital). Portugal refused, so the Moroccans kept little brother Ferdinand as a hostage in Fez. Negotiations for his release went on for six years, but the Portuguese never wanted to pay enough for an irrelevant sixth son, and Ferdinand died in a rather miserable captivity. Not so Fond Memory.

If Vasco Had Turned Right, Would We Be In North Vasconia?

In happier news, though, other Portuguese sailors were inspired by Henry and the money flowing in from the new trade in Africa. Amerigo Vespucci, like his “neighbor” Columbus, was an Italian who sailed on behalf of Spain across the Atlantic. He also sailed for Portugal and was one of the first to find the southern western hemisphere continent, which seemed just ripe for more colonizing. Vespucci was smart; he published two booklets about the new geographies, whether or not he was the first to find them. That impressed the cartographers enough to put his name on the map. Literally.

The routes of Vasco da Gama’s ships.

Meanwhile, Vasco da Gama, another Portuguese navigator, was excited to find that there was something south of western Africa. Imagine that prior to rounding that western tip of the continent, the Europeans couldn’t figure out how to get past the Sahara Desert. Moving ships southward opened up everything else for trade.

Vasco de Gama, departing for India, by Roque Gameiro. Photo from wikipedia.

Da Gama was the first to sail all the way around the Cape of Good Hope through to India and all the spice trade that it held. The Suez Canal was centuries away, so Europeans had a hard land route to travel no matter what they did; the sea journeys also were long, but they knew how to sail. Da Gama made three journeys, mapping out routes to the ports from South Africa northward, as well as to the southern tip of India. Success and pepper all round!

He probably had the chops to sail westward to Brazil, too, and if he’d been a little more aggressive and better at marketing, then Brazil might have been called Da Gama or Vasconia. U.S.V.! We’re number one! Sure, why not?

By 1494, while Da Gama was going south, then east, Columbus had come back from the Caribbean. Spain and Portugal were sailing everywhere (or Italians on behalf of Spain plus the Portuguese). They were starting to squabble over territory, so the Borgia pope stepped in–Alexander VI–and helped broker a treaty. Everything east of the meridian would belong to the Portuguese; everything west to the Spanish.

The line allocating the world between Spain and Portugal. Photo from wikipedia.

A few months later, they shifted the line just slightly, in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Everything left of the solid purple line–Spanish, meaning the Caribbean and a bunch of American land that hadn’t been named, let alone explored yet. Everything to the right–Portuguese–which turned out to include a lucrative part of Brazil, all of Africa, and so on.

Of course, the rest of Europe scoffed at the treaty and colonized as they pleased. Who were the Portuguese and Spanish to own the world? The French and English felt perfectly empowered to go take over territory; they could kick out the people who lived there just as easily! But those crafty navigators from a relatively small country had established a lot of cities by then, which explains why Brazil was colonized by Portugal.

Also, I learned how to correctly spell Portuguese.

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