The Age of Discovery: A Brief History of Portugal

The Age of Discovery: A Brief History of Portugal

There’s nothing we love more than helping clients really get under the skin of their chosen country by sharing the best of its artistic, architectural and foodie spots. Yet behind every happening hotspot and current cultural obsession is a wealth of history waiting to be uncovered. And delving into a destination’s past is an equally valuable way of getting to know a place. So, if you’re hoping to explore Portugal’s many treasures this summer, here’s a potted history of the Portuguese voyages of discovery to get the two of you acquainted (before even setting foot on a plane). Read on for a brief history of Portugal…



Under King Afonso IV, Portugal – until now a bit part player in Europe – turns its gaze to the seas and begins to send out trading missions on exploratory voyages.


Portugal’s King John (married to Henry IV of England’s sister, incidentally) seizes the fortified port of Ceuta (in northern Morocco) in order to control sea trade through the Straits of Gibraltar. Portuguese fleets, many dispatched by John’s son Henry the Navigator, explore further along the African coast, hoping to bypass the Muslim-held territory in North Africa and the Middle East and find a sea route to India. The Atlantic islands of Madeira (1419) and the Azores (1427) are claimed, and Senegal (1445) and Cape Verde (1456) reached.


The shallow-bottomed caraval boat is developed, its triangular lateen sails allowing upwind sailing and greater speed. By 1471, the Portuguese have reached the Southern Hemisphere and the islands of Sao Tome and Principe, and identify a new constellation – the Southern Cross – to navigate by.


Bartolomeu Dias rounds the ‘Cape of Storms’ (latter-day Cape of Good Hope), in the process proving that the Indian Ocean was accessible from the Atlantic. On his return to Lisbon, Genoese Christopher Columbus (married to a Portuguese woman), hears of Dias's exploits and tries to persuade the Portuguese King John that he can reach the Indies by sailing west. John rejects the idea, so Columbus seeks the support of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. Four years later he ‘discovers’ the Americas.


Castile (proto-Spain) and Portugal sign the Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing the world into two areas of influence split by a meridian line in the Atlantic; non-Christian areas west of the line are exclusive to Spain, and those east to Portugal. Some believe that the Portuguese had already discovered Brazil, hence their insistence on moving the line further west.


Vasco da Gama leads four ships round the Cape of Good Hope and up the East African coast to Malindi (Kenya), where he engages the services of an Indian merchant who helps them cross the Indian Ocean, reaching Calicut in India in May 1498. 75 years later, Da Gama's voyage inspires Luis de Camoes, a fellow seafarer, to write the epic poem The Lusiads, considered Portugal's greatest literary work. De Gama and many other militantly Christian Portuguese explorers also pursue a brutal campaign of violence against those they encounter, especially Muslims.


A larger fleet is assembled to reach India but makes landfall in Brazil, which the Portuguese (this time) claim. An expedition reaches present-day Rio de Janeiro in 1502. Meanwhile, Portuguese navigators visit Madagascar (1500), Sri Lanka (1505) and Oman (1507). The Eastern expansion gathers pace as Albuquerque and Alaves reach Malacca (Malaysia) and Siam (Thailand) in 1511, and China in 1513.


Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan sets sail on another Spanish-sponsored voyage to find the western route to the Indies. Three years later a lone ship limps into the port of Sanlucar de Barrameda in Spain, the crew of 22 on board in the process becoming the first people to circumnavigate the globe. They were the only survivors from five ships and 270 men. Magellan himself was slain in the Philippines, while the others succumbed to a combination of disease, storms and skirmishes with locals.


Portuguese traders become the first Westerners to reach Japan, entirely by accident. Their trading station in Nagasaki proves to be the most easterly of a series of bases across the Orient. In the western hemisphere, Portugal is the chief architect of the slave trade from Africa to the Americas, which the British would later embrace – and then abolish.

If this brief history of Portugal has sparked an interest in the Iberian nation, our experts are on hand to help plan your perfect Portugal holiday.