Discovery and Reformation

Discovery: The Portugese


   The country that undertook the most ambitious voyages of discovery was Portugal. From these voyages, Europe would discover the entire coastline of Africa and build the first European settlements south of the Sahara. From the Portugese, Europe would also learn the efficient human commerce: the profitable buying, selling, and distributing of human beings from Africa as slaves to Europeans, a form of mercantilism that would leave a permanent stamp on European and world culture.

   It is not unfair to say that Portugal's emergence as the first great exploring country was due to a single person, Prince Henry the Navigator, who lived from 1394-1460. Henry was mainly interested in expanding the mercantile opportunities available to Portugal and secondarily interested in spreading Christianity. He was called "The Navigator" because he founded the first school of navigation in Europe. The graduates of this school would lead expeditions further and further south along the coast of Africa. While Europeans were intimately acquainted with North Africa, the continent south of the Sahara was a great unknown.

   In the early 1400's, the Portugese began to export black Africans as slaves in northern Africa. These slaves were kidnapped or purchased by Islamic slave traders south of the Sahara and then transported north to be sold to the Portugese. In 1441, the Portugese reached the Senegal River in West Africa and found that they could acquire black Africans without having to go through the slave traders, thus eliminating the cost of at least some middle man in the commerce in human lives: instead of dealing with Islamic traders, the Portugese would deal directly with black Africans by either purchasing or kidnapping human beings. The first Portugese ship to arrive in West Africa south of the Sahara was also the first European ship to bring back a cargo of humans directly taken, rather than bought, from Africa. The Portugese were delighted, and soon they set up an energetic trade route to West Africa. Within a decade, Portugal was importing around a thousand African slaves per year to be sold to wealthy Europeans.

   The Portugese, however, were looking for more than just human cargo: they were looking for gold in Africa as well. In 1471, they discovered a gold rich region along the southern coast of West Africa (the "Gold Coast"), and trade with Africa took off. The Portugese leased land from local rulers and set up forts and primitive settlements: the first European settlements in Africa south of the Sahara.

   The Portugese didn't stop there, however. They were convinced that Africa must have a southern extremity and that trade with the east would be possible by ship alone if they could reach that extremity. All they would have to do was to travel south, go around the southern extremity of Africa, and then precede north and east to India and China. In 1487, Bartolomeo Diaz navigated to the southern extremity of Africa, which he named the Cape of Good Hope, and started heading north along the eastern coast of Africa. His crew, however, began to grumble and he turned back. In 1497, five years after Christopher Columbus landed in America, Vasco da Gama navigated around the Cape of Good Hope and sailed all along the eastern coast of Africa, stopping at the numerous Muslim trading cities that extended from Sofala to Ethiopia. In 1498, he reached the western coast of India: he was the first person to sail a ship directly from Europe to India.

   In India, da Gama loaded his ships with spices and returned to Europe. His voyage had been sponsored by merchants hoping to break the Muslim stranglehold on the spice trade; da Gama had shown that European merchants could sail to India directly and not deal with middlemen.

   Portugal then embarked on voyages of aggression rather than discovery. Their goal was to squeeze the Muslims out of the spice trade by attacking Muslim ships and Muslim trading cities both in India and eastern Africa. In 1510, the Portugese set up a permanent settlement and fort at Goa (present day Bombay) in India.

   Within a couple decades, the Portugese managed to reach China and to drive the Muslims almost completely out of the spice trade. How? Basically, they muscled them out. The Portugese had one and only one goal in mind: a complete monopoly over the spice trade. They were willing to do anything whatsoever to gain that monopoly and there was no question that their naval technology outclassed that of their Muslim and Indian counterparts.

   These actions, however, radically changed the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world. Until the Portugese pursuit of the spice monopoly, European powers approached Muslim, African, and eastern states and cultures with a high degree of respect. From the Portugese, the Europeans learned a new, aggressive type of relationship and the non-European countries adjusted accordingly. The European discovery of the world, it seems, also meant the discovery of global conflict.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-7-98