European explorers in Africa: c. 1450 CE

The European expansion was the primary goal of explorers who needed new and faster trade routes westward.  Ross (2002) writes, “Access to commodities such as fabrics, spices, and gold motivated a European quest for a faster means to reach South Asia” (para. #1).  Because of socio-economic and political conditions, Portugal began to look for alternative trade routes around Africa.  Analyzing the history of Portuguese explorers in Africa will show that the expansion via the Atlantic Ocean connected the East to the West by expanding trade routes and commerce opportunities.  Trade with the African people would also provide other business ventures before the expansion was complete.  Thornton (1998) writes, “The European navigations of the fifteenth century in the Atlantic opened up a new and virtually unprecedented chapter in human history” (13).  In so doing, it brought wealth and prestige to Portugal, but also a state of subjugation of the African people that would transcend to the Americas within a few short years.   The history of Portuguese explorers in Africa will show that early exploration of trade routes, expeditions by noted explorers (land and sea), and the subjugation of the African people aided in beginning a new part of history forever linking Africa with the Americas.

With only eight miles of the Strait of Gibralter separating Europe and Africa, it is easy to imagine why Portugal was the first of the European nations to explore Africa.  The earliest Portuguese explorers, Henry the Navigator, Gil Eanes, Diogo Cão, Bartholomew Dias, Vasco da Gama, Afonso de Paiva, and Pêro da Covilhã, made significant discoveries in Africa in the fifteenth century in advancing their goals for trade routes.  Such findings as the Cape of Bojador, the Cape of Good Hope, and circumnavigating Africa to find routes to India and China were invaluable expansion discoveries.  The Portuguese were also successful in setting up trading posts in each location, allowing passing ships to bring goods to European merchants.  While the Muslims controlled the trade routes, it would be their access to classical teachings of navigation and boat making that would allow the Portuguese the opportunity to expand.

Muslims controlled much of the overland trade routes as they had not turned away from philosophy during the first part of the Middle Ages as had the Christian world.  Thus being, it allowed them to dominate the established trade routes based on the teachings.  Beazley writes, “The Arabs, commanding most of the centres of ancient learning (Ptolemy’s own Alexandria above all), riveted the pseudo−science of their predecessors on the learned world, along with the genuine knowledge which they handed down from the Greeks” (15).  Maps and other ancient texts had provided them greater knowledge of the world, and they capitalized on it.  Once the Arabic stronghold expanded, it was imperative that the Europeans find alternative routes for trade.  Beazley (1910) writes, “Arabic science constitutes one of the main links between the older learned world of the Greeks and Latins and the Europe of Henry the Navigator and of the Renaissance” (15).  While the Muslims expanded the East, it opened the door for the Europeans to develop the West via African waters and the Atlantic Ocean.  The maps (Ptolemy) identified the Indian Ocean as an inlet and Africa as being the only point in the Southern Hemisphere.  The lack of information in the hands of the Muslims provided Prince Henry with a chance to expand beyond the known lands and into the unknown lands later to be claimed by Portugal.  For about seven centuries, before the Portuguese arrived, the Arabs dominated the trade opportunities in Africa.  The Europeans no longer wanted to buy directly from the Arabs, and decided that expeditions around Africa would benefit them by providing alternative routes.  However, until Henry the Navigator began expeditions, little was known about Africa other than the information in The Catalan Atlas drawn by Cresques Abraham of the Majorcan cartographic school in 1375.




Fig. 1  . 2: Catalan Atlas: Detail of North Africa and Europe, by Abraham and Jafunda Cresques, 1375.map.PNG

The atlas foretold of great promise to explorers as, “it indicated oases, rivers and mountains, beasts and other grotesque creatures in Africa” (Benjamin 2009).  The atlas also noted kings and provinces controlled by what country, as well as information that sailors could use for navigation.  The information would be invaluable to new explorers.  The mention of beasts and creatures caused many to believe in superstitious tales and kept many of the explorers away (Benjamin 2009).  The Arabs, however, had crossed the Sahara to the coast with gold and knew much more about Africa.  It was the lure of the gold that would bring the Portuguese to Africa beginning in 1434 bringing about The Age of Exploration.

Ross writes, “Portugal’s extended contact with Islam, and therefore with its superior mathematical knowledge and sailing technologies, including sail shapes, hull designs, and maritime weaponry, resulted in a Portuguese fleet capable of negotiating the high Atlantic seas” (2002).  Portugal was in an ideal geographic location to explore Africa and the Atlantic, which helped them remain dominant in that area for about two hundred years.  Without a doubt, Africa was a critical area of the West expansion.  Barry Cunliffe said, “The Atlantic, once the end of the world, was now the beginning” (as cited by Benjamin 2009).



The Lusitanian Prince who, heaven−inspired,

To love of useful glory roused mankind,

And in unbounded commerce mixed the world.

THOMSON: Seasons, Summer, 1010−2.” (Beazley 1910)

Henry the Navigator is perhaps the most important explorer as his expedition campaigns started a series of explorations by other explorers.  On September 16, 1418, Henry began a new school dedicated to navigation.  His interest in navigation would lead him to influence and oversee many of the African expeditions. With the knowledge of Islamic shipbuilding navigation, it is in this location that Henry builds a fleet of ships called caravel designed to withstand the dangers of the Atlantic.  Henry turned his attention to Africa because of the gold trade and believed it was an available commodity to Portugal in order to improve their wealth and pay for trade route ventures in the Atlantic Ocean.  In 1415, Henry took control of Ceuta, located on the Northern coast of Africa.  This military campaign would lead him to begin explorations beyond that area and into the heart of Africa. In 1434, under Henry’s expansion plan, Gil Eanes successfully sailed around the Abū Khaṭ ar (Cape Bojador). The expansion to the Atlantic Ocean allowed, for the first time in history, an opportunity for new cultures, languages, and people to coexist.

Beazley (1910) writes, “More than any other single man he is the author of the discovering movement of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries,—and by this movement India has been conquered, America repeopled, the world made clear, and the civilisation which the Roman Empire left behind has conquered or utterly overshadowed every one of its old rivals and superiors—Islam, India, China, Tartary.”

The first explorations were of the Akan region (Bono and Banda/Gold Coast).  Based on the Catalan Atlas, a gold river flowed through North Africa, starting in the Akan area and winding its way to the Atlantic Ocean.  What the Portuguese found were, “… urban centers in West Africa comparable to those back in Europe, governed by elaborate dynasties, organized around apprenticeship-based artistic guilds, and with agricultural systems capable of feeding their large populaces” (Ross 2002).  The discoveries would bring great wealth and notoriety to Henry the Navigator.  Other explorers made important discoveries that would also bring Portugal prominence.

Europeans had a thirst for luxury goods that Africa could provide.  Sapi artisans in Sierra Leone began to make luxury goods from ivory (white gold) in order to satisfy Europe’s demand.   During the expeditions, explorers noticed other commodities that would benefit Portugal.  After the death of Henry, other explorers would continue his legacy.  In August 1482, Diogo Cão set sail to erect pillars shaped like crosses in territories claimed by Portugal.  He found the mouth of the Congo River.  Following the river upstream, he traded with willing locals.  He then turned toward the Angola Coast.  In both locations, he erected pillars.  After crossing the equator, the sailed up the Zaira (Rio Poderosa / Congo). Continuing, he sailed to the area known as Cabo do Lobo.  After erecting the second cross here, he returned to Portugal.  In 1485, Cão returned to Africa on his second journey where he claimed Cape Negro in Angola. His final discovery during this trip was Cape of Padrão where he erected his last cross.

On this cross, it read, “In the year 6685 of the creation of the Earth and 1485 after the birth of Christ the most excellent and most serene King Dom Jao II of Portugal ordered this land to be discovered and his Padrão to be placed by Diogo Cão, gentleman (or knight) of his house” (Namibia 2013).

In August 1487, Bartolomeu Dias set sail for India.  By January 1488, he found Cape of Good Hope.  Other discoveries of Dias included Cabo das Agulhas (Cape of Needles) and Cabo das Tormentas (Cape of Storms).  On May 20, 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in India after sailing around Africa.  While the trip was dangerous, and he lost men and ships, he was able to fulfill Henry the Navigator’s vision of trade routes through the Atlantic.  While Dias looked for water routes, explorers Afonso de Paiva, and Pêro da Covilhã also were given the tasks of finding the location of Prester John who was said to be a King of a great Christian nation in Ethiopia (by land) and information about the spice trade in India (by sea) as both were fluent in Arabic.  The legend of Prester John started in 1145, and continued through the 1400s.  The legend told of a great King, “living beyond the Persians and the Armenians in the extreme Orient, professing Christianity, though of the Nestorian persuasion, marched in wars against the Samiard brothers, Kings of the Medes and the Persians, and conquered their capital” (Gumilev, 1987).  For four centuries, the legend of Prester John was unfounded, but this did not stop the Christian nations from continuing to search for him.  Pavia set sail for Ethiopia while da Covilhã sailed to India.  Pavia died before documenting any details about his travels, but Covilhã was able to discover the city of Calicut.  Although he could not locate any spices other than pepper, he did find diamond mines, sandalwood, pearls, and rice.  He also made note of navigation for future explorations such as sandbanks that would be unstable for caravels.  In addition, he explored Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania where he traded cloth and beads for gold and amber.  It was during this period that he realized that explorers could sail to this point and then hire Indian sailors to continue to Calicut.  The discovery from the Arabic sailors of the monsoon trade winds allowed further exploration to India by sailing the coast of Africa.   His supposed future meeting with Prester John led to good political relations with Ethiopia.

With each new campaign, Portugal’s dominance over Africa increased.  While ivory and gold brought wealth, it would be slavery that contributed the most.  Ross (2002) writes that by the end of the fifteenth-century, “African exports consisted primarily of gold, ivory, and pepper. However, over 175,000 slaves were also taken to Europe and the Americas during this period” (para. # 2).  It was the slave trade that would bring the greatest wealth to the Portuguese ship captains.  In 1441, captains Pedro Alvares Cabral and Gil Eanes took twelve slaves captive and returned to Portugal with them.  By 1444, Lançarote de Freitas, who had a trading company, bought 235 African slaves and sold them to Europeans.  Pearson writes, “….Africans were not different from others in their interest in and willingness to exchange human beings for products they needed or wanted; and that Atlantic sailors could, therefore, more easily and safely acquire slaves by trade than by capture” (2008).  By 1452, the slave trade became a regular trade commodity with both Portuguese and Spanish explorers.  Eventually, it would transcend the Atlantic to include the Americas as well.  While slavery was a major issue, it was not the initial goal of early Portuguese explorers.  However, it is undoubtedly the greatest event that led to the subjugation of the African people.  While Portugal preferred to trade for slaves, eventual trading posts and shipping companies would lead others to kidnap Africans. For the next four centuries, millions of Africans were forced into slavery that would forever link African and American History.

The history of Portuguese explorers in Africa began a new chapter in history.  The land explorations for gold and the sea explorations for trade routes undoubtedly led to the eventual discoveries of the Americas.  In addition, it led to other geographic and economic strengths that allowed explorers to discover many advancements in ship building, navigation techniques, and geography that connected the entire world.  The trade routes to India and China also allowed explorers to find faster ways to import luxurious goods and spices.   The African explorations would lead other European explorers like Christopher Columbus to set sail and later encounter the New World.  Portuguese explorers were successful because of their commitment to the beliefs of Prince Henry, but also were fearless in looking beyond what history told them existed.  With the new found knowledge, they were able to bring great wealth and prominence to Europe and give credibility to their explorations of Africa.  More importantly, they started a new chapter in World History.




Works Cited

African Studies Center.  “African History, the Era of Global Encroachment” [image]. Michigan State University.  (n.d.).  Retrieved on March 29, 2015 from website http://exploringafrica.matrix.msu.edu

Beazley, C. Raymond. “Prince Henry of Portugal and the African crusade of the fifteenth century.” The American Historical Review 16.1 (1910): 11-23.

Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic world: Europeans, Africans, Indians and their shared history, 1400–1900. Cambridge University Press, (2009)

Gumilev, Lev Nikolaevich. Searches for an imaginary kingdom: The legend of the kingdom of Prester John. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Namibia. “Diogo Cão, Portuguese Explorer Mariner, A History” Namibia-1on1. (2013). Retrieved on April 12, 2015 from website http://www.namibia-1on1.com/diogo-cao.html

Pearson, Patricia. “The World of the Atlantic before the “Atlantic World”: Africa, Europe, and the Americas before 1450.” The Atlantic World, 1450-2000 (2008): 3.

The Bridgeman Art Library.  “The Catalan Atlas” Catalan Atlas: Detail of North Africa and Europe, by Abraham and Jafunda Cresques, 1375. [image]. The Bridgeman Art Library.  (2015).

Ross, Emma George. “The Portuguese in Africa, 1415–1600” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/agex/hd_agex.htm (October 2002)


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