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OFF COURSE

Oh Yeah, and a New Continent

1500

The Portuguese spice trade route to the Orient was the glory and the secret of that small nation. They had found a path, albeit a long one, that bypassed the Islamic merchants. The route they took was to sail around Africa and then up the eastern African coast before sailing across to India. Navigation was primitive, and techniques for preserving food were not much better. Spending any time in the open waters could get a ship lost and doom the crew to a death of thirst or starvation. Most merchants in the fifteenth century tried to always stay in sight of land. The long trip was risky, but immensely profitable. If one ship in ten returned full of spices, the profits were enough to cover the cost of the lost ships and give the investors 1000 percent return on their money.

In 1500, a Portuguese merchant named Pedro Alvares Cabral led his own fleet of fifteen ships attempting to trace the route of Vasco da Gama to India. But rounding the horn of West Africa, his ships caught some unusual winds and were pushed away from the coast. This likely caused everyone on board a good deal of concern. He sailed south and ran into an unfamiliar coastline. Cabral knew it was not part of Africa because it was on the wrong side of the ocean. It was to his west, and since he was supposed to be sailing down the coast of Africa, that would be to his east. It was a strange and wild land covered mostly by jungle. Today we call the country he found Brazil. Cabral had other business: He was after spices, not new continents. So after sailing along its coast for ten days and claiming the new land in the name of his king, Manuel I, (more or less standard procedure in his time), the Portuguese admiral wrote up a report and sailed east until he found a coast that was on the correct side of the ocean. Cabral finally did reach India, and four of his ships made it back to Portugal more than a year later.

Four ships filled with spices made Cabral, his investors, and the crown very happily rich. He filed his report with the king of the new land he had claimed for him and nobody cared. Cabral had not seen any golden cities or diamond mines, so it took an amazing twenty-five years before anyone sailed to Brazil again. In the centuries that followed, the riches of Brazil made tiny Portugal a wealthy and prosperous nation. When a pope later tried to make peace between Portugal and Spain as they competed in the New World, Cabral’s accidental discovery while sailing off course gave his nation claim to Brazil. For Portugal, that unusual offshore wind pushing Pedro Cabral into strange waters was the best accident that ever happened. Even if at the time no one really cared.

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