Post-classical history

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THE GREAT BARRIER

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TWO TINY caravels plunged through the turbulent waters of a strengthening gale. With sails furled to prevent the masts from shattering under the strain, the vessels were at the mercy of the wind. For thirteen days they bucked and spun about in the open seas, sailing through the frigid, mountainous waves of the Roaring Forties south of Africa. The Portuguese sailors, who had so recently been sweating in the equatorial heat of West Africa, were far from home and navigating waters where no ships had ever sailed. They were terrified. “As the ships were tiny,” recorded the chronicler, “and the seas colder and not such as they were in the land of Guinea . . . they gave themselves up for dead.”

But all was not lost, and the storms finally exhausted themselves after nearly two weeks. The mariners hoisted sails and steered their battered ships east. After several days without sighting land, they turned north and spied a range of high mountains on the horizon. The two small vessels slid into what is now known as Mossel Bay on February 3, 1488. They were anchored approximately 230 miles east of present-day Cape Town, South Africa. With their crude navigational instruments the officers calculated that they were 2,000 miles east of Cape Bojador in West Africa and approximately due south of Egypt; they were farther south and farther east than any European ship had yet sailed on this route.

Most importantly, the unexplored coast appeared to run northeast rather than south—the storm had pushed the ships around the tip of Africa, and they were at the gate of the long-sought Indian Ocean. In the distance, the weary Portuguese mariners spied herds of cattle and “many reeds, rushes, mint, wild olive trees and other plants and trees not like those of Portugal.” When the captain of the expedition, Bartolomeu Dias, and some of his men rowed ashore, they bartered with the local herdsmen for several sheep and cattle, the only fresh meat the men had eaten in months. Yet, when they tried to refill their water barrels at a spring, the same herders pelted them with stones. Dias shot one of them with his crossbow and they fled inland, taking their cattle with them.

Dias ordered the two caravels to weigh anchor and continue to cruise northeast along the coast for approximately three hundred miles. Near present-day Great Fish River, the crew dragged a giant wooden cross through a herd of bellowing sea lions, onto the beach and up to the summit of a hill. The mariners celebrated mass at the base of the hill and took stock of their situation. Although the land was temperate and fair and they had ample supplies of fresh food and water, the ship’s provisions were nearly exhausted and the men were murmuring and frightened. “Here,” records the chronicler, “since all the people were weary and very frightened from the great seas they had passed, all with one voice began to complain and demand that they should go no further . . . They should turn and search for the ship they had left behind with their stores, which remained so far away that when they reached her they would all be dead from hunger . . . It was enough for one voyage to have discovered so much coast, and it would be better counsel to turn to discover the great cape which appeared to be behind them.”

Rather than risk a mutiny, Dias called a counsel of the officers and senior sailors. They agreed it would be better to return to Portugal to report their newfound discovery than to risk continuing. This was a disappointing decision for the commander, who was on the cusp of achieving a Portuguese maritime dream generations in the making. After the had men signed a document agreeing to return home—in Dias’s view, a foolish, cowardly abandonment of the quest—the captain persuaded them to continue for three more days and, if they found nothing, to then return. For three days the ships passed more land of a similar aspect but encountered nothing noteworthy. Planting a padrão (a stone cross) displaying a royal coat of arms and an inscription stating that the king of Portugal, João II, had “ordered this land to be discovered,” Dias commanded the ships to change course “with as much pain and sentiment as if he were leaving a beloved son in eternal exile,” according to the chronicler. They returned slowly, keeping close to shore, charting the coast they had missed when the storm had blown them out to sea.

They reached Struys Bay, a little east of Cape Agulhas, near the end of April, and Dias ordered a break for three weeks when the fog and swells made sailing too dangerous. The men took this opportunity to repair the ships and forage for additional provisions that would last them until they rounded Africa. They put to sea near the end of May and continued coasting along the southernmost point of Africa. On June 6 they sailed past a “great and noble cape” of dramatic and rugged granite thrusting into the sea. Here Dias went ashore, placing another padrão to mark the southernmost spot.

After several more weeks of voyaging they returned to the bay, where the supply ship lay anchored, to find that six of nine men left to guard it had been killed defending the ship from African attackers. One of the survivors was so “astonished with pleasure upon seeing his companions that he died shortly, being very thin from illness.” A melancholy Dias ordered the worm-infested supply ship burned, and the two caravels continued north, eventually reaching Lisbon in December 1488. After having sailed about sixteen thousand miles in sixteen months, they had travelled farther than any known voyage into unknown and uncharted waters. And, more importantly, the captain now had valuable information and priceless charts of the new coast.

When Dias went before the royal court to relate the tale of his grand achievement, he proposed naming the southernmost cape the Cape of Storms. That seemed apt. But King João II stopped him. Contemplating the future, the shrewd king renamed it the Cape of Good Hope, for indeed Portugal was poised to reap enormous benefits in trade with India, and perhaps even with the Spice Islands. Dias’s monumental epic of seamanship and daring had opened the gates to the Portuguese overseas empire. The rounding of Africa had been a quest decades in the making, with the ultimate objective being a commercial sea route from western Europe to the exotic eastern lands where spices originated.

The price of spices in Europe at the time was astronomically high because of the difficult and precarious political configuration of the lands between the source, Indonesia, and the destination lands north of the Mediterranean. These goods reached Europe by sea after passing through many hands—Chinese and Malay merchants passed them off to merchants in India, who resold them to Arab merchants, who then transported them across the Indian Ocean to Egypt and the Middle East, where they were sold to Venetian merchants who controlled the territory and trade routes that linked the Mediterranean and India to Europe. Each transaction notched the cost of the spices upward, so that pepper, cloves and nutmeg, which were used to preserve and flavour meat and to treat certain common illnesses, were extremely expensive by the time they reached Europe.

With the success of Dias’s voyage, Portugal had found a way to circumvent the monopoly of the Arab merchants and was now poised to reap vast rewards. Less than decade later another Portuguese mariner, Vasco da Gama, led the first fleet of a trading expedition that reached India. Soon Portugal was one of the richest nations in Europe and developed a complex trade network that extended around the world.

PORTUGUESE MARITIME expansion had begun in the early fifteenth century as a two-pronged attempt to search for the mythical Christian kingdom of Prester John and the more prosaic quest for the source of African gold. In 1415, Portuguese troops stormed and conquered the Moorish fortress of Ceuta, in northern Morocco, as part of the ongoing struggle on the Iberian peninsula between Christians and Muslims. The victorious Portuguese, on plundering the town, were astonished at the wealth they found hidden in the homes and warehouses of the merchants. Ceuta was a depot for caravans from Saharan Africa and the end port for goods from the Indies, far to the east. Luxurious Oriental carpets, gold, silver, brass, silks, jewels, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and ginger were stockpiled among more common commodities.

Where did this wealth of exotic merchandise originate? That was the burning question in the mind of the leader of the conquering forces, the twenty-one-year-old Prince Henry, youngest son of King João I. The curious prince remained in Ceuta as governor of the new territory for several years after the conquest, looking into this question. Henry learned all he could of the Moroccan caravan trade that endured travel over burning sands into the heart of Africa, from which the caravans returned laden with exotic and valuable goods. He heard of the “silent trade” between peoples who did not know each other’s languages.

From the Atlas Mountains, Moroccan camel caravans wound their way south across the desert, following ancient tracks for weeks to the region of the Senegal River. There the traders would carefully lay out separate piles of the goods they wished to offer, including salt, coral, metal utensils, beads and other manufactured items. When they retreated from sight, black Africans, who mined gold from the banks of the river, approached and placed a mound of gold next to each pile of goods. Then they too retreated. The Moroccan traders either accepted the gold offered and departed, or reduced the quantity of goods on offer until both parties were satisfied. And so a deal was slowly reached, and the caravan brought the gold north to Morocco.

Seeking a way to get the wealth of Morocco for Portugal was a task to preoccupy the lives of not only King João I but also his three sons. Young Prince Henry would become the hero who set in motion Portugal’s voyages to West Africa early in the fifteenth century. “Oh, thou prince little less than divine!” gushed Henry’s favoured biographer while the prince still lived; “Thy glory, thy praises, thy fame, so fill my ears and employ my eyes that I know not well where to begin . . . The seas and lands are full of your praises, for that you, by numberless voyages, have joined the East to the West.” Legend has it that Henry the Navigator (the title was appended by an admiring nineteenth-century British historian) single-handedly and with prophetic foresight established a court in the southern Portuguese province of the Algarve, where he became the patron of navigators, cartographers, shipwrights and nautical instrument crafters, combining their knowledge and skills to design better ships, better instruments and better charts in pursuit of scientific knowledge. In this view, Henry presided over an altruistic scientific society dedicated to the selfless goal of increasing knowledge through exploration. Recent historians have tended to view Henry’s reputed actions in a more revealing and less flattering light. Was Henry an enlightened prince of the Renaissance, pursuing the noble objectives of exploration to increase knowledge? Or was he merely a greedy medieval baron, eager for gold and slaves to enrich his household and to fund his crusades against the infidel in Morocco?

The standard portrait of Prince Henry—which some historians doubt is a true likeness—depicts him later in life as a stern, slim man in a red shirt and large, black, foppish hat. Lines crease his narrow face, and his tight upper lip is adorned with a neatly trimmed moustache that droops in parallel with his straight-cut hair. His expression is one of distraction, characterized by a vague sorrow, rather than jubilation, confidence or wisdom. The motto inscribed beneath the portrait is “The Desire to Do Good.” It conjures the impression of a man struggling with his internal demons rather than that of a bold crusader or selfless academic devoted to discovering and sharing knowledge. Henry reputedly seldom drank wine, lived like a recluse and probably remained a virgin his entire life. When he died, he was found to be wearing a hair shirt. Perhaps he was a conflicted man, unsure of his duty and seeking a righteous path, caught between his irreconcilable desires: the noble urge to explore the unknown world, and his less savoury inclinations towards crusading and slaving.

Henry’s chronicler, Gomes Eanes de Zurara, gives several reasons for the prince’s naval ambitions. Zurara favoured the idea that the prince’s personal destiny was set at birth by his horoscope; astrologists reputedly predicted that “this prince was bound to engage in great and noble conquests, and above all was he bound to attempt the discovery of things which were hidden from other men, and secret.” In the fifteenth century, one’s destiny as predicted by the alignment of the planets at birth was taken quite seriously— and became somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as individuals strove to live the lives predicted for them. The other inspirations for Henry’s unusual preoccupation with naval exploration cited by Zurara include the quest for the elusive kingdom of Prester John, and the fact that Henry “keenly enjoyed the labour of arms, especially against the enemies of the Holy Faith.” Whether true or not, emphasizing the religious motive in the later propaganda was a vital public relations manoeuvre in any territorial claims to secure the support of the pope, who, as we shall see, had immense power to determine the destiny of nations. The enlightened quest for knowledge, the struggle against “the infidel” and the conversion of pagans provided a veneer of respectability and nobility to mask the underlying commercial goal of grasping for lucre—an undignified endeavour for a medieval prince.

Historians today give as much credit to Henry’s older brother Dom Pedro for Portugal’s bold maritime initiatives. It appears that much of the inspiration and technical logistics of the early, more risky voyages were conducted by Dom Pedro rather than Henry. It was Dom Pedro who travelled Europe for years after the fall of Ceuta, collecting information on the known geography of the world, purchasing maps and discussing navigation, trade and travel with the era’s top academic and practical navigators and cartographers. It was also in the 1440s, during Dom Pedro’s regency over the future King Afonso V, that Portuguese ship captains were required to keep detailed records of all natural phenomena and precise astronomical observations, which were compiled and sketched onto master charts held by the prince.

After Dom Pedro’s death in a coup attempt in 1449, Henry went back to attacking the infidel in Morocco and consolidating the commercial gains in Africa. There were no more Portuguese discoveries during Dom Pedro’s lifetime. As history is written by the victors, Dom Pedro became known as a dishonourable traitor rather than the intellectual force behind Portugal’s early voyages. It is generally believed that Henry usurped his brother’s reputation by employing the sycophantic Gomes Eanes de Zurara to chronicle his exploits, combining the activities of both brothers into the biography of one and infusing the whole with a heroic veneer that paints the entire enterprise as a noble endeavour.

Regardless of Prince Henry’s actual role in Portugal’s naval exploration, at least a dozen Portuguese ships were sent out south along the African coast before breaching Cape Bojador. The shallow, treacherous waters around this promontory, which marks the southern boundary of the Sahara, and the treacherous prevailing winds that make it difficult to sail north, had kept mariners from daring to sail past this barrier and venture farther south along the African coast. Erratic and gusting winds whipped red dust into cyclones, and the shallow reef pushed up ponderous breakers from the Atlantic that crashed against the nearby desolate red cliffs. Sand suspended in the water clouded the ocean for miles, marking it as distinct, and perhaps deadly.

The records of Classical and Arab geographers had given the cape a reputation that terrified medieval seafarers. It represented the end of the world, where the Green Sea of Darkness began and Satan lurked to snare the unwary; where mud from sunken Atlantis trapped sailing ships and perhaps sucked them to their doom; where one’s very skin would be burned black from the scorching sun; where the sea boiled and monsters dwelt. No enlightened individual on the cusp of the Renaissance truly believed these outrageous myths and fearful imaginings, but enlightened people were not numerous in this age. Although there is evidence of some earlier voyages south of Cape Bojador, the terrifying obstacle was overcome in 1434 by Gil Eannes, one of Henry’s captains. Giving a wide berth to the red-tinged waters closer to land, his ship passed the cape without incident and went ashore in a small bay to the south, where the land was less desolate. Verdant it was not, but neither was it the end of the world, and when Eannes returned he presented Prince Henry with a green sprig from the far side. As the eloquent chronicler Zurara recorded, “as he purposed, so he performed—for in that voyage he doubled the Cape, despising all danger, and found the lands beyond quite contrary to what he, like others, had expected. And although the matter was a small one in itself, yet on account of its daring it was reckoned great.” Many other Portuguese ships were soon making the journey.

Although it was traditionally thought that these early Portuguese voyages were organized and sent out by Prince Henry in his pursuit of knowledge, the sailors were probably corsairs whose objective was to harass and plunder the coast of Morocco. As these corsair captains carried their depredations farther south along Africa’s Atlantic coast, they eventually sailed past Cape Bojador and continued south. All references to pirate raids were later cleansed from Zurara’s fawning account of the enterprise to establish it as a high-minded endeavour. Peter Russell writes in Portugal, Spain and the African Atlantic that “the idea of exploration of the African coast further south only occurred to the prince when his corsairs reported that they were nearing the end of normal navigation and asked for orders.”

Once “the shadow of fear” of Bojador had been crossed, Portuguese ships continued their slow but inexorable progress down the coast of Africa, lured by the prospect of gaining slaves and gold, either as plunder or in trade. It was a monumental investment to send expedition after expedition farther into these unknown waters without immediate financial return. Some of the voyages were financed by Prince Henry, whereas others were at least partially financed by private merchants. Not every voyage shared the same objectives. Some were exploratory, while others were organized to trade for slaves and ship them from established locations. Owing to the secrecy of these voyages, not much information exists on the adventures they had or the characters who led them. One anecdote that survives is the 1556 account of Alvise Cadamosto’s piquant description of feasting on elephant flesh near the Gambia River: “I had a portion cut off,” he related, “which I roasted and broiled. I ate on board ship . . . to be able to say that I had eaten of the flesh of an animal which had never been previously eaten by any of my countrymen. The flesh, actually, is not very good, seeming tough and insipid to me.”

By the 1440s the first profits from the African trade were showing, and the critics turned silent as the merchants of Lisbon, Lagos, Genoa and Venice jostled for the rights to outfit more ships for the great African venture. Although goods such as seal oil, fish, skins, ostrich eggs and sugar were regularly brought home, the greatest profits were made in slavery. The first two captive Africans were brought back to Lagos by Antão Gonçalves in 1441, and three years later Gil Eannes returned with two hundred captives and sold them as slaves in Lagos. It was not a clean business. “Mothers would clasp their infants in their arms,” wrote Zurara, “and throw themselves on the ground to cover them with their bodies, disregarding any injury to their own persons, so that they could prevent their children from being separated from them.”

Although slavery was common then, the profits to the Portuguese lay in being able to purchase or capture their slaves closer to the source, thus cutting out the Arab middlemen, who hauled their human freight across the vastness of the Sahara by camel caravan. Slaves could be purchased much more cheaply in Guinea than from the slave traders of North Africa, where the trade was well established and had a malignant pedigree reaching back centuries. Even slaves acquired from the eastern Mediterranean and sold by the Genoese were more expensive than the new Portuguese source. As a result, the prospect of the great profits to be made from the slave trade drew Portuguese explorers farther and farther south along the coast.

In the early days of Portuguese slaving, slaves were obtained by raiding unsuspecting settlements. The justification for these violent, unprovoked attacks was that the slaves were—or were at least pronounced to be—Muslims, and therefore this was part of the longstanding tradition of reciprocal violence between Christians and Muslims in the Mediterranean. They were captives of war. But soon it became difficult to capture slaves in this violent manner, so the Portuguese traders resorted to the time-honoured tradition of bartering horses for their human cargo. The Tuareg, Mandinka and Wolof merchants brought the slaves from further inland. The suffering of these people was later justified on the feeble grounds that since the slaves were being baptized, by enslaving them their masters were saving their souls—after all, a lifetime of exile and servitude was a small price to pay for eternal salvation.

Henry the Navigator should be equally known as Henry the 70 Slaver, the patron of the African slave trade. He continued to support the slaving enterprise because it was immensely profitable and brought “infidel captives” into the Christian world. Soon thousands of slaves were heading north each year chained in the holds of Portuguese caravels. In June 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued a bull, Dum Diversas, which provided a moral pretext for the slave trade. It authorized King Afonso V of Portugal to enslave “Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers.” Apparently, though not believably, Henry’s chronicler claimed that his prince was motivated not by profit but by spiritual motives. “When you saw the captives displayed before you, so great was the pleasure the sight of them gave you that you reckoned as nothing the expenses you had laid out on the enterprise. But a greater happiness still was the one that was reserved for them, for, though their bodies might be in a state of servitude, that was a small matter when compared with the fact that their souls would now enjoy true freedom for all eternity.”

Prince Henry died in 1460, but the events he is credited with setting in motion continued to propel Portuguese mariners and merchants ever southward. In 1469, the year Isabella and Ferdinand secretly wed, the well-connected Lisbon merchant Fernão Gomes leased from King Afonso a virtual commercial monopoly over the Guinea trade. The only unusual condition of the agreement was that Gomes must extend the discovery of the coast by one hundred leagues (about three hundred miles) south per year. This, the king and his advisers reasoned, would increase Portuguese wealth by opening new lands for trade (by now, even slavery was conducted by peaceful trade with coastal peoples rather than by capture). During Gomes’s tenure the source of gold at Mina, along what became known as the Gold Coast, was discovered and the importance of the African trade in Portugal’s economy rose each year.

Although, like Prince Henry, Afonso never ventured to sea, the mariners and ships under his command explored more coastline in five years than had been accomplished in the previous thirty, bringing back cargoes of pepper, ivory, gold and slaves. Improvements in ship design and navigation, as well as a greater knowledge of winds, also made ever-longer voyages possible. Portuguese caravels combined the designs of the earlier Portuguese cogs and Arab dhows to provide navigators with the ability to switch rigging and sails during both the outward and return portions of their journey, in order to sail against the wind and return north. They were still only sixty feet long—tiny but manoeuvrable. They were not great cargo carriers, but they accomplished much—in many ways, the most valuable cargo brought back by the early caravels was information.

By the time King João II ascended to the Portuguese throne in 1481, at the age of twenty-one, Portugal’s commercial activities in Africa were blossoming under his keen interest. Indeed, they were becoming a valuable component of the state’s wealth; in the 1480s, following the disastrous war over the Castilian throne, Portugal emerged as one of the wealthiest nations in Europe, having a stable and valuable currency. Its vague notions of locating Prester John and finding a way to surround the Moors in Morocco were replaced with the realistic objective of finding a sea route around Africa to the distant land of India and securing a stable trade route to acquire the exotic luxuries of the Orient. Malyn Newitt writes in his History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion that “although increasingly pressured to grant contracts to prospective discoverers, João II and his closest advisers kept their main objective firmly in view, and there is little doubt that his objective now was to find a sea route to the East.”

Under João II’s competent and resourceful leadership, the Portuguese exploration of the African coast continued at a quickened pace. A somewhat ruthless strongman, João established a government monopoly over particularly valuable regions and funded the construction of fortified settlements to defend Portuguese interests. He also arranged for overland expeditions to explore farther inland from the African coast. Spurred on by the increasing wealth from exploration and trade, Lisbon evolved into a global centre of cartography, ship design and navigation, and, eventually, of world trade. João established a commission of mathematicians to devise new methods of navigation and new and refined nautical instruments. In particular, he wanted to solve the problem of calculating latitude south of the equator. Indeed, many of the scientifically motivated activities initiated by João have probably been attributed to Henry the Navigator.

João II also was determined to keep other nations from interfering in an enterprise that he believed belonged exclusively to Portugal by dint of its years of investment and its priority in exploring the southern lands. In a display of his strong-arm tactics, João instituted a policy that any knowledge about wind patterns, currents or harbours, and any insights into local customs gained by mariners or merchants on voyages sanctioned by the crown—that is, all legal voyages along the African coast—would be proprietary trade secrets of the Portuguese state and would not be shared with the mariners of other European states. The knowledge gained from these voyages was an extremely valuable asset, and navigators were made to swear an oath of secrecy before their service—there were even arguments put forward that new discoveries should not be marked on maps because of the threat of competition. In the 1480s, João proclaimed that a violation of his royal edict against sharing information with foreign countries or mariners would bring forth a punishment of torture by dismembering, followed by death. The crews of any foreign ships, especially those of the hated Castilian interlopers, captured along the Guinea coast were to be thrown overboard and drowned as a “good lesson to those who may hear or learn of it.”

DESPITE THE secrecy, threats and punishments, the progress of Portuguese voyages along the African coast and Portugal’s expansion of its commercial empire were not pursued without challenge. Although Portuguese mariners tried to hide the wealth that was trickling in from Africa, by the 1460s the quantities of slaves in the markets of Lagos and the secret reports of Genoese sea captains who occasionally joined the Portuguese voyages leaked out as the informants risked torture and death to sell their knowledge. Profits from individual slaving voyages were rarely less than 50 per cent and occasionally soared to 800 per cent, and with ten to twelve Portuguese ships sailing annually to the Guinea coast, the commercial activity was becoming nearly impossible to conceal.

Soon Castilian mariners from Seville and Cadiz got wind of the land where the Portuguese were buying slaves and gold. Early in 1454, merchants in these cities outfitted a fleet of caravels that rounded Cape Bojador to trade along the African coast. As they were returning a few months later, they were attacked by an armed Portuguese squadron. Most of the Castilian ships escaped to Cadiz, but one was seized, along with its crew and cargo, and taken to Portugal as plunder. Relations between Portugal and Castile were already strained because of an ongoing struggle over the Canary Islands. The king of Castile, Enrique IV, then in the first year of his somewhat rudderless and illfated reign, threatened war and demanded that Portugal abandon the Guinea trade to Castile because of “the ancient and exclusive right of sailing in the seas of Guinea.” Not surprisingly, the bluster from Castile was met with bluster from Portugal.

According to the principle of prior discovery, the Portuguese were legally in the right to claim the monopoly, but going to war over Guinea was another matter. To confirm the Portuguese monopoly King Afonso V appealed to Pope Nicholas V for support, seeking the moral authority of the church for his monopoly. In the 1450s the ideological justification for these trading and slaving voyages came into full force. One document from the church refers to the pious work of Prince Henry, then in the final years of his life: “Illuminated by his many virtues and singular religious devotion, and touched by the operation of divine grace, the Infante [Henry] has, with our authority, conquered the coasts of Guinea, Nubia and Ethiopia, desirous of winning for God’s holy church, and reducing to obedience to us, those barbarous peoples whose lands Christians had never before dared to visit by land or sea.”

The myth of Prince Henry and the heroic dawn of Portugal’s overseas empire had begun. It is no coincidence that the propaganda coincided with the nation’s conflict with Spain for the right to trade in West Africa and the appeal to the pope for a bull granting a moral sanction for a monopoly. On January 8, 1455, Nicholas issued the bull Romanus Pontifex, which granted the Portuguese king, his heirs and successors all “provinces, islands, harbors, places and seas whatsoever . . . which have already been acquired and which shall hereafter come to be acquired, and the right of conquest also, from the Capes of Bojador and Nam.” Not only did Portugal have the right of prior discovery, but Prince Henry and King Afonso V had now also shrouded Portuguese commercial activities in a cloak of pious devotion to the church’s work.

Afonso V was concerned that Spanish ships might sail past the region of current Portuguese activity in Africa and claim land farther south along the coast. He appealed to the pope again the following year, and on March 13, 1456, the new pope, Calixtus III, issued a bull clarifying Portugal’s right of exclusivity as extending “as far as and through all Guinea, and past that southern shore all the way to the Indies.” Together, the two bulls of Popes Nicholas and Calixtus set a powerful precedent. Not only did they establish that all the lands of non-Christians seized by Portugal were to belong to Afonso V and his heirs, but Portugal also acquired immediate legal authority over other Catholics in all the lands and seas within the territory granted. In effect, the bulls meant that no other Catholics, which at the time effectively included all Europeans, could sail in the ocean near the newly discovered African lands for trade or exploration, or for any other reason, on pain of possible excommunication or papal interdict. Portugal now had direct legal control not only of the coastline, harbours and islands to the south and east, but also of the ocean itself, including vast tracts of the world’s oceans not yet discovered by Europeans. The sea paths to the south and east were effectively closed to other nations, as the papal grants of 1455 and 1456 gave Portugal an absolute right to unprecedented colonial expansion. The authority of the pope to make such a proclamation at that time was not disputed by Castile, the only other country directly affected. The proclamation’s long-term implications were, of course, not realized at the time.

The force of these papal rulings deterred or at least temporarily thwarted the ambitions of Castilian merchants. During the 1460s, however, when the two nations edged towards war, particularly after the discovery of the great gold-bearing mines of Mina, the number of Castilian interlopers along the African coast increased, in defiance of the papal bulls. There are only a handful of documented non-Portuguese voyages to the coast of Guinea, but the dearth of records is not surprising, since these voyages were illegal. In one instance in 1460, the captain of a captured Castilian ship was burned to death as a heretic in “a furnace of fire.” In another instance the Genoese pilot of a Castilian ship had both his hands cut off as punishment for selling information. John W. Blake, in West Africa: Quest for God and Gold, echoes the opinion of other historians when he suggests that “for every captured interloper, at least one and probably more must have gone free—for this alone rendered such hazardous adventures worthwhile—may not it be deduced that, throughout 1454 –1475, Andalusians occasionally, though not frequently, visited Guinea? . . . There can be little doubt about sporadic Castilian voyages.”

By the 1470s rumours of the wealth accruing to the Portuguese crown and to Portuguese merchants were so prevalent that many Castilian merchants and mariners were willing to risk their lives and their capital to challenge the authority of the Church and voyage south along the African coast into “Portuguese” waters. Afonso V, outraged at this violation of what he believed were his sovereign rights, was planning an invasion of Castile to depose Isabella and Ferdinand and place his own niece and bride-to-be, Juana la Beltraneja, on the throne. This would be the first step to expanding his budding “empire” to include a greater portion of the Iberian peninsula. What Afonso failed to obtain by his frustrated attempt to marry teenaged Isabella he would attempt to seize by force, and thus defend his family honour at the same time.

Castile, preoccupied with its internal dynastic struggles and a simmering civil war from 1464 to the end of the 1470s, had been in no position to devote attention to the discoveries along the African coast. But when Ferdinand and Isabella secured their rule after the Battle of Toro in 1476—effectively eliminating the threat of Portuguese invasion but not officially ending the war—they renewed the twenty-year-old Castilian claim to their “ancient and exclusive” rights to the Canary Islands and the Guinea coast (rights which, it should be noted, in relation to the Guinea coast were entirely fabricated). They encouraged Spanish merchant ships to take advantage of the political disruption and considered making direct attacks on Portuguese vessels returning from Guinea, with the objective of seizing the monopoly. In doing so they risked a charge of heresy in challenging the papal grants, and as a result the policy was not widely touted. And they were not always successful: in 1478, a Spanish fleet of thirty-five caravels sailed to Mina and traded for gold, but on returning was intercepted by an armed Portuguese squadron. Most of the fleet was captured and taken to Lisbon. The ongoing naval skirmishes in the Atlantic became costly and bloody for both sides, and in 1479, two years before Prince João officially succeeded his father as king of Portugal, the two nations concluded terms for peace with the Treaty of Alcáçovas, ending the struggle for the succession as well as their battle at sea.

The negotiations that led to the Treaty of Alcáçovas were conducted smoothly by an intermediary, whose position highlights the interrelated family nature of the conflict: she was Afonso V’s sister-in-law Beatriz, married to his brother Fernando, but was also Isabella’s aunt (her mother’s sister). During the negotiations, each branch of the family conceded certain points and secured others. At first the Portuguese demands were for a series of diplomatic marriages favourable to Portugal, for a re-examination of their shared border and for the entire costs of the recent war to be borne by Castile. Not surprisingly these demands were dismissed outright by Isabella and Ferdinand. Eventually the diplomats agreed on more palatable terms. King Afonso V and João II (although Afonso was still technically the king, by this time most of the actual work of governing was being conducted by his son João) dropped their claim to the Castilian throne and legally recognized Isabella and Ferdinand as the lawful queen and king of Castile and Aragon. This acknowledgement effectively gave the joint monarchs titular authority, united under one crown, over a kingdom that stretched from the Pyrenees in the northeast to Andalusia and Portugal in the west, to the borders of the Moorish kingdom or Emirate of Granada in the south. It was a realm much larger than Portugal, which surely infuriated João II.

In addition to containing provisions governing the royal succession of Castile and Portugal and the suzerainty over Guinea, the Treaty of Alcáçovas included clauses pertaining to sovereignty over new lands discovered in the previous decades primarily by Portuguese mariners, and also for the future exploration of lands to the west and south of Europe. Afonso V ceded to Isabella and Ferdinand suzerainty over the Canary Islands—which Spain and Portugal had been quarrelling over for decades—in exchange for Spain’s acknowledgement of the Portuguese monopoly over the Guinea trade and sovereignty over Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands. Isabella and Ferdinand agreed to discourage Spanish ships from sailing in these waters.

The official wording of the treaty was that Portugal would have a monopoly or sovereignty over all “lands discovered and to be discovered . . . and any other island which might be found and conquered from the Canary islands beyond towards Guinea.” The Portuguese acknowledgement of Spanish sovereignty over the Canary Islands proved to be significant a decade later because this island group was situated farther south and west in the Atlantic than the Azores or Madeira. For centuries thereafter, the islands proved to be an ideal base from which to reach the seasonal winds that would propel ships west across the Atlantic Ocean. The many strands of the ongoing struggle for the dominance of Iberia seemed to meld together at the Treaty of Alcáçovas, setting aside and delineating for each branch of the family the portions of an incrementally expanding empire.

Another papal bull from Pope Sixtus IV in 1481, Aeterni Regis, upheld the terms agreed to by Spain and Portugal in the Treaty of Alcáçovas, lending moral authority to the agreed territorial division. Aeterni Regis affirmed the Portuguese claims in the earlier bulls of 1455 and 1456 and gave to Portugal all new discoveries “in the Ocean Sea towards the regions lying southward and eastward” of the Canary Islands—establishing an unofficial and as yet insignificant horizontal line across the Atlantic Ocean. The peace that came in the wake of the treaty and Aeterni Regis, and the recognition of Portugal’s supremacy and monopoly in the Africa trade, allowed João II to direct the resources of his state to further its maritime explorations, ensuring that he would be the greatest, or only, beneficiary of any valuables his captains might find. The voyages of Diogo Cão between 1483 and 1485 and those of Bartolomeu Dias two years later completed the Portuguese discovery of the African coast and linked western Europe by sea to the Indian Ocean. “For more than a hundred years after this treaty,” Malyn Newitt writes in A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion,“Portugal’s expansion was not contested by any European state and its empire was able to grow in a manner which would have been impossible if it had been challenged by a well-armed opponent.”

Portugal was on the brink of reaching the Indies, its investment in exploration secured by papal decree. Since as early as the 1470s, however, an idea had been raised by savants and cartographers and presented to the royal court in Lisbon: given the known shape and size of the world, would it not be shorter and easier to reach the Indies by sailing directly west across the Atlantic Ocean rather than taking the long, tortuous route around Africa tediously being pioneered by Portuguese mariners? This attractive idea was based on the recent rediscovery of the work of ancient Greek and Roman geographers and philosophers on the size and geography of the earth. It was an idea that proved irresistible to a young and ambitious Genoese sailor and chart maker named Christopher Columbus. Then residing in Lisbon as part of the large Genoese expatriate community, Columbus was enthralled by these one-thousand-year-old theories and saw in them something obvious and inevitable. It would be his opportunity for fame and riches, a ladder from his humble origins into the rarefied world of Renaissance nobility.

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