Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, 1500-1800

By Daniela Bleichmar; Paula De Vos et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Portuguese Imperial Science,
1450–1800
A Historiographical Review

PALMIRA FONTES DA COSTA AND HENRIQUE LEITÃO

Even a cursory perusal of a map immediately shows the most salient and remarkable fact of the Portuguese maritime expansion of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: its staggering magnitude. Starting in the first decades of the fifteenth century with a territorial expansion to North Africa, in the next decades Portuguese seamen rapidly advanced all through the Atlantic, along the western coast of Africa and then the coast of Brazil. In the first decades of the sixteenth century, this expansion intensified and spread from the east coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean, to Southeast Asia and the seas of China. By the mid-sixteenth century, Portuguese trading posts were scattered all through the Atlantic coasts, from the eastern coast of Africa to the Indian subcontinent, and as far as Japan. Ships were regularly sailing from Lisbon along routes to places as diverse as the Azores islands, Brazil, or Goa. A reasonably effective military control of the seas where the trading routes operated had been achieved, a network of administrative control was being implanted, and missionary work was beginning in earnest.1

The vastness of the Portuguese empire posed enormous logistical problems. Besides the establishment of settlements along the coast, the fate of the trading routes depended also on gaining control of the seas. The problems involved and the solutions attempted are much too complex to be dealt with here, but it is important to keep two fundamental aspects in mind.

First, the Portuguese established trading posts and engaged in diplomatic relations or warfare with civilizations and cultures of the most

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