The Dawn of a New Age

By Barreto, Luis Filipe | UNESCO Courier, April 1989 | Go to article overview

The Dawn of a New Age

Barreto, Luis Filipe, UNESCO Courier

AT the end of the fourteenth century, the extent of the known world was, at most, equivalent to barely one quarter of its true area. Islamic civilization was the repository of this knowledge. When, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, gaps in geographical knowledge were gradually filled, it was on the initiative of Christian Europe.

As a result of the great maritime expeditions of this period Portugal became largely responsible for bringing Europe closer to Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. The significance of the Portuguese discoveries in the history of civilizations is that they made an extraordinary contribution to the opening up of the planet. As a result of Portuguese endeavours, Eurolled peans sailed round the Capes of Tarfaya and Bojador, the traditional limits of navigation along the west coast of Africa, which had only seldom been passed. They went on to reach equatorial regions and the southern hemisphere and gave the lie to the traditional European idea that these regions were uninhabitable. These discoveries established for the first time that there was a link between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans-the so-called "route to India"-thus refuting the widely-held traditional view that the Indian Ocean was landlocked.

A new world-picture

As a result of this revolution in communication and knowledge, a relatively accurate picture of the planet began to emerge for the first time. The tropics and the southern hemisphere were not inferior to the northern hemisphere but different, possessing a wider variety of minerals, and plant and animal life. The revolution also made a decisive contribution, in both theory and practice, to the discovery that humankind, one and the same, existed aU over the world.

The new awareness of life on a planetary scale, which came into being with the discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, began to stimulate a world economy based on the unequal terms of trade which the Europeans imposed in their dealings with other societies. A mercantile economy centred on cities such as Lisbon and Seville came into being, with central and northern Europe and the Italian cities providing the main outlets and sources of finance.

The first signs of a world culture also began to emerge. Books, letters, reports and maps were published and circulated in southern Europe but also in Goa, Macao and Nagasaki. The Portuguese discoveries thus made a fundamental contribution to the transition from an age of tightly-knit societies to a wider, more open world.

Portuguese navigators settled in Madeira and the Azores in the 1420s and 1430s and then advanced through the Atlantic and along the west coast of Africa. Gil Eanes rounded Cape Boador in 1434. Between 1440 and 1460 further progress was made along the coast of Guinea and the Cape Verde islands were discovered. The islands of Fernando Po, Sio Tome', Principe and Annobon were discovered in 1470. In 1483, Diogo Cio reached the River Congo and then, in 1487-1488, Bartolomeu Dias established the existence of a link between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans by sailing round the Cape of Good Hope, which he called the Cape of Storms. Vasco da Gama's great voyage of 1497-1499 opened the sea route between Europe and Asia.

In the sixteenth century, the drive for expansion took the Portuguese into the interior of Africa, with the exploration of the Monomotapa empire (present-day Zimbabwe) in 1514, and to the Americas, with the arrival in 1500 of Pedro Alvares Cabral in Brazil and of the Corto Real brothers in Newfoundland. Joao Rodrigues Cabrilho played a decisive role in the exploration of Florida in 1539 and of California in 1542-1543. The Portuguese also went on to Asia and Oceania, reaching Malacca and the East Indies in 1509-1511, China in 1513 and japan in 1542-1543.

Other European peoples spread out into the wider world later than the Portuguese, who can be said to have ushered in a new era of knowledge and human history in the 1420s and 1430s. The first significant date in Spanish expansion was 1492, when Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), who had been enlisted in the service of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, reached the West Indies. French and British expansion only began in the 1530s. Portugal's geographic discoveries were not only ahead of those of other European countries, but the Portuguese were also the first to reach all the continents (Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania) and the major oceans (the Atlantic, the Indian and the Pacific).

As a result of this vast enterprise, Portugal became the repository of a data bank on a planetary scale. For the first time, a worldwide system of material and intellectual exchanges took shape. Never before had such a mass of information in so many fields-from the determination of latitudes, watersheds, and magnetic declinations to botany, zoology, mineralogy-been compiled and classified. The first attempts were also made towards the systematic application of information gathered from different oceans, continents and societies.

An age of expansion

There were two main stages in the Portuguese discoveries, separated by a period of recession between 1460 and 1469, as a result of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator and of hesitations in the geostrategical policy of King Afonso V (1438-1481).

The first stage began in 1415, with the conquest of Ceuta in Morocco, and ended in 1460 with the arrival of the Portuguese in Sierra Leone. This period corresponded to the emergence of a social, technical and ideological structure geared to the expansion of Portuguese power in the Atlantic and Africa. The thrust of this expansion was directed towards three main objectives: settlement in North Africa, a determination to sail further south than Cape Bojador, and the organization of an area of production in Madeira and the Azores.

The first stage was dominated by Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), a great figure who strove to coordinate the activities of the nobles and merchants, who coveted wealth from agriculture and trade and aspired to control the trade routes, and to reconcile these activities with the imperatives of nationhood and Christian Europe (as dictated by the Papacy and the Order of Christ, a reli - Joao de Castro (1500-1548), a Portuguese scholar and explorer who served for a time as viceroy to India, made a major contribution to the science of navigation with his celebrated roteiros (pilot books). This portrait is from the Codex Lisuarte de Abrcu (1558), in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. gious order of which Henry was made grand master in 1420).

The second stage lasted from 1469, when King Afonso V made a contract with Fernio Gomes for the exploration of the African seaboard, to 1498, when Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut (in the present-day Indian state of Kerala), and opened the way for the establishment of a maritime link between Europe and Asia. King Joao II (1455-1495) was the main figure behind the organization of this move to conquer the south Atlantic and to link the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. As a result of his policies, Portuguese expansion was largely state controlled and mercantile. The spheres of influence of the Portuguese crown under its new policy were laid down in the Treaty of Tordesillas concluded with Spain in 1494, which defined the limits to the area of Spanish and Portuguese conquest in the Americas. However, the prime goal of Portuguese policy was the Orient, as witnessed by the overland journeys of Piro da Covilhi, with the emphasis being placed on navigational technology and science.

Strategic locations

All through the sixteenth century, the Portuguese strove to develop communications in their Estado da India ("State of India") and to create a new society in Brazil. The "State of India" consisted of a vast network of relations between different civilizations stretching from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. It was a system in which Portuguese seafarers, explorers and merchants were at their most mobile, ranging far and wide from East Africa to the Orient in an intensive effort of dissemination and change based on a minimum of linguistic, religious and political unity. The "State of India" was organized on the basis of a small number of territorial possessions covering the widest possible geographical range. Portugal's maritime trading network drew its inspiration from the example set by Islamic "thalassocracy" (mastery of the seas).

In order to hold sway over the largest possible area with a small number of territorial possessions, it was necessary to ensure control over the high seas from a number of strategic locations, such as Hormuz, Goa and Malacca, and it was this plan that Afonso de Albuquerque put into effect between 1509 and 1515. In the meantime, from 1502 onwards, this maritime hegemony, which was instrumental in securing partial control of the seas and the circulation of goods, became a reality, as the Portuguese came to impose the cartaze or safe-conduct system on navigation by non-Christian vessels in the Indian Ocean.

The basic features of the "State of India" were its maritime activity, its mercantile economy and its urban demographic structure. The key social unit was the individual committed to the state and the Church and spurred on by personal initiative. The economic basis of the "State of India's" prosperity was mercantile, its end-purpose being to foster trade both between different regions of Asia and between Asia and Europe. The main commodities involved in this international traffic were pepper and ginger from Malabar and from Indonesia and Malaysia; mace and nutmeg from the Banda Islands in the East Indies; cinnamon from Ceylon; cloves from Ternate; horses from Persia and Arabia; gold, silk and porcelain from China; and gold from south-eastern Africa (the Monomotapa empire) and Sumatra.

The social system of Brazil, unlike that of the "State of India", was based on the landowning colonial families. Society was based on the aristocratic and slaveowning model and wealth took the form of agricultural holdings and slave labour, with stockraising and the monoculture of wit I I sugarcane.

The Portuguese of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries thus practised on a large scale the intermingling of cultures and peoples. They established links between the Christian, Jewish and Islamic civilizations, purveyed commodities and syncretized religions and customs.

At the time of the great discoveries, the Portuguese language came to be the main vernacular of maritime and mercantile communication, especially along the coasts of Africa and the Orient. The fact that Portuguese today has more words of Asian, African and Amerindian origin than any other European language is one result of this far-reaching dialogue between civilizations.

Pioneers of ocean exploration

Prince Henry the Navigator and King Joao II

Prince Henry (1394-1460), son of King Joao I, is known as "the Navigator" because he inspired, financed and organized the early Portuguese voyages of discovery. He epitomized Portugal's drive for religious, political and economic expansion, which was given further impetus in the second half of the 15th century by his great-nephew King Joao II (1455-1495), who continued exploration of the African coast and the quest for the route to India. Above, detail of a panel from the polyptych for Sio Vicente, by Nuno Gongalves, shows Henry with the future Joao II at his side. (See also page 2.)

Diogo Cao

King Joao II commissioned Diogo Cao, a knight of the royal household, to explore the west coast of Africa. The first European to set foot on African soil south of the Equator, he established friendly relations with local rulers in the Congo, Angola and Namibia. During his first voyage, in 1482, he explored the coast between Cape Catarina and Cape Lopez (in present-day Gabon). On a second voyage he passed Pointe-Noire and sailed upriver to explore the interior of the Congo and Angola. Like other Portuguese navigators, he set up engraved stone pillars padroes) in the places he visited, as a result of which it has been possible to retrace his steps. The padrao shown here is in the possession of the Lisbon Geographical Society.

Bartolomeu Dias

A knight of the royal household, Bartolomeu Dias (d. 1500), is famed for the voyage (1487-1488) in which he rounded the southernmost point of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, which he named the Cape of Storms. He thus confirmed King Joao 11's hypothesis that it was possible to reach India by sea. Ten years later a fleet commanded by Vasco da Gama set sail from the Tagus estuary in search of the legendary eastern land of spices and gold. Dias carried out further expeditions and died when his ship went down not far from the cape he had discovered. The map, below, was produced by the German cartographer Henricus Martellus around 1489 and shows the immediate impact of Dias' voyage on European cartography.

Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama (c. 1468-1524), the most celebrated of the Portuguese navigators, carried out several missions for King Joao II before being appointed admiral of the fleet which sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and opened the sea route from Western Europe to India in 1498, a major achievement for the Portuguese. (Six years before, Christopher Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, had tried to find a western sea route to Asia, but instead reached America, the existence of which had not been suspected by Europeans.) Da Gama's fleet sailed from Lisbon on 8 July 1497 and arrived at Calicut, on the south-west coast of India, in May the following year. He met the Zamorin (ruler) of Calicut and gave him a letter from King Jogo's successor, Manuel I, proposing an alliance and a commercial treaty. After his return to Lisbon, Da Gama was made Portuguese viceroy to India. His great voyage of discovery inspired Luis de

Fernao de Magalhaes (Ferdinand Magellan)

Magellan c. 1480-1521) commanded the first expedition to sail round the world (1519-1522). While in the East as a soldier in the service of the Portuguese crown, he learned much that proved useful during his great voyage. At that time many Portuguese navigators were offered large sums by foreign rulers to command maritime expeditions, and Magellan entered the service of the Emperor Charles V, who was also King of Spain. The major commercial rivals of the Portuguese, the Spaniards were seeking a western sea route which would take them around the Americas to Asia. Magellan's proposal to sail westwards to the Spice islands or the Moluccas received royal assent. On 21 October 1520 his ships rounded the southern tip of South America via what would later be known as the Strait of Magellan and entered the ocean which he called the "Pacific". The great navigator did not live to see the conclusion of his project. He was killed in a skirmish in the Philippines and the voyage was completed by the Spaniard Juan Sebastian Eicano. This portrait of Magellan is in the Naval Museum, Madrid.

Pedro Alvares Cabral

After Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to india, Pedro Alvares Cabral (c. 1467-1520) was appointed captain of the second Portuguese fleet bound for Calicut. His orders were to establish commercial and political relations with the port, which was then the centre of the spice trade. The fleet, which left Lisbon harbour in 1500, drifted off course and headed west, finally reaching the Brazilian coast at a point which Cabral named Vera Cruz. in spite of the belief that Brazil was discovered by chance, there are several indications that King Manuel I of Portugal had ordered Cabral to find a route to the "West Indies", as the Americas were known. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish were exploring these regions, and the two nations had drawn up the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 in order to define the limits of their respective spheres of influence in the New World. Above, statue of Cabral in a Lisbon square.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

The Dawn of a New Age


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.