How the Portuguese got to India – Part 1

Editor’s note: In this installment of the navigation eNewsletter, David Berson examines the history of navigation with a look at the Portuguese effort to sail around Africa. In the next installment, Berson will discuss how the Portuguese interacted with Arab sailors and learned about Arab navigation techniques. 

The Portuguese were bound and determined to break up the Venetian monopoly of the Indian spice trade. In order to do this they had to sail down the west coast of Africa, turn the corner at the cape, then head north hoping to find directions that would take them across the Indian Ocean to India. A tall order under any circumstance and it took all their best explorers more than 50 years to accomplish the job.

The man most responsible for this push of exploration, though he did it more to save souls than to carry on trade, was Dom Henrique, better known to us as Prince Henry the Navigator. Operating from Sagres, Portugal, Prince Henry- a true ascetic who slept in a gravel bed and wore a hair shirt- sponsored the best of the Portuguese explorers, coaxing, threatening, promising them glory, if only they would have the courage to stand on into the unknown seas.

It was Gil Eannes who finally rounded Cape Bojador; just below the Canary Islands. His was actually the fifteenth attempt and the first success. This opened the way for the next generation. All was not glory and light, however. Unfortunately for the people of the region, the Portuguese, deciding that their black brothers needed saving, began capturing natives and brought them back to Portugal as slaves. 

Prince Henry died in 1460 long before Bartolomeu Diaz turned the corner of Africa in 1488. He didn’t even realize he had reached the Horn of Africa until he continued sailing and the land bore steadily to the east. He stopped at the southern tip of the continent originally naming it Cabo Tormentoso (Cape of Storms), because of its stormy aspects. The Portuguese King João II overruled him, however, and renamed it the Cape of Good Hope because “for that it promised the discovery of India that was so much wished for, and sought over so many years.” It took another 11 years before Vasco da Gama made it as far north as Mombassa looking for a pilot to take him across to Calicut and the spices of India. How he found his way there will be in the next newsletter.

About the Author:

Contributing Editor David Berson writes the Nav Problem page in every issue of Ocean Navigator. He is also the owner and operator of Glory, an electrically powered excursion boat, in Greenport, N.Y.

By Ocean Navigator