Portugal Inaugurates the Commercial Revolution


THROUGH no natural advantages except a seacoast, but by sheet courage and tenacious enterprise, little Portugal in this period made herself one of the strongest and richest of European states. Founded as a kingdom in 1139, her government, language, and culture reached an established form under her best-beloved ruler, Diniz “the Laborer”—administrator, reformer, builder, educator, patron of the arts, and skilled practitioner of literature and love. His son Affonso IV, after some precautionary murders, matured into a beneficent reign, in which a growing trade with England bound the two countries into a political amity that has endured till our time. To confirm a prudent alliance with rising Castile, Affonso urged his son Pedro to marry Donna Costanza Manuel. Pedro married her, but continued to love the lovely Inés de Castro, herself of royal lineage. After Costanza’s death Inés was an obstacle to a second diplomatic marriage for Pedro; Affonso, after due reluctance, had her killed (1355). Camoëns, the Portuguese Milton, recounted this famous romance in his national epic, The Lusiads:

So against Iñez came that murderous crew...

The brutes their swords in her white breasts imbrue, ..

And in mad wrath themselves incarnadine,

Nor any vengeance yet to come divine.1

Pedro supplied the vengeance when, two years later, he inherited the throne. He murdered the murderers, exhumed the corpse of his beloved, crowned her queen, then reburied her in regal style. He ruled with a severity nurtured by this tragedy.

A less exalted romance disordered the reign of his successor. Fernando I lost his head and heart to Leonora, wife of the lord of Pombeiro, repudiated his engagement to a Castilian princess, and married Leonora despite her living husband and a scandalized Church. After Fernando’s death (1383), Leonora assumed the regency, made her daughter Beatriz queen, and betrothed her to John I of Castile. The people revolted against the prospect of becoming a Castilian appanage; a Cortes at Coimbra declared the Portuguesethrone elective, and chose as king Don Joao—John—son of Pedro and Inés. Castile undertook to establish Beatriz by force; John improvised an army, borrowed 500 archers from England, and defeated the Castilians at Aljubarrota on August 14, 1385—which is annually celebrated as Portugal’s Independence Day.

“John the Great” now opened a reign of forty-eight years, and a dynasty—the house of Aviz—that held the throne for two centuries. Administration was reorganized, law and the judiciary were reformed, the Portuguese language was made official, and its literature began. Scholars here, as in Spain, continued till the eighteenth century to use Latin, but Vasco da Lobeira wrote in the native tongue a chivalric romance, Amadís da Gaula (c. 1400), which became in translation the most popular secular book in Europe. National art expressed itself proudly in the church of Santa Maria da Victoria, built at Batalha by John I to commemorate “the Battle” of Aljubarrota; here Milan’s cathedral is rivaled in size, and Notre Dame of Paris in the intricate splendor of buttresses and pinnacles. In 1436 a chapel of elegant design and decoration was added to receive the remains of the “bastard king.”

He was honored in his sons. Duarte—Edward—succeeded him and governed almost as well; Pedro codified the law; Henrique—“Henry the Navigator”—inaugurated the commercial revolution that was to transform the map of the globe. When John I captured Ceuta from the Moors (1415), he left the twenty-one-year-old Henry as governor of that strategic stronghold, just across the Strait from Gibraltar. Excited by Moslem accounts of Timbuktu and Senegal and the gold, ivory, and slaves to be had along the West African coast, the ambitious youth determined to explore that terrain and add it to Portugal. The Senegal River that his informants spoke of might lead eastward to the headwaters of the Nile and to Christian Abyssinia; a water route would be opened across Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea—therefore to India; the Italian monopoly of trade with the East would be broken; Portugal would be a major power. The conquered region might be converted to Christianity, and African Islam would be flanked on north and south by Christian states, and the Mediterranean become safe for Christian navigation. Henry does not appear to have thought of a route around Africa,2 but that was the historic result of his work.

About 1420 he set up at Sagres, on the southwestern tip of Portugal and Europe, an informal clearing house of nautical knowledge and enterprise. For forty years he and his aides, including Jewish and Moslem astronomers and map makers, gathered and studied there the accounts of sailors and travelers, and sent out into perilous seas frail vessels powered with sails and oars and thirty to sixty men. One of Henry’s captains had already (1418) rediscovered Madeira, which had been seen by Genoese mariners seventy years before and then forgotten; now Portuguese colonists developed its resources; soon its sugar and other products repaid the cost of colonization, and encouraged the Portuguese government to meet Henry’s appeals for funds. Noting the Azores marked on an Italian map of 1351, he commissioned Gonzalo Cabral to find them; it was done, and in 1432–44, one after another, these jewels of the sea were added to the Portuguese crown.

But it was Africa that lured Henry most insistently. Catalan and Portuguese navigators had sailed some 900 miles down the west coast as far as Bojador (1341–46). There, however, the enormous westward bulge of the great continent into the Atlantic disheartened mariners seeking the south; they crept back to Europe with self-excusing tales of horrible natives, a sea so thick with salt that no prow would cleave it, and assurances that any Christian who passed Bojador would be transformed into a Negro. With similar apologies Captain Gilianes returned to Sagres in 1433. Henry ordered him forth again, and bade him bring back a clear account of the lands and seas south of the forbidding cape. So prodded, Gilianes reached to 150 miles beyond Bojador (1435), and was astonished to find lush vegetation in equatorial regions where, according to Aristotle and Ptolemy, only deserts could exist under the burning sun. Six years later Nuno Tristão sailed down to Capo Blanco, and brought home some sturdy Negroes, who were at once baptised and enslaved; feudal barons put them to work on Portuguese plantations, and the first major result of Henry’s labors was the inauguration of the African slave trade. Fresh financial support now came to the Prince. His ships went out nominally to explore and convert, really to get gold, ivory, and slaves. Captain Lanzarote in 1444 brought back 165 “blackamoors,” who were set to tilling the lands of the monastic-military Order of Jesus Christ. A Portuguese contemporary described the capture of these “black Moors”:

Our men, crying out, “Sant’ Iago! San Jorge! Portugal!” fell upon them, killing or capturing all they could. There you might have seen mothers catch up their children, husbands their wives, each one escaping as best he could. Some plunged into the sea; others thought to hide themselves in the corners of their hovels; others hid their children under the shrubs... where our men found them. And at last our Lord God, Who gives to all a due reward, gave to our men that day a victory over their enemies; and in recompense for all their toil in His service they took 165 men, women, and children, not counting the slain.3

By 1448 over 900 African slaves had been brought to Portugal. We should add that the Moslems of North Africa had anticipated the Christians in developing a slave trade, and African Negro chieftains themselves bought Negro slaves from the Portuguese with ivory and gold.4 Man was a commodity to human beasts of prey.

In 1445 Diniz Dias reached the fertile promontory named Cape Verde; in 1446 Lanzarote explored the mouth of the Senegal; in 1456 Ca Da Mosto found the Cape Verde Islands. In that year Prince Henry died, but the enterprise continued with the impetus that he had given it and the economic gains that now financed it. Joao da Santarem crossed the equator (1471), Diogo Cäo reached the Congo River (1484); finally, half a century after Henry’s first expedition, Bartholomeu Dias, fighting his way through tempest and shipwreck, rounded the southernmost point of Africa (1486). He rejoiced to find that he could now sail eastward; India lay straight ahead, and seemed almost in his grasp; but his weary men forced him to turn back. Mourning the rough seas that had broken the spirit of his men, he named the southern tip of the continent Cabo Tormentoso; but King John II, seeing India around the bend, renamed the point the Cape of Good Hope.

Neither Dias nor the King lived to see fulfilled the dream that now stirred all Portugal—an all-water route to India. In 1497 King Manuel, jealous of the honors and wealth that Columbus was bringing to Spain, commissioned Vasco da Gama to sail around Africa to India. Forced by storms to take a circuitous route, the twenty-eight-year-old captain voyaged some 5,000 miles through 137 days to the Cape of Good Hope, then, through a hundred perils and tribulations, 178 days and 4,500 miles more to Calicut, a main nexus of east-west and north-south trade in Asia; there he anchored on May 20, 1498, ten months and twelve days after leaving Lisbon. Landing, he was at once arrested as a pirate, and narrowly escaped execution. With remarkable courage and address he overcame Indian suspicions and Moslem jealousies, won permission for the Portuguese to trade, took on a rich cargo of pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and jewelry, and left Calicut August 29 for an arduous year-long return to Lisbon. The Portuguese had finally found a route to India free from the costly transshipments and tolls suffered by the sea-and-land routes from Italy through Egypt or Arabia or Persia. The economic results were to be, for a century, more vital to Europe than those that flowed from the discovery of America.

Proud of having reached the real India while the Spanish navigators were floundering in the supposed Indies of the Caribbean, the Portuguese till 1500 hardly thought of trying a passage west. But in that year Pedro Cabral, driven from the course that he had set for India via Africa, stumbled upon Brazil; and again in that year Gaspar Corte-Real rediscovered Labrador. In 1503 Amerigo Vespucci, sailing under the Portuguese flag, explored the Rio Plata and Paraguay; and in 1506 Tristão da Cunha found the South Atlantic island that bears his name. Portuguese statesmen, however, saw little profit in Brazil, whereas every cargo from India fattened the royal treasury and the purses of merchants and mariners.

The Portuguese government kept full control of the new trade, since the commerce required unremitting military protection. Moslem merchants had long since been established in Indian posts; some Indian potentates joined them in resisting the Portuguese invasion; trade and war, money and blood, now mingled in the far-flung commercial revolution. In 1509 Alfonso de Albuquerque became the first governor of Portuguese India. Waging campaign after campaign against Moslems and Hindus, he captured and fortified Aden and Hormuz on the Arabian coast, Goa in India, and Malacca in the Malay Peninsula; and from Malacca he brought home a million ducats’ worth of booty. So armed, Portugal became for 150 years the master of European trade with India and the East Indies. Portuguese merchants established themselves as far east as the Moluccas (1512), and rejoiced to find the nutmegs, mace, and cloves of these “Spice Islands” tastier and cheaper than India’s. Still insatiate, Albuquerque sailed with twenty vessels into the Red Sea, and proposed to the Christian king of Abyssinia that they join forces in digging a canal from the Upper Nile to the Red Sea, so diverting the river and turning all Moslem Egypt into a desert. Trouble summoned Albuquerque back to Goa, where he died in 1515. In the following year Duarte Coelho opened Cochin China and Siam to Portuguese trade; and in 1517 Fernāo Peres de Andrade established commercial relations with Canton and Peking.

The Portuguese Empire—the first modern imperialism—was now the most extensive in the world, rivaled only by the empire that was being built for Spain in the Americas. Lisbon became a thriving emporium, whose waters harbored ships from romantically distant lands. There, rather than in Venice or Genoa, the merchants of northern Europe now found the lowest prices for Asiatic goods. Italy mourned her lost monopoly of the Oriental trade. Slowly the Italian Renaissance, mortally stricken by Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Luther in one generation, faded away, while Portugal and Spain, commanders of the open sea, led the flowering of the Atlantic states.

Literature and art basked in the new glory. Fernão Lopes, writing for twenty years (1434–54) his voluminous Cronacas, told the story of Portugal with a vivacity of narrative and a power of characterization rivaling Froissart. Gil Vicente inaugurated the Portuguese drama with little plays for the court and autos—acts—for public festivals (c. 1500). A Portuguese school of painting developed, taking a lead from Flanders but achieving its own temper and qualities. Nuno Gonçalves (fl. 1450–72) rivaled Mantegna, and almost the Van Eycks, in the somber polyptych that he painted for the convent of St. Vincent: the six panels primitive in perspective and modeling, but the fifty-five portraits—the best of them Henry the Navigator—individualized with realistic power. To commemorate the victorious voyage of Vasco da Gama, King Manuel “the Fortunate” commissioned the architect João de Castilho to build near Lisbon, in Flamboyant Gothic, the magnificent monastery of Belem (c. 1500). Portugal had entered her golden age.

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