The Importance of the Portuguese Discoveries

Last Edited: 04 Jan 2021

Padrão dos Descobrimentos , Belém

In this section we will explain Portugal's role during the period called the Age of Discovery, from the early 15th to early 17th centuries, when Europeans looked to the seas for an alternative route to the East, spurned on by trade in gold, silver and spices. Portugal conducted the first of these exploration journeys and encouraged by its success, more of its landsmen turned to a seafaring lifestyle. Discovery after discovery occurred - Madeira, Azores, Cape Verde, Africa, Asia. Further successes and hopes of wealth led many Portuguese to undertake sea voyages to these far off conquered lands, setting the stage for the travel of our ancestors to Macau.

Under Prince Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese began systematically exploring the Atlantic coast of Africa from 1418. Their breakthrough came in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and although he did not go much further because his crew refused, it was possible for him to establish that continuing on this route would reach India. Within the next thirty years after this, all the main discoveries would occur.

In 1492, racing to find a trade route to Asia, the Spanish monarchs supported Christopher Columbus’s plan to sail west to reach the Indies by crossing the Atlantic. He landed on an uncharted continent, then seen by Europeans as a new world, America. To prevent conflict between Portugal and Spain, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed in 1494, dividing the world into two regions of exploration along a meridien west of the Cape Verde islands. Portugal could explore and lay claim to lands to the east of this meridien while Spain could hold claim to those found travelling westwards.

hopes of wealth led many Portuguese to undertake sea voyages to these
conquered lands,...

Word of the discoveries of the Portuguese and Spanish explorers reached the ears of other Europeans. From 1495 onwards, the French and English and later, the Dutch, defied the Iberian monopoly on maritime trade and conducted their own voyages to search for new routes.

It was however, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama who achieved the European dream of reaching India by sailing around Africa in 1498, opening up direct trade with Asia. A trading post was set up in Goa, India in 1510. In 1511, Malacca was annexed and in 1512, the Portuguese discovered the valuable spice islands. One year later in 1513 , the Portuguese landed at Lintin Island in the Pearl River Delta in China. In 1557 Macau became a Portuguese trading base.

All these events allowed the Portuguese to corner the spice trade (previously in the hands of the Venetians) and establish trade with Asia in much sought after commodities. Portugal become the world's major economic, political and military global power. The Portuguese Empire was the first global empire in history, and also the longest lived of the European colonial empires, spanning almost 600 years, from the capture of Ceuta in 1415, to the handover of Macau to China in 1999.

It's downfall came from competition from other European nations, namely, England and Holland. This ultimately ended Portugal's monopoly in the East Indies as Portugal became too far extended and lacked the manpower to maintain its strongholds in the Far East. One by one, its trading posts fell to the other stronger, better equipped maritime powers. The colonies of Goa-Daman-Diu in India, were Portuguese possessions until 1962, as was East Timor in Indonesia until 1975. Miraculously, up until 1975, Portugal was able to hold on to its larger, richer colonies in Africa - Angola, Mozambique and the smaller colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde islands and the islands of São Tomé Príncipe. The last bastion of Portuguese rule in Asia, Macau, returned to chinese hands in 1999.