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Portuguese Explorers: A Brief History of Portugal Part 4

Portuguese Explorers: A Brief History of Portugal Part 4

by Emily Mudge

Portuguese explorers were responsible for some of the most incredible voyages in European history. Portuguese sailors discovered and colonized large parts of the world, years before the rest of Europe embarked on its Age of Exploration. 

Learn more about the Portuguese Empire, or check out our timeline of Portuguese history.

When visiting Lisbon, you’ll likely see references to famous Portuguese explorers, like the Monument of Discoveries. Here are five of the most famous explorers you should know.

Henry the Navigator

Prince Henry the Navigator

Infante D. Henriques

Born in 1394, Prince Henry kickstarted the Age of Discovery in Portugal. However, this is largely for his political and economic sponsorship of Portuguese explorers rather than his own voyages. Prince Henry encouraged systematic exploration of the western coast of Africa, Madeira, and the Azores. It was also during his time that Portuguese engineers created the caravel, a faster, lightweight sailing ship.

Prince Henry was not known as “The Navigator” until over 300 years after his death. Even now, he is usually referred to as “Infante D. Henrique.” It is indisputable, however, that he was the original patron of Portuguese exploration. He paved the way for the Portuguese Empire to grow around the world.

Bartolomeu Dias

Portuguese Monument of Discoveries

Bartolomeu Dias was born in 1450, just ten years before the death of Henry the Navigator. However, without Prince Henry’s influence, Dias’s journeys likely would not have been possible. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to sail all the way around the southern tip of Africa. He was on a mission to discover a sea route to India, a voyage that would open up new trade opportunities. Other powerful European countries controlled sea trade through the Mediterranean Ocean, but a free and open trade route would allow Portugal to gain power and wealth in the European spice trade.

After sailing around the southern tip of Africa and discovering that it would be possible to reach India via this alternate route, Dias’s crew decided to turn back. Although they never actually reached India, Portuguese sea trade would not have been possible without this groundbreaking discovery. 

Vasco de Gama

Following in Bartolomeu Dias’s footsteps, Vasco de Gama sailed around the southern tip of Africa. In 1499, he was the first European to travel all the way to India by sea. His voyage officially linked the two countries, and gave Portugal easy access to build a colonial empire in Asia.

The total distance traveled in de Gama’s voyage to India was greater than any previous exploration. His voyage inspired the famous Portuguese poem, Os Lusiadas, written by Portuguese national poet Luis de Camoes.

Pedro Alvares Cabral

Pedro Alvares Cabral, along with his fleet of 13 ships, set sail to follow Vasco de Gama’s voyage to India. Cabral sailed farther west into the Atlantic Ocean, where he landed at what he thought was a small island. However, after he explored the land, he determined it was likely a whole continent. Cabral claimed the land for Portugal. This land would later become known as Brazil. Cabral and his ships then continued their voyage to Africa and on to India.

Brazil, discovered by Cabral

In addition to discovering Brazil, Cabral’s voyage was the first to touch four separate continents: South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. It was also an important stepping stone in establishing the Portuguese spice trade. Cabral’s initial meetings in India set up a trade relationship between the two countries that would eventually give Portugal enough profits to establish their entire empire.

Ferdinand Magellan

You might have heard the name of Ferdinand Magellan, the first person to sail all the way around the globe. Although his record breaking voyage was under the Spanish king, Magellan was Portuguese by birth. Magellan wanted to discover a new route to India, by sailing around the southern tip of South America rather than Africa. However, after the Portuguese king refused to support this expedition, he turned to the Spanish king for funds and supplies. 

Magellan set sail in 1519, and reached the East Indies in 1521, where he died. One of the five ships he sailed with later returned to Portugal, completing the first continuous voyage around the globe. However, Magellan himself had made the journey to Southeast Asia in the past, via the route discovered by Dias. This meant that, by combining his voyages, he had completed a circumnavigation of the globe.

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