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How Portugal led the world past the Cape Bojador barrier

As was flagged up by this recent SQotD, I have been reading The Last Crusaders by Barnaby Rogers, the point of this posting being that some of these Last Crusaders were also the first global explorers. This can’t be a review, because I have only reached page 50 out of 481, but I will be very surprised if my good opinion of this book now is in any way challenged by the experience of reading the rest of it.

A question that had always vaguely puzzled me, in a very not-thinking-about-it-carefully way, was: why Portugal? How come Portugal, of all now rather insignificant little backwaters, was the country that lead the way in the European conquest of so much of the rest of the world, a gigantic epoch only now drawing to a close?

It is of course not at all hard to see how this should be. Portugal may now be a backwater (I’ll say more about that at the end of this posting) but in the fifteenth century, from the point of view of exploring the world, it was a frontwater. All you need to do to understand how Portugal led Europe into the big wide world out there is to stop looking at the Portuguese East Indies or the various Portuguese parts of Africa or South America (which is what I had been doing), and look instead at Portugal itself, and its immediate surroundings. Once you do that, Portugal making the first big steps in the when-Europe-ruled-the-world story is not just explicable, it is close to inevitable.

Time for a date. In 1415, Portugal captured and, even more significantly, subsequently held the North African trading city of Ceuta, just across the Straights of Gibraltar from Gibraltar itself. They hoped this would drop into their laps all the trade that was done between West Africa and everywhere else through Ceuta. But not for the first or last time, grabbing the physical place turned out not to mean effortlessly controlling what had previously gone on there. Nevertheless, it was a start, by which I mean a start in the process of Europe confronting Islam not in the obvious way, but the other way. The obvious way was to bash on against Islam in the Western Mediterranean and surrounding parts, the Balkans, North Africa and what we now call the Middle East. The other way, of course, as we now all know, was to go round it.

Forget for a moment all the European nations who subsequently did this, and forget all the many places the world over that they arrived at and did business in and with. Consider only the very first steps in that process, that needed to be taken in the early fifteenth century. What did they consist of? Basically, someone European needed to sail down the coast of West Africa, establishing bases and trading relationships along the way.

If this had been easy, Portugal would probably never have lead the way. Spaniards, Genoese and Venetians, even though preoccupied with that Islam bashing in other parts of the Mediterranean world, would probably have overwhelmed those very early Portuguese efforts. But crucially, it was not easy. The Atlantic was a huge barrier, requiring huge efforts before even the possibility of profit could cut in. So far so obvious. But what is less well known nowadays (certainly not known by me until now) is that something similar applied to the West Coast of Africa. Let Rogerson tell the story (pp. 29-31):

The Arab merchants settled on the coast of Morocco had little interest in exploring the Atlantic, which they called the ‘Sea of Obscurity’ and the ‘Green Sea of Darkness’. For them the land route across the Sahara was more direct and safer. The progress of a series of freebooting Portuguese squadrons sailing south down the Moroccan coast during these years must have further discouraged any Arab trading ship from sailing too far from its haven. But it was not all one-sided, for the roles of prey and predator could be easily reversed. Indeed maritime records show that in this period some forty-six Portuguese ships were captured by corsairs on the Atlantic.

For their part, the Portuguese sea captains were reluctant to cross the southern threshold marked by Cape Bojador (about two-thirds of the way down modern Morocco’s long Atlantic coast), and with good reason. The last known expedition, by the Vivaldi brothers of Genoa in 1291, had never returned. It was widely feared that the very strong southern current that sweeps along the shore would frustrate any return. And to this day Cape Bojador marks a climatic, cultural and emotional frontier. For once Cape Noun is passed on the way south towards Bojador, all recognisable signs of Mediterranean life – trees, cultivation, farmland, villages, houses, man and goat – are gradually bleached out of the landscape, to be replaced by the savage intensity of the empty lands of the western Sahara. The region even lacks the customary grandeur of the desert, that romantic juxtaposition of dark mountains and golden sand dunes, and is instead composed of a series of bleak gravel uplands. The shoreline is awesomely sterile, overlooked by wind-eroded cliffs, protected by reefs and with the tidal reach of the rocky shore everywhere presenting a razor-like surface. In addition the whole region is made even more dangerous and impenetrable by salty sea mists, a dense, muggy intensity of climate and erratic compass fluctuations.

However, by 1434 one of the young squires of Prince Henry’s household, urged on by words of affection from his master, rather than threats, did manage to break this psychological frontier. Throughout the subsequent century of seafaring nothing halted the spread of Portuguese mariners across the oceans of the world, as Cape Bojador had. The breakthrough was the cumulative achievement of decades of unaccounted and unacknowledged work by shipwrights and observant sailors who had slowly transformed the traditional Arab-derived coastal craft of the Algarve into the lateen-rigged caravel. Together they created a craft strong enough to ride out oceanic storms but light enough to navigate estuaries and river mouths. It had the tactical ability to make use of the Atlantic winds and yet it could also be manned by a scratch crew of a dozen hands. This was the tool with which all the first great European explorers – Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama – opened up the sea lanes of a new world.

I laughed out loud on learning of those unfortunate “Vivaldi brothers”, who sound like characters in a Monty Python sketch. “Prince Henry” is of course Henry the Navigator. Even I had heard of him.

It all makes me think of an egg timer. The whole of Europe, without (apart from Henry the Navigator and his cronies) knowing it, awaiting its new destiny. The world beyond, waiting for Europe to crash into it and gobble it up. But, meanwhile, that tiny little stem off the coast of West Africa that had to be squeezed through.

The Spaniards were that little bit nearer to the stem of this egg timer, but the Spaniards had other battles to fight, with each other and with other Mediterranean powers. Those other Mediterranean powers were similarly busy knocking seven bells out of each other and out of any Muslims they could confront, or whom they were obliged to confront. Even the Portuguese had had ambitions to join in the more conventional sort of crusading, and only because that went so badly did they switch to truly concentrating on their southern adventures.

The Portuguese had also had to prevail in a European battle of their own, against the Spaniards, in 1385 (p. 22). How much more significant this battle, Aljubarrota (which I still struggle to spell, let alone pronounce – don’t click on that if you prefer silence), now seems to me than Agincourt (which happened in the same year that the Portuguese captured Ceuta and with which, says Rogerson, Aljubarrota is frequently compared), even though I am an Englishman. England’s offensive victory at Agincourt led England into a futureless French quagmire. The Portuguese defensive triumph at Aljubarrota gave Portugal the domestic stability and the leeway to set about changing the entire world.

So it was that for several generations Portugal lead the way. Only when the Portuguese had well and truly surmounted the Cape Bajador barrier did the rest of Europe follow, and by then the Portuguese were already putting their own indelible stamp on the world.

A further reminder of which came to me today in the form of an incoming email from Michael Jennings, after a phone call from him to me (concerning a rather remarkable cricket match) had informed him of my interest just now in matters Portuguese:

An interesting recent fact about Portuguese in Africa is that the number of Portuguese speakers in Africa is apparently growing rapidly. Portuguese has long been the language of the elite and much schooling in Angola and Mozambique. With the current rapid growth of literacy in Africa, helped by the fact that Portuguese language popular culture is extremely rich (thanks to the Brazilians) Portuguese is apparently finally becoming a mass spoken language in the former Portuguese colonies, even though the Portuguese left 35 years ago.

Which also chimes in rather well with Johnathan Pearce’s posting earlier today about the economic progress that Africa now looks to be making.

The rest of Rogerson’s book is, I assume, about how Europe and Islam bashed into each other directly, as they (we) are still doing of course. But what a fascinating preliminary sideshow these early Portuguese chapters are. And what a show it turned into.

10 comments to How Portugal led the world past the Cape Bojador barrier

  • I’m not sure if this comment belongs on this post or Jonathan’s below, but Brazil is also following China into Africa in terms of resources and other investments. See, for instance, here. I think the argument “We are nicer than the Chinese” is being much used. It may be that the cultural and linguistic ties have at least some significance, too, at least in Angola.

  • Craig

    For God’s sake, man. Portugal “led”. One leads now — one led then.

  • I assume we agree Craig is right. I’ve corrected it to led. I think I had this vague feeling that lead is the English and led the American spelling, but I fear that is wrong.

  • Rich Rostrom

    The great and colossal fact of history in the last millenium was that during the four hundred years of the Age of Sail, Europeans went everywhere and nobody else went much of anywhere.

    That happened because of Portugal.

    The reports on the growth of lusophone culture in Africa are interesting. It parallels the growth of anglophone culture in for instance India.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I read somewhere that the secret advantage enjoyed by europeans was that their wood was harder than the wood available to the Arab cultures- so their ships were sturdier. Maybe arab cultures in north Africa, aside from not having an incentive, simply didn’t have the resources. China had the resources to build massive junks- but very rarely the will to explore the rest of the world.

  • Portuguese has long been the language of the elite and much schooling in Angola and Mozambique.

    Total conducts much of its business in Angola in Portugese, it is a dual-language subsidiary. Those expats who are sent there have to learn Portugese.

  • One reason I was interested when Brian started talking about Portugal was that I was there myself last week. I went for a drive along the western Algarve and up the Atlantic Alentejo coast. What is really striking is the contrast between the two. The Mediterranean probably doesn’t strictly start until Gibraltar, but the Algarve feels Mediterranean: sandy beaches, gentle, fairly clear water. Then you pass the peninsula at Sagres on the very corner of Europe (with a magnificent fortress and still operating lighthouse) and you head north, where you find an incredibly rugged coast of cliffs, sand dunes, rock platforms and vicious ocean waves and currents. Whereas on the Algarve there are little towns and ports everywhere, the two cities of the Portuguese Atlantic coasts are both some distance upriver on major estuaries.

    On the other hand, Portugal is full of ruins of every great Mediterranean civilisation of the past 3000 years. Portugal is both a Mediterranean and an Atlantic country, in a way that no other country is. (Spain has both Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, but they are separated by land, and the Atlantic coasts have always been somewhat troublesome provinces of questionable Spanishness). Portugal is where the two come together.

  • Fiend's Brave Victim

    Portugal is a wonderful place. I’ve been looking at it as a place to escape to if GB goes down the toilet. They have a highly skilled and craft-led manufacturing base, low costs of living, low minimum wages, and their universities still seem to do a proper job. That stuff alone makes me think it may be worth a shot at setting up business there, never mind that beachfront property is probably about to get seriously cheap.

    Also worth a read on Portugal is ‘First Global Village’ by Martin Page

  • Paul Marks

    Sadly Castille went the route of Aragon (under the union of Ferdinand and Isabella) rather than the route of Portugal (had Joanna become Queen on the death of her father Henry IV).

    The nobles (especially in places that had autonomy – such as Galicia) supported Joanna and the Portugese alliance, as did the towns (i.e. the merchant coucils of the towns – and the Estates they elected).

    But the power of the Church (led by Cardinal Jimenez) and the cynical genius of Ferdinand of Aragon (one of the principle inspirations for M’s “The Prince”) ensured victory for intolerance and cruelity.

    Joanna was declared to be a bastard (not really the daughter of Henry IV), but what really mattered was the devotion of Isabella to the worst elements in the Church.

    It was not just a strategic advantage (putting the faith of many people at the service of one side in the Civil War) it was also a tactical advantage.

    For example, a key fortress held up the advance of the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand the Black (note to the ignorant – this is not a racial thing), so they asked for a conference with the commander of the fortress.

    He was given a a pledge of safe conduct – a formal one.

    But as soon as he came down to talk he was seized and tortured to death.

    Ordinarily (in Feudal society) such rank treachery would have caused outrage – however a senior priest had abolved F&I of their oaths of safe conduct…..

    So, in the eyes of too many, their action was acceptable. Their tactics continued to show no honour – but the Church (or rather the worst, but sadly very powerful, elements of the Church were there to “justify” everthing that was done).

    As they came to power so they ruled……

    Ferdinand was the true creator of the “Spanish Inqusition” (in fact an arm of the STATE – although manned by Dominicans and others) and its doings are remembered (I hope with shame) even in comparison to other cruel groups of an intolerant age.

    Interestingly Ferdinand (unlike Isabella) was a person of little (if any) religious beliefs (he was quite unusual in this – in terms of the period).

    He thought of the Inqusition as a source of power (strinking terror into the hearts of his subjects) and of MONEY.

    This brings us to the great difference between Western and Islamic civilization in this period. A difference ignored by establisment historians.

    PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS.

    A ruler who wished to take the property of someone in the Christian lands had a least to rig a trial – produce faked evidence of treason (or whatever).

    In Islamic civilization all a ruler had to do was wave his hand.

    This, not the hardness of wood, is the true difference,

    But in Spain (as the union of Castille and Agagon can be called) rigging evidence became so much less difficult.

    Convict someone of heresy and his property was open to the Crown.

    The Roman Inqusition (under the Popes) may have been ruthless – but it was sincerly interested in whether someone was a heretic or not.

    For much of its history elements of the Spanish Inqusition were not really interested in this – they were interested in WHETHER YOU WERE RICH.

    Torture could get most people (even the most sincere Catholics) to “admit” to ….. (well you name it). And for the brave (who would die rather than lie) one could always talk about putting their wife or children “to the question”. That would break most people (especially if they had to listen to screams and the cries for mercy).

    It is well known that entire ethnic groups (such as former Jews) were targeted.

    What is less well known is that it was not just former Jews or former Muslims who could be a target.

    ANYONE COULD BE.

    Even the Cardinal ArchBishop of Madrid was dragged from his bed by the “Holy Office”

    It is a mistake to treat the Spanish Inquistion as a joke – it was deadly serious.

    Nor does looking at death rates really tell the story – as the Inquistion was really interested in money and property (in making you confess – so that these could be “legally” taken).

    Neither this or “Spanish Practices” (the endless guild and other regulations and taxes forced on Castille over time) are funny.

    And,yes, such practices spread to Portugal (and to other places in Europe – for the union with Aragon brought Castille into the wars in the Italian land, the German lands and in the Low Countries).

    Perhaps it would all have happened anyway.

    But I like to think that if Ferdinand the Black had lost the Civil War (if the Portugese and French backed side had won) things would have been better.

    Better for Castille – and better for the world.