The Seafaring of Portugal in the Age of Discoveries

Seafarers Monument Lisbon

Portugal on the edge of Europe? The seafaring of Portugal changes this

The sea is no longer the end point for expansion. The seafaring of Portugal changes this. Rather, for the Portuguese, with the age of discovery, it becomes a connection to other worlds.

Portugal owned the end of the 14. Century about one million inhabitants. 40000 people lived in Lisbon. The rural population lived from agriculture, but had no own land, but worked with spiritual and secular landowners. Most of what they earned came from their landlord. The crown could recall them at any time to military and Frondiensten. Only after the peace agreement with Castile, agriculture in the north of Portugal fed the people. From the less fertile Alentejo in the south of the country people continued to migrate to the port cities. The life of a farm laborer was little worth aspiring. It would be better if one worked on the ever-advancing ships or tried to find a livelihood in the harbor.



In particular, Lisbon, Porto and Lagos, the country's three major port cities, became trade centers, connecting with other Mediterranean port cities and other newly discovered areas in the west. There met merchants, diplomats, specialists in navigation, cartography and shipbuilding with members of bourgeois families who wanted to engage in profitable overseas trade, and representatives of the royal family, who watched the new developments.

Although Portugal had already expelled the Moors from 1249, there were still Jews and Moriscos, Christians mingled with the Moors, living in the land, who could pass on their knowledge. Occasionally Black Africans could be seen coming here via Moorish trade routes long before the Portuguese thought of discovering new areas.

Knowledge is power

Heinrich, the navigator, is often portrayed as the coordinator of the Portuguese Exploration Triangle. Whether he actually did so can no longer be clearly demonstrated from the sources of the time. He was certainly very much interested and was undoubtedly someone who wanted to recognize and implement the possibilities of the times.

But not only did he face the changes in the air. It is difficult to say what the Portuguese of the time knew and what did not. Surely this was dependent on which one
Social class, whether he lived in the hinterland or on the coast, and what his level of education was. Widespread was the report of Marco Polo, who shared his experiences in the China end of the 13. Century described. John Mandeville's writings related the riches of the Greater Khan and the spices of East Asia. Rumors and news of travelers meeting Portuguese on the caravan routes in Egypt and the Middle East broadened the knowledge. Muslim geographers explored remote areas. Ibn Battuta traversed the middle of the 14. Century Africa, the Middle East and India, and his reports of noble silk fabrics, gold and ivory also arrived in Portugal. Iberian cartographers processed this information and produced detailed maps.


Heinrich the Navigator - developer of the Portuguese seafaring
Henry the Navigator


Technical progress in the maritime sector of Portugal

The discoveries of the time were not only geographical. Without technical innovations and discoveries they would not have been possible.


The development of the caravels enabled the Portuguese to push the boundaries of European shipping. In contrast to the galleys, the Mediterranean in the 18. century
were used, they had sails and were thus more flexible. Its sturdy shape could also withstand the swell of the Atlantic. Caravels were not a uniform type of ship, but had certain characteristics in common. The ships were different in size depending on the purpose and length of the trip. Most of them had three or four masts, three of them with large square sails and one with a Latin sail in triangular form.

Where the Latin sails come from, you can not tell. At the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5. Century AD, all ships had square sails. After that, there are no records of seafaring in the Mediterranean until the end of the 9. Century, as ships are mentioned, which use under an oblique Rah, a square sail, triangular sails.
Why these are called "Latin" is not known. It was probably the Arabs who introduced them to the Mediterranean. However, it is not clear whether they are Arab or Phoenician discoveries. In the 13th century they were known throughout the Mediterranean and their spread around the coasts of Europe began. The first types of ships that use Latin sails are the Holk der Hanse (around 1470), the Spanish caravel (around 1490) and the Spanish Nao (around 1490). Latin sails made it possible to sail with the wind. The ships no longer had to cross the wind to move forward.

Portuguese caravel for the Portuguese seafaring
Portuguese caravel

ship forms

In the 15. Century, the seagoing ships were getting bigger. Gradually the ship types of Northern and Southern Europe converged. In the course of the 15. and 16. Century changed their appearance increasingly. The castles remained large, but increasingly fused with the lines of the hull. Around 1550, the large ships were receiving more and more mirrors, which gave the superstructures better hold than the round corners of the Middle Ages.

This allowed them to brave the storms of the Atlantic better, and it could be larger crews and quantities of goods housed on these ships. The new types of ships fulfilled the conditions for being used overseas.


Initially naval warfare was conducted using the same weapons as land wars. Arrows, spears, javelins, swords, lances, tanks, and shields, however, had the rivals at sea, and so brought
only the use of guns the new maritime powers superiority on the oceans.

Beginning of 14. At the turn of the century, the Venetians may have used the first cannons against their competitors from Genoa. The first Africa caravels of the Portuguese had already small cast guns on the fore and aft fortress. In the 15. In the 19th century, it was decided to attach the cannons to the covers and 16. In the 19th century, special gun decks and ports were set up in the ship's hull, which could be used to fire hot broadsides at the enemy.

In the case of Southwest European ships, the superior armament imparted confidence in invading unknown waters without the crews worrying about being easily overwhelmed by the local population.

Navigational aids

Since man ventured out into the open sea, he tried to improve his orientation. At the time of the great discoveries was the dissemination and development of new nautical charts
very important. It was still very difficult to control the points on it. The fact that 1569 Gerhard Mercator divided the earth into a system of latitudes and longitudes did not mean that it was possible to navigate in every direction in this grid. Determining the longitudes created problems until modern times, until a timepiece was developed that was reliable enough and could safely be used on ships.

The degrees of latitude could be determined at that time with primitive aids already reasonably. With the hand log one measured the ship speed. They threw a piece of wood into the water, which floated there while the ship continued to sail. By unrolling a line marked in certain sections, the threads were fixed, ie the speed with which the ship moved in
a fixed time. The only way to divide time was to use an hourglass.

The phenomenon of magnetic attraction that the compass takes advantage of was in the 12. Learned by Arabs in China in the 19th century and in the 13. Century been made known in Europe. This allowed the North Pole to be fixed and the direction in which a ship sailed to be determined.

The astronomical navigation went back to the Arabs, who determined with the help of the astrolabe the direction of prayer to Mecca. On a free-hanging ring, a rotary ruler was attached, which determined the state of the sun and stars. On the ring scale then the height could be read. Portuguese and Spaniards took over this tool.

The measurements required the knowledge of calculated values. All ships that simultaneously calculate the same altitude for a given star are on the same astronomical scale
Stand line. For this purpose, more and more accurate tools were developed over time. The quadrant was probably already around 150 v. Invented in Greece.

The Jew Levi Ben Gerson from Catalonia built 1342 the Gradstock or Jakobsstab. This consisted of a measuring ruler and three different length sliders. The ruler was graduated
which belonged to one slide each. The height was measured so that the rod was held to the eye and one of the sliders was moved until its lower end coincided with the horizon and its upper coincided with the sun. The height could then be read off the ruler.

Cartography and the seafaring of Portugal

The usual cards of the time before the 15. Century mixed legend with reality. The knowledge of distant regions often came from fantastic sources. The Arabian middlemen in the spice trade also tried to keep their knowledge of the trade routes secret in order to eliminate annoying competition. So maps were often a representation of the European view of the world. On the Psalter card from the 13. Century, Christ is portrayed as the ruler of the world crushing dragons under his feet. Jerusalem is shown in it as the center of the world. This was only to change when the expulsion of the Moors brought the inhabitants of the Mediterranean into ever closer contact with the knowledge of Arab and Jewish scientists.

Maps of the Arabs were available to the Portuguese explorers. During their voyages of discovery, they drew their own series of maps, which, however, differed greatly from today's maps and sea maps. The portolan maps as already used by Venetians and Genoese and the Jewish cartographers Majorca were covered with wind dash lines, which should make it easier for the captain to find the way to the next port. Coastlines were shown on these charts, with favorable mooring locations marked. The strangest figures, monsters and creatures were often depicted in the countries themselves, showing how little was known about these areas and how much one was influenced by the deterrent reports of the Arabs.

So it is no wonder that legends of sea monsters, monsters and legendary figures like the priest-king Johannes, who was supposedly just waiting on the other side of the sand sea of ​​the Sahara to cooperate with the Christian conquerors from the north in the expulsion of the Arab middlemen, persisted for centuries.

Despite the increasing knowledge, there were only a few specialists in Portugal at that time who were familiar with the nautical charts of the time and the navigation. Therefore, they often hired Arab pilots who had to bring their own nautical charts.

Life on board at the time of the Portuguese seafaring

The caravels of the early explorers set out for areas that were mostly completely new territory for everyone on board. Some of the crew had never ventured out to sea, perhaps heard of strange people who lived in regions of the world that would take them months to reach. They left their familiar surroundings behind and had to adapt to months of meager diet, hostile natives and stormy sea voyages through unknown waters. What kind of people were they who embarked on these adventures? And what was in store for them?


Despite all the technical innovations, it took a strong motivation to make people embark on the venture to venture into unknown realms on the open sea. The crews of the first explorerships consisted in part of convicts who had been promised a leave of punishment if they were to survive this adventure. Bartolomeo Diaz had to turn around because of a threat of mutiny off the coast of South Africa and sail back to Portugal and was unable to fulfill his actual mission - namely to find the sea route to India. Fear, ignorance and superstition of the crew played a major role.

In the centuries before the great discoveries, the Portuguese had been busy expelling the Moors from the Iberian peninsula. This gave many small noblemen the opportunity to earn their living during the wars against the Moors and to increase their social status by being awarded lands and titles for their war services. After the Moors 1492 were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, this possibility of social advancement was eliminated. At the same time, however, there was an opportunity to gain new land, riches and fame in the new countries of Southeast Asia and on the other side of the Atlantic.

Other crew members were more interested in rescuing the souls of non-Christian indigenous peoples. Various monastic orders moved their activities increasingly to the conversion of newly discovered peoples.

Over time, interest in these areas, about which one knew next to nothing, grew, and more and more curious and adventurous people embarked, who made it their business to report back home from these exotic regions of the world, be it about the unusual way of life there, the strange flora and fauna or the discovery of other new things that were not known back home.

The previously mentioned crew members were mostly members of the middle class, whose members were the lower ranks of the aristocracy and members of wealthy bourgeois families. These were well-read, possessed property, and endeavored to ascend to the higher ranks of the aristocracy. In addition, there was also the simple sailor, who did the hard work on board. This often came from the poor conditions of small farm and peasant families, who owed leases and landlords to their landlords. Frequently it was also criminals who could repay their punishment in this way faster. Mostly they could not read or write, and did not know where they were going and what dangers they would face.

Living conditions on board during the sea voyage in Portugal

Even if the new types of ships used for the voyages of discovery were larger and more manoeuvrable than all ships that the Europeans had previously used for seafaring, they were not designed for the convenience of the crew, but were supposed to make so much profit for the high investments deliver as possible. This meant that the seafarers were often crammed together for months in a confined space. In the early years of the discoveries, there were no team accommodations. Every sailor had to find his place to sleep where he found it. Only later did you take on board the hammocks that you had come to know from the Indian tribes of the Caribbean. Often the crews were housed in such a small space that you could not even turn around without entering your neighbor's bedroom. On the ships there was the command "Upturned!", In which all sleeping people had to turn to the other side at certain night hours.

Hygienic conditions on board were catastrophic. There were no latrines. Instead, it used spanned networks at the bow. Daily personal hygiene was not known on land. Often the sailors kept their clothes during the entire journey. They rarely had clothes to change. Only in the middle of the 18. Century beat the English naval doctor Dr. James Lind of the British Admiralty, the daily cleaning and washing of clothes as a means against the spread of diseases on board.

Such conditions contributed to the rapid spread of infectious diseases on these ships. For the common diseases on board, the miasm theory was developed, which said that people at sea were simply outside their usual environment. It was believed that he needed the vapors from trees, stones and earth to survive and that he could never be in his element at sea. One spoke of “Mala Aria”, the “bad air” that is responsible for the diseases. The name malaria developed from this term.

In addition to pathogens that were brought on board in these foreign countries, the germs of many diseases were also transported. The food on these ships defies description. Food preservation was hardly known. Moldy and rotten food was the order of the day. Drinking water was an equally big problem. Algae formed in the water barrels just two weeks after leaving the home port. The daily grog ration should provide at least one sip of a tolerable drink per day. Since most of the seafarers were given the task of getting to their destination as quickly as possible and bringing the goods back to Europe, they only docked on the way when it was no longer possible to avoid it. Often hostile natives also prevented the intake of fresh water or fresh food. Deficiency symptoms were the result. Scurvy was a constant companion on the ships.

These conditions meant for any seaman who ventured on such a voyage that he could no longer return alive. Everyone was aware of the real and imagined risks of such a trip. It is therefore all the more astonishing that there have been more and more sailors, merchants, missionaries and researchers who have embarked on such a risk.

The logical candidate for the first voyages of discovery - the seafaring of Portugal

The location of the country on the edge of Europe in particular gave him the best prerequisites for seafaring Portugal and the departure into new worlds. The expulsion of the Moors brought it into contact with new worlds of thought and knowledge. The constant armed conflicts created a society in transition that no longer wanted to forego the advantages and opportunities of social advancement that had been achieved. Increasing technical and scientific knowledge enabled technical progress that made great voyages of discovery possible. And the pursuit of wealth, the desire to spread Christianity and soon also the possibility of being able to transport unwanted elements to distant regions of the world, where they could still serve the motherland well in spite of everything, quickly left the advantages of such a commitment recognize.

Portugal's progress in the Age of Discoveries was a logical part of Portugal's development in the outbound 15. Century. New ideas were adopted, old ones discarded, and their implementation inevitably meant that this small country on the edge of Europe became the first successful exploration nation in the Old World.

Further reading on Portuguese seafaring:

Urs Bitterli, Old World - New World, Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag,
Munich, 1992

Daniel J. Boorstin, Discoveries, The Adventure of Man, Himself
and recognize the world, Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel, 1985

Rainer Beck, eds., 1492, The World at the Time of Columbus, Ein
Reader, CHBeck Verlag, Munich, 1992

PM Perspective, Maritime Adventure, Munich, January 1996


Text The seafaring of Portugal: © Copyright Monika Fuchs, TravelWorldOnline

The Seafaring of Portugal in the Age of Discoveries
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