After the fall of the Visigothic Kingdom in 711 most of the Iberian Peninsula was in Muslim hands. This would lead to the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula that would begin in 722 A.D and end in 1492 A.D when Ferdinand of Aragon drove the remaining Muslims out of Granada. Afonso Henriques would lead a crusade to drive the Moors out of the County of Portugal. He was successful and named himself the first King of Portugal. This resulted in he and his Cousin, Alfonso VII of Leon, fighting amongst themselves. The two agreed to the Treaty of Zamora in which the Kingdom of Leon viewed the Kingdom of Portugal as a sovereign nation. Afonso III would drive the remaining Moors out of Portugal and sign a Treaty with the Kingdom of Castile in 1267 that established the borders of Portugal. Upon this conquest Portugal would become the first kingdom in Europe to completely drive out the Moors.
Afonso III’s successor Dinis was the first King of Portugal that focused primarily on economic issues rather than military conquests. His reign would create much economic success and laid the groundwork for the first Portuguese Navy. King Dinis founded the navy in order to protect Portugal from pirate attacks, but he was essentially laying the groundwork for the Portuguese empire. King Dinis sought peace during a time of war and with exception to one outbreak with Castile he was successful. This reign of peace allowed Portugal to focus on their economy rather than their military. The result was a surge of culture or middle-class reforms that were ahead of its time.
Dinis laid the groundwork, but it was not until the reign of Afonso IV that Portugal began to explore the African coast. The first discovery was the Canary Islands and after a short dispute with Portugal’s rival Castile, Portugal controlled them. In 1415, Ceuta was seized by the Portuguese which secured Portuguese presence along the coast of Africa further. This gave rise to the most influential explorer in Portuguese History, Henry the Navigator.
Henry’s ideas were based pn superstition and ambition. He believed, like many in his day, of the legend of the Christian Kingdom, Prester John and sought to explore and find the legendary kingdom. He also sought to find a way to create more trade and bolster the already strong Portuguese economy. While some of his goals were based on superstition he managed to systematically move Portugal towards the spice trade of India. Portugal discovered Madeira and Azores.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 was a devastating blow to Europe both politically and economically. With Constantinople under Ottoman control the spice trade that Marco Polo wrote about was blocked. European nations began to look for alternatives. Prince Henry continued with his explorations and a string of discoveries would follow:
- Cape Verde would be discovered by Diogo Gomes in 1456
- Pedro de Sintra discovered Sierre Leone
- Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered Brazil in 1500
- Multiple Portuguese explorers explored the Gulf of Guinea and discovered a lucrative gold trade
The next major breakthrough came with Bartolomeu Dias. Dias would sail to the southern tip of Africa and discover a way around the continent. He would name the southern tip the “Cape of Storms” which would be renamed “The Cape of Good Hope.” Dias discovery was built upon decades of exploration by the Portuguese. This proved that there was access to the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic. This would disprove the theory of Ptolemy since the Ancient Romans that the Indian Ocean was land-locked.
The next breakthrough would come in 1498, six years after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. While much of the European world believed that Columbus had found a new route to India, Portugal rejected the notion. In 1497 King Manuel I funded Vasco da Gama’s mission to sail around the Cape of Good Hope and to India. Da Gama would do so and set up a lucrative spice trade.