Portugal sits between the sea on one side and the mountains of the Iberian Peninsula on the other, and as it was hinted that there were ‘Castilians with knives’ on the other side of the mountains, Portuguese pathfinders chose to explore by sea. Fishing had always been a leading industry for Portugal, and had seafarers with both coastal experience and deep-water sailing skills, as fishing sometimes required them to cover vast distances. Motivated by curiosity and a desire to expand into new places, explorers realised there were big financial gains - and treasures to be found - through the discovery of new trade routes.

Prince Henry, Duke of Viseu earned himself the well-deserved title of Prince Henry ‘The Navigator’. He was the fourth child of King John I of Portugal and was devoted to maritime exploration. Being both smart and wealthy, he enlisted the help of skilled mathematicians and astronomers to establish an observatory and a navigation school at Sagres near Cape St. Vincent, where work was dedicated to making charts and improving the workings of the compass. He sent the best captains and seamen he could find on numerous voyages of discovery along the western coast of Africa. He didn’t actually go on many of these expeditions himself but was nevertheless acknowledged to be the genius in charge. He was convinced that it was possible to sail around Africa to India to enable trading directly with the East, but he died after more than forty years of endeavour without having fulfilled his dreams.

At that time, merchandise from the East had to be transported by land or through the Red Sea and across Egypt to get to Europe. Either way, the expenses and risks were enormous, so a direct route for ships was deemed essential. The term ‘ship’ shouldn’t be taken lightly either, despite those at the beginning of Henry’s career being small half-decked sailboats scarcely able to hold three dozen men– his latest ‘ships’ were sturdy vessels capable of carrying sixty men.

Explorer Bartolomeu Dias (1450 - 1500) was from a family with a maritime background and was the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. He discovered the gateway between Europe and India and the rest of Asia, by sailing around the southern part of Africa in 1488, and with this achievement, a new wave of hope spread among the explorers.

Vasco da Gama (1460 - 1524) famously opened up the ‘Spice Route’, by sailing from Europe to India, enabling trade with the Far East, an important route for Portugal’s expansion. These trips were dangerous due to the weather and pirate activity, but those courageous seamen were prepared to risk their lives for the rewards to be gained.

Pedro Alvares Cabral (est birth date 1467 - 1520) led the first known expedition to have touched the four continents of Europe, Africa, America, and Asia, uniting all of them in his famous voyage of 1500, following Vasco da Gama's newly opened route around Africa. Both he and Vasco da Gama were successful navigators inspired by Henry’s ideas.

Ferdinand Magellan (1480 - 1521) sailed the Pacific Ocean and around South America. He was a Portuguese explorer sailing for Spain in a five-ship expedition to find a western route to what is now Morocco. Magellan died before he reached his destination on this trip, but one of the five ships made it all the way.

Duarte Pacheco Pereira (1460 – 1533) was another talented sea captain and soldier, who travelled the central Atlantic, along the coast of Africa to India. There are claims that he discovered the mouth of the Amazon River in 1498, before Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, in 1499, and there is evidence that he was the first-known European explorer of what we now know as Brazil.

Hats off to these early explorers who were undoubtedly exposed to sickness, disease, and hunger on their perilous journeys. They needed skills to make and read maps, keep a written journal, to know how to read the sky for weather changes, and to know the stars by name. Bravely going off into the unknown, sometimes for months, they were the astronauts of their time.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan