There was a time when the Portuguese dominated the seas and set out to discover and conquer new worlds. The Portuguese explorers were responsible for discovering more than 70% of the world previously unknown to Europeans.
Many of these discoveries were not made official because Portugal was too small to be able to dominate, colonize and defend all territories against the other European powers.
The Portuguese discovered regions such as Greenland, Newfoundland, and Australia, occupied by other peoples. Even small islands or archipelagos, such as the Maldives or Vanuatu, were abandoned after being discovered. These are some of the most famous Portuguese explorers.
1. Vasco da Gama
Vasco da Gama was born in Sines in 1468/69 and died in Cochin, India, on December 24, 1524. The third of six brothers, son of Stephen of the Gama – governor of Sines – and Isabel Sodré, grandson of a homonym Vasco da Gama, a judge in Elvas.
He was a Portuguese navigator and explorer during the Age of Discovery, distinguished by his work as commander of the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India. At the end of his life, he was, for a short time, governor of Portuguese India with the title of Viceroy.
2. Pedro Álvares Cabral
A few months after Vasco da Gama arrived from India, and according to the information he had given the Portuguese King, a new armada was prepared with orders to wage war if necessary and establish commercial relations in the region. Pedro Álvares Cabral commanded thirteen ships with about 1200 men. Purposely or due to a storm, the navy made a more significant deviation to the west, and on April 22, 1500, was sighted terra firma.
Pedro Álvares Cabral ordered the return to Portugal of a ship with the famous “Carta de Pero Vaz de Caminha a El-Rei D. Manuel I”, reporting the discovery of the Land of Vera Cruz (later called Brazil). This discovery and control of the Brazilian coastline will become critical to maintaining the safety of shipping to India. Unfortunately, Brazil was integrated into the empire without a definite plan, which did not prevent D. Manuel from ordering its economic exploitation and consequent colonization.
3. Ferdinand Magellan
In search of fame and fortune, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) set out from Spain in 1519 with a fleet of five ships to discover a western sea route to the Spice Islands. En route, he found what is now known as the Strait of Magellan and became the first European to cross the Pacific Ocean. The voyage was long and dangerous, and only one ship returned home three years later.
Although it was laden with valuable spices from the East, only 18 of the fleet’s original crew of 270 returned with the ship. Unfortunately, Magellan was killed in battle on the voyage. Still, his ambitious expedition proved that the globe could be circled by sea and that the world was much larger than had previously been imagined.
4. Christopher Columbus
Whether Christopher Columbus’s nationality was Spanish or Portuguese has always been up for debate. Still, nowadays, historians are inclining more and more toward Italian. He lived in Portugal for quite a while and therefore is included in our list. Between 1492 and 1503, he completed four voyages, all starting off the coast of Spain and towards North and South America.
The Crown of Castile founded his endeavors. He famously discovered North America in 1492 while being convinced that he had reached the shores of India. Columbus’s voyages notably marked the onset of European exploration of the world and its colonization.
5. Diogo Cão
Diogo Cão was a Portuguese navigator of the fifteenth century who was possibly born in the Parish of Sá, in the municipality of Monção, or the region of Vila Real, or even in Évora, at an unknown date, since only the royal family made concrete records of the date of birth and death.
Squire and later Knight of the House of the Infante D. Henrique realized in the reign of D. John II two trips of discovery of the coast of southwest Africa between 1482 and 1486.
After several problems, he continued to the point of the Farilhões (Serra Parda), at 22º 10′, south latitude, where he returned to Zaire, who went up to visit the Congo King with whom he established his first relations, leaving an inscription confirming his arrival at the falls of Ielala, near Matadi.
Arriving at the mouth of the Zaire River, Diogo Cão thought he had reached the southernmost point of the African continent (Cape of Good Hope), which was actually bent by Bartolomeu Dias shortly after that, and which he initially called Cape Storm.
Finally, in 1485 it arrived at the Cape of the Cross (present Namibia). He used stone patterns instead of wooden crosses to mark the Portuguese presence in the discovered areas.
6. Diogo Silves
Portuguese navigator of the XV century was born in Silves, Algarve, and rendered services to the Infante D. Henrique as a pilot in the Discoveries’ time. It is thought that it was thanks to a deviation that occurred during a regular trip in the Atlantic Ocean that this sailor discovered the Azorean islands of the central and eastern groups in 1427.
The first island to be sighted and contributed was that of Santa Maria. The feat of Diogo de Silves is known thanks to the allusion made to him by Gabriel de Valsequa, a Catalan cartographer, in 1439.
7. Bartolomeu Dias
Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese of Jewish origins born in 1450, won his place in the history of Portugal and the World because he was the first European to sail beyond the southern tip of the European continent. As a result, the Portuguese navigator, in the service of Dom Joao II, King of Portugal, was able to “double” Cape Storm.
This place would henceforth be known as Cape of Good Hope in a clear allusion to the fact that this was the starting point for reaching the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean and all the economic and expansionary possibilities that this had at the time.
Bartolomeu Dias was entrusted with this critical mission above all because he was a man of a level of training who guaranteed a considerable percentage of possible success to the Portuguese monarch.
8. Gaspar and Miguel Corte Real
The Corte Real brothers were members of a noble Portuguese family. Gaspar was the more aggressive of the two. In 1499 he learned of a grant from King Manoel I to a fellow Portuguese, John Fernandes, to undertake an expedition into the North Atlantic.
Manoel sought to establish Portuguese control over a Northwest Passage to India and the Spice Islands. He also wanted someone to develop Portugal’s claims to any new lands discovered in this area.
Fernandes did not immediately make use of his grant from the King. Gaspar seized the opportunity to obtain royal permission to undertake his exploratory expedition in May 1500. Gaspar Corte Real left Lisbon in the summer of 1500 in a fleet of three ships financed by his family. He sailed first to Greenland and spent several months exploring its shoreline.
During this time, he contacted the natives, whom he compared to the wild natives of Brazil. His ships stayed in Greenland’s waters until the winter icebergs forced them to leave. Gaspar and his ships returned to Portugal in late 1500. The following year Gaspar organized another expedition, this time in conjunction with his brother Miguel.
Their journey departed in May 1501, again bound for unknown lands to the northwest. When they reached land after about five weeks, they found themselves on the shores of Labrador. They explored south along the coast, charting approximately 600 miles of shore.
9. João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira
João Gonçalves Zarco (1390 – 1471) was a Portuguese explorer who established settlements and recognition of the Madeira Islands and was appointed the first captain of Funchal by Henry the Navigator. Zarco was born in Portugal and became a knight in Prince Henry the Navigator’s household service.
In his service at an early age, Zarco commanded the caravels guarding the coast of Algarve against the incursions of the Moors, was at the conquest of Ceuta, and later led the caravels that recognized the island of Porto Santo from 1418 to 1419 and afterward, the island of Madeira 1419 to 1420.
Tristão Vaz Teixeira (1395 –1480) was a Portuguese navigator and explorer who, together with João Gonçalves Zarco and Bartolomeu Perestrelo, was the official discoverer and one of the first settlers of the archipelago of Madeira (1419–1420).
Tristão was a nobleman of Prince Henry the Navigator’s House, taking part in the conquest of Ceuta. Around 1418, while exploring the coast of Africa, he and João Gonçalves Zarco were taken off course by bad weather.
As a result, they came upon an island called Porto Santo (Holy Harbor). Shortly after, they were ordered by Prince Henry to settle the island, together with Bartolomeu Perestrelo. Following a rabbit outbreak that made it difficult to grow crops, they moved to the nearby island of Madeira.
10. Duarte Pacheco Pereira
Duarte Pacheco Pereira (1460 – 1533), called the Portuguese Achilles (Aquiles Lusitano) by the poet Camões, was a Portuguese sea captain, soldier, explorer and cartographer. He traveled particularly in the central Atlantic Ocean west of the Cape Verde islands, along the coast of West Africa, and to India. His accomplishments in strategic warfare, exploration, mathematics, and astronomy were exceptional.
It has also been suggested that Duarte Pacheco Pereira may have discovered the coasts of Maranhão, Pará, and Marajó island and the mouth of the Amazon River in 1498, preceding the possible landings of the expeditions of Amerigo Vespucci in 1499, of Vicente Yáñez Pinzon in January 1500, and Diego de Lepe in February 1500; and the Cabral’s voyage in April 1500, making him the first known European explorer of present-day Brazil. This claim is based on interpretations of the cipher manuscript Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, written by Duarte Pacheco Pereira.