Guest column: Age of Discovery


The Padrão dos Descobrimentos is a Monument to the Discoveries that celebrates the Portuguese who took part in the Age of Discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries. It is located on the estuary of the Tagus River in the Belem parish of Lisboa, Portugal, where ships departed to their often unknown destinations.

The monument consists of a 52 meter-high slab of carved concrete, into the shape of the prow of a ship, and the side that faces away from the river features a carved sword stretching the full height of the monument.

The Age of Discovery is widely known for voyages of exploration by Spain and Portugal that forever changed world history. Years ago, we traveled to Portugal to conducted primary research on the history of the Visigoths (Goth), Romans, Moors, German cartographers, 15th century Portuguese pre-North American slave trade, and Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and Muslim seafarers. The seafarers, of course, were not interested only in navigation; for them precision, accuracy, and timing was also a priority.

In the 15th century, Portuguese seafarers set off from the city of Lisboa, overlooking the Tagus River and the Atlantic Ocean in search of new continents and new routes for world trade. Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea route from Europe to India (1498) – helped by the famous Muslim navigator and cartographer, Ahmad bin Majid, and Fernão de Magalhães undertook the first circumnavigation of the globe (1521), stand amongst some of the more prominent Portuguese seafarers who contributed to shortening distances between different peoples and cultures. According to some historic and contemporary sources, even Christopher Columbus (Columbo), seafarer and explorer who sailed across the world, may have been Portuguese.

The Portuguese discoveries during the Renaissance period paved the path towards creating a more open and tolerant society in a country that is today known for its pluralistic attitude towards other cultures and which has a natural disposition towards building bridges with communities with whom they reside. Today, the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) includes peoples in four different continents: Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Portugal, Sao Tome, Principe, and East Timor.

In the 16th century, the kingdom Portugal, using its fleet and the strongholds it held in Africa, Asia and America, dominated the greater part of international trade. Portuguese seamanship played a decisive role in the exploration of the earth and the worldwide exchange of goods and ideas.

An Exhibition entitled “Novos Mundos-New World” Portugal and the Age of Discoveries, were housed in the Pei Building of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) in Berlin, from January 2007- February 2008, highlighting the Portuguese explorations from the 15th to the 17th century. Some 400 objects presented an impressive testimony to the beginnings of world trade. The item displayed drew attention to the political, economic, and social consequences of seafaring as well as to how it was portrayed in the arts. To include log banks of Vasca de Gama to the charts made by German cartographers, who accompanied explorers on incredible and adventurous expeditions on the high seas.

The meeting of the Old and what was henceforth to be known as the New World helped Europe develop its own self-image, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Portuguese seafarers of more than half a millennium ago were thus the “vanguard of globalization.” While in Berlin we learned that the Deutsches Historisches Museum conceived the exhibition to coincide with the transfer of the EU presidency to Portugal. The result, said Merkel, is a “prime example of the European cultural cooperation.”

The world-encompassing role of Portugal

Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias, and his crew were the first Europeans to sail around the southern point of the continent of Africa in 1486. He named that area “ The Cape of Good Hope (Cabo de Boa Esperanca),” because it was hoped that it would clear the way to India, which would simplify trade with the East. Nine years were to pass before Vasco da Gama, attempted a voyage around the southern point of Africa on his way to India. The seafarers met up with Khoi people and some of the crew were hurt in a skirmish with them. The Khoi were prepared to trade with the seafarers but, because of communication problems and misunderstandings, there were many problems and disagreements between the two groups. On December 25, 1497, Da Gama reached the coast of Pondoland and called it “Natal,” meaning “Christmas.” Although the Portuguese were the first to travel around the Cape, they were not seriously interested in southern Africa. They were wary of the indigenous population and the weather at the Cape was sometimes treacherous and dangerous. Some of the early Portuguese seafarers referred to the Cape as “The Cape of Storms” and preferred not to sail around it. And, as far as trade was concerned, South Africa offered very little, gold had not yet been discovered except for the presence of the Khoi people, the southern point of Africa seemed deserted and without promise.

In June 1580, nearly a hundred years later, Sir Francis Drake sailed past the Cape. He was on a voyage around the world, commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I of England. The sight inspired Sir Francis Drake to utter the following words: “This Cape is a most stately thing and the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.” More British expeditions and other European countries soon followed in their footsteps.

Drake’s other exploit voyages marked a further step on the road to continuous war between England and Spain. This was the West Indies raid of 1585-1586, which showed that the Spaniards were almost as poorly prepared for defense on their Atlantic coasts as on the Pacific.

Drake’s fleet of seven large ships and 20-22 smaller vessels sailed from Plymouth on September 14, 1585; stopped at Bayona and Vigo on the northwest coast of Spain (Oct. 1-11), and reached Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands on November 17. Santiago, was plundered and burned, and on November 29, the fleet set sail across the Atlantic. On New Year’s Day, 1586, they reached Santo Domingo, which was captured and plundered, and a 25,000 ducat ransom extorted. On February 9, Cartagena was captured, and was occupied until March 26. Here again the town was plundered, and a ransom of 110,000 ducats was collected. They then sailed north across the Caribbean to the coast of Florida, where St. Augustine was captured and destroyed (May 28-30), and Drake reached England again on July 22, when he sailed into Portsmouth.

In the first half of the 17th century, the route was predominately used by the English and the Dutch who made use of trade routes around Cabo de Boa Esperanca. Danish and French vessels also had stopovers to replenish their water and fresh produce supplies. Although the English, French and Dutch East India Companies all toyed with the idea of establishing a base at the Cape in the 17th century, it was the Dutch who finally took the plunge.

Derek Boyd Hankerson
St. Augustine, FL

Derek Boyd Hankerson is the Managing Partner of Freedom Road, LLC. Derek is former vice president of the St. Johns County Republican Executive Committee and was an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention. Derek has been a leader in numerous community projects in support of Fort Mose, multicultural education and heritage tourism. Historic City News is pleased to be able to publish Derek’s periodic guest columns which are both informative and entertaining. Derek and his wife live in St. Augustine.


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