Pedro Álvares Cabral

Pedro Cabral

Was a Portuguese nobleman, military commander, navigator and explorer regarded as the discoverer of Brazil. Cabral conducted the first substantial exploration of the northeast coast of South America and claimed it for Portugal. While details of Cabral’s early life are unclear, it is known that he came from a minor noble family and received a good education.

After Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the spice route, King Manuel I appointed Cabral as the commander of the second Portuguese expedition to India, with a mandate to establish permanent trade relations with the Indians and to spread the Christian religion everywhere he went, using, if necessary, the force of arms. The nature of the expedition was both economical and religious, so several Florentine merchants were convinced to contribute with money for the equipment for the ships, while several priests were allocated to the crew. Among the captains of his fleet, consisting of 13 ships and 1.500 men, there must be mentioned: Bartolomeu Dias, Pêro Vaz de Caminha and Coelhu Nicolau, who accompanied Vasco da Gama in his explorations and gave directions in order to make the trip successful.

The fleet sailed from Lisbon on 9 March 1500 and followed a route that would avoid the doldrums of the Gulf of Guinea. In the waters of the Cape Verde archipelago, the first ship, Luís Pires was thought to be lost, but in fact, it was forced by a storm to return home. To take the advantage of the winds and to escape the currents from the coast of Africa, Cabral took advantage of the technique known by the Portuguese navigators as “volta do mar”, and thus his fleet took a very Western course and the Atlantic Equatorial current pushed the vessel off the coast to an unknown country.

On 22 April 1500, the crew spotted a mountainous formation that was called “Mount Pascoal” and on 23 April 1500 Cabral landed on the coast of Brazil, while on 25 April, the entire fleet had settled along the bay that was baptized as “Porto Seguro”. Cabral took possession of the land in the name of the Portuguese crown and named it “Ilha da Vera Cruz”, as he presumed that the territory was an island. He later called it “Land of the Holy Cross.” After Manuel I learned about the discovery of the nowadays territory of Brazil, he sent another smaller fleet, to explore the land. One of the seafarers of that fleet was Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, after which the Americas would be baptized, who told Cabral about his exploration, confirming him that he really landed on a new continent and not just on an island.

The warning reports of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India were the ones that had led King Manuel I to inform Cabral about another port, south of Calicut where he could make the trade. This city was known as Kochi and the fleet set sail, arriving there on 24 December. Kochi was officially a vassal of Calicut, and was dominated by other Indian cities. Kochi was however trying to win its independence, and the Portuguese were willing to exploit the Indian disunity, as the British would do three hundred years later. This tactic finally ensured the Portuguese hegemony over the region. Cabral made an alliance with the leader of Kochi and with the leaders of other Indian cities and has managed to establish a new factory. Finally, laden with precious spices, the fleet has travelled to Kannur for further trade before leaving on the journey back to Portugal on 16 January 1501.

Pedro Álvares Cabral seized a Muslim ship full of pepper and had to face the rebellion of the Muslim merchants who reacted. Cabral captured all the Muslim ships anchored in the harbor, killed their crews and sacked the holds, taking thus possession of a huge load of spices. He began his journey back to Portugal on 16 January 1501, arriving at home on 23 June 1501. Although he was back with a rich cargo, his diplomatic methods were heavily criticized. Cabral died in 1520, completely forgotten and was buried in the monastery of Santarém in Portugal.

Cabral’s discovery and his resting place from Portugal, had been almost completely forgotten during the next 300 years since his expedition. This began to change starting from the 1840’s when Emperor Dom Pedro II, the successor and son of Dom Pedro I, sponsored the researches and publications dealing with Cabral’s life and his expedition.. This was only a small part of the Emperor’s ambitious plan to strengthen a sense of nationalism among Brazil’s diverse citizenry. He wanted to offer them a common identity and history and to consider themselves residents of a unique Portuguese empire, surrounded by Hispanic-American Republics. This resurgence had resulted in the rediscovery, in 1839, of Cabral’s resting place by Brazilian historian, Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen, which later became the Viscount of Porto Seguro. Cabral’s tomb was found in a very neglected state and almost led to a serious diplomatic crisis between Brazil and Portugal. Portugal was then ruled by Pedro II’s eldest sister, Maria II.

Pedro Álvares Cabral was however, not the first European to reach the areas of the nowadays territory of Brazil or elsewhere in South America. Roman coins were founded in Venezuela, northwest of Brazil, probably from the ships that went to sea by storms in antiquity. The Vikings came into North America and have established some settlements, although they disappeared before the end of the 15thcentury. Christopher Columbus, on his third voyage to the New World in 1498, traveled along part of the future coast of Venezuela.

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