Printer friendly version Print this page

Historical Text Archive © 1990 - 2014
Printer friendly version of: http://www.historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?action=read&artid=635


Cabral, Pedro Alvares

by James B. Doyle

During the period of European exploration and colonization, several great explorers achieved fame and fortune. Portugal along with Spain became the leaders in voyages of exploration. Portugal had discovered a route to the rich land of India. New voyages to this land were ahead in Portugal's plan. An unlikely man would be chosen to lead the way. Pedro Alvares Cabral was this Portuguese explorer who not only benefitted his country with wealth from trade, but also with the acquisition of a vast territory.

Little is known about Pedro Alvares Cabral's background. He was probably born at Belmonte, a few miles from the present-day town of Covilhan, in the year 1467 or 1468. Cabral was part of a wealthy aristocratic family in Portugal. As part of the noble custom of the day, Cabral went to King John II's court. At the king's court, he studied the humanities of the period. After the death of John II, Cabral remained at the court under the new king Dom Manuel. Here he continued his education. The Voyage of Pedro Alvares Cabral stated, "He continued at the Court of Dom Manuel with the position of fidalgo of his council, and secured the habit of the Order of Christ [Knight Commander of the Military Order of Christ] and an annuity." Cabral was probably a well-built Portuguese young man. No account refers to his physical features in detail. Having been the second son of the "Giant of Betray," Cabral's appearance of being healthy is likely. Still, little is known about Cabral's early life until his great voyage.

After Vasco da Gama had returned from the first voyage from Europe to India, plans were arranged for a second voyage to take place. Vasco da Gama was received with great fame and celebration upon his arrival. "He was made Count of Vidigueira and given an irrevocable commission to act as the chief of any future fleet to India, should he so desire."(The Voyage of Pedro Alvares Cabral). A trade route to India would be extremely lucrative. Portugal wanted to capitalize on de Gama's voyage, which provided Portugal with a mapped route around Africa. Manuel I wanted Vasco da Gama to make this trip, but Vasco da Gama was still exhausted from his first difficult and long voyage. No capital was made from this voyage because it was not strictly commercial. Despite Vasco da Gama's exhaustion, Manuel I still wanted another voyage to take place. Luckily for Cabral, Vasco da Gama and himself were friends at the time. De Gala may have suggested that Cabral could head the expedition. Cabral probably did not have much sailing experience, but this is not for sure because of lack of historical evidence. No prior expedition involving Cabral has been recorded, that historians know of.

Cabral was commissioned by King Manuel I of Portugal to sail on an expedition with a fleet of thirteen ships to the ports of India. This was strictly to be a commercial expedition for the jewels and spices of the East. Manuel I wanted Portugal's prestige and power to be displayed to the Indians. This may also be why Cabral was selected to lead this expedition, having wealth and maybe his intimidating stature. Many of Portugal's wealthiest noblemen were to accompany Cabral on this mission to India. Cabral was probably also sent, after De Gala, in order to calm the relations between the Indians and the Portuguese, while also furthering Portugal's conquests. Upon De Gama's arrival to India, the Portuguese were not received well. Regardless of why he was chosen, Cabral was entrusted by the King of Portugal to lead a very important voyage that would change the way Europe looked at Portugal.

As admiral of supreme command of his thirteen ships, Cabral launched them off outside of Lisbon on March 9, 1500. Cabral was to follow the same route that Vasco da Gama had taken in order to get to the Indian ports. This was an enormously long distance because it was prior to the construction of canals connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Cabral followed this course, which bypassed the harsh waters of the Gulf of Guinea. As they traveled, they ventured off course. On April 22nd, Cabral and his men spotted land in the distance. This land was the top of a hill, which led them to South America.

Cabral's detour from his Indian course to South America brings many historians to question why this happened. Some historians believe that the strong currents caused the fleet to go off course. Two schools of thought on this matter have been established. One, which believes that Cabral intentionally made this voyage in order to revisit lands that had all ready been spotted. With the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, Portugal was entitled to this South American land if it had indeed been sighted beforehand. The other theory is that the voyage was unintentional and a true discovery was made. These thoughts are looked into better detail in a later paragraph. The fleet had diverted westward of the Cape Verde Islands. It was close to these Islands that one of the fleet's boats was found to be missing. The fleet searched for two days, but was unable to find its lost ship. Cabral and his fleet had then arrived in South America; his actual course taken is unknown. It is argued today that Cabral landed in one of four places in Brazil. Some say it was at Monte Pascoal, the five hundred and twenty eight foot hill that Cabral traditionally spotted. Others argue that Cabral and his men waded ashore where it was assumed they celebrated mass near Coroa Vermelha. Some believe that Cabral landed further south at what is now Santa Cruz Cabralia. Still, others argue that he and his fleet landed at Porto Seguro. It will probably never be known where the fleet landed, but Cabral and his men treated the inhabitants of this land quite unusually compared to most Latin American explorers.

Pedro Alvares Cabral and his men made the effort of treating the inhabitants of what Cabral named Vera Cruz, or True Cross, very kindly. The inhabitants were allowed on board of Cabral's vessel. Cabral and his men explored along the coast, stopping several times to mingle with the inhabitants. Cabral and his men recorded the Americans to be naked, comparing them to a baby that was just delivered, and of dark skin, between white and black. Note was taken of the interesting wildlife. Cabral and his men ate cockles and mussels from the waters off of the coast. Dyewood was found which would later give the land its name, Brazil. They navigated shortly up rivers, and were extremely surprised to encounter the beautiful parrots of South America. Cabral and his men even celebrated with the local inhabitants in song and dance. Some of the crew had brought their bagpipes along with some other instruments. Priests and other men of religion were on board, in order to plant true Christianity in India. They held mass as the locals watched. Before leaving, the clergy adorned some locals with crucifix necklaces. No conversion numbers were recorded that are known of. Records from fellow crewmen state that a language barrier between the Portuguese and Americans made communication difficult. The explorers attempted to teach the Americans Portuguese instead of learning the American language themselves. Cabral probably was not too intent on the spreading of the gospel in Vera Cruz because this was not his mission anyway. He was paid by his king to bring back the riches of India, and he may have felt that he needed to get back on task.

Although Cabral was kind to the Americans, he still claimed the land that he had explored for Portugal in the name of the Church. A ship was sent back to Portugal to tell the king of the land that he had acquired. Through Cabral, Portugal extended the boarders to its vast empire. Cabral spent no more than ten days on the South American land. With some help from the Americans, Cabral loaded the necessary supplies to make the journey to their intended destination.

Historians wonder why Cabral and his men ventured to Brazil. Beside those who thought that his journey was unintentional, there are several historians who think that Cabral may have intended to sail to Brazil. There are a few accounts from the men aboard the fleet that a map was used the may have included South America on it. Some historians argue that Cabral was sailing to Brazil on his way to India in order to officially claim, for Portugal, land that was all ready discovered. Others believe that the journey to Brazil was on purpose in order to discover new lands that could be claimed for Portugal east of the demarcation line announced in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Also it is argued that Cabral's voyage was for the reason of navigation. While they were to take advantage of the northeast trade winds, they would have sailed more to the west in order to make navigation around the southernmost Cape easier. Perhaps, in this process, they would discover new land. But, The Voyage of Pedro Alvares Cabral states that some of the records of those who sailed do not indicate in their writings that they believed that the land had been previously visited. It also is odd that a ship had been sent back to Portugal in order to inform the King, if the King had all ready known that the lands existed. King Manuel himself also seemed to put down these arguments when, in a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, he stated that Cabral had discovered Brazil. Unless more evidence opposing Cabral appears, then he will retain credit for discovering this land.

After claiming the land of Vera Cruz for Portugal, Cabral and his fleet set out to India. King Manuel decided to later name the land discovered by Cabral, Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). Rounding the Cape of Good Hope a terrible storm destroyed four of the fleet's ships. In this storm Bartolomeu Dias, who had discovered the Cape with De Gala, perished. Dias was one of the several experienced men in the fleet. Finally, on September 13, 1500, Cabral and what was left of his fleet reached India. They arrived at the port at Calicut, India. Cabral was welcomed and allowed to set up a trading post, which was fortified with Portuguese defenders. Muslim traders grew upset with the Cabral and his men and they attacked and killed most of the men stationed at the post. Cabral bombarded the city and sailed southward where he was received more favorably at another Indian port city. Cabral was well aware of his responsibility for precious cargo to be returned to the king. His remaining six ships were filled with valuable spices, pepper being one of them. Once loaded, the fleet set sail to return to Portugal. Misfortune struck the fleet again as two other ships went down. In all, only four of the thirteen ships made it back to the Portugal coast loaded with spices. The fleet lost one vessel. Another returned to announce to the king the acquisition of Brazil, and the ocean took down several other ships. Cabral returned to Portugal on June 23, 1501. Even though much disaster occurred on his voyage, the King was happy with the results. Cabral's cargo was still of great value and Portugal held a vast land awaiting further exploration.

The king on any other expeditions never used Pedro Alvares Cabral again. When another voyage to India was sought, the king turned to Vasco da Gama, the original Indian adventurer. For some reason Cabral fell out of favor with the King and his court, whether it was because of De Gala is unknown. The reason behind Manuel's decision is unknown. Cabral's voyage could have just been a one-chance affair, had Vasco da Gama claimed his given title of admiral of Portugal upon the next voyage to India. Cabral seemed to just vanish after his great voyage. After his death (no date is known for this event for sure), he was buried in a Church in Portugal.

Pedro Alvares Cabral was a man who accomplished a great deal in just one voyage. Portugal had become a world power. A trade monopoly with India was gained after Cabral's voyage, despite the mishaps. Cabral was unique, compared to other explores. Whether or not it was because Portugal's main interest was India, Cabral's respect for Brazil's inhabitants was uncanny. Although Brazil would never be the same again with the introduction of European influence and culture, Cabral did not use extremely questionable means in acquiring the land. Although Cabral accomplished a great deal, it is unfortunate that he does not receive the due credit for his achievements. Cabral, the great Portuguese explorer simply retired to his estate in Portugal. However, Portugal and Brazil will forever be indebted to this great man.

Works Cited

Greenlee, William Brooks. The Voyage of Pedro Alvares Cabral. London: Hakluyt Society, 1938. 228pp.

062603