The Portuguese Empire and Search for Spice Routes

How Portugal laid the blueprint for European colonialism.

Henry the Navigator
John II
Vasco da Gama
Suleiman I

Prince Henry the Navigator


In the period prior to the Fall of Constantinople, Portugal emerged as a naval power, particularly under the influence of ‘Henry the Navigator’ (1394-1460), a prince and explorer who used his wealth and influence to fund expeditions along the African coast.

Henry was motivated by the search for new trade routes for spices and other commodities. He also purportedly established an observatory and school at Sagres, where he gathered information about navigation techniques, astronomy, geography and cartography. This allowed him to develop more accurate maps which enabled sailors to navigate further out into unknown waters with greater confidence.

Henry also invested heavily in shipbuilding technology, replacing the sluggish cargo ships of the time with a new innovation: the caravel—a small maneuverable sailing ship capable of higher speeds, and commissioning larger vessels such as carracks that could carry more cargo over longer distances. These developments would prove instrumental in Portugal’s maritime future.

The Accidental Acquisition of Madeira and the Azores

Among the first additions to the Portuguese Empire were the islands of Madeira and the Azores in 1420 and 1427 respectively. This occurred accidentally, when Henry happened across Madeira while escaping a storm in 1419. Due to its status as their refuge, it was initially named Porto Santo (‘Holy Harbour’).


These islands provided a strategic base for Portugal’s exploration efforts, as well as a refuge for Portuguese citizens following the Black Death in the previous century. Among the settlers were many fishermen and peasant farmers escaping the oppressive feudal control of the mainland.

Madeira was also one of the first locations in which slave labor, imported from Africa, was used on plantations. In the 1450s, settlers had begun to plant sugarcane, an industry which developed into the 17th century and brought the island significant prosperity.

Portuguese Expansion Along the West African Coast


During the fifteenth century, the majority of Portuguese naval activities focused on the West African coast.

John II, King of Portugal between 1481 and 1495 and great nephew of Henry the Navigator, sought to challenge the Republic of Venice by developing a direct sea route to Asia, bypassing the red sea.

Sponsored by the King, who sought to emulate his great uncle, Portuguese fleets quickly established African trading posts, the most important being Elmina Castle on what is now known as Ghana’s Gold Coast. Elmina became a major hub for trade between Europe and Africa, with gold, ivory and slaves being exchanged for European goods such as guns, cloth and alcohol.

In 1482, Diogo Cão became the first European explorer to discover the mouth of the Congo, and later to reach Cape Cross in today’s Angola, and explored further south into present-day South Africa, opening access to valuable resources such as gold and ivory.

Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama's Voyages to India

The main obstacle to John II’s ultimate goal of finding a sea route to India was the Cape of Good Hope, with earlier attempts often thwarted by its currents and rough seas.


The first man to succeed was Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, who named it the “Cabo das Tormentas” (Cape of Storms). While he rounded the cape, he didn’t make it all the way to India.

This was followed, in 1498 by the voyages of Vasco da Gama, a nobleman with experience as an officer in the Portuguese navy, who became the first European to reach India by sea.

Da Gama’s voyage began from Lisbon in 1497, sailing around Africa’s Cape with a fleet of four ships and 170 men before reaching Calicut on India’s Malabar Coast.

This was a major milestone for Portugal, opening up new trade routes between Europe and Asia and allowing access to lucrative spice routes without having to pass through Ottoman-controlled waters.

The Portuguese Trading Network in the Indian Ocean

The Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean grew rapidly following da Gama’s voyage. A network of Portuguese trading posts peppered the coast of East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent, monopolizing trade – from spices to porcelain.


One of the most important ports established by the Portuguese was Goa, which served as their headquarters in India from the early 16th century until it was annexed by the Indian government in 1961. Goa was an important center of Portuguese trade and culture, and many of its historic buildings and churches still reflect its colonial past.

In addition to Goa, the Portuguese also established a presence in other key ports throughout the Indian Ocean region. They set up trading posts in places like Mozambique, Calicut, Cochin, and Cannanore (Kerala, India), Hormuz (Iran), and Ormuz (Oman).

Portugal's Triumphs and Challenges in the Spice Trade and Beyond


The islands of Ternate and Tidore in modern-day Indonesia were particularly valuable to the Portuguese, as they were home to some of the most highly sought-after spices in the world, such as nutmeg and cloves.

In 1511, Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque captured Malacca from the Sultanate of Melaka, giving Portugal access to these spices, further consolidating their control over the Indian Ocean trade routes.

Unsurprisingly, these successes of Portugal provoked the ire of the Ottoman Empire. In 1538, Suleiman I declared war on Portugal with the intention of taking control of their colonies in North Africa. However, his forces were defeated at Tunis by Portuguese admiral Cristóvão da Gama – son of Vasco da Gama – in 1560.

This victory marked an important turning point for Portugal; it enabled them to maintain their foothold in North Africa and secure their trading posts along the African coast.

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