The age of the Portuguese explorations is a brief but glorious period where Portugal dominated the sea routes and trading points in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and South China Seas and which saw the discovery of parts of Africa, India, Asia, Brazil and even Canada, before the ‘glorious’ era gave way to the blot on Portugal’s past: the trading of slaves and a long period of colonial rule. Infante Dom Henrique (Prince Henrique the Navigator (1394-1460)), the third son of King João I and Queen Philippa of Lancaster, was the man behind Portuguese exploration in the first half of the 15th century. He sponsored the expeditions, financed by his brother King Duarte (who reigned from 1433 to 1438) and later his nephew, King Afonso V (who reigned from 1438 to 1481), that led to the discovery of Madeira in 1418, the Azores in 1427, Cape Verde in 1444 and Guinea (present-day Guinea-Bissau) in 1460. Despite being known as ‘the Navigator’, ironically he never embarked on any of the expeditions himself, although it is believed by some historians that he started a school of navigation in Sagres at the south-western point of the Algarve (where he lived up to his death), in which he had the best nautical and scientific minds of the age. There is no evidence to prove that the school did exist, but whether it did or not, scientific and technological advances during his lifetime aided the success of the voyages, the most important of which was the design of the caravel; a small, easy to steer ship, based on the design of fishing boats, with triangular lateen sails which allowed it to sail against prevailing winds. It was in a caravel that Gil Eanes was able to sail around Cape Bojador in 1434, which had been impassable to European sailors up to then, thus marking the beginning of the exploration of the west coast of Africa. After Prince Henrique’s death the explorations continued under King João II (who reigned from 1481 to 1495) and King Manuel I (who reigned from 1495 to 1521), with the discovery of Elmina (present-day Ghana) in 1471 and São Tomé and Príncipe (off the west coast of Africa) in 1475, Congo and Angola in 1483, the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, Natal (South Africa) in 1497, Calicut (present-day Kozhikode, in western India), Goa (on the south-western coast of India), Mozambique (East Africa) in 1498, Madagascar (off the coast of East Africa), Terra Nova (present-day Newfoundland in Canada) and Porto Seguro (in Brazil) in 1500, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in 1505, Ormuz (present-day Hormuz Island, an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf) in 1507, Daman (in western India) and Malacca (in Malaysia) in 1509, Pegu (present-day Bago in Myanmar) in 1511, the Maluku Islands (also known as the ‘Spice Islands’, in present-day Indonesia) and Timor (present-day East and West Timor, in south-east Asia) in 1512, the River Plate (in South America) and the Canton River (the present -day Pearl River in China) in 1514 and the River Ganges (India and Bangladesh) in 1516.
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) is one of the most famous landmarks in Belém, a district to the west of Lisbon, located on the bank of the River Tejo. It was built in 1960, during the Salazar dictatorship, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Prince Henrique the Navigator and, typical of other fascist architecture, it is an imposing structure designed to stir up feelings of patriotism and what better subject matter than the golden age of the Portuguese Discoveries?
The 56-metre-high monument, designed by the architect José Cottinelli Telmo and the sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida, is built in the shape of a caravel. At the stern, above the entrance, is an enormous sword representing the House of Avis, with the Portuguese coat of arms either side of the upper part of the sword. At the prow stands Henrique the Navigator, holding a small caravel in his hand and looking out across the water. Lining both sides of the monument are people associated with the Discoveries. On the western-facing side, kneeling behind Prince Henrique is Prince Fernando (1402-1443, one of Henrique’s younger brothers, also known as Fernando o Infante Santo (Fernando the Holy Prince), due to the fact that he was captured during the Siege of Tangier in 1437 and his captors demanded the strategic port of Ceuta in exchange for his freedom. The Portuguese refused to surrender Ceuta and Prince Fernando died in captivity.) Behind him are the Portuguese navigators, João Gonçalves Zarco (c.1390-1471, who discovered Madeira in 1418), Gil Eanes (active c.1433-1445, who successfully sailed beyond the dangerous Cape Bojador on the West African coast in 1434) and Pêro de Alenquer (c.1480-c.1514, who was on the ship captained by Bartolomeu Dias that sailed around the Cape of Good Hope for the first time in 1488 and was a pilot on Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India in 1497-98). Behind them, holding an armillary sphere, is Pedro Nunes (1502-1578, a mathematician who revolutionized navigation and cartography by applying the principles of mathematics), followed by Pêro de Escobar (active c.1470-c.1500, a Portuguese navigator who discovered São Tomé and Príncipe in c.1475 and later was on Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India in 1497-98 and Pedro Álvares Cabral’s voyage where he discovered Brazil in 1500), Jácome de Maiorca (1360-1410, a renowned cartographer from Majorca (whose real name was Jehudà Cresques), who it is said, Prince Henrique procured to train the Portuguese map-makers), Pêro da Covilhã (active 1487-1525, an explorer who travelled to India overland in 1487, sent by King Joāo II to investigate setting up the trading of spices, and headed back to Portugal via Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia), where he was made a governor of a district) and Gomes Eanes de Zurara (c.1410-c.1474, a writer and chronicler who wrote Crónica do Descobrimento e Conquista da Guiné (Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea) in 1453), describing the early Portuguese voyages.
Behind them, shown holding a paintbrush and palette, is Nuno Gonçalves (active c.1450-c.1491, who was the court painter to King Afonso V. His most famous painting is Painéis de São Vicente (Saint Vincent Panels c.1470), in which he puts a religious subject in a contemporary setting making it an important record of Portuguese society in the mid-fifteenth century. It was originally part of an altar in Lisbon Cathedral and is now one of the prized exhibits in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. There are six panels, the larger two central ones both show Saint Vicent, the patron saint of Lisbon, in the foreground dressed in red and gold robes and surrounded by the nobility and other important members of Portuguese society, including the royal family and the Archbishop of Lisbon. In the other four panels other sectors of Portuguese society are represented, including knights, monks, a fisherman, a Jewish scholar, a beggar and a city official. However, it is debated who the actual members of the royal family are and in particular the figure in black to the right of the Saint in the third panel, who is generally thought to be Prince Henrique, as it was painted during Portugal’s golden Age of Discovery, but there is a convincing argument that it is his brother King Duarte and that Henrique is in fact the kneeling figure in the fifth panel and that depicting him kneeling was a political attempt to humiliate him).
Then comes Luís Vaz de Camões (c.1524-80, who is known as the Portuguese Shakespeare He was a colourful character if everything that has been written about him is to be believed (which it isn’t!). The facts of his life are sketchy, which has resulted in various myths developing about him. He was a member of the lower ranks of the aristocracy and after being exiled from Lisbon joined the army and fought in Morocco, where it is said he lost an eye. A few years later he was sent to India as a soldier to avoid a jail sentence and during this time was shipwrecked, where legend has it that he swam ashore holding the manuscript of his most famous poem, Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), above the water to save it. Os Lusíadas (published in 1572) is an epic poem which has many layers to it, written with reference to classical epic poems such as The Aeneid and The Odyssey. Its central subject is Vasco da Gama’s voyage to and discovery of India in 1497-98. By the time Camões was in India, Portugal’s domination was in decline and it could be argued that Os Lusíadas was partly written to restore national pride. He is depicted holding sheets of verse from Os Lusíadas Canto 7, verse 14:
Mas, entanto que cegos e sedentos
Andais de vosso sangue, ó gente insana,
Não faltarão Cristãos atrevimentos
Nesta pequena casa Lusitane:
De África tem marítimos assentos;
É na Ásia mais que todas soberana;
Na quarta parte nova os campos ara;
E, se mais mundo houvera, lá chegara.
(But, while you blindly thirst
For the blood of your own, oh insane people,
There will be no lack of Christian daring
In this little Lusitanian house:
In Africa Portugal has coastal bases;
And in Asia great sovereignty;
In the fourth part, the New World, the land is being cultivated;
And, if there are more lands to be found, they will go there.)).
Towards the rear of the western-facing side are Henrique de Coimbra (c.1465-1532, a Franciscan friar and bishop who was on one of the ships on Pedro Álvares Cabral’s voyage where he discovered Brazil in 1500, and who later became a missionary in Africa and India), Gonçalo de Carvalho (a 15th-century Dominican friar who spread Catholicism in India and later Congo), Fernão Mendes Pinto (c.1509-1583, an explorer and writer whose most famous work is the Peregrinaçāo (Pilgrimage, 1614), which, with dubious historical accuracy, describes his voyages to India, the Middle East and the Far East), Queen Philippa of Lancaster (1360-1415, Prince Henrique’s mother, who was the daughter of John of Gaunt, cousin of King Richard II of England and sister of Henry IV of England and her marriage to King João I was important in that it sealed the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance against the Franco-Castilian axis and prevented a potential challenge to João’s reign) and Prince Pedro (1392-1449, another of Prince Henrique’s brothers who was Prince Regent to the six-year-old King Afonso V until he came of age).
On the eastern-facing side, directly behind Prince Henrique, is King Afonso V (1432-81, Prince Henrique’s nephew and patron of the explorations led by his uncle), followed by Vasco da Gama (c.1460-1524, one of the most famous navigators, who in 1497 led an expedition from Lisbon, around the Cape of Good Hope, onto South Africa and East Africa, discovering Natal and Mozambique and finally arriving in Calicut, India in 1498, thus opening up an important trade route between Portugal and India). Behind him are the navigators Afonso Baldaia (c.1415-1481, an early navigator who, along with Gil Eanes, explored the coast of the Western Sahara south of Cape Bojador in 1435-36), Pedro Álvares Cabral (c.1467-c.1520, who discovered Brazil in 1500, landing in Porto Seguro in the northeast of the country), Fernão de Magalhães (c.1480-1521, also known as Ferdinand Magellan, who in 1520-21 (sailing for the King of Spain), crossed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Strait of Magellan (named after him) and onto the East Indies (where he died), which marked the first circumnavigation of the globe), Nicolau Coelho (c.1460-1504, who captained one of the ships on Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India in 1497-98 and on Pedro Álvares Cabral’s voyage where he discovered Brazil in 1500), Gaspar Côrte-Real (1450-1501, who led the voyage in 1500 to find a Northwest Passage to Asia, which resulted in the discovery of Newfoundland) and Martim Afonso de Sousa (c.1500-1564, who commanded an official expedition to Brazil in 1530 and founded the settlements of Sāo Vicente and Sāo Paulo in 1532, becoming the first Royal Governor of Brazil).
Behind them, holding a sheet of paper is João de Barros (1496-1570, a writer and historian who wrote three volumes of a work entitled Décadas da Ásia (Decades of Asia) between 1552 and 1563, which describe the experiences of the Portuguese in India and Asia). He is followed by Estêvão da Gama (c.1505-1576, a fleet commander, and son of Vasco da Gama, who, like his father before him, became Viceroy of India in 1540), and behind him, raising a padrão (a pillar the explorers would to leave on land they had discovered to mark Portuguese possession) between them, are Bartolomeu Dias (c.1450-1500, who was the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope (the southernmost point of Africa) in 1488 and opened up a sea route into the Indian Ocean), Diogo Cão (c.1452-c.1486, who discovered the Congo River in 1482, the north-west coast of Angola in 1484 and Namibia in 1485) and António de Abreu (c.1480-c.1514, who was part of the fleet led by Afonso de Albuquerque that conquered the island of Ormuz in 1507 and Malacca in 1511 and discovered Timor in 1512). The bearded figure behind António de Abreu is Afonso de Albuquerque (c.1453-1515, who is considered to be one of the greatest Portuguese naval commanders, by militarily and administratively contributing to the building of the Portuguese Empire, including closing the naval passages from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic to other countries and developing a sea trade with China). At the rear of the eastern-facing side are Francisco Xavier (1506-1552, a Jesuit who worked as a missionary in Asia and India) and Cristóvão da Gama (c.1516-1542, a fleet commander, son of Vasco da Gama and brother of Estêvão da Gama, who sailed to India in 1532 and later was involved in several battles against the Muslims in Ethiopia in 1541 and 42, where he died in captivity).
On the ground in front of the monument is a 50-metre replica of a wind rose; a map used by the navigators in the 15th and 16th centuries showing the directions of the eight principal winds at various locations. The map, which was a gift from South Africa and designed by the architect Luís Cristino da Silva in black and red limestone, depicts the routes and dates of the discoveries, marked by icons of ships, and decorated with images of Neptune, a mermaid and a sea creature.
It is best seen from the top of the monument, which can be reached by a lift or by the 267 steps, and from where you can enjoy views of the Jerónimos Monastery, Maritime Museum, Archaeological Museum, Belém Tower, Belém Cultural Centre, the River Tejo, 25th April Bridge and the Cristo Rei monument on the other side of the river.
Either side of the monument are two large armillary spheres. The armillary sphere was an important navigational instrument during the Age of Discovery (used to calculate distance) and it became the symbol of Portugal, appearing on the Portuguese flag. King Manuel I, during his reign, adopted it as his personal symbol and it features in a lot of Manueline architecture.
The best time to see the monument is towards sunset, when the sun is softer and gives it a golden glow.
Monument to the Discoveries, Avenida do Brasília, Belém
Open: March to September 10am-7pm daily; October to February 10am-6pm (closed Mondays); also closed 1 January, 1 May and 25 December
Entrance : €5 (as of 2019)
Public transport from Lisbon: tram 15; buses 728, 714, 727, 729 and 751; trains from Cais do Sodré stop at Belém station