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Age of Discovery

Portuguese exploration

The caravelThe caravel Living on on the western edge of Europe, the Portuguese were well-placed to undertake early voyages of exploration. During the 15th century, they ventured out from their kingdom in search of gold, riches and a sea route to the Far East. They developed a small sailing ship called a caravel, which enabled them to cover great distances by sea, and so was a great advantage to early Portuguese explorers. The vessels were smaller, more streamlined and more manoeuvrable than carracks, the cargo vessels in common use at the time. Based on the design of Arab fishing boats called dhows, they carried triangular sails, called lateen sails.

Prince Henry the NavigatorPrince Henry the Navigator

Henry the Navigator

In 1419, Prince Henry (1394-1460), the third son of King John I of Portugal, set up a school of navigation, map-making and astronomy. Now Portuguese sailors could learn the skills they needed to make long, dangerous journeys at sea. In 1434, Gil Eannes sailed past Cape Bojador in Africa, at that time the most westerly point known to Europeans. From then on, the Portuguese gradually began to map the coast of West Africa. Prince Henry sent many expeditions to explore this coast. His aim was to find the source of the gold that was brought by Muslim traders north across the Sahara.

Portugal was the first country to have a global empire, with possessions on every continent. It began in 1415 with the capture of Ceuta, in northern Africa, and ended with the handing over of Macau, Portugal's last possession, to China in 1999.

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