The European Renaissance heralded a great period of exploration and innovation, leading to epic sea voyages and new trade routes. The tiny country of Portugal was one of the leaders in what is now called the Age of Exploration. One reason for Portugal’s success was the contribution of Pedro Alvares Cabral, who claimed Brazil for Portugal. Although his rival Vasco da Gama eclipsed Cabral, his early-16th-century voyages influenced the course of Portuguese colonialism and trade for centuries.

An Accidental Discovery: Brazil

Within two years after Columbus’ first encounter with the so-called New World, Spain and Portugal had divided up the hemisphere’s future colonies in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Cabral did not initially set out to find what land might lie within Portugal’s treaty-granted territory, however; in 1500, he took a fleet of 13 ships south, intending to travel around Africa. He veered westward, perhaps for advantageous winds, and there to his surprise he found a land mass which he named Vera Cruz. Thinking it was only an island, Cabral and his men spent less than two weeks along the coast, though he did send back a ship to Portugal, notifying the king of the discovery.

Trade Connections: Cochin

Although now remembered as second to his Brazilian detour, Cabral’s visit to India was his main purpose. He visited several sites on the west coast in late 1500. The ruler of Calicut claimed sovereignty over the entire Malabar Coast, a status resented by the leaders of Cochin and its neighbors, Cananore and Quilon. Cabral was able to capitalize on these tensions, having fought a brief but bloody struggle against Calicut that fall, burning 10 ships of Calicut’s Arab allies and bombarding the town. Although retaliations by Calicut forced him to flee India altogether early in 1501, he could boast of the firm economic ties with Cochin and Cananore, especially; he had constructed a factory in the former, and his ships carried the coveted spices of the region.

African Exploration: Water Route

Although Cabral’s fleet suffered some losses, his voyage was ultimately successful. In repeating da Gama’s success, Cabral proved that traveling around Africa was a viable trade route to the east, freeing European powers from the risky overland caravans that brought them in contact with hostile Arabs, Turks and others. He made several stops along the eastern coast of African, including at Sofala, Mozambique, Kilwa and Malindi, notes William B. Robison in "The Historical Dictionary of European Imperialism." One of his ships’ crews also became the first Europeans to see Madagascar.

Colonialist Legacy

Ironically, Cabral’s great mistake is what he is known best for today. Brazil, became a source of wealth for Portugal and its largest colony. Cabral died in 1520, so he never knew the full importance of Brazil, which took its name from a type of wood used to make valuable dyes. A more immediate payoff from his expedition came in the form of trade, as Portugal began to contest the traditional economic supremacy of Venice, which had profited from the overland routes via North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. This success brought Cabral the opportunity for a second expedition, but after eight months preparing for the voyage, da Gama replaced him as commander, and Cabral retired from official life.