I’ve loved time in Europe.

A little over 21 years ago I walked through Lisbon, Portugal. Late spring light reflecting off architecture from Lisbon’s past impressed me.

I knew little of Portugal then. I knew little of all of Europe’s history when traveling to other countries – too much beer and television in college. But, time in Europe inspired me. It motivated me to learn about the other side of the Atlantic Ocean where my ancestors came from.

Some of my ancestors were Portuguese. Others were Spanish, German and Polish. Regardless, I wrote the following a long time ago, and finally feel like sharing neat things I learned reading about Portugal’s overseas empire – the first in recorded history upon which the sun never set.

Why Portugal of all countries?

Once up a time there was this thing called the Silk Road (though this phrase was coined in the 19th century). The Silk Road was a trade route. It connected Europe to the Orient. Merchants would bring spices, silks and other wares from India, China, Japan, etc. to Europe because the wealthy would pay lots of money for them. Naturally, whoever sold these goods to the wealthy – the kings, nobles, lords and wealthy merchants – became rich themselves.

But this was no easy task. A thousand years ago traveling was tough. Only the Roman Empire had mastered road-building by then, and they’d been gone for centuries. Predetermined routes were used, but getting lost was always a possibility. Plus, bands of murderous Tartars – the wild horsemen of the Asiatic plains stretching from Mongolia to Russia – lurked along the way, waiting to trounce upon the unsuspecting and under-armed. Other perils existed too. Nonetheless, from places like Quanzhou and Luoyang, across deserts named Taklamakan and Karakam, on the backs of camels, horses, oxen, and probably even elephants, goods moved west for centuries.

A simplified view of the Silk Road. Though, there were many other variations.

But across land was not the only way. Another was across the ocean on ships carrying much more cargo. So, enter the Arabian traders. Beginning in the 700’s, as their Muslim Empire reached epic proportions, Arabs sailed east to India. They established trading posts there. Those posts came to attract luxury goods from China, Japan and Southeast Asia. Those posts came to be the hub for a great deal of commerce between East and West. The Arabs would then sail those goods to the top of the Red Sea where now is the Suez Canal. Goods would be transported by land to the Egyptian coast where they would once again be put on boats to sail to their final destination in Europe.

Enter the Italians. It would be 1861 before Italy was one. In these times, Italy was ruled by city-states. Milan, Florence, Naples, Genoa, etc, etc. By the 1300’s Italians, particularly Venice, dominated the carrying trade between Egypt and Europe. Though Catholic, the Italians had no qualms trading with Muslims, whether they were Egyptian Mamelukes or Ottoman Turks. Thus, the trade of pepper, spices, silks, tea and whole lot of other stuff from Asia, that fetched astronomical prices in Europe, was controlled by Italians and Muslims.

Enter the Portuguese. At the dawn of ca. A.D. 1400, their kingdom at the far western end of Europe was safely ensconced from the perils that other kingdoms of Europe faced. England and France still had decades of their Hundred Years War left; the Dutch were still peons to their Hapsburg kings; and the Castilians were still building castles across Castile in re-conquering their homeland from the Muslims. Portugal though, surrounded by mountains, deserts and ocean, enjoyed security. With the men of this kingdom not preoccupied with how to kill their enemy, they thought of other things.

Heat, stench, scurvy, disease and the constant dread of the ocean swallowing you alive did not deter brave men from crossing oceans in wooden boats long ago. The drama of exploration was real. That’s more fascinating than the drama of comic book movies Hollywood makes with impunity for adults nowadays.

So they made universities. They dedicated themselves to the advancement of navigation and cartography. And why not advance science to create opportunities to make money? So they did. These advances yielded the compass, sextant, map and caravel. The caravel could cover more ground in a shorter time. It was more maneuverable. Thus, a new game of empire began.

On the 14th of August in the year of our Lord 1415, 45,000 men on 200 ships sailed south from Lisbon’s harbor and landed at the North African town of Ceuta (say-u-tah), an island off the coast of what is now Morocco, and conquered it. Portuguese control of Ceuta helped secure their shores from marauding Muslims and Italians. The eyes of men like Prince Henry the Navigator could now turn west towards the Atlantic and south along Africa’s west coast, knowing the east was protected. The stars had aligned.

Yet, there was another obstacle. The Sahara – Earth’s biggest desert south of North Africa’s civilizations – was the white man’s southern frontier. The Romans never went south of it. Neither had subsequent white people. Europeans could only speculate what lay south of this furnace. Do seas boil, as Sahara heat suggests? What of myths of monsters and whirlpools? What else could there be??? We moderns mock such fears. But most of y’all wouldn’t sail unknown oceans on a wooden ship six centuries ago. These men had courage. And courage should always be remembered.

This map is not incredibly detailed. But it’s good enough.

It took a Portuguese man named Eams fifteen times to sail south of Cape Bojador – a third of the way down from the Med on the hump of West Africa – in 1433. Numerous ships attempting to round this cape had been lost. Yet, once this psychological barrier had been passed, the Portuguese generally lost all fear of the supernatural.

In succeeding voyages, the Portuguese reached points further and further south on Africa’s western coast. By 1482 a man named Diogo reached the mouth of the Congo River. By 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Africa’s southermost point, and had crossed into the Indian Ocean. In 1498, six years after Columbus, who was motivated by the same desire for trade and riches, had set the Castilian flag on some unknown Caribbean island, and incorrectly called the natives Indians, another man named Vasco de Gama set the Portuguese flag on the real India. Their empire had begun.

Perhaps “empire” is not the best word. With the exception of Brazil, the Portuguese didn’t control large areas of land across the world like the word suggests. But they did control ports on sea lanes. These ports made them influential in the world’s commerce. They set the cornerstone for the Dutch and British Empires who eventually displaced the Portuguese. All this set the cornerstone for the 20th and 21st centuries.

Their empire did grow. They established forts and trading posts along the coasts of Africa, India, China, Japan, Indonesia (and of course Brazil which is a story of its own). They fought naval battles with Muslims who didn’t want to share their trading territories, and kicked the hell out of them in battles around the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. The dreams of their enterprising men who made the Age of Discovery come to pass had been realized.

By 1560 immense riches were flowing into this tiny kingdom of Western Europe for their trade with the Orient. They made even greater money by beginning the importation of African slaves into their sugar-producing colony of Brazil, and evoked the wrath of the modern world. But, back then, their riches evoked the avarice of others who resolved themselves to get a piece of the action.

The result? Though Portugal controlled the sea lanes of commerce around Africa to the Orient during the 1500’s, increased competition from mightier nations doomed their hegemony. The Dutch and the English wrested control of South Africa, India and Southeast Asia from their hands during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Portuguese still had some influence in Asia, and did keep Brazil, a source of immense wealth for Portugal because of its sugar, until 1822, but, ultimately, superior armaments and tactics on behalf of Dutch, English, French and Spanish reduced the Portuguese to a second class empire, and kingdom. The earthquake which destroyed Lisbon in 1755 didn’t help.

By the latter half of the 19th century Portugal really only held some outposts in Africa. But its aims of expanding them was nixed by the British Empire who wanted all the influence over Africa. It lost virtually everything in the 20th century.

Portugal was ruled by a dictator between 1926 and 1974. Providence destined this kingdom to have little influence on world affairs in the 20th century. The 21st looks the same. Rich Germans and English now buy up its prime real estate for vacations. I’m sure this is driving up prices big time.

Maybe I’m not doing Portugal justice by not saying more about this place, but I’ve squeezed enough out of me. But, they did have their day in the sun.

Remembering my only visit to Portugal 21 years ago inspired this. With Europe’s totalitarian tendencies, and contempt for freedom with unabashed lockdowns and de facto vaccine passports, who knows if I’ll ever make it there again. I’d like to. But only God sees all things.

Regardless, traveling to Europe evoked longings to learn more that have sent me down an intellectual journey revealing many other avenues of curiosity and passion to explore. To enumerate those avenues now is boring. But they have provided countless hours of pleasure. Ultimately, the radical experience – and humility gained – by going to Europe for the first time set me on a course forever different than I once expected.

What a blessing.

silk road map – Bing images

main-silk-road-full.jpg (1500×723) (chinadiscovery.com) Silk Road Map

HMOF7-07-c.gif (406×480) Portuguese exploration

The_Portuguese_Empire.png (2753×1400) (wikimedia.org) Portuguese Empire

PortugueseCaravel.jpg (512×353) (esme.org) Portuguese Caravel