Pedro Álvares Cabral and the involuntarily discovery of Brazil

9 March 1500, the 2nd Portuguese India Armada under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral set forth from Lisbon for Calicut in India and involuntarily discovered Brazil four weeks later.
“The first bold hero who to India's shores Through vanquish'd waves thy open'd path explores,Driv'n by the winds of heav'n from Afric's strand, Shall fix the holy cross on yon fair land.That mighty realm, for purple wood renown'd, Shall stretch the Lusian empire's western bound” (Luís Vaz de Camões, “Os Lusíadas”)

Portuguese artist Oscar Pereira da Silva’s (1865 – 1939) academically painted imagination of Cabral landing on the Brazilian coast near modern Porto Seguro on April 25th 1500, greeted by astonished Tupiniquim indigenes (ca 1920).

Vasco da Gama’s ships just had trickled, peu-à-peu, into the harbour of Lisbon, all battered and sore, with the news of the discovery of the sea route to India, laden with the riches of the Orient, when King Manuel decided to send a second expedition, better equipped, better prepared and better manned. Over the winter, 14 caravels and carracks were assembled, 1,500 men hired, some of the most famous sea captains and navigators of the country among them, the likes of Nicolau Coelho, and the Brothers Diaz, Bartolomeu and Diogo, among them. In February, the scion of Portuguese princes, 30 years old Pedro Alvares Cabral took command. His orders: Impress the lords of the Malabar coast, establish diplomatic relations and a stable trade route for spices by sea and, in case, show the musulman competitors in the Indian Ocean what’s what. So far, so good. On a fine Monday morning, Cabral’s armada, this time an ensemble that deserved the name in contrast to Vasco da Gama’s ramshackle arrangements, set forth with a course for the Cape Verdes to catch favourable winds in the South Atlantic for the next leg of the voyage, the Cape of Good Hope.

A contemporary depiction of Cabral's 2nd Armada

Cabral’s chief navigators, Pêro de Alenquer and Pedro Escobar, both old Africa hands who went exploring on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea already during the 1470s and sailed with Vasco da Gama on his first voyage, had plotted an uncannily resourceful course using prevailing winds and currents with the use of sea charts and navigational instruments that hardly deserved the name on an ocean were few ships had ever sailed before. However, they drew the arc Cabral’s fleet was to take across the South Atlantic a bit too wide and on April 22nd, after 31 days on the high seas, land was sighted – the hitherto unknown coast of Brazil. Or almost unknown. Six years before, the Treaty of Tordesillas had split the New World along an imaginary meridian running at first 380 and finally, after hard negotiations, 700 miles west of the Cape Verdes into Spanish and everything east of the line into Portuguese domains, especially yet undiscovered lands. Strangely enough, the newly found landmass was just east of the demarcation line. That the Portuguese knew of Brazil’s existence before April 22, 1500 is not quite impossible. Portugal’s chief negotiator at Tordesillas, the geographer and explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira, might have been there already in 1498 and maybe King Manuel sent Cabral west with a purpose. If he found Brazil by accident or not, Cabral took possession of the place in the name of the crown of Portugal on May 1st.

Brazilian painter Victor Meirelles (1832 - 1903) idea of "The First Mass in Brazil" (1861)

After despatching the fleet’s tender to Lisbon to inform the king about his new domains, Cabral resumed his passage to India and was promptly hit by a severe storm off the Cape of Good Hope. Its discoverer, Bartolomeu Dias had named it originally and quite aptly “Cape of Storms” perished along with four ships of Cabral’s fleet on that day. Neither did the rest of the expedition stay under a good star. The Portuguese managed to manoeuvre into hard fighting with the locals as well as the Arab traders in Calcutta, ending with a state of war between Portugal and the city state, but, at least, managed to set up a trading post at the rival town of Cochin and returned laden with valuable goods and Cabral with a damaged reputation to Lisbon in July 1501, while the 3rd India Armada was already underway and the fourth in preparation.

And more about the 2nd Portuguese India Armada in an unusually entertaining article on:,_1500%29