With Bartholomeu Dias having charted the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope, Dom Manuel I dispatched a series of armadas – their mission was to secure treaties with the feudal city states across the west coast of India, and to establish trading posts on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Africa’s east coast at Sofala and on Mozambique Island. They met with varied success – storms, disease, supply problems, and violence from and against the local populations all took their toll.
Trading posts were eventually established under the control of the Casa da India (forerunner to the Dutch and English East India Companies) which was to oversee all trade. If he could cut the Venetian Empire’s stranglehold, Dom Manuel realised he could monopolise the spice trade – diverting the transportation of spices such as pepper, cloves and cinnamon from the established Mediterranean routes via his Carreira da India route, around the Cape to Lisbon.
Dom Manuel’s 2nd armada set sail in 1500. It’s intended destination was India but it was immediately beset by storms. Commander Pedro Alvaers Cabral (some say by luck, others feel it was by design) sailed south west in search of more favourable winds (or possibly attempting to reach the Azores to repair his battered fleet). This detour brought them to the west coast of Brazil, making land at present day Porto Seguro.
Spain and Portugal had signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1497, drawing a line down the Atlantic between the Cape Verde Islands (Portuguese since 1460), and Cuba and Hispaniola (Spanish since 1492). Lands to the east would belong to Portugal and anything west to Spain (although this was subsequently ignored by the Dutch and English as they began their explorations). Determining they were still east of the Tordesillas line, Cabral formerly claimed Brazil for the Portuguese crown.
The effect on the Azores was almost immediate. Flores and Corvo became crucial navigation points for ships heading home from the Americas, whilst both Terceira and Faial became important half-way houses for fleets to resupply and repair mid-journey. There’s not quite as much modern-day evidence of this period in Faial’s capital Horta as there is in the city of Angra De Heroismo. The grand architecture of the Sé Cathedral, the Câmara Municipal and the Palácio dos Capitães-Generais are all a result of this ‘golden era’, and a constant stream of traders and goods saw the city blossom economically, culturally and architecturally.
A happy by-product of the influx of trade was the introduction of spices from far-flung destinations – perhaps most prominently pepper, cinnamon and star anise which feature heavily in Terceira’s signature dish: Alcatra.
Arguably Angra’s most important building from this period is Solar de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios – known locally as Solar do Provedor das Armadas, or the Manor of the Provisioner of the Armed Forces. The manor was the home of the Ombudsman of the armed forces, whose role was to support and protect Portuguese fleets as they approached the Azores – to bring them safely to Angra and to resupply the caravels with food, water and armaments. Pero Anes do Canto was the first Ombudsman (in fact his full title was Purveyor to the Armada of the Islands and the merchant vessels of the East India trade in all of the islands of the Azores), with his descendants fulfilling the role for three hundred years (up until the 19th Century).
On Angra’s quayside facing the Igreja da Misericordia, you’ll also see a modern-day memorial to this period in Portuguese history – the 2016 statue of Vasco da Gama striding purposefully from the harbour towards the centre of the city.
Gama famously led the first (of thirteen) armadas to India, leaving Lisbon on 8th July 1497. Two years later, on 20th January 1499, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope on their return journey in two ships – the Berrio and Gabriel. The ships became separated in a storm – Gama was on-board the Gabriel and arrived into the Cape Verdean island of Santiago in May. His older brother (and captain of the Gabriel) Paulo was dying of scurvy, and it looked increasingly unlikely he’d make it home without medical attention (such as it was in the 15th Century). The Gabriel continued without the brothers, arriving into Lisbon in August (one month after the Berrio). Meanwhile, Gama charted a caravel and sailed with his brother to Terceira. Paulo survived the shorter, quicker journey to the island but passed away within twenty-four hours of their arrival. He was buried at the Sao Francisco monastery, now home to the Meseu de Angra do Heroismo.
One of the most important pieces of Portuguese literature is the Os Lusiadas – an epic poem by Luis Vaz de Camoes. Published in 1572, it’s a grandiose, mythologised celebration of Gama’s voyage.
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