Portuguese Exploration of West Africa

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Portuguese Exploration of West Africa

(For before 1460, see Henry the Navigator).

At the time of Henry the Navigator’s death in 1460, his captains had reached Sierra Leone. They now faced a difficult coast, shoals and small islands, very few safe harbours and little opportunity for trade. They “were content to develop their modest but prospering trade at the mouths of the Senegal and the Gambia.” (J. H. Parry)

In 1469, King Alfonso V of Portugal, who had taken over the organisation of his late uncle, Henry’s, push down Africa's west coast, turned the venture into a commercial enterprise. In an effort to reinvigorate the exploration he granted a lease to one Fernao Gomes, a Lisbon merchant, who bought the rights to all trade along the “Guinea Coast”. By the time his lease expired, (and he had retired; a very wealthy man) about 1474, his ships had reached 2 degrees south – well below where the coastline resumes its southerly direction.

At this time a war of succession broke out between Portugal and Castile. It very quickly spread to the African coast. Isabella of Castile began outfitting privateers to harry the Portuguese trading vessels, there was much fighting along the coast, and in 1478 a Spanish fleet of 35 sail was defeated. Whilst Portugal lost the war in Europe, the Treaty of Alcacovas gave it a full monopoly of fishing, trade, and navigation “along the whole west African coast.” (Parry)

The “factory-fort” of Sao Jorge da Mina (Elmina) was built in 1482; the first of many such fortifications designed to protect trade. By the end of the 18th century, major forts had been erected – all on ground bought or leased from the local king or chief – by trading companies from Portugal, Spain, England, France, Holland, Denmark and Brandenburg. (The great Christiansborg Castle, in Lagos, built by the Swedes, is now the centre of Ghana’s government and the seat of its Parliament.)

During the 1480s, with Alfonso replaced by John II, the push southwards continued. In 1483 Diogo Cao set up a ‘’padrao’’, a large stone cross, at the mouth of the Congo River, and explored some way upstream, before continuing as far as Cape Santa Maria in what is now southern Angola. A second voyage, 1485-7, reached modern Walvis Bay in Namibia; and in the year of Cao’s return, Bartholomew Diaz, by heading out into the empty Atlantic from the Namibian coast, thus avoiding the unfriendly winds and the north-setting Benguala Current, found himself, with luck and fine seamanship, around the Cape of Good Hope. The way to India was open.


  • “The Age of Reconnaissance”, J. H. Parry - Uni of California Press, Berkeley.
  • “The Opening of the World”, David Devine - Collins London.
  • The Times Atlas of World History – William Collins, Sydney.
  • “West Africa before the Colonial Era” – Basil Davidson, Longman, London and New York.
  • Chambers Encyclopedia.
  • Webster’s Geographical Dictionary.