Cabral's Fleet

Date: 1500
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


Ships were literally the vehicles of Iberia's overseas empires, and Portugal's empire relied on oceangoing vessels even more so than Spain's. The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) had delineated the western half of the unknown world for Spain, a hemisphere that was dominated by the American continents and allowed Spain to develop a land-based empire. Portugal, however, was given the east, a region whose power and resistance to European diseases precluded the type of conquest occurring in the Americas. Portugal's incredibly profitable empire was based instead on a large number of trading factories established throughout Brazil, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, and state-of-the-art ships were necessary in order to conduct efficient and profitable trade with these outposts.

Portuguese ships were a fusion of Arabic and North European technologies, the former learned in the Mediterranean and the latter along the Atlantic coast. The two quintessential vessels of Portuguese mariners were the caravel, a small and fast ship like those pictured in this source, and the galleon, a larger and sturdier vessel meant to carry huge loads of spices from the East and support the heavy cannon often used to secure those spices.

This image shows the fleet of Pedro Alvarez Cabral, the Portuguese navigator sent (after Vasco de Gama) on the second voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to India. En route, Cabral landed in Eastern Brazil (which he believed to be an island), and upon discovering that it lay within the Portuguese half of the globe, claimed it for the king. He did eventually arrive in India, where--after bombarding the port town of Calicut--he managed to secure two boatloads of pepper. Of the thirteen ships with which Cabral set out, only five made it back to Lisbon; this drawing shows the destruction of some of these vessels.
CITATION:  "Pedro Alvares Cabral Fleet." 1500. The Granger Collection, New York. 0007381.