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After Henry’s death, exploration activity slowed somewhat due to lack of royal patronage and because of the lucrative trade in ivory, gold, and slaves that Portuguese merchants carried out with the native kingdom of Ghana. It would be King John II, who ascended the throne in 1481, who would resume explorations at an accelerated pace. In a few years, its navigators reached almost the end of Africa. Realizing that he was on the verge of success, in 1487 Juan sent two expeditions. Down the coast was Bartolomé Díaz, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope (which he called Cape of Storms) in 1488; Through the Mediterranean and overland to the Red Sea was Pedro de Covilhão, who recognized the western limits of the Indian Ocean from Mozambique, in Africa, to the Malabar coast, in India. The way was paved for the next and longest journey,
the one that Vasco de Gama would do from 1497 to 1499 bordering Africa and reaching Calcutta, in India. As a result of diseases, mutinies, storms, and difficulties with both the native Hindus and the numerous Arab merchants it encountered, Vasco de Gama’s expedition lost two of its four ships and almost two-thirds of its crew. However, the load of spices with which he returned was enough to pay several times the cost of the trip. In view of such benefits, the Portuguese wasted no time capitalizing on their advantage. In a dozen years they had swept the Arabs from the Indian Ocean and established
Figure 5.2 Portuguese ratchet. These large and heavy ships, specially designed for the long voyage to India, replaced the smaller, more manageable caravels that had done most of the exploration of the African coast during the 15th century. (The National Maritime Museum, London.)
Fortified trading posts from Mozambique and the Persian Gulf to the legendary Spice Islands or Moluccas. In 1513, one of their ships arrived in Canton, in southern China, and by mid-century they had already begun commercial and diplomatic relations with Japan. In 1483 or 1484, while John II’s crews were still making their way up the African coast, a Genoese who had sailed in the service of Portugal and was married to a Portuguese woman asked the Portuguese king to finance a voyage across the Atlantic to reach the East by sailing west. Such a proposition was not new. According to general belief, the Earth was a sphere. But was the plan feasible? Cristoforo Colombo (Columbus), the Genoese, thought so, although the weight of opinion was against him.