Portugal assumed leadership in the new period of exploration. Venice, Genoa, Milan, and other Italian cities had for a long time maintained a monopoly of the Eastern trade. The medieval trade routes led through the Mediterranean. The Portuguese, however, now became interested in the possibility of trading with the lands of the East by sailing around Africa. They wanted to find a water route which would provide a cheaper means of transportation and would be in less danger of attack by brigands.
Prince Henry the Navigator. The most prominent of the Portuguese who were interested in extending geographical knowledge and in furthering the leadership of Portugal was Prince Henry the Navigator, the son of King John of Portugal. He devoted his life to the study of navigation and established a school to which mariners from other parts of Europe came for inspiration and guidance. Prince Henry wished to reach the wealth of the Indies by sailing around Africa. If he could discover such a route, the trade with the East would be directed to his country instead of to the Italian cities. In 1434 a Portuguese ship returned from the coast of Africa with a cargo of slaves. Slave trading then became an important part of Portuguese commerce. Ivory and gold also were brought from the coast of Africa.
Besides these economic interests, there was the desire to help the Christians defeat the Moors. Early in the eighth century, as we have seen, the Mohammedans had overrun most of the Iberian peninsula. In an attempt to drive them out of Spain and Portugal, long and bitter warfare was waged between the Christians and the Moors. Prince Henry was a devout Christian. Reports had come to Portugal of a Christian kingdom on the eastern coast of Africa, ruled over by a king known as Prester John. Prince Henry the Navigator felt that if contact could be made with the Christians on the east coast of Africa, their help might be obtained, and the Mohammedans could then be attacked from both the front and the rear and could be crushed between these two forces of Christianity. Thus interest in religion, desire for financial gain, quest of geographical knowledge, and love of adventure went hand in hand in the efforts to explore the unknown seas and lands.
By the middle of the fifteenth century the Madeira Islands and the Azores had been occupied, and Portuguese sailors were pushing farther and farther south along the African coast. However, it was not until 1488, a quarter of a century after the death of Prince Henry, that Bartolomeu Dias passed the cape very near the southern point of Africa (map, p.14). His success was not due entirely to his courage, for a violent storm had arisen and had driven him for a number of days toward and beyond the southern point of Africa. After having lost sight of land for several days, Dias found himself more than two hundred miles east of the Cape of Storms, as he called the cape near the southern point of Africa. Upon the return of Dias, King John of Portugal suggested that the name of the cape be changed to Good Hope, for Portugal now had hope of reaching India by way of the sea.
Ten years later, in 1498, another Portuguese, Vasco da Gama, finally reached India. Thus western Europe had found an all-water route to the wealth of the East. This voyage of Da Gama was epoch-making, for now the trade from the East, which for many years had gone through the Italian cities, was directed to Portugal. No longer were the nations of western Europe dependent on the Italian middlemen. A commercial revolution began to take place; the center of trade between the East and the West now shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. The Italian cities fought a losing battle for commercial supremacy. Portugal led the way in the commercial expansion, and received great rewards in profits and prestige, but other nations of Europe soon challenged her supremacy and entered into a struggle for colonial possessions.