How Portugal became the first global sea power

During the Age of Discovery, daring sailors with names like Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama set sail into uncharted waters in search of the unknown
During the Age of Discovery, daring sailors w... 08:39

The advantage to the type of rigging, said Lt. Neves, was that "you could sail very close to the winds, meaning that you would sail basically where and when you wanted to." In a caravel you weren't restricted to winds that just pushed you along from behind, as square-riggers were.

The Portuguese had the best and most up-to-date navigational tools as well. For example, the mariner's astrolabe, which helped to plot location by measuring the altitude of the sun and stars.

And they had the equivalent of today's proprietary computer software: accurate maps, such as the first cartographic representation of Brazilian territory, drawn in 1502.

By order of King Manuel I, the selling of maps showing Portuguese navigations was prohibited outside of Portugal. "So maps were Portugal's secret weapon?" asked Teichner.

"Maps were power," said Lt. Neves, "because knowledge is power."

Portugal monopolized world commerce, but only as long as it managed to keep its knowledge out of the hands of competitors. Ferdinand Magellan commanded the first expedition that made it around the world. He was Portuguese, sailing for the Spanish -- foretelling the beginning of the end of Portugal's Golden Age.

But it was awfully good while it lasted. King Manuel, who outlawed the sale of maps, began in 1502 building the Jeronimos monastery in Lisbon. With its wonderful Gothic details, it's an extravagant shrine to Portugal's discoveries -- and to its heroes. Vasco da Gama, the embodiment of Portugal's long history of taking on the sea, is buried here.

This summer, the Portuguese navy honored that spirit by giving its Vasco da Gama Award to surfer Garrett McNamara, who holds the world record for riding this 78-foot wave in November 2011, just off Nazare -- where such exploits have always been understood.


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