1500 – Pedro Cabral Reaches Brazil

By now you have probably figured out that somebody may have reached today’s Brazil before Captain Pedro Álvares Cabral (c1467-c1520) did. But he still gets credit for it. Ironically, he was not looking for the Ihla de Brasil, or the Islas Fortunatae, or St. Brendon’s Island, but rather was on his way east to follow Vasco da Gama’s new route to India.

Pedro was born in either 1467 or 1468 to Fernão Alvares Cabral and his wife Isabel Gouveira in Belmonte, central Portugal. His great-great-grandfather Álvaro Gil Cabral had been awarded the hereditary fiefdom by King João I for his service fighting against the Castilians.

Pedro had four brothers and six sisters. As a member of Portugal’s lower nobility, his parents sent him to the court of King Afonso V at age twelve to receive an education, learn to bear arms, and fight. On June 30, 1484, when Pedro was about seventeen, King João II pronounced him a moço fidalgo [junior nobleman]. On April 12, 1497, King Manoel I dubbed him a full-fledged fidalgo and Knight of the Order of Christ. For that, Pedro was awarded an allowance of 30,000 réis a year.

Pedro Cabral was over six feet tall and strongly built, courteous, prudent, tolerant, and vain. Even though he had little if any experience as a naval commander, on February 15, 1500, King Manoel I appointed him the capitão-mor [Captain-Major, or Commander-in-chief] of a fleet of thirteen ships that would transport 1,500 men to India. Cabral was about thirty-three years old. Under his command were Bartolomeu Dias, Bartolomeu’s brother Diogo Dias, and Nicolau Coelho, who had sailed with Vasco Da Gama in command of the Bérrio.

700 of the 1,500 men were soldiers and mariners. The rest were commoners, including a fair amount of degredados [pardoned criminals] with no experience whatsoever. So many men had died during Vasco Da Gama’s expedition that Portugal had to draft mariners who were expendable. Can you imagine signing up for a voyage to the farthest place east anyone you knew had ever been? These men expected to build a new trading post in Asia and never see home again.

Cabral’s reward for leading the fleet entitled him to 10,000 cruzados [approximately 35 kg of gold], the right to purchase 30 tons of pepper at his own expense, and the right to resell the pepper tax-free to the Portuguese crown. He could also import, tax-free, ten crates of any other type of spice he came across.

In preparation for the fleet’s departure, on March 9, 1500, King Manoel held a public mass in Lisbon, which he attended along with Cabral’s commanders and crew. The fleet left Lisbon at noon the following day. The ships were divided into two divisions. Nine naus [carracks] and two caravels were heading to Calicut in India. One nau and one round-ship were heading to the trading port of Sofala in the Mozambique Channel. The entire fleet would sail the first leg. the coast of Western Africa, together.

They passed Gran Canaria Island in the Canaries on March 14. They reached the Cape Verde Islands on March 22. On March 23, a nau commanded by Vasco de Ataíde mysteriously disappeared with all 150 men on board. On April 9, the fleet crossed the equator and followed the flow of the Volta do Mar.

Before Cabral left on his expedition, he learned from Vasco da Gama that there was a large island to the west of the southern part of the Ocean Sea. To this day, no one knows if Cabral came upon South America deliberately or accidentally. He spotted seaweed in shallow waters on April 21. The next day, April 22, a Wednesday, Pedro Álvares Cabral made land somewhere on the northeast coast of today’s Brazil. His ships anchored in a place he named Monte Pascoal [Easter Mount] because it was Easter week. He thought he was on a large island.

When the Portuguese sighted natives on shore, Cabral ordered the shoreboats rigged and chose a landing party. Nicolau Coelho lead the party to the beach and made contact with the locals. [Coelho was the first Portuguese to step on Brazilian shores.] The two cultures exchanged gifts. Then the Portuguese returned to their mother ships.

The fleet followed the coast north about forty miles. On April 24, they anchored in a natural harbor Cabral named Porto Seguro [Safe Port]. This time, two natives [probably Tupiniquim people] were brought to Cabral’s flagship to converse with him there. The meeting was equally friendly, more gifts were exchanged, and the natives were taken back to shore.

Portuguese records describe the natives as stone-age hunters and gatherers. They stalked game, fished, and foraged for food in the wild. The women did the small-scale farming. They used fire, but they did not work with metal. As we will find in North America, there were countless different tribes, and they all warred with each other. Some were more nomadic than others. Some practiced cannibalism.

In Porto Seguro, curious and friendly natives came to inspect the ships. On April 26, Cabral ordered his carpenters to build an altar inland. Then his priests held a mass for the Portuguese and the natives – the first Christian mass held in Brazil. According to tradition, this cross, now housed in the Historical Museum in Braga, Portugal, was presented at that first mass.

The Brazil Cross, housed in the Historical Museum, Braga, Portugal.(1)

The Portuguese spent the next few days stocking their ships with wood, water, and food. Meanwhile, the carpenters built a seven-meter-tall [almost twenty-three feet] wooden cross. On May 1, they erected the cross, probably on a hill, and the priests held another mass. Still thinking he was on a large island, Cabral named the land Ilha de Vera Cruz [Island of the True Cross]. On May 2, he sent a carrack back to Portugal under the command of either Gaspar de Lemos or André Gonçalves(2) to announce their discovery to King Manoel.

On either May 2 or 3, the fleet prepared to set sail again. Cabral chose two degredados – we do not know their names – to stay in Brazil to retain Portugal’s claim to the land. The men would eventually find wives among the natives and father the first half Portuguese, half native Brazilian children known as mestizos [mixed race].

The fleet first sailed south along the eastern coast of South America. You can see from the map of the Volta do Mar that they were pushing against the currents. When there was no break in the land, and the coast did not turn westward, Cabral realized he had discovered a continent, not just an ilha. He turned east to the open sea about May 5.

Mid-Atlantic on May 23 or 24 the fleet hit a terrific storm. They lost four ships carrying 380 men, including three naus and Commander Bartolomeu Dias and his caravel. So ended the life of that accomplished explorer.

The storm scattered the other ships. When the weather calmed, Diogo Dias found himself alone. He would find a harbor on the West African coast and wait a year for his comrades to return, which they did. The other six ships were able to regroup. They rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made land near the Primeiras and Segundas Archipelago off East Africa just north of Sofala.

The battered vessels were able to make needed repairs before they moved on to the small island of Kilwa Kisiwani. Cabral’s meeting with the local king did not go well, so the Portuguese left quickly. They reached Malindi on August 2, where Cabral had a better meeting with the local king. Probably at the recommendation of Vasco Da Gama, Cabral recruited a pilot to guide his fleet across the Indian Sea.

No trouble was recorded during their passage. They touched down in India on the island of Anjadip north of Calicut. After obtaining food, they careened their ships on the beach to caulk and paint the hulls. On September 13 they left Anjadip for Calicut.

Pedro Cabral was more successful than Vasco Da Gama had been at developing a friendly relationship with the Zamorin. The Zamorin agreed to let Cabral’s carpenters build a factory and warehouse. Except it was probably a mistake for Cabral to hand over King Manoel’s letter demanding that the Indians expel the Arab merchants and deal exclusively with the Portuguese.

On December 16 or 17, between 300 and several thousand [reports vary a lot] Muslim Arabs and Hindu Indians attacked the factory and killed fifty Portuguese. The surviving Portuguese scrambled back to their ships – some had to swim.

Cabral waited twenty-four hours for an apology from the Zamorin. When he heard nothing, Cabral ordered his soldiers to seize ten Arab merchant ships that were at anchor in the harbor. The Portuguese killed over 600 Arab crew members, confiscated their cargoes, and then set the ships on fire. Cabral finished his display of power by ordering his ships to bombard Calicut for an entire day.

On December 24, with their holds full of stolen loot, the Portuguese fleet sailed to Kochi and anchored. Kochi was a vassal [subordinated province] of Calicut, but they wanted independence and were willing to ally with the Portuguese. They permitted Cabral to build another factory and load his ships with spices. The Portuguese then moved on to Kannur to do some more trading.

On January 16, 1501, Cabral set sail for home. Again, Nicolau Coelho was the first to make it back to Lisbon, arriving on June 23 in the “swiftest of the caravels.” After collecting Diogo Dias, Cabral arrived on July 21.

Reviewing the entire expedition: six ships were lost along the way, two ships arrived home empty [one was probably Diogo Dias’], and five ships arrived safely, filled to the gunwales with valuable cargo that would return an 800 percent profit to the Portuguese crown and pay for all the expenses of the voyage.

In spite of behavior that we today consider unethical and cruel, historians pat Cabral on the back for an expedition well executed. As Latin American historian Bailey Wallys Diffie (1902-1983) would later write, “The journey led to both a seagoing empire from Africa to the Far East, and a land empire in Brazil.”


  1. Photo of Brazil Cross ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  2. Historians can not agree on which of the two men made the announcement.

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