Western Land Sightings and Sibling Quibbling

Two years after the Lagos expedition, chronicler Antonio Galvão wrote, “In this year 1447, it happened that there came a Portugal ship through the Strait of Gibraltar [on her way home from Guinea], and being taken with a great tempest, was forced to run westwards more than willingly the men would, [against their will] and at last they came to an island which had seven cities, and the people spake the Portugal tongue, and they demanded if the Moors did yet trouble Spain, whence they had fled for the loss which they received by the death of the King of Spain, Don Roderigo.”(1)

You probably recognized this story as the myth of The Seven Bishops and the Island of Seven Cities. Galvão was referring to King Roderic, who, as we mentioned, was the king of the Visigoths in Hispania for two years, from 710 to 712, then killed by the invading Moors. The Portuguese and English were happy to hear that the Island of the Seven Cities did exist, and that it lay westward. We do not know which island the Portuguese ship really did find, or how far west they ventured.

Close to that time, one of Henry’s captains reported that he had seen a mist-covered island, believed to be St. Brendon’s Island. Henry sent him back to claim it, but the captain never made it home.

King Afonso V

An outbreak of an old family squabble in the House of Avis interrupted Henry’s scheme once again, but not for long. On June 9, 1448, Henry’s nephew Afonso, who had been six when his father King Duarte died, came of age and took his rightful place as King Afonso V of Portugal. During his active reign from 1448 to 1481, he would earn the nickname Afonso the African for all his conquests along the African coast – that he achieved with the help of his uncle Henry.

The squabble in 1448 was between the Lusitanian bourgeoisie [middle class and merchants] and the Portuguese lords and aristocracy loyal to Castile. Afonso V had become close to his half-uncle, Afonso Duke of Bragança, the leader of the aristocracy faction. [The Duke of Bragança had formerly been Afonso the Count of Barcelos, but in 1443, Prince Pedro, acting as Regent, had, at Afonso V’s suggestion, upgraded him to the position of Duke of Bragança –confusing, I know. The descendants of the House of Bragança will become some of the wealthiest and most powerful royals in Portugal. Christopher Columbus will marry into this family.]

The new Duke of Bragança was married to Beatriz Pereira de Alvim, the daughter of General Nuno Álvares Pereira, who, during his lifetime, was the wealthiest lord in the land. General Pereira (1360-1431) had served as the Constable and Protector of Afonso’s grandfather, João I of Avis. [Probably General Pereira’s wife, Leonor Pirez/Perez de Alvim, was related to – maybe even the sister of – King João’s mistress and the Duke’s mother, Inez Pirez/Perez, which means the Duke and his wife were cousins.] General Pereira had fought hard to keep Portugal independent from Castile. But by 1448, he was dead and his wealth had passed to his son-in-law who was using it for the opposite cause.

The Duke of Bragança was closely allied to Afonso V’s mother, Leonor of Aragon, who was also a favorite of the aristocracy faction. Leonor of Aragon lived in Castile even though her sister, Maria of Aragon, who had been the Queen of Castile when she was married to Juan II, King of Castile, had died three years earlier. Besides his affiliation with the bourgeoisie, Leonor was opposed to Regent Prince Pedro because he was married to the other Aragonian princess, Isabel of Urgell.

Now that Afonso V was king, his half-uncle, the Duke of Bragança, and his mother, Leonor, encouraged him to oppose his full uncle and father-in-law, Prince Pedro. First, Afonso V nullified the laws and edicts Pedro had put in place to support the bourgeoisie. Then he accused his Uncle Pedro of being a rebel and went to war against him. Pedro was killed during the first flight of arrows.

Somehow through it all, Prince Henry remained neutral. He returned to his business when the havoc died down a few months later.

Andrea Bianco’s Mysterious Landmass

While King Afonso V was settling into his throne in Portugal, Venetian cartographer Andrea Bianco, who had drawn the planisphere of the Ecumene in 1436 we discussed earlier, was visiting London with one of the Venetian merchant flotillas that annually visited to trade. While there, he drew an important portolan of the west coast of Europe and Africa.

English law allowed the flotillas to stay in Southampton Harbour for only fifteen days. But for some mysterious reason, Bianco was in a hurry to draw his map before he returned home to Venice. Historians believe he was trying to communicate a significant discovery. Andrea Bianco was associated with another Venetian cartographer, Fra Mauro, whom we will introduce in the next article. They were working together to produce a huge planisphere of the Ecumene. Perhaps Bianco wanted to send the new information to Fra Mauro.

In Bianco’s new sketch, he added the many Atlantic Islands that the Europeans had found since he drew his planisphere twelve years earlier in 1436. Bianco also included Antilla and Brasil, which cartographers still assumed lay west of Ireland. But the item that has interested historians most is the mysterious landmass bleeding off the bottom left corner of the parchment.

The identity of that landmass has stumped historians since as early as 1891, when renowned geographer H. Yule Oldham called attention to the portolan in a paper he wrote for the Royal Geographical Society of England.

Andrea Bianco, Sketch of the eastern Atlantic, London, 1448.(4)

Bianco labeled the landmass Ixola Otinticha, which, Oldham stated, translates to Authentic Land. We learn from looking at Bianco’s 1436 Planisphere that he knew the western coastline of Africa turned eastward after Cape Verde. He drew his planisphere nine years before Álvaro Fernandes discovered the same thing. Oldham asked, “What was the landmass bleeding off the page to the west of it?” Was Bianco reporting the discovery of a new landmass that was bigger than an island? Was he reporting the landmass sighted by the Portuguese mariner who was blown off course from the Strait of Gibraltar the year before?

Oldham pointed out, as we do many times in this webBook, that the Volta do Mar could divert any ship sailing south, westward. That is exactly what will happen to Pedro Álvares Cabral when he runs into Brazil in the year 1500. He was trying to follow Vasco da Gama’s east-bound course under Africa to India.

Notice the position of Brazil in relation to Africa on the map below of the Volta do Mar. Then compare it to Bianco’s portolan. Oldham proposed the theory that Bianco’s map recorded the Portuguese discovery of Brazil fifty-two years before Pedro Álvares Cabral officially discovered it.

The next mystery is, were Henry the Navigator and his nephew, King Afonso V so busy with family issues that they missed this opportunity to follow up on exploring lands found to the west?


  1. Richard Hakluyt, a chronicle during Queen Elizabeth of England’s reign, who we will revisit, included this entry in his book, Voyages and Discoveries.
  2. Many parchment pieces were this funny shape. They reflected the back of the animal off which they were taken. The narrow part at the bottom would have been the skin over the neck of the animal.
  3. Bianco, Andrea. Sketch of the eastern Atlantic, London, 1448, {{PD-old}} Public domain for USA and Italy. From H. Yule Oldham’s article, “ A Pre-Columbian Discovery of America,” The Geographical Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, London, England, November, 1895.

Next article: Fra Mauro’s Great Map of the World Premiers in Venice, 1450