Pushing West from the Azores

By 1486, 170 gold dobras-worth of gold dust was shipped every year to Portugal from São Jorge da Mina. Trading voyages yielded sixty times their investment. Eventually, King João II would be able to pay off the debts his father Afonso and great uncle Henry had accumulated with Florentine bankers. Portugal would become the soundest currency in Europe. Meanwhile, important activity westward did not get much attention.

Since the Azores were discovered in the 1430s or 1440s, her sea captains had been combing the northern waters searching for the Isle of Brasil, Antilla, and the Island of the Seven Cities. It will be no surprise that the archipelago’s mariners will take a leading role in North American discoveries.

We have already talked about Diogo de Teive who, in 1452 discovered and claimed the westernmost Azores islands of Flores and Corvo for the Portuguese. Twenty-two years later, in 1474, Diogo’s son, Joam de Teive, and another resident of Terceira, Fernão Tellez, received a patent from King Afonso V to seek new islands to the west. Afonso promised to reward them with the captaincies of any Atlantic island they could find, particularly the Isle of the Seven Cities.” But Young Teive and Tellez did not find anything.

We mentioned Fernão D’Ulmo(1), who was among the first Flemings granted land on Terceira by Jácome de Bruges(2) of Flanders in the early 1450s [back when Henry the Navigator still managed them]. Twenty-six years later, on March 3, 1486, Fernão D’Ulmo received from King João II a new patent to search for the Isle of Seven Cities – at his own expense. Like the patent received by De Teive and Tellez, D’Ulmo was promised the captaincy of the Isle of the Seven Cities when he found it.

D’Ulmo never used that patent. Instead, a few months later, he received a different patent, which he shared with a man from Madeira Islands, Afonso de Estrieto, and a “German knight.” That “German knight”, so claims historian Douglas Hunter, was Martin Behaim, the astronomer from Nuremberg who, a year earlier, had sailed to the equator with Diogo Cão to carry out experiments for the “sun-sight theory.” According to the patent, Afonso de Estrieto funded the voyage and the German Knight provided the vessel. The voyage of discovery was scheduled to depart March 1, 1487.

But that expedition never launched either. No records tell us why, but historians suspect it had something to do with two Portuguese noblemen who wanted to take credit for discovering the islands of the North Atlantic themselves: João vas Corte-Real and Alvaro Martins Homem(3).

João vas Corte-Real came from a long line of Portuguese knights who descended from French nobleman of the House of Burgundy. [Fernão D’Ulmo were a mere descendant of Flemish farmers who planted Terceira.] João vas Corte-Real’s family name was originally da Costa. His father, VascoAnnes da Costa, served kings Ferdinand, João I, and Duarte.

VascoAnnes da Costa was known for his bravery and fierceness in battle. He helped with the siege and taking of Ceuta. He became so successful defending the House of Avis from the Castilians that King Duarte nicknamed him VascoAnnes de Corte-Real [Corte-Real meant of the Royal Court]. After helping the Portuguese oust the Moors from Algarve, Duarte appointed VascoAnnes da Costa the Alcaide or Commendo [warden or commander] of Tavira and Silves, two strategically located principalities on the southern coast of Portugal. Silves had been the Moorish capital of Algarve. [Today, the towns are very popular resorts where you can find Moorish castles from the eighth through thirteenth centuries].

While living in Tavira, VascoAnnes da Costa had three children who would take on the surname Corte-Real: Fernão [who had no issue], João, whom we are discussing, and Izabel, who became the first wife of Henrique Moniz, a relative of Christopher Columbus’ wife Inez Moniz Perestrello.

Like his father, João vas Corte-Real became a Knight of the Order of Christ and was known for his valor in battle. Afonso V awarded him his own villa in Tavira, where, in 1448, João and his wife, Maria Abarca(4) had the first of their six children. They named him after his grandfather, VascoAnnes [later spelled VasqueAnes]. João became the high bailiff for Henry the Navigator’s heir Fernando of Viseu. By 1474, he was working for Fernando’s widow, Beatrice of Portugal (1430–1506), while she served as the capitão on behalf of Diogo. Beatrice was the matriarch of the House of Viseu and a very powerful woman.

Beatrice was the mother of the future king, Manoel I. She was the mother-in-law of King João II, who was married to her daughter Leonor. She was the mother-in-law of Fernando II, Duke of Bragança, who, as we shall see, was the most powerful noble in Portugal and closely allied with Queen Isabella of Castile, Beatrice’s first cousin. You can see by the family chart above that Beatrice’s connections went even farther than that. (5)

At this point in our tale, we are only trying to illustrate why Beatrice’s late husband’s bailiff, João vas Corte-Real, had more clout in the Azores than Fernão D’Ulmo of Terceira, Afonso de Estrieto of Madeira, and Lord Martin Behaim of Nuremberg.

Alvaro Martins Homem was also a faithful Knight of the Order of Christ. He came from a family of accomplished cartographers. It is said that Alvaro later accompanied Bartolomeu Dias on his trip under Africa between 1487 and 1488.

According to Gaspar Frutuoso (c1522-c1591), a writer from the Azores who wrote a history of the Atlantic islands owned by the Portuguese, between 1472 and 1474(6), the Danes(7), [Denmark and Norway were, at the time, one country under King Christian I] sent João vas Corte-Real and Alvaro Martins Homem with two others to search the North Atlantic for a route to China. They came upon Terra Nova do Bacalhau [New Land of the Codfish] instead – the same place Diogo de Teive supposedly visited in 1452. Like the other Flemings and Portuguese, they kept their discovery very secret, since they did not want the Viscayans or Castilians to know what they had found. They claimed the land for the Order of Christ. News of the adventure filtered from Beatrice of Portugal to her brother-in-law, King Afonso V. We already told you in the chapter about Reaching the Congo why Afonso V never followed up on this extremely important discovery.

Most of Corte-Real and Homem’s countrymen thought they had run into “just another island” in the Atlantic. No one recognized that they had tickled the tip of a new and extremely large continent. Only when John Cabot explored the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in 1497 were suspicions confirmed that the Portuguese had discovered a “mainland.”

Meanwhile, to reward her explorers, Beatriz of Portugal split Terceira into two provinces or captaincies – there were two logical harbors. On February, 17, 1474, Beatrice granted the donatário-captancies [colonial governorship] of the eastern harbor, called Praia da Vitória, to Alvaro Martins Homem(8). On April 2, she awarded the southern harbor, called Angra, to João vas Corte-Real for “expenses incurred and services rendered as an explorer.” Later, on May 4, 1483, King João II granted him the captaincy of São Jorge Island.

João vas Corte-Real and his wife, Maria, arrived in Terceira in 1474 accompanied by a large entourage of Portuguese nobles, many of them from the island of Madeira. The couple set up a residence in Angra named the Palace of the Mills after the Flemish windmills built by the first settlers. Maria gave birth to her five younger children: Gaspar, Miguel, Joana, Iria, and Isabel. Joana would marry Guilherme Moniz Barreto, the son of Henrique Moniz(10) mentioned above.

As João vas Corte-Real had been authorized to do, he began handing out land grants to Portuguese nobles and farmers to promote agriculture in Terceira. He also established the first customs house in the Azores. The Corte-Reals will come into play again in 1497, after an explorer from Venice, who the English called John Cabot, made land on Newfoundland.


  1. Known in Flanders as Ferdinand van Olm.
  2. Known in Flanders as Jacob van Brugge.
  3. Referred to in some records as Antao Martins.
  4. Maria Abarca was the daughter of Pedro Abarca, a nobleman of Tui in former Galicia. Tui is in today’s Spain just north of the border with Portugal across the Miño River.
  5. Beatrice of Portugal was also Henry the Navigator’s niece. She was the daughter of Prince João, the Count of Barcelos, and Isabel of Barcelos.
  6. Gaspar Frutuoso (c1522-c1591) was a Portuguese chronicler from the Azorian island of São Miguel. Between 1570 and 1580, he recorded this undocumented trip in a six-volume tome titled Saudades da Terra, which was about the settlement history of the Azores and other Portugues islands in the Atlantic. His father was Frutuoso Dias and his mother was Isabel Fernandes, both surnames of Portuguese explorers.
    The six volumes included:
    Book I - Cape Verde and Canary Islands
    Book II – Madeira
    Book III - Santa Maria (Azores)
    Book IV - São Miguel (Azores)
    Book V - Poem
    Book VI - Terceira, Faial, Pico, Flores, Graciosa, São Jorge (Azores)
  7. The Danish were often referred to as the Dutch. In some accounts of this story, it was the Dutch who sponsored the trip to the North Atlantic.
  8. Gonçalves de Antona Baldaia withdrew with Homem to Praia in 1475
  9. In a letter written on May 4, 1483, from Moura in the Algarve, King João II granted João vas Corte-Real the captaincy or Donatario of São Jorge Island. Another letter written by King João III on May 19, 1495, from Évora, stated João vas Corte Real was the alcaide of the Castle of São Luiz of Angra and the island of São Jorge.
  10. Henrique Moniz was the alcaide of Faro, another city in the Algarve. This is the same Henrique Moniz mentioned above who was the relative of Columbus’ wife’s mother Inez Moniz Perestrello.

Next Article: Bartolomeu Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope