Did the Portuguese Have Secret Knowledge about Brazil Before the Treaty of Tordesillas?
Controversy surrounds the knowledge the Portuguese had about Brazil before they entered into the Treaty of Tordesillas. The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, was a treaty between Castile (Spain) and Portugal, which divided the lands discovered in the New World.
The line of demarcation was 370 leagues (about 1277 miles or 2055km) west of the Cape Verde Islands, ruled at the time by Portugal, and the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola - which Christopher Columbus found on his original voyage to the New World. Pursuant to this treaty, the islands east of the meridian 370 leagues belonged to Portugal, and the islands west belonged to Spain.
Front page of the Treaty of Tordesillas. (Public Domain)
This theory gains some support when one considers the papal bull Æterni regis and King John II’s proposed expedition to explore the lands south of the Canary Islands. Firstly, King John argued that in 1479 Portugal had signed the Alcaçovas Treaty. This treaty was confirmed by the papal bull Æterni regis. The Æterni regis gave Portugal the lands south of the Canary Islands.
Secondly, King John made it clear that Portugal was in the process of sending an armada led by Francisco de Almeida to explore the lands south of the Canary Islands. This was interesting because Brazil is south of the Canary Islands.
Francisco de Almeida never sailed to the New World. This explorer is best known for his actions in Africa and appointment as Viceroy of India. The first Portuguese explorer known of to reach Brazil was Pedro Álvares Cabral.
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Left: Portrait of Dom Francisco de Almeida, Viceroy of Portuguese India. (Public Domain) Right: Detail of an imaginative painting showing Pedro Álvares Cabral, the first Portuguese explorer known of to reach Brazil. (Public Domain)
The Cantino Planisphere
Parry believes that the Portuguese may have already known about Brazil when they signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. J. H. Parry in The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement, 1450–1650, noted that when Cabral landed on the Brazilian coast 12 degrees farther south than where the Portuguese thought Cape São Roque might be located:
“the likelihood of making such a landfall as a result of freak weather or navigational error was remote; and it is highly probable that Cabral had been instructed to investigate a coast whose existence was not merely suspected, but already known.”
The Cantino Planisphere, dated to 1502, suggests that the Portuguese knew about Brazil before the Spanish discovered America. The Cantino Planisphere was named after Alberto Cantino.
Cantino was sent to Lisbon by the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole d'Este, to find information on Portuguese explorations. Cantino paid a Portuguese map maker to draw the planisphere on vellum and glued it on a 4 by 8 ft. (1.22 x 2.44 meter) cloth.
Cantino Planisphere. (Public Domain)
The Cantino Planisphere is very interesting because, in addition to Brazil, the land northwest of Cuba is probably Florida. The illustration of Florida is startling because Florida was not officially discovered until 1513 by Ponce de Leon.
The knowledge of Florida by the Portuguese indicates that they also probably knew about Brazil before the Treaty of Tordesillas. This begs the question of how the Portuguese know about Brazil.
Sub-Saharan Africans in the New World
The Portuguese may have learned about Brazil from Vasco da Gama. Da Gama found out about the West Indies and Indian Ocean trade from West Africans and Ahmad ibn Majid.
Map showing various outward and return voyages of the Portuguese 'Carreira da India' ('India Run') in the 16th century. (Walrasiad/CC BY 3.0)
Arnaiz-Villena and other researchers have suggested that Sub-Saharan Africans (SSA) were among the first Americans. J. Alcina-Franch claims that Spanish explorers found SSA already in Mexico when they arrived. Paul Gaffarel noted that when Balboa reached America he found “negre veritables” or “true blacks.” A. de Quatrefages said that Balboa noted “...Indian traditions of Mexico and Central America indicate that Negroes were among the first occupants of that territory.”
Vasco Núñez de Balboa claiming possession of the South Sea. (Public Domain)
In addition to reports by the First Spanish Chroniclers’ eyewitness accounts of SSA populations in the Caribbean and Mexico; Dr. S. Moore says that anthropologists have found SSA skeletons at Pre-Columbian sites showing that they suffered from sickle cell anemia. The presence of sickle cell anemia among the ancient Maya supports Quatrefages claim that the Chontal Maya were Africans.
Bazan wrote “Arab geographical knowledge reached Vasco da Gama not only in written form, but also through his consultations with Ahmad ibn Majid, whom he met on the west coast of Africa”. Majid wrote numerous books in Arabic on navigation, and he also made improvements on the compass. Da Gama claimed that Majid wrote a handbook of navigation on the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea, and the waters around the West Indian Islands [via Bazan, 1967].
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Ahmad ibn Majid. (Guia em Dubai)
Vasco da Gama was stationed in Tangiers in 1478. Tangiers is on the West Coast of Africa. The Sofala arjûza was written in 1470 - 8 years before da Gama arrived in Tangiers. We know that Majid sailed to many places in his lifetime, and da Gama could have met the great navigator in Tangiers.
More Knowledge than They Let On
It is obvious that the Portuguese probably knew more about the New World than they let on. Their desire to draw the Tordesillas Line which gave Portugal Brazil is quite interesting because Brazil was a strong center of African colonization since the expedition of Abubakari.
Mansa Abubakari II voyaging into the Atlantic Ocean. (muslimnewsmagazine.tv)
In addition, Alcina-Franch and Leo Wiener in Africa and the Discovery of America, make it clear that there was frequent trade between West Africa and the Americas when Columbus reached America. Due to his relationship with Majid, da Gama would have already known how valuable Brazil was to any future power in the Americas. Da Gama probably passed this on to the Portuguese King, who pushed for the Tordesillas line.
The Italians may have also known about Brazil. In the Mappa Mundi di Andrea Bianco, there is an island depicted 1500 miles (2414 km) from the Cape Verde Island. This is interesting because that is just about the distance from Cape Verde to Brazil.
The Bianco map (1436). (miti del mare)
Top Image: Romantic depiction of Cabral's landing on the Island of the True Cross (present-day Brazil). Source: Public Domain
Arnaiz-Villena, A, Moscoso, J., Serrano-Vela, I. (2006). The uniqueness of Amerindians according to HLA genes and the peopling of the Americas. http://www.inmunologia.org/Upload/Articles/6/7/678.pdf
Alcina-Franch J. Los orígenes de America. Madrid: Editorial Alhambra, 1985.
R.A.G. Bazan, Latin America the Arabs and Islam, Muslim World, (1967) pp.284-292;
Orozco y Berra, M (1880). Historia Antigua y de la conquista de Mexico. https://archive.org/details/historiaantigua06berrgoog
Moore, S. (1929). The Bone Change in Sickle Cell Anemia with A Note on Similar Changes Observed in Skulls of Ancient Mayan Indians, Jour of Missouri Medical Association, 26:561
Parry, J. H. (1973). The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement, 1450–1650. London: Cardina
A de Quatrefages, (1889). Introduction a L’Etudes des Races Humaines.
Clyde Winters, (2013). African Empires in Ancient America. Createspace, Amazon.com.