Christopher Columbus disovery of America


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April 1500: The squatting of Brazil

This year Brazil celebrates the "5° centenário do descobrimento": 500 years ago, on April 22, 1500, a fleet of 13 ships under the command of Pedro Alvares Cabral sighted land near the modern Brazilian city of Porto Seguro.

Cabral didn't come as a discoverer to the new world like Columbus who reached continental America two years earlier far more in the north. He was sent by King Manuel I of Portugal to sail around Africa to India. To avoid the dangerous seas and unfavorable currents and winds at the coast of Africa the fleet sailed a wide curve into the ocean. So it touched the coast of the Southamerican continent. We do not know why the fleet sailed so far to the west. It is possible that 40 year old Cabral, a Portuguese nobleman with little experience in navigation, took a wrong course too far to the west. But we can't exclude that he had the secret order to sail beyond the line of demarcation which seperated the Portuguese sphere of possession from the Spanish one.

Six years earlier, in June 1494, Spain and Portugal did agree in a decree of Pope Alexander VI which established a boundary between both the countrie's spheres of influence. The treaty which was signed in the town of Tordesillas in Spain, place of the third international seminar of the CCPS in 1997, was an immediate political result of Columbus' first voyage in 1492/93. Spain needed the legalization of its new possessions in the west, especially against Portuguese claims. Portugal on the other hand wanted to protect its exclusive rights to explore a route around Africa to India.

The treaty of Tordesillas established a line of demarcation which ran due north to south 370 leagues (about 1770 kilometers or 1110 miles) west of the Cape Verdes Islands. At the time of its ratification - Columbus was on his second voyage and had just discovered Jamaica - nobody in Europe suspected that a part of the just discovered new world stuck out past the line into the Portuguese zone. But when Cabral reached it in 1500, he immediately realized the importance of his discovery. He officially took possession of the land and sent one of his ships back to Portugal to inform his king. The rest of the fleet continued the voyage to India on May 2.

But it wasn't Cabral who came to Brazil first. Already in July 1499 Amerigo Vespucci probably touched its coast and saw the Amazonas. And there was another one who came before Cabral: Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, commander of the "Niña" on Columbus' first journey. Pinzón reached Brazil in December 1499 near Cape São Roque at the mostwestern point of the continent. The Spaniards landed and took possession of the land, obviously not knowing that they still were in the Portuguese half of the world.

Portugal, a small country, for many years did not care much about its new possession in America, but concentrated on India. Two or three expeditons, one lead by Vespucci, were sent out to explore the land which mainly served as an intermediate station on the way around the Cape of Good Hope to India. It was only in 1526 that Portugal founded the first settlement and started the colonialization of the unknown land. The land was named after the "pau brasil", a colored wood, which Amerigo Vespucci and Gonçalo Coelho found there and brought to Portugal in 1501. Cabral, who thought to have discovered an island, called it Ilha da Vera Cruz.

Cabral's landing in South America was not very important as a discovery. First of all it was of political significance, as it enforced the line of demarcation between Spain and Portugal and established Portuguese influence on South America for several centuries. But there is one aspect which is mostly neglected. Spain, without Columbus, didn't have ambitions to go west across the ocean. If Columbus wouldn't have sailed to America, and there were many nearly insurmountable obstacles, probably Cabral or another Portuguese sailor would have been the discoverer of the new world. Portugal's ships were the only ones since 1492 which sailed independently on the Atlantic, with an absolutly different destination. It was nearly inevitable that one of them would sail far enough to the west. All other discoverers like Vespucci or Pinzón followed the traces of Columbus.

The world today would be completely different. Try to imagine the effects on the post-columbian history of America if conquest and colonialisation would have started later and in Brazil but not in Central America. Imagine the effects that the discovery had on Spains influence and authority in Europe, mainly caused by the fortune Spain pressed out of Mexico and Peru. Only this short moment of reflection shows us the extraordinary importance of Columbus and his first voyage. It was one of the very few moments in which history really stood at a forked way.

Philatelic notices

The landing of Cabral in America can easily be documentated with Brazilian stamps. Brazil was the one and only country which issued a stamp to commemorate the fourth centenary in 1900 (Michel # 138). This year's jubilee has been accompanied by a couple of Brazilian issues since 1996 (so far: Michel # 2693, 2747, 2816/2817, minisheet # 108).

Pedro Alvarez Cabral himself was also honored on Brazilian stamps. There were two issues in 1968 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his birthday. One stamp (Michel # 1171) shows a realistic portrait of the sailor. The other stamp (Michel # 1175) shows a painting of the first holy mess in Brazil officiated on April 26 by Friar Henrique Soares de Coimbra, the leader of the eight Franciscan friars of Cabral's fleet. Another, more idealistic portrait of Cabral is shown on a 1984 issue on occassion of the stamp show "Brasil '84"; the other stamp of the set (Michel # 2033-2034) shows Columbus.

The treaty of Tordesillas has been commemorated with a mini-sheet in 1994. The stamp (Michel minisheet # 95) shows a ship and an old map of Brazil with the line of demarcation on it.

Portugal twice issued stamps to commorate Cabral: One in a set on discovers and explorers from 1945 (Michel # 677). A set of three (Michel #1067-1069) was issued 1968 on occassion of Cabrals 500th birthday. The treaty of Tordesillas was commemorated with a stamps in 1994 (Michel # 2014). It shows King John II of Portugal and King Ferdinand of Aragon who signed the document


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