The Portuguese Explorers

The Portuguese pioneered the European exploration of the Atlantic Ocean. By the time that John Cabot returned to England in 1497 with news of the "new founde isle", the main focus of Portuguese maritime activity was their trade along the west African coast and on to India. But at the same time, there was a long-standing Portuguese interest in what lay to the west, and they were as interested as anyone else in a direct westerly route to Asia. Indeed, some historians think that Portuguese mariners may have reached Newfoundland before Cabot.

A Caravel
A Caravel
The Portuguese mariners used caravels, relatively long and narrow vessels with triangular lanteen sails, for their North Atlantic explorations in the 16th century.
From Henry C. Murphy, The Voyage of Verrazzano: A Chapter in the Early History of Maritime Discovery in America New York: 1875.

In addition, the Portuguese Crown reckoned it had territorial rights in the area visited by Cabot. In 1493, the Pope – assuming international jurisdiction – had divided lands discovered, or about to be discovered in what would later be called America, between Spain and Portugal. The next year, in the Treaty of Tordesillas, these two kingdoms decided that the dividing line would be drawn north-south, 370 leagues (1800 kilometres) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Land to the west would be Spanish, to the east Portuguese. Given the uncertain geography of the day, this seemed to give the "new founde isle" to Portugal. On the 1502 Cantino map, Newfoundland appears on the Portuguese side of the line (as does Brazil).There were good reasons for Portuguese mariners to follow in Cabot's wake.

Alberto Cantino Map, 1502
Alberto Cantino Map, 1502
The Alberto Cantino map is the earliest positively dated map of America. The area in the mid Atlantic, labeled "Terra del Rey de Portugall," is one of the earliest representations of Newfoundland and Labrador in any detail. The original map is in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena, Italy.
Reproduction courtesy of National Archives of Canada

João Fernandes

The first of these was João Fernandes, a small landowner (lavrador) on the island of Terceira in the Azores. The details of his life and voyages are vague and uncertain, but it is known that he had business connections with the port of Bristol, that he was given a royal patent in 1499, and that he made one or more voyages to the New World. It is possible that in 1500 he reached what we know as Greenland, and called it Terra do Lavrador. The name later migrated south to what is now called Labrador. Fernandes then joined a Bristol syndicate, and it is thought that he was lost on a voyage to America in 1501. The syndicate seems to have continued to operate for a few years, with royal approval.

Detail from 1534 Map Showing Lavvrao (Labrador)
Detail from 1534 Map Showing Lavvrao (Labrador)
This map was made by Giovanni Benedetto for Arthur de Cossé in 1534. It illustrates how the name Lavvrao, or Lavrador was adopted in the early 16th century following the explorations of João Fernandes.
From Henry Harrisse, Découverte et évolution cartographique de Terre Neuve et des pays circonvoisins 1497-1501-1769: essais de géographie historique et documentaire. (London: Henry Stevens, Son & Stiles, 1900).

The Corte-Reals

Also from Terceira, Gaspar Corte-Real was given a royal charter in 1500, and made a voyage that year in which he reached Terra Verde. This was probably Newfoundland, but some historians have Corte-Real sailing first to Greenland, and the south along the Labrador coast to Newfoundland.

Gaspar Corte-Real
Gaspar Corte-Real
This statue of Gaspar Corte-Real is located in front of the Confederation Building in St. John's, NL. It was donated by the Portuguese Fisheries Organisation in 1965 in recognition of the hospitality of Newfoundlanders towards Portuguese Grand Banks fishermen.
Photo by Pam Coristine ©2000.

Gaspar sailed to Terra Verde again in 1501, with three caravels. Again, there has been much speculation about his route. He encountered ice, sailed south, and found a more temperate land which some locate in Labrador, others – more plausibly – in eastern Newfoundland.

The expedition captured about 60 aboriginal people as slaves who were said to "resemble gypsies in colour, features, stature and aspect; are clothed in the skins of various animals ...They are very shy and gentle, but well formed in arms and legs and shoulders beyond description ...." Only the captives reached Portugal. The others drowned, with Gaspar, on the return voyage. Gaspar's brother, Miguel Corte-Real, went to look for him in 1502, but also failed to return.

As a result of these voyages the names Terra Cortereal and Terra del Rey de Portuguall began to appear on European maps, and it clear that the Portuguese were very interested in what the new lands had to offer - fish, timber and slaves. But the extent and nature of Portuguese activity in the region during the 16th century remains unclear and controversial. The number of Portuguese place names that survive to this day, and the evidence of Portuguese maps, suggests that their presence was significant, but probably not as important as historians have traditionally suggested.

Newfoundland Interior, ca. 1501
Portuguese Depiction of Newfoundland, ca. 1501
From Henry Harrisse, Découverte et évolution cartographique de Terre Neuve et des pays circonvoisins 1497-1501-1769: essais de géographie historique et documentaire. (London: Henry Stevens, Son & Stiles, 1900).

João Alvares Fagundes

Some scholars think that the Portuguese followed up these voyages with an attempt to found a colony, a theory which is associated with the name of João Alvares Fagundes. A native of the town of Viana, Portugal, Fagundes probably explored the south coast of Newfoundland in 1520, and may have entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence — though some scholars do not think he went so far west. He received a captaincy to the lands which he had found and then, some think, began to implement plans for a Portuguese colony in the New World.

The story is that, finding Newfoundland too cold, the settlers found another location further to the west. Samuel Eliot Morison (1978) thought that the colony was established at Ingonish, Cape Breton, and other locations have been suggested. Robert McGhee (1991), for instance, has suggested Mira Bay, between Glace Bay and Louisbourg. It is thought that the colony failed because of the hostility of local Natives. Whether this story is true cannot be established, given the evidence currently available.