Pedro Álvares Cabral and his 13 ships departed Lisbon on 9 March 1500 on a diplomatic and trading mission to India. The Portuguese nobleman steered to the west, hoping to hitch a ride off advantageous winds in the South Atlantic as Vasco da Gama had done before him.
That’s one theory. Less charitable historians say he was simply blown off course. Either way, on 22 April 1500, Cabral unexpectedly found himself staring at a lush and vibrant land that would one day be known as Brazil, after the wood – an important early commodity.
But for now, it would be called Terra da Vera Cruz – land of the true cross. Jumping ashore near modern-day Porto Seguro, Cabral bartered with the local Tupinambá people, celebrated mass and staked Portugal’s claim to the land with a Portuguese cross. He then sent a ship home to tell King Manuel the good news.
Cabral’s ‘discovery’ – it wasn’t news to the Tupinambá after all – was fortuitous for Portugal in another sense. A few years earlier in 1494, the pope had divided the new world between Spain and Portugal along a line agreed on in the Treaty of Tordesillas.
It was generally believed the Americas lay to the west of the line, giving the Spanish exclusive rights to settle. That left the Portuguese with the Cape Verde islands. But Cabral had landed east of the line, so Portugal would have its colony in the Americas after all.
On 2 May, Cabral and his sailors clambered back aboard their ships and carried on first to Africa, and then on to India, arriving back in Lisbon the following summer.
Lavish celebrations were planned to mark the 500th anniversary of Cabral’s landing in 2000. A fleet of 13 ships even departed Lisbon to retrace the famous voyage, scheduled to arrive at Porto Seguro on 22 April.
But this time when the ships arrived, the indigenous peoples, angered by centuries of discrimination and social exclusion, were understandably less welcoming.