In 1421, when the Portuguese began the southwards exploration of the West African coast under Prince Henry the Navigator, their primary aim (there were several) was to find the source of wealthy goods being brought to the city of Ceuta.

There came a time when an additional aim developed, which was to find a direct sea route to India. When was this decision taken? Was it taken when the Portuguese obtained a copy of the Fra Mauro map in 1459 showing the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet at the southern point of Africa, i.e., indicating a route to India was possible?

The Fra Mauro map carries the comment,

Many have thought, and many have written, that the sea does not encompass our habitable and temperate zone on the south but there is much evidence to support a contrary opinion, and particularly that of the Portuguese, whom the king of Portugal has sent on board his caravels to verify the fact by ocular inspection.

This implies the Portuguese were seeking to round Africa before they received a copy of this map — a map that was first created about 1450.

  • 1
    Not that it matters much, but weren't the trading routes leading to Ceuta extinguished as soon the Portuguese conquered the city in 1415? There were other coastal cities where trade could be conducted. Jul 8, 2020 at 15:31
  • Hein (1993) p. 41 mentioned that Prince Henry the Navigator, "launched these southward explorations as part of a drive to reach India by sea." So that might have been his intention all along?
    – Brian Z
    Jul 8, 2020 at 16:32
  • @BrianZ: I think the big problem with this question is that a) Dom Henrique set in motion the process by which the Portuguese got to India, but b) the actual "decision" to go to India was taken by Vasco da Gama (or the man who ordered his voyage) because da Gama actually got to India. Someone could have "decided" every day that the Portuguese should go to India, but that's immaterial until they actually had the capacity and knowledge to get there. What looks straightforward in hindsight was not clear at that time.
    – gktscrk
    Jul 8, 2020 at 19:40
  • Hence I think this question needs clarity and clear proof of research. "Deciding" something doesn't mean it's possible, desirable, or going to happen at all. The point of exploring was to go further, bring the profitable back from those new places, and repeat. North Europeans "decided" all the time for four hundred years to find the Northwest or Northeast Passages to get to China, but they failed, etc.
    – gktscrk
    Jul 8, 2020 at 19:49
  • @gktscrk The key event was Bartolomeu Dias's success in reaching the Indian Ocean. That was when the Cape of Good Hope acquired its name. Hope of reaching India. Jul 8, 2020 at 19:49

3 Answers 3


I think there are serious problems with this question. Yet, I've decided to draft an answer, though not as detailed as I did to the related question here. The real problem here lies in defining what is a "decision to go to India".

My linked answer describes Portuguese knowledge of the Earth in the 15th century. Hence, it is likely that Dom Henrique thought from the very start that Africa was circumnavigable. However, that the continent was circumnavigable did not mean that it would be possible (unknown dangers, boiling ocean, sea monsters, etc).

Another option would be to consider the time after the Cape of Storms (Cabo das Tormentas) was rounded in 1488 and renamed into the Cape of Good Hope (Cabo da Boa Esperança)—though that future was still uncertain and that is why it was renamed by João II.

Especially with hindsight, it is easy to see all the previous steps that the Portuguese had made as one unending conquest of the unknown. It should be understood, however, that this was a process led by very few men, and that is why those leaders, Dom Henrique and King João II, are so important.

However, I decided that the most significant date was when Christendom was given the news that Portugal would be the owner of the trade of Africa and India: January 8, 1454 when Nicholas II published Romanus Pontifex. This was the real signal that Portugal had a goal, even if two decades would pass from the death of Dom Henrique with minimal progress (because there was no national leader for the program of explorations).

Romanus Pontifex's effect is described by Bradford in 'A Wind from the North':

The belief that before very long the Portuguese would manage to round the continent was strengthened by a bull of Pope Nicholas V in 1454, in which he granted Prince Henry the monopoly of all exploration as far east as India.


gktsck answer shows that the general intent to reach India was already there. But to understand how the general intent become a tangible aim, note that the path to India did not go through today's Ivory Coast, Nigeria, or Fernando Po. It went though Brazil, due to the direction of maritime currents.

What you have to look for is "When the Southern Atlantic "Volta do Mar" was discovered and mapped?'

... in the South Atlantic with the exception that the South Atlantic gyre circulates counterclockwise. As India-bound Portuguese explorers and traders crossed the equator with the intention of passing the entire western coast of Africa, their voyages took them far to the West (in the vicinity of Brazil.)

Before mapping the Southern Atlantic currents, "is it possible to go to India?" was just looking to a world map and wondering if there is some way - even the ancients could to that. After mapping the currents, they actually knew how to go south, and, instead of sending a few exploring ships in secret, they could risk a larger fleet (Vasco da Gama had 4 ships) to actually make history.

I doubt you will find an exact answer due to the secrecy imposed in the time and the loss of relevant secret documents from Portuguese archives through the centuries (*).

Even today people debate if Brazil was discovered before Cabral. A possibility is that they discovered and used the Volta do Mar to go to South Africa and India, and afterwards Cabral by chance went a little further west and found Brazil. (the official history).

Another possibility is that previous voyages had found signs that some land was nearby, and then Cabral used his voyage to India to purposely go further west and find the new land. Or, that they already knew Brazil was there and Cabral just claimed it publicly.

What is apparent is that they never stopped trying. We can assume that when they were in West Africa, Cape Verde, etc, they were also mapping Atlantic currents. Columbus voyage also depended on such knowledge and how he got that knowledge is also subject to debate today (he departed from Canarias).

(*) I was reading more and it appears "many secret documents were lost in a fire" is a Brazilian over-simplified historical legend which appears in popular sources and may refer to 1755. The Portuguese archives lost documents due to various events such as place changes, wars, and the 1755 earthquake. In 1755 the tower collapsed, but documents were recovered from the rubble.

  • I'm wondering how well this reflects their world view. I don't think current as an oceanographic feature was understood until relatively recently, but they would have known (primarily due to winds and not currents, I think) that going south was easier in a direct line by the West African coast and not keeping to the Gulf of Guinea, etc. Nevertheless, these are good points.
    – gktscrk
    Jul 9, 2020 at 14:12
  • It is not going south! Brazil is way further west (-34deg) than west Africa (--17deg). They actually had to go west while trying to reach India, totally counter intuitive. Surely they were also interested on winds, but I have seen a discussion about currents on so many sources, I think they knew about them as well. It would be as easy as "here, after taking out of account the wind, if we go south, we go faster". They could measure latitude well.
    – Luiz
    Jul 9, 2020 at 14:35
  • Sorry, you're of course right with the location. Southwest at best. It's spectacular how far away from land they had to sail to actually get further south. I'll note though that Wiki describes Volta do mar as primarily taking advantage of winds and not currents. Of course, in these cases the winds and currents have the same direction so it is a slightly moot point....
    – gktscrk
    Jul 9, 2020 at 14:48
  • I do not know, but I would not be surprised if: (a) some historians / sources conflated winds and currents, calling everything "currents" to simplify, as both represent geographic knowledge the navigators had to learn about and deal with; and (b) winds and currents are somewhat correlated, as currents are related to water temperature, which is related to air temperature, and thus to winds.
    – Luiz
    Jul 9, 2020 at 19:50

It is possible that some Portuguese explorers had at least vague hopes of reaching India by sea all along. From the book Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415-1580 (Diffie and Winius, 1977):

The birth of the idea that Europeans could get around Africa to reach the East cannot be traced to any precise date. The first to make the attempt were the Genoese. The difficulties of such a voyage did not necessarily seem in surmountable to the sailors of that time, given their misconception of the shape of Africa and the East as may be seen by looking at the maps available to them. [...] In May 1291 the Vivaldi brothers, Ugolino and Vadino, left Genoa "volentes ire in Levante ad partes indiarum" (desiring to go to the East, to the regions of the Indies). That they judged their task to be difficult can be seen in their preparation for a ten-year trip and their agreement to pay their backers half the profits (p.24-25)

The same source further explains in extensive detail how early Portuguese explorers benefited from contacts with Genoese and their knowledge.

However, I can't find any explicit mention of a Portuguese intent to reach India by sea until King João II sent Diogo Cão to try in 1482 (source, p. 150).

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