Hispanic Division: Back to Portuguese Role in Exploring and Mapping the New World

Portuguese Exploration along the Northeast Coast of North America

During the first quarter of the sixteenth century, Portuguese sailors were active in exploring and exploiting the cod fisheries found in the North Atlantic and along the northeast coast of North America. Possibly the first of these was the Azorean sailor João Fernandes, who was known by his rank, lavrador (i.e., small landowner or peasant). In 1499 and again during the next few years, he joined with several Bristol merchants in sailing to Greenland and possibly Labrador (which bears his name). In 1500 and 1501, Gaspar Corte-Real and his brother Miguel, members of the Portuguese royal household, sailed to Greenland, Labrador, and possibly Newfoundland, which was subsequently labeled "Terra del Rey de Portuguall" on several early maps. During the next twenty years, there is scattered evidence to suggest that Portuguese fishermen were also visiting the Grand Banks and the coastal waters of Newfoundland to exploit the cod (bacalhau) fisheries. Around 1520, a Portuguese nobleman, João Álvares Fagundes, explored the southern coast of Newfoundland and may have reached the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and the Nova Scotia coast. Four years later, Estêvão Gomes, sailing for Spain, reached Nova Scotia and sailed south along the North American coast, possibly as far as the Chesapeake Bay. Gomes, who was a native of Porto in northern Portugal, had served as a pilot for Fernão de Magalhães in 1519.

Although few detailed accounts or maps have survived from these voyages, the accomplishments were incorporated into several early sixteenth-century maps including a 1529 world map prepared for the Spanish crown by Diogo Ribeiro. Portuguese by birth, Ribeiro was responsible for revising and updating the official world map (padron real) as news of discoveries was received. Because only two copies of the Ribeiro map are extant, a tracing of the western hemisphere portion made by the nineteenth-century German historical geographer Johann Georg Kohl from the original copy in Weimar, Germany, is displayed here. Documenting the Portuguese discoveries in the North Atlantic are several prominently displayed place names -- "Tierra del Labrador," "Tierra de los Bacallaos" (actually listed as "Tierra Nueva de los Bacallaos" -- the Newfoundland of the cod fisheries -- on a 1532 map), and "Tierra de Estevan Gomez."
Map of America, by Diego Ribero, 1529 Johann Georg Kohl. Map of America, by Diego Ribero, 1529. [1850?]. Pen, ink, and watercolor. Geography and Map Division, Kohl Collection no. 41 (4).


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Portugal during the Age of Discoveries

The Azore Islands

The First Circumnavigation of the Globe

Portuguese Exploration along the Northeast Coast of North America

Cabrilho's Discovery of California

Portuguese View of the World at the Beginning of the Seventeenth Century