Portugal played a crucial role in European exploration. Many of the famous European explorers are of Portuguese ethnicity. These people include Bartolomeu Dias, Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Prince Henry.
Later on, Prince Henry would be assigned the nickname Henry the Navigator. This sobriquet can lead to confusion. Unlike Dias, Magellan, or da Gama, Henry didn't physically took part in voyages. He never sailed on the ships or set foot on the distant lands. A member of the nobility, Henry acquired his explorer reputation by putting up the money that was needed for the voyages.
The explorations that Henry sponsored included voyages to Africa. The trips to Africa resulted in thousands of slaves coming to Portugal. This ethnic group, enslaved Black people, would be critical to Portugal and their ability to engage in further exploration. They represented a large labor resource that Portugal exploited in order to maintain the ability to engage in large-scale exploration.
Following Henry, Dias would become the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. This happened in 1488. Around ten years later, da Gama would become the first European to voyage from Europe to India. Nearly 20 years later, in 1520, Magellan would become the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean.
These Portuguese navigational feats and conquests were not separate from religion. Christianity played a central role in Portugal’s exploration. For instance, one reason why Henry funded the initial voyages was the possibility of discovering Christian allies. More so, when Portugal and Spain couldn’t agree on how to divide up their New World claims, the pope at the time, Alexander VI, stepped in and divided the territory for them via papal bulls.