D. Afonso V (1432-1481)

Publication Date
2009
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Dom Afonso V was born on 15 January 1432, in Sintra, where he died on 28 August 1481. He ascended to the throne of Portugal on 13 September 1438, at the age of six. Given his minority, the rule of the Realm was assumed by a regency government which, at an early stage, placed the power under the control of the Queen Mother, the Duke of Coimbra and the Count of Arraiolos. Later, between 1440 and 1447, the regency was assumed by Infante Dom Pedro, the monarch's uncle. In 1445, Dom Afonso V married his cousin Dona Isabel (1432-1455), Dom Pedro's daughter.

The King, who proved unable to gain the love of sixteenth-century chroniclers, was darkened by the brilliancy attributed to his son, Dom João II (1455-1495), the Perfect Prince; according to Damião de Góis, Garcia de Resende and João de Barros, the King was weak, and showed no interest in the Discoveries project. The memory of a knight-king who let himself be driven by intrigue and who led Dom Pedro to his death at Alfarrobeira, who lived obsessed by the war in Morocco and whose image was severely damaged by the failure in Castile (1475-1476) grew stronger in time. However, a quite different picture emerges from a systematic reading of coetaneous documents, including chronicles and narratives from the early fifteen hundreds, such as the ones written by Rui de Pina and Duarte Pacheco Pereira. The main difference between these accounts and the legend is the King's striking personal commitment in conducting the Portuguese Discoveries.

Dom Afonso V was the first monarch to outline a global policy for the Expansion, putting into good use the political decisions of Dom Pedro's regency. The crown had granted, on 22 September 1443, a lifelong monopoly of all voyages south of the Bojador to Prince Henry. With this resolution, it complied with the personal interests of the Duke of Viseu at the same time that it secured the direct control of the ocean in the future. In fact, when the crown granted the exploration of the ocean it was implicitly claiming its ownership. After the death of Henry the Navigator, on 13 November 1460, Dom Afonso V kept the exclusive control of all overseas trade. The King did not even wait for his uncle's death to begin the assessment of the African market, as proven by the fleet dispatched with a reconnaissance task towards the Guinea waters, in 1453. In 1457 he made a second incursion into the area exclusively controlled by Prince Henry as he granted to his brother the possession of all islands to be found by his navigators in Atlantic waters. The donation of unfound islands was part of a policy of Portuguese hegemonic control of the ocean. Portugal claimed the right to own every territory found in the Atlantic. During Dom Afonso V's reign and until the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed, the Portuguese crown saw the Ocean as a veritable "mare nostrum". For that effect, it depended on the support of the Holy See, as shown by the Papal bulls which formally avowed the previously mentioned right since the Romanus Pontifex bull, written in 1455. In addition to the interest in controlling the ocean, Dom Afonso V was also strongly in favour of the holy war. For this reason he was one of the few princes who responded to the appeal of Rome for the Crusade subsequent to the fall of Constantinople, in 1453. As the rest of Christendom stood aloof, Dom Afonso V eventually moved his troops towards Africa and conquered Alcácer Ceguer in 1458. In the aftermath of the victory, the King even pondered the possibility of capturing the Kingdom of Fez, but his brother Dom Fernando would write against the idea in 1460. Dom Afonso V returned to Morocco by the end of 1463, hoping to take Tangier with a ruse. The attack was a failure though, and more than one thousand Portuguese died in it, including members of the aristocracy. The monarch started then an incursion across the mountain ridges in the vicinity of Ceuta, but the enemy intercepted him, and would have caught him had not been for the sacrifice of Dom Duarte de Meneses, the Count of Viana and captain of Alcácer Ceguer, who fought to death in order to protect the king's retreat. Dom Afonso V returned to Africa for the third time in 1471, and captured Asilah. The population of Tangier felt besieged and left the town, which was immediately taken by the Portuguese king. Everything points to the fact that the monarch's major goal was to capture Tangier, a town which had resisted the Portuguese military attack in 1437. In 1471, Dom Afonso V had about 20.000 soldiers in Africa, had successfully taken up arms against a town, and had scared a whole population away without fighting it. However, instead of taking the most of that particularly beneficial sequence of events (the kingdom of Fez being at the time disturbed by internal division), the monarch chose to negotiate a twenty years truce. With this measure, Dom Afonso V, who was then thirty-nine years old, was postponing fighting the Moors for no sooner than his fifty-ninth birthday. Therefore, once the occupation of Tangier became official, the truce signed by the king meant, in fact, his farewell to the African war theatre.

Meanwhile, Dom Afonso V had assumed the control of the Discoveries and of the Guinea trade, in the sixties. Some decisions taken by him at the time show his personal commitment in further exploring the coastline, in developing trade and in consolidating Portuguese maritime hegemony. In this way, the king opposed the Pope's appointment of a Castilian friar for the leadership of a group of missionaries in Guinea, in 1462. The king's success in revoking the papal appointment was the beginning of a policy of absolute control of the Church by the Crown, in what concerned the overseas territories. Though evangelization progressed at a modest pace, the king considered it already a crucial political weapon for overseas hegemony, and would not renounce it. In 1466, Dom Afonso V proclaimed freedom of trade in Guinea to those willing to populate the island of Santiago, in Cape Verde. According to the system of the donator-captaincies, it was the donatory's prerogative to see to it that the territories were peopled, so that he might benefit from the corresponding taxes. In this case, however, Dom Afonso V decided to sacrifice part of his income (the monopoly of trade with Guinea) in order to assure the possession of an island. Such a measure reveals both the interest of the Crown in continuing to explore the coastline and the awareness that successful navigation to the south required the control of all islands they chanced to find. In 1472, when the occupation of the island was no longer in danger, a new royal decree restricted the commercial privileges of the Santiago inhabitants in Guinea to those who traded there goods produced in their own island. In other words, after securing the occupation of the island, the king regained part of the Guinea rivers trade (that which was carried out with European or Moroccan goods) and stimulated the economic development of Santiago, forcing its inhabitants to create an export economy.

Meanwile, in 1468, the king leased the Crown's monopoly over the Guinea trade to Fernão Gomes, a lowly nobleman (referred to as being a squire, in 1469). Gomes's lease did not cover the trade at Arguim and, for five years, originated a payment of 200,000 reais a year to the Crown, a sum to which were later added 100,000 reais in exchange for the Malaguetta pepper trade. The contract was extended for one more year in 1473. Sixteenth-century chroniclers reported that Fernão Gomes was also tasked with undertaking discovery voyages. However, neither Rui de Pina nor Duarte Pacheco Pereira mention the existence of any such clause in the contract. They both say that the king granted the lease, but that he took it upon himself to carry on the discoveries. As a matter of fact, the only known document related to this lease is the royal charter, dated 1 June 1473, in which the king extends the contract - and it contains no reference to additional discovery obligations. In other words, the exploitation of the African coast never went beyond the crown's sphere, even during the term of the commercial contract signed with Fernão Gomes.

From 1470 to 1474, the caravels explored the Gulf of Guinea, under the command of squires and knights of the royal household. This was certainly the time when the idea that India could be reached by sea first arose. As soon as the caravels started sailing East, and not South, in 1470, the king issued a decree in which he established the monopoly not only of newly-found products, such as the malaguetta pepper, but also of others that he expected to find, and that were only known at the time in the Asian markets, namely precious stones and brazilwood.

From 1474 on Dom Afonso V ruled in association with his heir, whom he first trusted with the overseas affairs. Henry IV of Castile was dying at the time, and the stage was set for a struggle for succession; Dom Afonso V sided with his niece, Dona Joana, against Isabella, the king's sister. The conflict between Portugal and Castile went on from 1475 to 1479, and ended after Isabella's party became victorious in Castile. At the same time, Portugal met with maritime triumph, since the Castilian monarchy, in the aftermath of war, was happy enough to possess Canary Islands, and left the Portuguese crown rule over the Ocean, as officialised in the Treaty Alcáçovas-Toledo (1479-1480).

Dom Afonso V died shortly after. He left an extraordinary, and often under-valued, legacy to his son: if it is true that, on the one hand, the war effort had caused debts and that the monarch had dissolved patrimony among the nobility, it is also true that, on the other hand, the heir was left with the control of two military orders (Santiago and Avis), as well as with the absolute rule over the Ocean and its trade. Furthermore, to the extremely lucrative trade of slaves and exotic animals and objects had been added, in 1471, the archipelago of São Tomé e Príncipe, and especially, gold found at Mina - a source of wealth which for many decades seemed unfailing and which largely contributed to the centralising policies of Dom João II and of Dom Manuel I. The overseas policy of Dom Afonso V made it possible to go on with the adventure started by Prince Henry, and to secure the rule over the coastline by controlling the islands. It also enabled the discovery of an extraordinary source of gold.

Bibliography: COSTA, João Paulo Oliveira e, "D. Afonso V e o Atlântico: a base do projecto expansionista de D.João II", in Mare Liberum, Lisboa, Comissão Nacional para as Comemorações dos Descobrimentos Portugueses, nº 17, 1999, pp. 39-71. Idem, "Doações régias no Atlântico quatrocentista"; in O Faial e a Periferia Açoriana nos Séculos XV a XX. Nos 550 anos do descobrimento das Flores e do Corvo, Horta, Núcleo Cultural da Horta, pp. 493-506. Idem, D. Manuel I, um príncipe do Renascimento, Lisboa, Temas & Debates, 2007, pp. 42-70. GOMES, Saul, D. Afonso V, Lisboa, Círculo de Leitores, 2006.

Translated by: Leonor Sampaio da Silva

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Alexandra Pelúcia
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Tomb of king Afonso V