D. João ii (1455/k. 1481-1495)

Publication Date
2009
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14th King of Portugal - Son of Dom Afonso V, he was born on May, 3rd, 1455.

His first important public act took place in 1471, when he played an active role in the conquest of Asilah, and was made a knight there. Being an attentive observer of all that concerned the Portuguese Expansion, he was soon entrusted with the administration of Portuguese interests in Guinea. By replacing the former administrator, Fernão Gomes, by his son, when the commercial contract expired, the King made way for the growing empowerment of his successor, assured him economic independence, and reinforced the Crown's positioning in the control of business overseas.

Dom João's functions went far beyond the mere tasks of supervising economic exploration or organizing the local Portuguese representation. He was expected to ensure the naval and commercial hegemony of Portugal. Several circumstances forced him to act so as to perform this task shortly after he took office. In December, 1474, at the occasion of the King of Castile's death, Dom Afonso V set to defend his niece's aspirations to the throne. Joana, the daughter of Henry IV, had been the victim of her aunt's ambition. When the late King's sister, Isabella, the Catholic, was crowned Queen of Castile, Portugal engaged in a military confrontation with her supporters. The conflict might have turned to Castile's advantage as Castilians used the pretext of the war with Portugal to compete with Portuguese interests in Guinea.

Several naval expeditions sailing from Andalucian ports tried to bring loss upon Portuguese commerce, but Dom João moved a relentless persecution to all transgressors, and succeeded in aborting their intentions. The Portuguese could count on the technical superiority of their vessels and on the accumulated knowledge of decades of seafaring experience to their advantage.

The above mentioned naval superiority influenced the peace negotiations leading to the Alcáçovas-Toledo Treaty (1479-1480). The covenant set limits to the non-European territory under each country's control. Portugal gave up sovereignty over Canary islands while ensuring the right of using the archipelago as port of call. In its turn, Castile recognized Portuguese sovereignty over territories south of this archipelago. The agreement did more than protect Portuguese major commercial interests since it uncovers the existence of an expansionistic plan.

Dom Afonso V rejoiced at his son's deeds, and on the 4th of May confirmed the donation of Guinea to him. But a more important event was in the making. The monarch's sudden death about three months later determined Dom João's accession to the throne on the 31st of August. The new sovereign promptly acted with a view to transfer to the Crown all financial effort and coordination concerning the Expansion. He did it with a selective eye for the course of action most likely to fulfil those that he considered to be preferential goals: to assure financial gain, to extend African Christendom, to find Prester John and to establish the maritime route to India. Compared to this ambitious scenario, Portuguese presence in Morocco became of secondary importance. From 1481 to 1495, with the exception of the unsuccessful attempt to build the fortress of Graciosa (1489), little more was done than to administer Afonso V's legacy in that part of the world. In fact, the Portuguese activity in Morocco became increasingly dependent on the more important dealings with Black Africa, a means of providing horses, textiles and other goods needed in the south. In spite of this, Dom João II never discarded the possibility of conquering Fez; on the contrary, he made sure that the right of Portugal over that kingdom was established in the treaties of Alcáçovas and Tordesillas. He even requested a crusade edict to this purpose, which was granted him in 1488.

While still a prince, Dom João foresaw the important role that Elmina might play in extending the Crown's estate and power. With this end in view he ordered the building of a fortress there. On the 11th of September 1481, only a few days after Dom João's acclamation, the Roman Curia wrote down a papal decree granting indulgences to all who happened to die there. The building of the Elmina Castle was completed the following year.

In 1482 Diogo Cão took over the command of a new fleet and resumed the process of discovering the Western coast of Africa. A new period in the navigation process was about to start. The power of the Crown rendered itself visible through the armadas' grandeur, the practice of erecting a stone Padrão[1] declaring the land discovered property of the Portuguese King, and the renewed crusading spirit aiming at the religious conversion of other peoples.

Christian expansion had always been considered an inevitable consequence of the Portuguese exploration voyages, but not until Dom João's reign had any action taken place in order to systematically evangelize African gentiles. The well-structured involvement of European clergymen and the constitution of a body of African priests combined to bring success upon the originality of the enterprise conceived by the King himself. Dom João was well aware of the political benefits that might be drawn out of such a strategic action. The expansion of the Christian faith was a means of influencing individual behaviour and political values, even among African rulers. Although this strategy proved unsuccessful as regarded the King of Benin and a Wolof [2] prince, Bemoim, it helped enormously in the process of evangelizing the population of Congo, the first African kingdom to adopt the Christian faith as its official religion. The indoctrination of the territory started in 1491, and was carried out by ministers of the Church and by young natives who had been schooled in Portugal.

It was widely believed that Prester John might be a helpful ally in the project of converting Africa and crusading against Muslim faith. With this end in view, the search for the symbolic kingdom was intensified. Further explorations in the heart of Africa were made across the Sahara desert, the Sudan, and Gambia, Senegal, Niger and Congo rivers, with the aim of locating the mythical sovereign and of finding new sources of wealth and riches. The results of these incursions didn't meet the ends expected until mid-1480s, when news concerning a powerful dignitary, called Ogane, were provided by the king of Benin. The identification of Ogane with Prester John was immediately established on the basis of his power over other chiefs that served him as vassals and of his devotion to the symbol of Christian faith. In fact, he was said to carry permanently a cross with him and to provide one for each of his subjects as well.

Dom João believed to be on the verge of communicating with the Ethiopian ruler and of proving the existence of a passageway between the Atlantic and the Indian oceans. The 'Perfect Prince' was counting on Prester John to help him both in his aim to fight Islam as in his intention "to achieve some form of entrance into India" (Asia, I. iii. 4). It was probably expected that he acted as a mediator in the conversations between the Portuguese and the Indian Christians that were supposedly the majority of the population in the subcontinent. It was commonly held that religious solidarity went hand in hand with economically shared aims. Therefore, the general conviction was that the Portuguese would defeat the Muslims on both religious and economical matters, especially as far as spice trade routes were concerned.

After Diogo Cão arrived at Serra Parda in 1486, Dom João II sent another armada in 1488, under the command of Bartolomeu Dias, charged with the mission of finding the passageway to the Indian Ocean. At the same time, Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva were sent to the East by the overland route, commissioned with two specific tasks: the first was bound to seek Prester John's court, the latter was to gather information concerning the navigation and trade systems in the Indian Ocean. If none of these two explorers met with the results expected for their endeavours, the same can't be said of Bartolomeu Dias. In December 1488 the Court was informed that the Cape of Good Hope had been rounded, and Dom João II dismissed once again Christopher Columbus's exploration proposal.

The outcome of Columbus's sailing across the Atlantic at the service of Castile caused the Portuguese King to change his plans and delay the departure of the squadron that should conclude the route between Lisbon and India. Dom João had serious doubts as to the right of the Spanish Crown over the Antilles. He even appointed Dom Francisco de Almeida commodore of an armada created with the purpose of taking possession of the newly found islands. Although the fleet never set sail, the news about its formation were sufficient to cause from the neighbouring country the will to start negotiations.

The settling of the divergences would occur in 1494. On June, 7th, the Treaty of Tordesillas defined a jurisdiction territory for each country. The diplomats restated Dom João's ambitions concerning Africa and Asia, and negotiations tipped the balance in favour of Portugal's claims: having been granted the rule over 370 leagues West of Cape Verde, Portuguese vessels were given the opportunity of sailing eastward in a faster and safer course. Winds and currents in South Atlantic would combine with Portuguese jurisdiction of the lands in route to the advantage of Portuguese navigators.

However, the first maritime voyage to India was liable to several mishaps and Dom João wouldn't live long enough to see it through. Besides the previously mentioned setbacks, other circumstances delayed the enterprise. Experience based on Bartolomeu Dias's voyages proved the need to create an armada of robust ships and to organize exploratory oceanic travels. In addition to this, the accidental death of the King's only son, prince Dom Afonso, in 1491, turned the monarch's attention to the succession problem. Dom João II died on October 25th 1495, accepting resignedly his cousin and brother-in-law, Dom Manuel, as successor to the throne of Portugal. The new monarch would carry on the imperial plan designed by the "Perfect Prince".

[1] A landmark made of stone bearing the arms of Portugal.
[2] The Wolof people extended from Senegal to the Gambia and Mauritania.

Bibliography:
Congresso Internacional Bartolomeu Dias e a sua Época. Actas, 5 vols., Porto, Universidade do Porto & CNCDP, 1989. FONSECA, Luís Adão da, D. João II, s.l., Círculo de Leitores, 2005. MOTA, A. Teixeira da, «A Viagem de Bartolomeu Dias e as Concepções Geopolíticas de D. João II», in Boletim da Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa, Outubro-Dezembro 1958, pp. 297-322. RESENDE, Garcia de, Crónica de Dom João II e Miscelânea, ed. Joaquim Veríssimo Serrão, Lisboa, Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 1973. THOMAZ, Luís Filipe F. R., «O Plano Imperial Joanino», in De Ceuta a Timor, s.l., Difel, 1994, pp. 149-167.

Translated by: Leonor Sampaio da Silva
Tomb of Dom João II
Image credit
Alexandra Pelúcia