Pedro de Sintra: His voyage and legacy

Researched and written by C. Patrick Burrowes
All rights reserved

The two ships came to anchor near the Junk River along the coast of present-day Liberia in 1462, perhaps to take aboard firewood and fresh water. Each was 65 feet long, powered by sails and weighing nearly 50 tons. They made the largest dugout canoes used by local mariners look like dwarfs.

But, it wasn’t just their size that inspired awe: They had eyes painted on their prow, as was the custom in their country of origin. They probably had the square cross of the Order of Christ on their sails, a sign that they were on a religious mission.

Captain Pedro de Sintra and his crew had travelled 2,000 miles from Portugal. The men on board had skin as pale as albinos,1 regarded locally with superstition.

Their ships had hugged the African coast. A few of their compatriots had visited some places further north on the West African coast. Their maps and notes had guided this crew. Now, de Sintra and his men were stopping at previously unknown locations to record useful navigational details as aids to later travelers.2

West Africa Turned Upside Down

The Portuguese arrived in the mid-1400s as West Africa was imploding. A drought was beginning that led to one failed harvest after another.3 Soon, natural disaster and famine were followed by political unrest in the Sahelian heartland. The Portuguese presence along the coast would destabilize the region further by drawing people and power from the Niger toward the Atlantic. But, those changes were still decades away.

On August 15, de Sintra and his men arrived at the site of what is today Monrovia. The next night they saw “many fires among the trees and along the shore, made by the blacks on sighting the first Christian vessels which had ever been seen by them.”

It was the peak of the rainy season, so local farmers would not have been burning their farms to prepare them for planting. Instead, the flames were probably set to signal to strangers that goods were available for trading, a common signal in this region.4

Sailing 16 miles toward the Junk River, de Sintra noted “a great forest of very green trees which grow right down to the water’s edge.” He and his men had reached 6° 10’ N. latitude. Their location was calculated by the height of the Pole Star above the horizon as seen with the naked eye.5<a href=”#_ednref1″ name=”_edn1″></a>

They arrived on the day Catholics celebrate Jesus’ mother’s ascension to heaven, to they named this place St. Mary’s Grove (“Arvoredo de Santa Maria”).6

The Portuguese had ventured further south than any Europeans. In keeping with the regimentos (“detailed orders”) given by the King of Portugal, they kidnapped one of the Africans.7

Random Kidnappings Common in Europe and Africa

Random kidnappings were then common in Europe and Africa, as a means of securing slaves. The Portuguese in particular had used it against the Moors in the Iberian peninsula.8

Western authorities presented slavery as approved by the Bible as punishment for sin.9 By the 1400s, European rulers and thinkers disapproved of Christians enslaving other Christians. Instead, they advocated the enslavement of “infidels” and “pagans” as a way of bringing them into the true religion.10

Their stance was shaped by the ongoing rivalry between Christianity and Islam along the Mediterranean, especially in Spain. This gave European slavery a religious and semi-racial cast since the “heathens” in this context were mainly non-European.<a href=”#_ednref1″ name=”_edn1″></a>

They came searching for gold and other goods, including malagueta spice.

At that time, malagueta was grown only along the West African coast between River Cess and Cape Palmas. Along that stretch of coast, goods were carried in woven baskets shaped like sugar loafs.

De Sintra’s visit was momentous. It marked the first European contact with the area now known as Liberia.

Portuguese Names of Local Features

Other voyagers from Portugal would follow de Sintra. They would map this coast and gave names to many of its features. They named geographical features like “Cape Palmas” and such rivers as “St. Paul’s” and “St. John’s.”

As a result, the Portuguese word for a pannier or large basket, “cesto,” came to form a part of many place-names along this coast – Sestros River, Grand Cess, Little Cestos and others. 11

The malagueta trade was so wide-spread and important that it fostered basket-weaving on a large-scale. Moreover, the wicker baskets used locally to carry dried malagueta and other produce became entrenched as units of measure.12

A description of de Sintra’s travels was first published in 1507. It was part of a collection of exotic travelogues, Paesi novamente retrovati. That book included narratives of voyages made to the Americas by Christopher Columbus. A Genoese who previously lived in Lisbon, the author had earlier visited West Africa on a Portuguese caravel.

The account of de Sintra’s travel was written by Alvise da Cá da Mosto based on oral and written sources. A native of Venice, he had reportedly moved to Portugal to recover from his family’s economic ruin back home. For him, the exciting new West African trade presented a path to quick profits. He had previously explored the region of Senegal and the Cape Verde islands in 1456.13

Writing four decades after de Sintra’s voyage, da Mosto was not able to verify if it occurred in 1461 or 1462. In copying notes from de Sintra’s voyage, the Venetian gave an Italian name to one of the first points visited in present-day Liberia: Capo del Monte (for “chief mountain”). This came to be rendered as Cape Mount in English.

Excerpts from Pedro de Sintra’s Journal

The Role of Prince Henry the Navigator

The voyages of de Sintra and Cá da Mosto were conceived and funded by Prince Henry (properly the Infante Dom Henrique). He was the fourth son of King Joåo I of Portugal.

Henry had fought in Morocco as a knight some fifty years earlier, along side his father and brother Duarte. In 1415, they captured Ceuta from Morocco, a country of six million people. That gave them a two-fold victory: They seized control of trade that had previously been held by a Genoa agency. More important, they captured a town that had been a center of gold trading and coin minting for 500 years.14

Better still, they had unlocked closely guarded secrets regarding the sources of Ceuta’s gold. They heard tales there of gold and slaves being traded for beads and other trinkets in Timbuktu. Their intelligence pointed to sources along the coast of West Africa. Those stories inspired Henry to seize this African prize “by way of the sea.”15

Henry left court life at Lisbon and took up residence at Sagres, a center of navigation, shipbuilding and cartography. The town attracted mariners from across the Mediterranean world (including Cá da Mosto’s home in Venice) and as far away as Scandinavia.

While Henry was living there, Sagres led the way in shipping innovations. These included the quadrant, new mathematical tables used to calculate latitude and a new type of ship.

The economic development of Europe was initially inhibited by various large bodies of water. Several mighty rivers dissect the continent. In addition, the ocean isolated the British Isle and threatened to drown the Netherlands.

But, Europeans turned that potential limitation to their advantage by developing larger watercraft. By the mid-1400s, Europe’s shipbuilding industry gave its merchants a decided advantage over competitors in many parts of the world.16 As a result, they could move goods faster and more cheaply.17

But, even this advantage did not stem solely from independent innovation. It resulted from borrowings: The Chinese were using rudders on ships and compasses by the 1000s, and some of their ships had four decks. The Arabs had developed the triangular sails adopted by the Portuguese.18

The caravel was based on Arab naval design. It had been developed expressly for exploring the West African coast.

It was ships of this new design that carried de Sintra and his men to what is now the central coast of Liberia. Those vessels must have seemed strange to Africans. They would have been equally unusual in Europe, where ships used in long-distance trade were heavier, wider, and slower.19<a href=”#_ednref1″ name=”_edn1″></a>