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Portuguese Maritime Technology

Portuguese Maritime Technology

Portugal led the front on maritime technological advancements from the early 1400s onward. Under the direction of Prince Henry the Navigator in the early 1400s, Portugal established itself as the leading naval power. They achieved this by creating a new vessel that enabled oceanic exploration, along with the means to navigate and record routes while exploring. Portuguese explorers improved methods and instruments developed by Islamic navigators to determine their exact location in open waters guided by celestial bodies. This maritime technological leap crowned the Portuguese as the world’s leading seafaring nation!

History of Portuguese Maritime Technology

Portugal is responsible for many of the techniques and tools that enabled the European Age of Discovery and oceanic exploration. They developed not only new styles of shipbuilding but also enhanced Muslim approaches to celestial navigation and cartography.

Henry the Navigator

The man credited with inciting the Age of Discovery is Henry the Navigator, the Duke of Viseu. He was a strong proponent of exploration and saw the advancement of naval technology as crucial to growing in political and commercial power. In 1440 a ship design with triangular sails was developed under his patronage: the caravel. The caravel and its distinctive lateen–a triangular sail pioneered by ancient sailors in the Mediterranean Sea and used by Islamic navigators before the Portuguese–would be the first ship able to circumnavigate Africa!

Portuguese Maritime Technology. Prince Henry the Navigator, studysmarterFig. 1- Statue of Henry the Navigator, Massachusetts, USA

The Caravel

The caravel can better utilize winds due to the ability to tack–to manipulate the sails in order to change the direction of the headwind on the boat. Square rigging can only catch the wind from behind which severely limits mobility. The design of the caravel was based on smaller fishing boats but increased its capacity up to 200 tons.

Christopher Columbus sailed on three caravels on his historic 1492 voyage. Famed Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama also sailed two caravels in 1500 on his voyage to discover an all-ocean route around Africa to India.

Portuguese Maritime Technology, Portuguese Caraval, StudySmarterFig. 2- A Portuguese Caraval

A caravel is a highly maneuverable ocean-worthy ship design with triangular sails named lateen and a narrow hull with a capacity of up to 200 tons.

To keep the lead among European nations, King Manuel I prohibited the sale of Portuguese drafted maps showing their navigation outside of Portugal. Portuguese cartography surpassed any other nation in precision and reach.

The Portuguese drafted the first cartographic record of Brazilian territory in 1502.

The barracks, also based on Portuguese design, enabled longer voyages with larger cargo. These ships had three to four sails and multiple decks. Portuguese sailors will trust these vessels in most 16th-century voyages to India and the Mediterranean Sea. Later, all European nations will employ these ancestors of the galleon in transatlantic trips and sea warfare.

Portuguese Technology Advancements


Celestial navigation had been in use since the 13th century; however, the Portuguese were the first to use what is known commonly as the Southern Cross, a constellation in the Southern hemisphere to navigate. This early form of celestial navigation was not a constant throughout the year and required corrections depending on the timing of the voyage.

Another advancement was the application of astronomical tables, Ephemeris, to navigation. These tables enabled sailors to determine their latitude. Sailors like Vasco de Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral used these tables on their respective voyages.

The Astrolabe was an astronomical instrument that was a handheld model of the universe used to determine the position of celestial bodies. It had several principal parts: a baseplate (the mater) with a network of lines representing celestial coordinates; an open-pattern disk (the rete) with a “map” of the stars, including the aforementioned circles, that rotated on the mater around a center pin corresponding to the north celestial pole; and a straight rule (the alidade), used for sighting objects in the sky. The ability to use celestial navigation enabled sailors to determine their position on the open ocean with no landmarks. The first Astrolabes were wooden but progressed into brass due to the wood warping from moisture.

Portuguese Maritime Technology, Astrolabe, StudySmarterFig. 3- Astrolabe, circa 1466 AD, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Darmstadt Germany

Ship Design

Global exploration was made possible by the advances of the Portuguese in designing ships. The caravel was the first ship design that could go beyond the Mediterranean as well as venture offshore. Previously the only boat design available included a quadrangular sail which could not utilize winds coming from any other direction than from behind. The ability to sail using the differing winds and currents enabled the Portuguese to discover much of the northwestern coast of Africa.

The ability to conduct oceanic voyages relied upon the triangular sail as well as a new design for the slope of a ship’s hull. The narrow frame of the caravel compared to the more circular shape of previous boats allowed the caravel to be extremely maneuverable and fast. As voyages increased in distance the size of the caravels increased as well. The first caravels had a capacity of around 50 tons and continued to grow.

Cartography: Mapmaking

The oldest Portuguese sea chart was drafted by Jehuda Cresques, under the direction of Prince Henry the Navigator, in the early 15th century. Pedro Reinel, the renowned navigator responsible for the first signed chart, is also credited with the first nautical chart that depicted latitudes in 1504.

They also used cartography to note meteorological data. The first use of a Wind Rose was by Portuguese cartographer Pedro Reinel in 1504. A Wind Rose depicts the wind speeds and direction at a particular location. This was the first iteration of the compass rose, and wind roses are used in air traffic control today. No differentiation was made between the winds coming from the cardinal directions; however, symbols were used to represent north, and east. The symbol used for North was a fleur-de-lis. East was shown as a Christian Cross to represent the easterly direction of Jerusalem from Europe.

Did You Know: The first signed nautical chart was a portolan made by Pedro Reinel in 1485, representing western Europe and parts of Africa.

Portuguese Maritime Technology, Map by Pedro Reinel, studysmarter
Fig. 4- Portuguese map of Indian Ocean, Africa & Arabia, by Pedro Reinel, 1519.

Portuguese Maritime Technology and Age of Exploration

The Age of Exploration could not have occurred without the developments the Portuguese achieved. The Portuguese are largely credited with the ability to utilize winds not directly behind the boat and this was previously thought impossible. To navigate the ocean or any long distance on a ship the sailors must be able to accommodate both changing winds and currents which was only possible after the development of triangular sails.

The Success of Portuguese Maritime Technology

The Portuguese had immense success with their maritime technology and techniques. The direction of Prince Henry the Navigator shaped the success of the Portuguese Maritime Empire. Their methods were so advanced that King Manuel I prohibited the sale of Portuguese maps outside of Portugal. The expeditions along the coast of West Africa by the Portuguese began in 1419 and this was long before other Europeans had progressed beyond shoreline voyages. This allowed Portugal to be the leading maritime empire for centuries. The ability to travel vast distances empowered the Portuguese beyond any other maritime empire at the time.

The Importance of Portuguese Maritime Technology

The ability to navigate the oceans allowed for Portugal to become a world power. While other nations were bound to shore side voyages, the Portuguese were even venturing into the ocean to record meteorological data. This knowledge enabled the discovery of Brazil, although by navigational error.

Portugal was able to control the market on many imported goods that were popular with the ruling classes of Europeans. The majority of Europeans had no avenue of access to many goods other than through Portuguese voyages.

The Age of Discovery would not have been possible without the many advancements in cartography, navigation and ship design by the Portuguese. Notably, Christopher Columbus sailed a caravel on his first voyage in 1492. These ships were the favorite of oceanic explorers for centuries onward and inspired the designs used today.

Bartolomeu Dias: Sea Route from Europe to Asia

Bartolomeu Dias set forth on his historic voyage in 1487 with a goal of finding a marine route from Portugal (and greater Europe) to Asia. He set sail and headed south towards the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1488 he rounded the southern tip of Africa. His crew soon made him turn back to Portugal due to fear based on the dwindling food supplies and storms observed. The crew returned to Portugal after a 15-month journey; while the public was ecstatic with the results and boost to national pride, and after private meetings with the King Dias set forth again under both Vasco De Gama and Pedro Alvares.

The discovery of an all-sea route to Asia was important both in trade and political relations due to the Ottoman control of the land route. In the 1450s, when the Ottoman Empire gained control of the remainder of the Byzantine Empire, they closed the land route from Europe to Asia. This counted as a major military victory for the Portuguese.


Ferdinand Magellan: The Strait of Magellan & Circumnavigation

Ferdinand Magellan is credited with changing the world in a drastic way, in both knowledge and oceanic exploration. In 1520 the Portuguese explorer discovered a channel linking the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, between the tip of mainland South America and Tierra del Fuego Island. This channel would act as the link between the Atlantic and Pacific until the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914.


Portuguese Maritime Technology - Key takeaways

  • Prince Henry the Navigator, Portuguese leader, incited the Age of Discovery.
  • The first signed naval chart was drafted by Portuguese mapmaker Pedro Reinel in 1485.
  • The expeditions along the coast of West Africa by the Portuguese began in 1419, long before other Europeans had progressed beyond shoreline voyages.
  • Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened a sea route to Asia from Europe.
  • Ferdinand Magellan discovered the channel that allowed for a sea route from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean.

Frequently Asked Questions about Portuguese Maritime Technology

Ship design–the caravel–and mapmaking depicting celestial and meteorological data.

The new technology enabled oceanic exploration, making it possible to undertake longer trips into open waters.

The new ship design, the caravel, as well as the navigational equipment. 

The portuguese developed the caravel off of the design of small fishing boats and the cartography advancements were possible due to data collection. 

Portuguese maritime technology propelled Europe into the Age of Discovery, also known as the Age of Exploration.

Final Portuguese Maritime Technology Quiz


Who incited the Age of Discovery?

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Prince Henry the Navigator

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What was the ship design that enabled oceanic travel?

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the caravel

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What did the Portuguese add to nautical charts to denote the direction of seawinds?

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The Wind Rose

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What celestial body did the Portuguese introduce as a navigational tool?

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The Southern Cross

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How did Manuel I limit access to Portuguese maps?

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He prohibited the sale of Portuguese maps outside of Portugal 

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What famous explorer utilized the caravel design during his 1492 voyage?

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Christopher Columbus

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What was different about the caravel compared to previous ship designs?

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The caravel had triangular sails as well as a slim hull compared to the quadrangular rigging and round hulls of previous designs. 

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Where did Portuguese sailors first explore?

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The shores of Africa

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What did triangular sails allow sailors to do which was impossible previously?

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Sailors on a caravel could sail in multiple directions without relying on a wind from directly behind the ship. 

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What kind of boats was the design of the caravel based upon?

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Small fishing boats

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What was the precursor to the compass rose?

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the wind rose

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