Ponta Delgada, Azores; Dakar, Senegal; Cidade Velha, Cape Verde
Portugal was the first European power to establish a world-wide colonial empire in the 15th century. Thanks to its excellent geographic position at the westernmost edge of Europe, and also to its exceptionally brave and fortunate mariners, the Portuguese were the first explorers to reach the coast of West Africa and most of the major islands in the Eastern Atlantic. Throughout these newly claimed territories, the Portuguese established harbors and fortresses that became the primary bases from which the Americas, Africa and Asia were eventually explored. Many of the greatest of these forts, especially those on the various islands, are still standing today, and constitute some of the best tourism destinations in the Atlantic.
Portugal was Europe’s first great Atlantic maritime power, and the first nation in the west to conceive of an ocean-based trading empire. Early in the 15th century, the fabled prince Henry the Navigator began sponsoring innovation in naval technology with the goal of developing ocean-going vessels and better navigational techniques. By the 1420s his efforts began to pay off when Portuguese explorers sailed into the uncharted waters of the Eastern Atlantic and discovered the Azores, Madeira and other previously unknown islands.
Soon after these early successes, Henry decided to do an end-run around Islamic North Africa, both to determine the extent of Muslim domains in Africa as well as to establish a more direct trade route to the lucrative gold mines south of the Sahara Desert. During the 1430s and 1440s, Portuguese naval and merchant vessels began to slowly work their way down the African coast, something that had probably not been done since Roman times. Senegal, the westernmost point on the African continent, was reached in 1445.
By the mid-15th century, the rough triangle formed by Portugal, the Azores and Senegal became the basis of Portuguese naval and mercantile power in the Atlantic. Virtually every island in this vast area, as well as a number of small colonies along the African coast, was under Portuguese control by the late 1400s. Throughout this era, they were the unchallenged masters of the Atlantic. Moreover, Portuguese control of these territories was officially sanctioned by the Church in 1452. In 1493, another Papal Bull was issued, effectively granting Portugal sovereignty over Sub-Saharan Africa and everything to the east, and granting Spain sovereignty over the Americas and everything to the west.
Because Portugal and Spain recognized each other’s territories, Portugal faced little threat from this rival in the Atlantic. However, that soon changed when Dutch, English and French explorers began to show up. In order to secure their growing dominions, the Portuguese built an ever-growing string of powerful fortifications that eventually stretched from the Azores to Macao in China. Many of these, especially those in the Atlantic, never fell into enemy hands, and remained possessions of Portugal until the end of the colonial era. Collectively they are probably the greatest military architectural legacy of any country from the early years of the Age of Exploration.
Fort de Sao Bras in Ponta Delgada in the Azores Islands is one of the largest fortifications in the Atlantic Ocean. For centuries it anchored the northwesternmost end of the Portuguese Empire and was never captured. Fort de Sao Bras was constructed in the 1550s in order to protect the Azores from rival sea powers and maurauding pirates. Built right up to the ocean’s edge on two sides, this classic star fort is a dark and brooding place, a place where pirates and adventurers of the 16th century would feel most at home. Inside the inner fortress walls, the large white-brick garrison building seems somewhat out of place compared to the virtually medieval grey-brick fortifications. The fortress buildings now house a military museum. Fort De Sao Bras is also still actively used by the Portuguese navy.
Fort Real de Sao Filipe in Cidade Velha on Cape Verde is probably the second most impressive Portuguese fortification in the Atlantic. Strategically it was probably even more important as it protected the primary sea route to Brazil, Portugal’s main colony in the Americas. Built on a high bluff overlooking Cidade Velha, the brown- and-grey brick structure is architecturally a complete departure from other colonial fortresses. Although it dates from the late 16th century, its construction and desert setting makes Fort Real de Sao Filipe appear more like a combination of colonial fortification and crusader castle. Much of the site has been recently renovated.
Fort d’Estrees in Dakar, Senegal is one of the oldest existing European forts in Africa. It was built by the Portuguese in the 15th century and was one of the first used in the slave trade. Located on Goree Island, just off Dakar’s main peninsula, the site was recently restored as a national monument. Designed strictly for functionality, its layout is a simple, massive ring wall with no towers and a single gate. The Inside the wall is a round, ring-shaped building which encloses a central court. The roof of the building was used for the deployment of troops and cannon. A pair of staircases descends from the courtyard into the fort’s underground precincts, which were used, among other things, as a prison barracks for slaves.
Fort de Sao Bras is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10:00am-6:00pm; and Saturdays 1:00am-6:00pm (closed Sundays, Mondays and holidays). Cost of admission was not available as of this writing. As of this writing there was no visitor information available for Fort Real de Sao Filipe or Fort D’Estrees. Web: www.azores-islands.info (official website of Fort de Sao Bras); www.visitmadeira.pt (official tourism website of madeira).
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Portuguese colonial empire focused primary on its string of fortresses that were designed to control trade around the coast of Africa, and there were many. Between the Azores and Cape Verdi Islands is Madeira, another important island on the Portuguese trade routes, and its stunning yellow-brick Fortaleza de Sao Tiago, and further down the African coast is Fort Sao Sebastian on the island of Sao Tome. Rounding out the Atlantic island trading fortresses is the Spanish-built Fort San Felipe in the Canary Islands. Finally, there are two other major forts on the northwest African coast, Fort Cacheu in Guinea-Bissau and Fort James in Gambia.