On 15 February 1500, Cabral was appointed Capitão-mor (literally Major-Captain, or commander-in-chief) of a fleet sailing for India. It was then the custom for the Portuguese Crown to appoint nobles to naval and military commands, regardless of experience or professional competence.
Cabral became the military chief, while far more experienced navigators were seconded to the expedition to aid him in naval matters. The most important of these were Bartolomeu Dias, Diogo Dias and Nicolau Coelho. They would, along with the other captains, command 13 ships and 1,500 men, of which 700 were soldiers, although most of them had no combat experience.
The fleet had two divisions. The first division was composed of nine naus (carracks) and two round caravels, and was headed to Calicut in India with the goal of establishing trade relations and a factory (trading post). The second division, consisting of one nau and one round caravel, set sail for the port of Sofala in what is today Mozambique. In exchange for leading the fleet, Cabral was entitled to 10,000 cruzados and the right to purchase 30 tonnes of pepper at his own expense for transport back to Europe. The pepper could then be resold, tax-free, to the Portuguese Crown. He was also allowed to import 10 boxes of any other kind of spice, duty-free. Although the voyage was extremely hazardous, Cabral had the prospect of becoming a very rich man if he returned safely to Portugal with the cargo.
An earlier fleet had been the first to reach India by circumnavigating Africa. That expedition had been led by Vasco da Gama and returned to Portugal in 1499. For decades Portugal had been searching for an alternate route to the East, in order to bypass the Mediterranean Sea which was under the control of the Italian Maritime Republics and the Ottoman Empire. Portugal’s expansionism would lead first to a route to India, and later to worldwide colonization.
The fleet under the command of the 32–33-year-old Cabral departed from Lisbon on 9 March 1500 at noon. It sailed onward to Cape Verde, a Portuguese colony situated on the West African coast, which was reached on 22 March. The next day, a nau commanded by Vasco de Ataíde with 150 men disappeared without a trace. The fleet crossed the Equator on 9 April, and sailed westward as far as possible from the African continent in what was known as the volta do mar (literally “turn of the sea”) navigational technique. Seaweed was sighted on 21 April, which led the sailors to believe that they were nearing the coast. They were proven correct the next afternoon, Wednesday 22 April 1500, when the fleet anchored near what Cabral christened the Monte Pascoal (“Easter Mount”, it being the week of Easter). The spot is on the northeast coast of present-day Brazil.
The Portuguese detected inhabitants on the shore, and all ships’ captains gathered aboard Cabral’s lead ship on 23 April. Cabral ordered Nicolau Coelho, a captain who had experience from Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India, to go ashore and make contact. He set foot on land and exchanged gifts with the indigenous people. After Coelho returned, Cabral took the fleet north, where after traveling 65 kilometres along the coast, it anchored on 24 April in what the commander-in-chief named Porto Seguro (Safe Port). The place was a natural harbor, and Afonso Lopes (pilot of the lead ship) brought two natives aboard to confer with Cabral.
As in the first contact, the meeting was friendly and Cabral presented the locals with gifts. They were divided into countless rival tribes. The tribe which Cabral met was the Tupiniquim. On 26 April, as more and more curious and friendly natives appeared, Cabral ordered his men to build an altar inland where a Christian Mass was held—the first celebrated on the soil of what would later become Brazil. He, along with the ships’ crews, participated.
The following days were spent stockpiling water, food, wood and other provisions. The Portuguese also built a massive wooden cross. Cabral ascertained that the new land lay east of the demarcation line between Portugal and Spain that had been specified in the Treaty of Tordesillas. The territory was thus within the sphere allotted to Portugal. To solemnize Portugal’s claim to the land, the wooden cross was erected and a second religious service held on 1 May. In honor of the cross, Cabral named the newly discovered land Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross). The next day a supply ship under the command of either Gaspar de Lemos or André Gonçalves returned to Portugal to apprise the King of the discovery. After the fleet reprovisioned, it turned eastward to resume the journey to India.
A storm in the southern Atlantic caused the loss of several ships, and the six remaining ships eventually rendezvoused in the Mozambique Channel before proceeding to Calicut in India. Cabral was originally successful in negotiating trading rights, but Arab merchants saw Portugal’s venture as a threat to their monopoly and stirred up an attack by both Muslims and Hindus on the Portuguese entrepôt. The Portuguese sustained many casualties and their facilities were destroyed. Cabral took vengeance by looting and burning the Arab fleet and then bombarded the city in retaliation for its ruler having failed to explain the unexpected attack. From Calicut the expedition sailed to the Kingdom of Cochin, another Indian city-state, where Cabral befriended its ruler and loaded his ships with coveted spices before returning to Europe. Despite the loss of human lives and ships, Cabral’s voyage was deemed a success upon his return to Portugal. The extraordinary profits resulting from the sale of the spices bolstered the Portuguese Crown‘s finances and helped lay the foundation of a Portuguese Empire that would stretch from the Americas to the Far East.
Cabral was later passed over, possibly as a result of a quarrel with Manuel I, when a new fleet was assembled to establish a more robust presence in India. Having lost favor with the King, he retired to a private life of which few records survive. His accomplishments slipped mostly into obscurity for more than 300 years. Decades after Brazil’s independence from Portugal in the 19th century, Cabral’s reputation began to be rehabilitated by Emperor Pedro II of Brazil.