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For an outline of plant science in the Spanish and Portuguese empires during this period see the article on the history of plant science.

Spanish & Portuguese

The Age of Discovery

European presence in the Australian region began during the Age of Discovery (also known as the Age of Exploration) a period lasting from the early 1400s to the 1600s as modern European nation-states emerged from the Middle Ages and naval exploration extended their influence into the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. It was the first stirrings of an accelerating globalisation at a time when the Spanish and Portuguese were the dominant European naval powers.

In 1453 the important trading city of Constantinople where Christian European merchants could do business with Muslim merchants from Asia, fell into Muslim hands (as Istanbul). This prompted maritime exploration as a means of securing alternative trade routes, especially those to the East Indies’ (modern-day Indonesia), an overland source of spices since ancient times. Seafarers were lured not only by the spices, but by the adventure, the possibility of fame, and maybe the discovery of new resources especially precious metals and gems.

In 1486 the Portuguese Bartholomew Diaz had sailed round the Cape of South Africa into the Indian Ocean. Then Spaniard Columbus in his two voyages across the Atlantic in 1492 and 1503 attempted a western route to Asia and the East Indies. This was the pattern set by these two seafaring nations: Spain taking a leading role in the New World and Portugal the East Indies.

Portuguese discoveries, exploration, contacts and conquests (English version)

Arrival dates from the 1336 Canary Islands claim to arrival in Tanegashima in 1543.
Main sea route to the Indian Ocean (blue); territories claimed under reign of King John III c. 1536 (green).
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Adapted by Uxbona – Accessed 21 October 2019

One- time territories of the Spanish
Monarchy or empire

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Trasamundo Accesse 17 June 2020

The New World

The spice race to the East Indies is best understood in relation to the preceding and parallel economic successes that were taking place in the Americas and Caribbean.

Advances in charting techniques and naval technology, most notably the mariners compass, at the start of the 14th century had encouraged Europeans out of their home territory, the Mediterranean and Black Sea. It too them away from rivers and shorelines into the open Atlantic Ocean.

Prince Henry of Portugal (1394-1460) (‘Henry the Navigator’) made exploratory forays investigating the possibility of following a western route by rounding the southern tip of Africa on the way to trade in Arabia and India. The result was the discovery of several island groups off the northwest African coast, the ‘Fortunate Islands’: Porto Santo (1418), Madeira (1420), Azores (1432), Cape Verdes (1442) on the way to the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by Diaz in 1486; all these encounters paving the way for the more ambitious voyages of Columbus (1451-1506)  and Vasco da Gama.

There were exciting botanical discoveries as well: in the Canaries the Dragon Tree, Dracaena draco, on Cape Verde the Baobab Adansonia digitata and further south a spice-plant Malaguetta Pepper, Amomum melegueta used to spice up an Elizabethan drinks called Hippocras. The Portuguese began what would become a new pattern of Atlantic trade by introducing the grape vine and sugar cane to Madeira, maintained in plantations by slave labour.

The question of what might be found on a westward voyage across the Atlantic was addressed by Christopher Columbus when he gained the financial support of Spanish Ferdinand and Isabella who named him Admiral and Viceroy of all he might discover, also granting him one tenth of all he might capture by conquest or trade. Between 1492 and 1503 Columbus completed four voyages between Spain and the Americas. The first set out on 3 August 1492 his fleet of three vessels encountering the Sargasso Sea of floating seaweed on 16 September then reached the Bahamas and Cuba. Of permanent global significance were the plants that Columbus experienced in cultivation, which included maize, cotton and tobacco with other botanical economic treasures discovered on his later trips.

The Spanish are remembered from later years for the destruction visited on the native populations, Cortes on the Aztecs of Mexico (1519-1521) and Pizarro on the Incas of Peru (1531-1533). Reports of Cortes and others indicate botanic gardens and zoos greater in content than any in Europe at that time. Mexican food plants included maize, cotton, agave, pita, cocao, tomato, capsicum, opuntia, haricot beans while the Incas cultivated cassava, banana, maize, potato, tobacco, agave and coca. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478 – 1557) was a Spanish historian and writer who first mentions manioc, guava, avocado, calabash and sweet potato.

Francisco López de Gómara (c. 1511 – c. 1566) was a Spanish historian who worked in Seville, reporting the early 16th century expedition undertaken by Hernán Cortés. Gómara never travelled to the Americas but he had firsthand access to Cortés and other conquistadores though the accuracy of his work is suspect. His Historia general de las Indias (1553) reports the cochineal cactus, agave, sisal and cocao.

Portuguese spice trade

Columbus probably died believing that what we now know as the Caribbean was, to him, Zipango, the name given to the easternmost limit to Asia. However, it was soon evident that a western route to the true source of spices in the East Indies would be a major challenge and so it was decided to investigate an eastward passage.

In 1497 Vasco da Gama took on an Indian pilot at Melinde, taking 23 days to cross the Indian Ocean and arrive at Calicut, secured a trading alliance with the local ruler and, in a round trip that took two years, he returned to make vast profits from the spices that had filled his ships. The former spice trade with heavy levies taken by Venician merchants and the Sultan of Egypt was in danger of being by-passed by the Portuguese. To secure the Indian trade Da Gama seized Calicut in 1502. Then, to consolidate their trading position Almeida was sent in 1505 as Viceroy to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to monopolize the cinnamon trade that was based there, followed in 1510 by the capture of Goa (still Portuguese) by Albuquerque then, over the next decade or so, sealing the global sea lanes to the East Indies by also capturing Malacca (which controlled trade to China and Japan as well as the Pacific) and the Moluccas (which controlled trade in the highly lucrative nutmeg and cloves).

The Portuguese State of India (Estado da Índia) was a colony of the Portuguese Empire founded six years after the Portuguese discovery of the sea route to the Indian subcontinent. The capital of Portuguese India served as the governing centre of a string of Portuguese fortresses and settlements scattered around the Indian Ocean. Viceroy Francisco de Almeida, established his headquarters at present-day Cochin. This was transferred, in 1510, to Velhas Conquistas in today’s Goa and Damaon. Mumbai (Bombay) was part of this empire until ceded to the British in 1661 who leased it to the East India Company. The Portuguese governor in Goa maintained authority over all Portuguese possessions in the Indian Ocean (from southern Africa to southeast Asia) well into the 18th century and in 1844 the Portuguese government of India ceased administration of Macau, Solor, and Timor, its colonial holdings confined to the Konkan and Malabar coasts of Western India.

Spanish global circumnavigation

Ferdinand Magellan had served with both Almeida and Albuquerque experiencing the spice trade in Ambon. However, feeling unsupported by the Portuguese king he shifted allegiances to Emperor Charles V of Spain, setting out from Seville in 1519 to find a westward route to the Spice Islands, taking six weeks to weave a way through the Patagonian islands at the tip of South America, finally breaking out into the Pacific Ocean only to be killed in a petty dispute between rival chiefs in the Philippines. The expedition continued under Basque Juan Sebastian Elcano, reaching the Moluccas where there was trade in sago palms, camphor, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. There Elcano filled the ships and completed the three-year global circumnavigation by rounding the Cape on the way back to Seville. The delighted Emperor awarded Elcano a coat of arms emblazoned with a globe displaying two Malay kings, each with a spice branch, a shield showing the castle of Castile and two crossed cinnamon sticks between three nutmegs and twelve cloves, all inscribed ‘Primus circumdediste me’ (first to circumnavigate me).

In 1521 capture of Egypt by Turks closed Alexandria to spice trade, giving Portugal a monopoly until the union of Portuguese and Spanish crowns in 1580. The spice trade had proved costly in human life with the Portuguese fighting first with the native islanders in the Malaccas, then the Spanish and then in a bloody European contest that included the Dutch, French, and English.

By the sixteenth century Portuguese trade routes included South America, Southern Africa, India, and in the Pacific as far as Timor. Australia lay a few hundred kilometres to the south of Timor and it seems likely that Portuguese vessels would have touched on Australian soil. French maps (the Dieppe maps), possibly copies of Portuguese originals, show a land mass called Java la Grande between Indonesia and Antarctica but their authenticity is disputed.

Portuguese traded with the East Indies by sailing on an eastern route from Lisbon round the Cape of Good Hope, while the Spanish, following Magellan’s route for the first circumnavigation of the world (and the discovery of a less hazardous passage through Cape Horn, now known as the Straits of Magellan) and now controlled trading zones that included the Caribbean, C & S America and, in the Pacific, the Philippines, Guam, and Formosa (Taiwan).

Not surprisingly conflict arose between Spain and Portugal over rights to lands and resources in the East Indies. To assist the resolution of territorial conflict the Pope had, in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas declared that Spain was entitled to the exploration and colonization of lands to the west of a specific anti-meridian and Portugal those to the east, this treaty being followed by another, the Treaty of Zaragoza (1529) which determined which country could ‘rightfully’ claim the Moluccan islands, which included the economically important spice islands (whose precise position was uncertain). These two treaties defined the areas of Spanish and Portuguese influence in Asia, the former treaty inadvertently creating the WA border that still stands today.


Spanish and Portuguese trade routes
Spain followed a western route to the Pacific – shown in white.
Portugal followed an eastern route to the Pacific via the Cape of South Africa.
Courtesy Uxbona, Wikimedia Commons

Plants beyond Europe

European exploration of lands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans invited accounts of their plants – especially as it was the vast economic rewards from spices that had prompted exploration in the first place.

Scientific accounts of the biota of these new regions would follow as the initial trickle of plants into Europe turned into a flood. A natural history of Latin America was published by the Jesuit José de Costa (1539-1600) in 1570 based on his work in Peru. Francisco Hernández lived for seven years in Mexico working on medicinal plants his Plants and Animals of New Spain describing over 3000 new plants while Nicolas Monárdes (1493-1588) published on the plants of the West Indies. Portuguese Garcia de Orta (1501-1568) and Cristóvao da Costa (1515-1594) published on the medicinal plants of India and Southeast Asia.

Portuguese traders & missionaries

Portuguese traders and Dominican missionaries had used the spice routes in the early sixteenth century, and as early as 1511 Portugal annexed the nearby Aru Islands and Timor. [1] The Magellan expedition (without its leader who had just been killed in the Philippines) had visited the East Indies, landing in Timor in 1522. In 1566 a fort was built on Solor Island about 100 km NW of Timor to protect Dominican Missionaries and about a century later a Portuguese fort was built on Timor and the Dutch , while competing with the Portuguese for the sandalwood trade, had also captured a Portuguese fort on Kupang in 1653.[2] Aboriginal slaves were taken from Melville and Bathurst Islands to Timor and possibly from there into the slave markets of Macao and Batavia, a practice that probably continued until about 1800.[3]

Among the first naturalists to venture out of Europe were Jesuit missionaries. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) from Navarre in today’s Spain led an extensive mission into Asia, most notably in Portuguese trading posts like that in Goa India. He was also the first Christian missionary to venture into Japan, Borneo, the Maluku Islands, and other areas, but with less success than in India. He died on Shangchuan Island. His letters from India to the Society in Rome were published in 1545 and among the first from the East to be printed in Europe.

Missions were established in Florida in 1566, in Peru in 1568, and in Mexico in 1572. A substantial body of Jesuit travel and scientific literature followed over the next two centuries. One of these missionaries was Georg Josef Camel (1661–1706) who travelled to the Spanish colony of the Philippine Islands as a Jesuit lay brother in 1687. Here he remained until his death, collecting, describing and illustrating flora and fauna in detail. His work is now preserved among the Sloane Manuscripts in the British Library and in the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London. This work shows that he had contact with other plant collectors in London, Madras and Batavia – an impressive contact list that included John Ray, James Petiver, and the Dutch physician Willem Ten Rhijne. Camel was promoted to the position of apothecaries in 1695 and accorded the title botanicus in 1699. Assigned to the Jesuit College in Manila, he established a college pharmacy beside which he planted a garden renowned for its rare and medicinal plants.[5] He is commemorated in the plant genus Camellia.

Spanish explorers & merchants

By the early 17th century Spain had established colonies in South America, a rich source of precious metals

Terra australis

Spain was the first European country to make a serious attempt to locate the Great Southern Land getting as far as the Solomon Islands in 1568 but without any discoveries to take home. Then in 1605 three Spanish ships commanded by Pedro de Quiros left Callao, Peru, set off with the same objective. Arriving at present-day Vanuatu de Quiros assumed he had found his objective, naming it Tierra Austrialia del Espiritu Santo (the South Land of the Holy Spirit) the island still known as Espiritu Santo. After failing to convert the inhabitants to Christianity (a major objective of both the Spanish and Portuguese during this period) de Quiros headed east for home while the two remaining ships under Luis de Torres headed west, passing through the strait between Cape York and New Guinea now known as Torres Strait in 1606.

Spanish and Portuguese activity in the region at this time lacks conclusive written records or archaeological evidence and must be treated as speculation. Certainly between 1519 when Portugal captured the valuable Malayan spice trading port of Malacca and the time of Cooks visit on his first voyage of discovery in 1769 it seems likely that the northern coast would have been affected from time to time by European and Indonesian traders.

First sighting of Australia & first plant record

In 1605 the Dutch VOC had sent Willem Jansz (1570-?1630) to sail southeast from Java, the first documented sighting of the continent being in March 1606 on the western coast of Cape York. Though landings were made there is no account of what they saw.

Botanist David Mabberley notes that only six months after this first sighting of Australia by the Dutch, Spanish maritime explorer Luís Vaz de Torres (c. 1565 -?), commanding a South Seas Expedition in the ship San Pedro, was exploring the strait that now bears his name when passenger Diego de Prado, on 21 September 1606, recorded a sighting of Nicaraguan Plum Trees (Ximenia americana) on the ‘Isla de Vulcan’ (possibly Sassie Island). This was a tree that also grows in tropical America.[6]

A Spanish voyage of scientific discovery

In 1787 a botanical expedition left Spain on a six year voyage of scientific exploration following the example of the British and French but with attention on potential resources in Mexico where a Royal Botanic garden was established. The expedition was supported in part by Casimiro Ortega (1740–1818) the director of the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid where natural history specimens were sent.

Setting out from Cadiz in 1789 were two Spanish corvettes, the Atrevida and Descubierta under the command of Alejandro Malaspina (1754-1810). Malaspina, an Italian nobleman who had become a Spanish naval officer and explorer, had just completed a circumnavigation of the world from 1786-1788. He was now investigating the Pacific after charting the west coast of the Americas from Cape Horn to the Gulf of Alaska, his interests no doubt strategic as well as scientific. On the ships were botanists Luis Née and Fadeo Haenke and the ships put in to Port Jackson in March 1793, the botanists collecting plants that were eventually described in 1800 by Spanish Botanist Antonio Cavanilles and now housed at the Real Jardín Botánico, Madrid. Also, twelve historically important sketches of the new settlement and its people were also completed.

Haenke acknowledged the hospitality received at Port Jackson in a letter of thanks to Joseph Banks, a letter that gives some insight into the perception of exploration at this time in Enlightenment ‘classical’ terms:

‘I here express the public testimony of a grateful soul for the very extraordinary humanity and kindness with which the English in their new Colony welcomed us wandering vagabonds, Ulysses’ companions. A Nation renowned throughout the world, which has left nothing untried, will also overcome with the happiest omens, by the most assiduous labour and by its own determined spirit the great obstacles opposing it in the foundation of what may one day become another Rome.’[4]

The Spanish were impressed by progress, noting a small harvest of corn, wheat and barley, a good crop of potato along with fruit trees, vegetable patches, lemons and grapevines – comparing the climate and soil to that of Andalucia. After only five years it looked like and old establishment. (Frost p. 69)


In the 15th century the Portuguese led the world in maritime cartography, improvement of the compass and shipbuilding.

Of special interest botanically is the development of medicinal gardens in Goa, India. The Portuguese brought to India the cashew, pineapple, sweet potato and cassava obtained from the Portuguese colony, Brazil. From the West Indies came the custard apple, averrhoa, peanut and chili peppers.

We know little of Spanish and Portuguese contact with the Australian coast it appearing as a dark age on the historical map before the ascendancy of Holland in Europe and the establishment of trading interests through the formation of the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and its trading settlement on Bantam, in West Java, in the same year before the takeover of Batavia (Jakarta) in 1619.

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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