Brothers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real were Portuguese noblemen who sailed the Atlantic and explored the northern coast of North America.
Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real were born in the Algarve region of southern Portugal in the mid-fifteenth century. They, along with older brother Vasco Annes, were the sons of Joäo Vaz Corte-Real, a nobleman and military officer who served as captain of Terceira, one of Portugal's Azore Islands, located about eight hundred miles west of that country's Atlantic coast. According to some historical sources, Joäo Vaz may have preceded his sons in exploring the North Atlantic, participating in a joint Portuguese-Danish expedition to Greenland and Newfoundland around 1472, well before Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was credited with discovering the New World. For in 1474 the elder Corte-Real was given the title Discoverer of La Terra do Bacalhao—Land of the Codfish—which suggests that he had indeed sailed as far west as the rich cod-fishing grounds between Greenland and Newfoundland.
Gaspar and Miguel grew up on Terceira. But they were also favorites of the Portuguese king, Manuel I (1469-1521), and spent a great deal of time at the royal court in Lisbon. Following their father's death around 1496, the brothers returned to Terceira to oversee the island, with Miguel becoming its captain and Gaspar taking the post of deputy captain. In 1499 Gaspar may also have undertaken his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, at his own expense. Although the trip was undocumented, scholars believe that he may have traveled along the North American coast, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south.
Gaspar makes first official voyage across north Atlantic
On May 12, 1500, King Manuel authorized Gaspar to make an official voyage of exploration across the North Atlantic. It is likely that the king was interested in learning more about the territory (the North American mainland) recently discovered by explorer John Cabot (1450-1499) which was believed to be a far northeast part of Asia. At that time Europeans were looking for a shorter route to the Orient by way of the Atlantic Ocean, not realizing that two vast continents—the Americas—stood in their way. King Manuel granted Gaspar unusual privileges on his trip, guaranteeing him and his descendants all property and trading rights over the lands that he discovered.
The route of Gaspar's 1500 Atlantic trip is the subject of debate. He came upon a land that he named Terra Verde, which means "green land" in Portuguese. It is believed that this territory—located around latitude 50°N and described as "a land that was very cool and with big trees"—was the island of Newfoundland. But a second interpretation has Gaspar traveling north of Iceland, through the Denmark Strait, and on to the southwest tip of Greenland. He reportedly continued to navigate north around the island, traveling through the Davis Strait and almost to the Arctic Circle before masses of floating ice made further progress impossible. Regardless of his route, Gaspar returned to Lisbon in the fall of 1500.
Disappears on second expedition
Like Cabot, Gaspar believed that the land he had reached was the northeast coast of Asia, and that he had only to travel farther south along it to reach the Orient, with its exotic riches and spices. So in May 1501 he set off once more across the Atlantic. This time he headed an expedition of three caravels (small, sturdy ships with specially designed sails); it is believed that his brother, Miguel, commanded one of them. In October 1501 two of the ships returned to Portugal, but the one captained by Gaspar was not among them.
Those expedition members who returned reported that they had once again traveled to Terra Verde. Scholars believe that the explorers may have revisited the island of Newfoundland or sailed to the coast of what is now Labrador and headed south. The expedition members did capture fifty-seven Native Americans, whom they brought back with them and presented to the king, probably to prove that they had indeed reached Asia. It is believed that the Indians were members of the Beothuk tribe. King Manuel was pleased to learn that the new land, with it large forests and Indian inhabitants, would be a good source of timber for shipbuilding and a source of slaves.
Miguel sets sail to find lost brother
It was reported that Gaspar and his ship had continued to sail farther south along the coast, in order to reach China. Miguel obtained permission from the king to lead his own expedition across the ocean in search of his brother. He left Lisbon with two vessels in May 1502 and reached the site of the present-day seaport of St. John's in southern Newfoundland on June 24. The ships separated in order to look for Gaspar and his men, and were to reunite at St. John's in late August. But the flagship commanded by Miguel never appeared, and the remaining vessel returned to Portugal. King Manuel refused permission for the third Corte-Real son, Vasco Annes, to launch an expedition to look for his lost brothers.
No definite trace of either of the Corte-Real brothers has ever been found. But a large sandstone boulder located at the mouth of the Taunton River near present-day Dighton, Massachusetts, may hold a tantalizing clue. Covered with a mysterious jumble of Native American drawings and English inscriptions, the Dighton Rock—measuring about four by ten feet—has puzzled observers for centuries. Edmund B. Delabarre of Brown University made a detailed study of the rock early in the twentieth century, and was certain he could make out a Portuguese coat of arms among the letters and figures, as well as a memorial statement about Miguel, dated 1511. It supposedly read: "Miguel Cortereal by Will of God, here Chief of the Indians." It was Delabarre's theory that Miguel, shipwrecked somewhere near New England, had made his way to the mouth of the Taunton River, where he had became chief of the Wampanoag Indian tribe. His death in 1511 had then been recorded. While other scholars have found Delabarre's interpretation of the boulder's markings questionable, Portuguese-Americans are nonetheless proud of Dighton Rock, considering it proof that their ancestors were in New England more than a century before the pilgrims of the Mayflower.
While the Corte-Real brothers had failed in their attempts to find a new route to China, they had undertaken some of the first voyages across the North Atlantic Ocean since the days of the Vikings (from the ninth to eleventh centuries) and had reached the North American mainland. Although their ill-fated journeys discouraged the king of Portugal from planning more explorations of North America, Portuguese fishermen would later visit Newfoundland waters to catch codfish, which would become an important item in the national diet. Cod-fishing would also become an important industry for Portugal, contributing significantly to the nation's economy.
- Baker, Daniel B., ed. Explorers and Discoverers of the World. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, A.D. 500-1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Waldman, Carl, and Alan Wexler. Who Was Who in World Exploration. New York: Facts on File, 1992.