John II (1455-1495) of Portugal, sometimes called "the Perfect Prince," ruled during a crucial period in European history that marked the start of the Age of Exploration. From his ascension to the throne in 1481 until his death fourteen years later, John II's royal treasury financed numerous expeditions that mapped out the African coast. Convinced that India lay on the other side of Africa, he even sent explorers overland. To the Portuguese, he was a much loved regent who curbed the power of the nobles, maintained peace with Spain, and became a great patron of Renaissance art.
John II was named after his great-grandfather, who secured Portugal's independence in the 1380s and founded the House of Aviz royal line. By the time of his arrival in May of 1455, alliances with other European royal lines had given the Aviz family English, French, and Spanish blood. His father, King Alfonso V, was even cousin to the ruling English monarch, Henry VI. Queen Isabel, however, died when John and his older sister Joana were still very young, and both grew close to their aunt, Filipa, an artist and scholar who wrote the first extant poetry by a Portuguese woman.
John was provided with an education suitable for a royal, which included fluency in Latin and a knowledge of science and art. He was betrothed to his cousin in a politically advantageous match, and married Leonor, of the powerful Braganca line, in January of 1471. He was 15 at the time, and his spouse just 12. Later in 1471, he won his knighthood, as was the Aviz tradition, in battle with his father in Morocco. Subjugation of the Moors, who had occupied Portugal after 700 C.E. for a few hundred years and still held part of Spain, was a preoccupation with the Aviz dynasty, and this was the third foray across the Straits of Gibraltar by his father alone. In August, their forces took a seaside fortress, Arzila, and the city of Tangier surrendered.
The year 1471 was also an important one in the annals of exploration, for Portuguese navigators, mapping out the coast of Africa, crossed the Equator for the first time. A 1454 papal decree granted the Portuguese throne sovereignty over this area, and explorers had been planting wooden crosses along the West African shores since. They also held the Azores Islands by the time of John's adulthood, which had become a grazing ground for large herds of Portuguese cattle, and the island of Madeira was producing sugar cane that Portugal exported to the rest of Europe.
In 1474, Alfonso gave John control of the Guineas, the large area situated east of the horn of Africa. It contained rich fisheries, black pepper, and ivory, and reports returned from traders about hairy, human-like animals who lived in trees there and could not be caught. A son with Leonor, named Alfonso in honor of his grandfather, was born in 1475. That same year, the monarch granted John full authority in Portugal before he departed to do battle at Toro against the Castilian empire of Spain. The widowed Alfonso had become enamored of a dispossessed princess, and went to war on her behalf. It was at his father's court at Toro that John met Ana de Mendoca, and a child, Jorge, resulted from their romance.
For a time, John commanded troops for his father, but the venture was a disastrous one, and Alfonso abdicated his throne to his son in September of 1477. He was proclaimed king at the royal palace at Santarem on November 10, 1477. His father disappeared to a Franciscan monastery, and the war simmered on until the Treaty of Alcocovas concluded it in 1479. Two years later his father died in 1481 at Sintra, and John formally became ruler of Portugal.
John assembled his first Cortes at Evora in November of 1481. The Cortes was a meeting of the clergy, the homens bon ("good men") who led Portugal's concelhos, or free boroughs, and the noble class, who were known as fidalgos ("filhos de Algo," or sons of somebody). No laws were passed at a Cortes, which only the king could call, but debates were held and complaints heard. The fidalgos were descendants of the Visigoths and enjoyed great prestige; under the preoccupied Alfonso V, they grew enriched and emboldened. They attempted to influence the courts, demanded increased tribute of wine and corn, and encroached upon the rights of the concelhos. At the first Cortes, the new king, determined to curb these abuses, had his advisors draw up a new oath of allegiance for the fidalgos, and compelled them to take it. The Duke of Braganca, whose family had enjoyed privileges since the 1440s as descendants of John I, was particularly incensed.
Meanwhile, the new regent looked to expand his empire in other places. On December 12, an expedition set sail to establish a fortress and trading post in the Gulf of Guinea at Elmina. This was known as Sao Jorge da Mina, named after the king's favorite saint, George. It was the first European colony in equatorial Africa, and the gold mine there enriched John's royal treasury enormously. It allowed the king to fund further expeditions, and Portuguese explorers began taking large granite pillars with them to plant in the ground instead of wooden crosses. Called padraos, the pillars featured the Aviz coat of arms as well as the bronze cross of the Order of Christ, the knightly order that emerged from the disbanded Knights of the Templar after the Crusades. John, as ruler, was master of the secret Order, and many of the navigators and sea captains who explored for Portugal belonged to it.
In 1482, John sent Diogo Cao and the first of the padraos to find the end of the African coast. At the time, it was thought that the continent perhaps extended all the way to the Arctic regions. Cao was unsuccessful in his goal, but he did find the mouth of the great Congo River, which was unlike any ever seen by a European, and a populous kingdom there. After meeting with its king, Cao left some Portuguese behind and returned to Portugal with a delegation of Africans, who fascinated John. They were given lavish quarters and feted at state banquets. But internal problems troubled the king during this same year: it was suspected that the Duke of Braganca had made contact with the Castilian royal family in preparation for a possible move against Portugal. The king was informed, and had the duke, Fernando II, arrested. He was sentenced to death and executed for treason in 1484.
John continued to send ships out to find the end of Africa. Finally, in 1488, the Portuguese Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the other side of Africa. Lacking provisions to continue, he returned to Portugal with the news that a passage to India had been found. Since the time of the Crusades and Marco Polo, trade with the Orient had brought spices, silks, and other exotic goods into Europe. However, these goods traveled overland a great distance, through the desert of the Middle East and through treacherous lands; taxes and highway robbery made them prohibitively expensive by the time they reached Portugal and the end of the European continent. If Portugal could find the sea route, they might profit handsomely from the trade.
There are theories that Christopher Columbus was actually a well-born Portuguese, not an Italian, and was part of John's elaborate ruse to keep the Spanish monarchs-Ferdinand and Isabella, whose marriage united Castile and Aragon-from discovering the route to India and claiming it for themselves. Most historians agree that Columbus first tried to interest John in his expedition across the Atlantic, but that the king was supposedly uninterested, and so Columbus went to Spain for funding instead. The alternate theory holds that Columbus was sent to Ferdinand and Isabella to convince them that the riches of India could be reached by sailing west. Far from being the misguided navigator that popular myth holds, historians concede that Columbus was a learned man, like many of the Portuguese seafarers, and may have been a member of the Order of Christ as well. Many in the Order were well aware that a large land mass lay on the other side of the Atlantic. A member had sailed to an island off the coast of Brazil as early as 1438, and the Portuguese knew that Basque fishermen from northern Spain made regular forays to the cod fisheries near Newfoundland.
When Columbus returned to Europe from conquering the Caribbean islands of the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti for Spain, he met first with John in Lisbon. There followed negotiations between Portugal and Spain over territorial rights in the New World. To Portugal, according to a 1480 continuation of the Alcocovas treaty called the Treaty of Toledo, was reserved the Cape Verde islands, "and any other lands that are found or conquered below the Canary Islands and the west of Guinea." Columbus's discoveries lay south of the Canaries, and so negotiations with Spain followed. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI resolved the dispute. The dividing line between what Spain and Portugal might explore and claim was to be west of the Azores; Spain's share was to the west, while territory on the eastern side of the line was Portugal's. This meant that John-whose famed grand-uncle Henry the Navigator had concluded that India was on the other side of Africa-was granted the continent of Africa as well as the Orient.
The full Treaty of Tordesillas, signed on June 7, 1494 between John and the Spanish monarchs, set the dividing line another 370 leagues to the west of the Archipelago of Cape Verde, which assured Portugal of rights over Brazil, too. But there would be few years left in his life to enjoy these triumphs. His son and heir, Alfonso VI, had fallen from a horse at Santarem, and died in the hut of fishermen a few years before. John's illegitimate son Jorge became heir to the throne, and this caused marital tension between him and Isabella.
In October of 1495, the king fell ill and died within a week. Near his death, John decreed that his cousin, the duke of Beja, should succeed him. His successor was called Manuel the Fortunate, and he ruled until 1521. During his reign, John's foresight for expansion bore full fruit for Portugal. Its overseas empire expanded terrifically: just three years after his death, Vasco da Gama's ships reached India. Brazil was formally claimed in 1500, the Indian coastal kingdom of Goa captured in 1510, and a port in China, Macao, was ruled as a colony of Portugal from 1557 to 1999, outlasting even the world's most famous colony, the British-held Hong Kong.
John left a legacy as a benevolent ruler. He took in Jewish refugees from Spain's famous 1492 expulsion, and founded what was the most modern medical facility in the world at the time, All Saints Hospital in Lisbon in 1492. In 1498, his widow Leonor founded a charity to aid the poor and cure the sick, the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Mercy, also known as Misericordia. As a testimony to his influence, it was John's Castilian foes who nicknamed him El Principe Perfecto, or the Perfect Prince.
Barreto, Mascarenhas, The Portuguese Columbus: Secret Agent of King John II, translated by Reginald A. Brown, St. Martin's, 1992.
Sanceau, Elaine, The Perfect Prince: A Biography of the King Dom Joao II, Livraria Civilizacao-Editora, 1959.