Much of Portugal’s early history was shared with Spain, its neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal’s leadership in Europe’s overseas expansion was a remarkable achievement for so small and poor a country. Portugal was relatively isolated from Europe’s dynastic conflicts but was favorable situated on the sea route between southern and northern Europe.
Spurred by the discoveries of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama set sail, reaching India in 1498; and in 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered Brazil, claiming it for Portugal. Soon large Portuguese fleets were sailing yearly into the Indian Ocean and contact was made with China.
Although the Portuguese were too few to conquer many of these new territories, the superiority of their ships and guns and the daring of their sailors allowed them to defeat their Muslim enemies and dominate the Indian Ocean and spice trade. In the 16th century they were Europe’s leading dealers in the products of the orient. In 1693, gold was discovered in Brazil and was made into coins like the Portuguese gold coin shown above. The coins were then exported to Portugal.