Afonso V, The African

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Pablo Edronkin

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King Afonso V of Portugal promoted the exploration and conquest of Africa; this earned him the nickname 'The African'.

"It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer." - A. Einstein.

Afonso V was born in 1432 and became king of Portugal in 1438, when he was very young to rule and in fact, a regent had to be put in place until he reached adulthood; his father, king Duarte I, appointed Afonso's mother, Leonora de Aragón, as regent, but being a woman and a foreigner, she wasn't accepted and her mandate was unlawfully revoked after a mutinous situation reached the verge of disaster. Instead of her, Afonso's uncle, Dom Pedro, Duke of Coimbra, also know as the Infante das Sete Partidas, became the acting regent[1.171][1.172][164] after a meeting of the Cortes.

Political disputes

The Duke of Coimbra tried to concentrate power on the monarch by weakening the position of the aristocracy; that, naturally, produced some political troubles. A major political dispute emerged as a consequence of this, including a feud between the Bragança and Coimbra families, that ended with Pedro being declared an enemy of the state, the nullification of all his decrees as a regent, a civil war and the death of the duke at the battle of Alfarrobeira; apparently, Dom Pedro died in combat but the idea that his death could have resulted from a disguised murder attempt was never discarded. The conduct of Afonso and his allies was condemned by the rest of the European powers, but time passed and eventually things returned to relative normality.

The House of Bragança gained much power and influence during the early years of Afonso's rule; in fact, the country was in many aspects in the hands of the forst Duke of Bragança, also named Afonso. In later years, the successor of Afonso V, João II dedicated his time to persecuting the members of the House of Bragança, in part due to the conspiracies in which they were involved during Afonso's rule[169].

Afonso V de Portugal
Afonso V de Portugal[167].
Afonso V de Portugal, contemporary portrait.
Afonso V de Portugal, contemporary portrait[168].

Family, descendants and traits

As it is the case, producing descendats is a matter of state in any kingdom, and with Isabel Peres de Coimbra Afonso V had three children:

João Afonsez (1451 - 1451).

Juana Afonsez (1452 - 1490).

João II (1455 - 1495), king of Portugal (see João II, the perfect).

Note that his wife was from the House of Coimbra, despite that he was very influenced by the House of Bragança; in fact, Isabel Peres de Coimbra was one of the daughters of Pedro de Portugal, the uncle of Afonso who was killed at Alfarrobeira[1.173].

This was pretty characteristic, and in order to understand what happened back then it is important to understand that families in such position of power did not work like our modern Western conception of the familiar institution prescribes. Sometimes familiar relationships were good, but it was all business after all. In the case of our ancestors we have found other similar cases, like when some members of the Mascarenhas family had Lopo Vaz de Sampaio sent to jail for business-related issues in the colonies of India, despite the fact that Maria Mascarenhas was married to Lopo's son (see Dom Lopo Vaz de Sampaio, Knight, Explorer, and Governor of India).

As I said elsewhere in this series of articles, in my family love-based-only marriages have always been frowned upon, and it is precisely for these causes (see Guttle Schnapper). Even outward demonstrations of affection are either discouraged, or apparent coldness becomes part of the traits required for leadership. This is very useful for things like negotiations in which your opponent tries to read your mind - they can't. On the downside, it can be bad if you want to seduce a woman or let a woman approach you, for instance, for it sends rather confusing non-verbal "body language" messages. But since nobody ever cared about that because marriages were always arranged, so here we are as we are, and the House of Avis was indeed no exception.

Most people would certainly not like this kind of conduct, but it came to be as a necessity, as a trait required to deal with certain things. The other trait that evolved was secrecy, and that brings us to the next aspect of the story.

African exploration and conquest

In the years following the death of Dom Pedro, his uncle, Afonso V turned his attention to north Africa and successfully committed his armies to several campaigns of conquest, like Ksar es-Seghir (Alcácer Ceguer) which was until then an impregnable departure point for Moorish attacks to southern Europe in 1458, after an attack mounted with more than 200 ships and 25.000 men, Anafé (1464) and Arzila, attacked with about 480 ships and 30.000 men in 1471, Tangier and Laraxe (Larache); these victories earned him the nickname "O africano" (The African); he continued to promote the exploration of the Atlantic coasts of the African continent, with the ultimate goal of finding a way around Muslim-held territories.

Seizing those strongholds served well to protect the flanks of the then expanding Portuguese naval ventures. Moreover: seizing ports along the northwestern African coast would give more security to the ships attempting to go south. In the event of trouble, they could find friendly harbors more easily.

In order to continue with meaningful explorations the incipient Portuguese armadas that were venturing into the ocean during the XV century required charts and maps, but also to keep everything under deep secrecy in order to maintain a competitive advantage over rival nations.

Fra Mauro's Mapamundi

He also commissioned Fra Mauro to create a Mapa Mundi (see The mapamundi of Fra Mauro), the first modern map of the then known world. The map was finished in 1459 in Italy with eerie precision before Columbus made his trips or the Portuguese fleets sailed around Africa, but never reached Portugal and was apparently lost. My guess is that at court level, more things were known about the world that we assume today, but such knowledge was held as state secrets for different reasons.

Fra Mauro's mapamundi deserves an extensive study of its own, but the fact that it was created by request of the Portuguese king and seems not to have been anything particularly surprising except for the fact that it was handed in secrecy, this fact alone suggests that indeed, there was more knowledge about the world at that time than we currently assume. Or perhaps, the lack of concrete evidence but strong leads led them to think about Earth much like we do now about exoplanets and the possibility of finding life outside our own planet.

Fra Mauro was in the process of making a second copy of the mapamundi when he died; his assistant, Andrea Bianco, completed the work. This copy still exists today and is located at the Biblioteca Marciana, in Venice. Some conspiracy theories have been proposed regarding the creation of such cartography, expeditions in the ancient world and the middle ages, and even UFO visits, but really there is nothing strange regarding this: Indications about the true nature and shape of Africa already existed and well-educated people, such as royals and nobles of the time were aware of the books and testimonies that described such things.

The fact that the king of Portugal had Fra Mauro make a map entails no mystery; it is a perfectly explainable thing considering the grand strategy of the Portugese back then. Fra Mauro made a remarkably precise map but there is no need to bring aliens to explain this part of history because this simply means that the knowledge at hand was better than normally assumed.

Fra Mauro's mapamundi.
Fra Mauro's mapamundi[165].
Henry the Navigator, alternative.
Tapecarias de Pastrana, landing at Arzila[166].

Some might ask why then society was so primitive at the time, but there is really no mandatory correlation between what was available to the élite and what was available to the masses, much like today we still see religions peppered with superstition while quantum mechanics and multiverse theories are being developed at full swing. In other words, how common people lived, what they knew or how they saw the world has nothing to do with the creation of precise cartography such as the mapamundi, because that depended on the ideas and intentions of the élite classes that were on a completely different league, not on the standards of the mostly illiterate peasants and burghers.

The standards of the masses only define worlds when knowledge and aspirations are being held down; progress is never initially a matter of masses, but, by definition, an issue that depends oand grows from financial, intellectual and political élites. In other words: If we want to learn about the true state of knowledge withing a certain historical framework, we should not look upon the common people as refernces, but take the aristocracy of the time as a guide. On a later stage, knowledge does permeate into the masses, but discovery and exploration is more usually than not a game of those having some social, intellectual and financial standing.

So, a kingdom is ruled by what is on the king's mind and not by the ideas of the ordinary subjects, for better or worse.

Later years

Later in his reign Afonso had to face problems regarding succession and the relations between Portugal and the kingdom of Castile. These troubles ended with an understanding about the division of power and territories in the Iberian peninsula and the Atlantic ocean, as these nations were on their way to become the superpowers of their time.

During the last years of his life, Afonso suffered from depression; he abdicated and moved to a monastery at Sintra; he died there in 1481. We are directly related to him via the Lancastre and Schoenberg / Belmonte family branch (see Dom Iago de Sampayo y Belmonte) so Afonso V is our 16th great grandfather.


Afonso V de Portugal
King Afonso V de Portugal,
From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, public domain[163].



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