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The region that would become Portugal was settled by the Celts around 700 B.C.E. It soon attracted a succession of peoples and was colonised in turn by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Visigoths. The Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in the eighth century and commenced a long occupation over much of the Iberian Peninsula. They introduced their culture, architecture, and agricultural techniques to the region until Christian resistance grew into the Reconquista that finally ejected the Moors in the twelfth century.
Portugal was born from this struggle to reconquer Iberia from the Moors. Young aristocrats from all over Europe went to Iberia to battle the Moors and while reconquering the peninsula for the Christian kings, they won hereditary titles and land grants for themselves. It was Henry, a son of the Duke of Burgundy, who fought as a vassal for the king for Navarre and was rewarded with a principality and the title of Count of Portucale in the eleventh century. It was his son, Afonso Henriques (1128-1185), seeking independence from the Crown of Navarre, who petitioned and won from the pope the title of King of Portugal.
Upon Prince Henry's death in 1460, the mantle of sponsoring exploration came to rest on a new monarch, King John II. King John II was not satisfied with the revenues he was receiving from trading voyages and he was determined to establish a Christian Empire in West Africa. In 1481 he charged Diogo d'Azambuja with forming the first permanent settlement in Africa. To mark the philosophical change in Portugal's voyages from trade missions to settlement, a series of granite pillars were commissioned for subsequent voyages. On each pillar could be found the royal arms of King John II as well as a Christian cross. When explorers reached a previously uncharted region, they were to place the pillar ashore to claim the land in the name of Christendom and Portugal.
Under Diogo's command were two different captains, Bartolomeu Dias and Christopher Columbus, who would soon attain notoriety in their own right. Bartolomeu Dias (1457-1500) was to continue the work of previous Portuguese explorers and to conduct advance reconnaissance about the African coast, but to him goes the credit of circumnavigating the Cape of Good Hope. Sailing from Tagus in 1487, Dias coasted south and placed a pillar at a headland now known as Dias Point. When the voyage resumed, a favouring wind turned into a gale. For thirteen days, the gale blew from the north and carried the Portuguese ships far beyond the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic where no previous European had been. As the wind finally died down, Dias steered east and north until he found land again at Mossel Bay. Unaware that he had passed beyond the southern tip of Africa, Dias continued his voyage past Algo Bay. It was at this point where the coastline changes from east to north-east that it became clear that the southernmost point of the continent had been passed. This was uncharted territory for European sailors and rather than risk certain mutiny, Dias yielded to the demands of his crew and charted a course back to Europe. As they rounded the tip again, Dias named the location the Cape of Good Hope. The name "Good Hope" was designed as an optimistic reminder that the overall objective was to find a sea-route to Asia. Dias returned home having travelled a remarkable 11,000 kilometres south.
If it can be said that Bartolomeu Dias found the gates to the sea-route to India, it would remain for another explorer to force them open. In the interim, successive wars with Castile and Spain (the latter of which was fuelled by competing claims between Portugal and Spain for a division of spoils in the New World of North America) delayed further exploration.