This Lisboan knight-merchant had an important role in the voyages of exploration of the African Coast, namely between 1468 and 1473, when the rental contract granting rights to the Coast of Guinea was in effect.
It is possible that he was ennobled before the beginning of his work at the service of the King. Rui de Pina refers to him merely as ?citizen of Lisbon,? but João de Barros adds ?honored citizen of Lisbon.? His name had appeared associated to African commerce on 12 April, 1455, when he was nominated receiver of male and female moors and merchandise from Guinea. João de Barros refers to him as well in the conquest of Alcacer Ceguer (1458). It is recorded that he had served Dom Afonso V in Ceuta. He is mentioned in the extant documentation as a squire of the Royal House since 4 September, 1469, at least. He was knighted in 1471 on the occasion of the conquest of Asilah. On 14 December, 1472, he received authorization for him and his men to use ?espadas e todas as outras armas que lhe prouver defensivas e ofensivas? [swords and all other weapons he wished, offensive and defensive] for the duration of the rental contract with the Crown.
At the end of the 1460s Fernão Gomes gained greater significance in the overseas expansion, as in 1468 he entered into a five-year contract with Dom Afonso V. João de Barros asserts that the contract was signed in November 1469, an unlikely date, since the facts indicate that the contract lasted six years and that on 31 August, 1474 it was no longer in effect. Defending João de Barros´ position, Luis de Albuquerque, raises the hypothesis that the contract actually only lasted five years, despite being extended for another year on 1 June, 1473. Barros´ assertion, however, does not incorporate the other data, which indicates that Fernão Gomes´ business started in 1468. It is possible that the author of Décadas da Ásia was imprecise or that the date of the document he consulted was actually November 1469, representing a delayed officialization of a contract that was already in effect.
The contract stipulated the rental and monopoly of the Guinea commerce to Fernão Gomes, excepting the trade with Arguin and the terra firma across from the Cape Verdean archipelago, in exchange for a payment of 200,000 reis to be made annually to the Crown. The renter, on the other hand, was to promote the annual exploration of 100 leagues of the African coast south of Guinea, starting from Mata de Santa Maria, the boundary that had been reached during the voyage of navigators Pedro de Sintra and Soeiro da Costa. The Crown reserved the right of monopoly of the resale of ivory at the price of 1,500 reis per 120 pounds, which Fernão Gomes had to cede in full to Martim Eanes de Boaviagem, to whom the King had granted exclusive rights of sale of this product in Portugal. For an additional 100,000 reis annually, Fernão Gomes would also obtain exclusive rights to the malagueta pepper trade, which normally was the monopoly of the crown as well.
The importance of this rental contract is a noteworthy part of Dom Afonso V´s overseas policy regarding the African Coast, which was frequently downplayed in light of his Moroccan campaigns. The requirement that Fernão Gomes send ships to explore the African littoral and the lesser amount of rent imposed suggest that Dom Afonso V was decisively invested in maritime expansion, preferring to alienate part of the Crown´s direct income to achieve greater results through a private party. In 1472, the council representatives asked the king to end the contract with Fernão Gomes, suggesting that the Crown would profit much more by taxing each merchant that participated in Guinea Coast trade; however, the King refused this proposal, as it went against his policy of absolut control of the region South of Cape Bojador, even if at that time it was via a renter.
Everything indicates that the Crown exercised greater control over the voyages of exploration than what was initially believed, though. For example, the document dated June 1, 1473, attests to the extension of the contract for another year ? and is known, as opposed to the original contract ? merely confirming its initial duration and the amounts involved; however, no mention is made of the trips of exploration that were to be promoted by Fernão Gomes. Additionally, the chroniclers, Duarte Pacheco Pereira and Rui de Pina, attribute to the King the responsibility for these trips. Likewise, Duarte Pacheco Pereira and João de Barros refer to the captains of the caravels, Soeiro da Costa, João de Santarém, Pêro Escobar, Fernão Pó, and Rui de Sequeira, as knights of the Royal House. Thus one can conclude that Fernão Gomes, who meanwhile had also become a knight of the Royal House, had been the one who financed the voyages of exploration promoted by Dom Afonso V, although there is no proof that he was the only leader of this process.
Not many details are known about the exploration voyages carried out under his aegis, other than their quite evident profiteering objectives. This aspect is demonstrated by the names that the navigators assigned to the parts of the Guinea Coast that they were exploring, which reflected the main merchandise that was obtained there via commerce with the natives: ?Costa da Malagueta? [Malagueta Pepper Coast] (currently Liberia), ?Costa do Marfim? [Ivory Coast], ?Costa do Ouro? [Gold Coast] (Ghana), ?Costa dos Escravos? [Slave Coast] (Togo and Benin). The voyage undertaken in 1471 by João de Santarém and Pero Escobar is prominent among these, as it resulted in the discovery of the region where São Jorge da Mina Fort would be erected and where the first acquisition of gold for the kingdom would be made (thus the name ?Gold Coast?). Fernão Pó arrived at the Bay of Biafra and discovered the island which was named after him. Lopo de Gonçalves and Lopo de Sequeira crossed the Equatorial line, reaching Gabon and discovering the islands of São Tomé, Principe, and Ano Bom.
Once the contract with the Crown had ended, Fernão Gomes rose in the ranks of the nobility, receiving a Coat of Arms on 29 August, 1474. He was also ennobled with the addition to his name of the epithet ?of Mina?, in remembrance of the discovery of this important source of gold for the kingdom, which was furnished by its navigators. In 1478, he became a member of the Royal Council. He did not, however, become disconnected from overseas business, as is demonstrated by his participation in 1477 in the consortium dealing with the rental of Madeira Island to Princess Dona Beatriz.
COSTA, João Paulo Oliveira e, ?D. Afonso V e o Atlântico: a base do projecto expansionista de D. João II? in Mare Liberum, nº17, Junho 1999. GOMES, Saul António, D. Afonso V. O Africano, Rio de Mouro, Círculo de Leitores, 2006. SOTTOMAYOR, Pedro, ?Fernão Gomes? in Dicionário de História dos Descobrimentos Portugueses, dir. Luís de Albuquerque, vol.I, Lisboa, Círculo de Leitores, 1994, pp.469-470.
Author: Pedro Martins
Translated by: Maria João Pimentel