The fabulous Museu de Marinha

Collection of astrolábios náuticos do Museu de Marinha, considered to be the largest in the worlo

Based in the east wing of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and extending along a modern pavilion, it is a jewel of our historic and scientific heritage. Here we can find pieces of incalculable value, along with models, maps and sculptures which introduce visitors to the art and science of navigation. 

Right at the entrance is an impressive statue of Infante Dom Henrique, surrounded by smaller statues of navigators who explored the seas at his instance. In the background is a gigantic map showing the most important journeys of our ancestors. Children on a school trip, foreign couples and families stop to see the paths followed by Diogo Cão, Vasco da Gama and other navigators of days gone by.

Moving on to the main hall, you enter the heart of the museum, a wide room dedicated to the golden era of the Portuguese navigators. Right at the entrance is a replica of the famous inscription of lelala, made by Diogo do Cão in 1483, in his exploration journey of the river Zaire. On reaching the mouth of the great river, the navigator admitted that it might be a passage from the Atlantic to the Indian ocean and explored the river for more than 150 kilometres. He was held back at the insurmountable rapids of Ielala and there he left the mark of his presence, with an inscription on a rock located on the left border of the river. It was only later that the explorers started using the well-known padrões dos descobrimentos, of which the museum also has a copy.

Wooden sculpture of Archangel São Rafael. This is the only surviving piece of the armada in which Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India

Wooden sculpture of Archangel São Rafael. This is the only surviving piece of the armada in which Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India

On the immediate left is an apparently modest sculpture, yet it is charged with immense historical meaning. It is a figure of Archangel São Rafael, the only piece that survived the journey of Vasco da Gama. This magnificent painted wooden sculpture was transported in the ship commanded by Paulo da Gama, brother of the captain commanding the naval expedition, he himself a seafaring explorer.

This is one of the most important, if not the most important, pieces of the museum. Yet there are other treasures, such as the seaplane that ended the voyage of Sacadura Cabral and Gago Countinho over the South Atlantic in 1922, or the royal brig built under the reign of Queen D. Maria, which is over 220 years old and was used for the last time when it transported Queen Elisabeth of England in her visit to Portugal in 1957.

Further ahead, in the centre of the room, is a collection of models of ships used by the Portuguese in their seafaring journeys. There are no drawings or paintings depicting these ships. What is known was reconstructed from written testimonials, namely instruction manuals on naval construction. Submarine archaeology has recovered some ancient vessels, however unfortunately nothing has been found of the discoveries period. The models on show in the museum were laboriously constructed and represent what is known on the ships used in those times.

The models are displayed in chronological order to show the evolution of naval architecture achieved by the Portuguese. One of the first models is that of the barque. The barque was the ship used by Gil Eanes to sail beyond Cape Bojador, the land form of the African continent that can only be overcome at the thirteenth attempt. It is a sturdily built, flat-bottomed vessel that is capable of withstanding collisions with rocks and sailing in shallow waters. The barque was equipped with the so-called round sail, a quadrangular sail in the form of a church banner, which takes maximum advantage of the force of the wind. The sail swelled up, a little like a balloon, reason why it was probably called a “round” sail. The barque was not a very manoeuvrable or fast vessel. At that time, what was most important was that it could withstand the impact of waves, rocks, etc. and that it could be used to carefully explore the African route. The barques inched their way along, exploring the route. In our imagination, when approaching the coastline or in the fear of sandbanks, we can see a sailor at the bow with a plumb, measuring the depth of the water and warning of danger. A round sail, however, does not allow the ship to be easily manoeuvred, demanding constant attention and a huge effort at the helm. A smaller sail, called artimão, was later added to the main sail at the bow, which helped to control the ship.

Portuguese naus and caravels from the Discoveries period, in the showroom of the museum dedicated to boats of the 15th and 16th centuries.

After Cape Bojador had been rounded safely, a symbolic milestone, once considered unnavigable, had been overcome. In the past, it was thought that this route led to seas filled with insurmountable dangers and deserted and uninhabitable regions. Classical geographers imagined that the tropical regions were so hot that no living creature could survive there, which meant that the feats of the Portuguese mariners were not only decisive in opening up the routes and contact among peoples but also for the new culture of the Renaissance.

Once past Cape Bojador, it became apparent that it would also be possible to round the cape in deep sea, thus avoiding the dangerous rocks that lied in waiting for the coastline navigation, and approach the coast further south. For these ocean manoeuvres, such as for the exploration of the coast south of Cape Bojador, a faster and more manoeuvrable ship was needed. The barque was therefore replaced with the caravel, the emblematic vessel of the Discoveries.

The caravel was furnished with triangular sails, the so-called lateen sails, used in the Mediterranean since the eighth century. Because of their shape they were called “a la trina”, giving rise to the name “latina” (lateen). The sails were supported by spars hung diagonally on the masts, instead of horizontally, as in the barques and later in the naus and galleons, resulting in greater manoeuvring capacity. Besides, the inclination of the triangular sail made it possible to sail against the wind in a zigzag movement which mariners call luffing. Portuguese explorers rounded southern Africa in a caravel, sighting the Indian Ocean for the first time.

“Santa Cruz”, the seaplane in which Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral reached Brazil, in the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic.

Once the exploration phase was over, it became necessary to build more sturdy ships that could transport more crew members and more soldiers, that were able to withstand the enemy and that could transport large quantities of provisions, munitions and commodities. And thus the nau was born, normally having three masts, with round sails at the bow and a triangular sail at the stern, with the first two being used to harness the great force of the wind and the lateen sail being used for manoeuvring. Vasco da Gama travelled to India in naus.

Visitors to the Museu de Marinha have the opportunity of seeing the evolution of naval art in detail by observing the models of barques, caravels and naus, such as galleons and more recent ships, including the more modern ones. But it is not in the art of sailing alone that the museum offers a live science and history lesson. On display in the main showroom are cannons and other pieces of naval artillery. Other rooms exhibit fishing equipment, with emphasis on cod fishing. Further down, the noble chambers of the royal yacht “Amélia” can be viewed. Moving on to the pavilion in annexe, visitors can observe authentic vessels, ranging from fishing boats to the referred royal brig of D. Maria I and to the seaplane of Sacadura Cabral and Gago Coutinho.

General view of the museum’s main showroom.

O Museu de Marinha tem colocado entre as suas preocupações primeiras, a sua função pedagógica. Há um serviço de extensão educativa, que dispõe de fichas pedagógicas que distribui às escolas. Há cerca de 100 mil alunos por ano a visitar o museu, num total de cerca de 140 mil visitantes anuais. Os professores podem ser ajudados a preparar as visitas.

Nuno Crato

© Instituto Camões 2003-2005