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He is thought to have been born in Belmonte, in the Beira Baixa province of Portugal. He was the third son of Fernao Cabral, Governor of Beira and Belmonte, and Isabel de Gouvea, and married Isabel de Castro, the daughter of the distinguished Fernando de Noronha. He must have had an exellent training in navigation and large experience as a seaman, for King Manuel I of Portugal considered him competent to continue the work of Vasco da Gama.
His commission was to establish permanent commercial relations and to introduce Christianity wherever he went, using force of arms when necessary to gain his point. The nature of the undertaking led rich Florentine merchants to contribute to the equipment of the ships, and priests to join the expedition. Among the captains of the fleet, which consisted of 13 ships with 1,500 men, were Bartolomeu Dias, Pero Vaz de Caminha, and Nicolao Coelho, the latter the companion of da Gama. Da Gama himself gave the directions necessary for the course of the voyage.
The fleet left Lisbon on March 9, 1500, and following the course laid down, sought to avoid the calms of the coast of Gulf of Guinea. On leaving the Cape Verde Islands, where Luis Pirez was forced by a storm to return to Lisbon, they sailed in a decidedly southwesterly direction. On April 22 a mountain was visible, to which the name of Monte Pascoal was given; on April 23 Coelho landed on the coast of Brasil, and on April 25 the entire fleet sailed into the harbor called Porto Seguro. Cabral at once sent Andreas Gonçalvez to Portugal with the important tidings. Believing the island to be an island he gave it the name of Island of the True Cross (or Island of Vera Cruz) and took possession of it by erecting a cross and holding a religious service. The service was celebrated by the Franciscan, Father Henrique, afterwards Bishop of Ceuta.
Cabral resumed his voyage on May 3 1500. By the end of the month the fleet approached the Cape of Good Hope, where it was struck by a storm in which four vessels, including that of Bartolomeu Diaz, were lost. With the ships now reduced to one-half of the original number. Cabral reached Sofala (July 16) and Mozambique (July 20). In the latter place he received a cordial greeting. On July 26 he came to Kilwa where he was unable to make an agreement with the ruler. On August 2 he reached Melinde; here he had a friendly welcome and obtained a pilot to take him to India. On August 10, the ship commanded by Diego Dias, separated by weather, discovered an island they named after St Lawrence, later known as Madagascar.
Cabral continued to India to trade for pepper and other spices, establishing a factory at Calicut, where he arrived on September 13. In Cochin and Cananor Cabral succeeded in making advantageous treaties. After a chain of bad luck, culminating in a two-day bombardment of the city, Cabral started on the return voyage on January 16, 1501, and returned with only 4 of 13 ships to Portugal, on June 23, 1501.
Cabral was buried in a monastery in Santarém, Portugal.