The conquest of Ceuta by the Portuguese on August 14, 1415 marks an important step in the beginning of the Portuguese Empireas well as of European colonial expansion in general.
Ceuta had served as a staging ground in the Umayyad conquest of Hispania in 711, but it was destroyed in 740 and only rebuilt in the 9th century, passing to theCaliphate of Córdoba in the 10th century. Ceuta had seen a period of political instability in previous decades, under competing interests from the Kingdom of Fezand the Kingdom of Granada. The Kingdom of Fez finally conquered the region in 1387, with assistance from the Crown of Aragon.
The chief promoter of the Ceuta expedition was Joâo Afonso, royal overseer of finance. Ceuta’s position opposite the straits of Gibraltar gave it control of one of the main outlets of the trans-African Sudanese gold trade; and it could enable Portugal to flank its most dangerous rival, Castile.
The attack on Ceuta also offered the younger nobility an opportunity to win wealth and glory. On the morning of August 14, 1415, John I of Portugal led his sons and their assembled forces in a surprise assault on Ceuta. The battle itself was almost anti-climactic, because the 45,000 men who traveled on 200 Portuguese ships caught the defenders of Ceuta off guard. By nightfall the town was captured. John’s son Henry distinguished himself in the battle, being wounded during the conquest.
Under King John’s son, Duarte, the colony at Ceuta rapidly became a drain on the Portuguese treasury. Trans-Sahara caravans journeyed instead to Tangier. It was soon realised that without the city of Tangier, possession of Ceuta was worthless. In 1437, Duarte’s brothers Henry and Ferdinand persuaded him to launch an attack on the Marinidsultanate of Morocco. The resulting attack on Tangier, led by Henry, was a debacle. In the resulting treaty, Henry promised to deliver Ceuta back to the Marinids in return for allowing the Portuguese army to depart unmolested.
Possession of Ceuta would indirectly lead to further Portuguese expansion. The main area of Portuguese expansion, at this time, was the coast of Morocco, where there was grain, cattle, sugar, and textiles, as well as fish, hides, wax, and honey.