He is thought to have been born in Belmonte, in the Beira Baixa province of Portugal.
On March 9, 1500, he left Portugal with a fleet of 13 ships and 1,500 men, funded by Manuel I of Portugal, following the route of Vasco da Gama. On April 22, 1500, having steered further west than usual on the passage to the Cape of Good Hope, his fleet discovered Brazil and arrived at the point which is called "Monte Pascoal". He called the newly discovered land "Island of the True Cross" and claimed it for Portugal. 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. After a chain of bad luck, culminating in a two-day bombardment of the city, he returned with only 4 of 13 ships to Portugal, on June 23, 1501.
Cabral was buried in a monastery in Santarém, Portugal. He has been honored on a number of postage stamps, for instance in a set of Brazilian stamps issued January 1, 1900 to mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery.