Henry the Navigator

(1394—1460) Portuguese prince

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Prince of Portugal, was the third son of John I of Portugal and grandson of John of Gaunt. He gained military renown when the Portuguese captured Ceuta from the Moors in 1415 and, as a fervent Christian, was an ardent crusader against Islam. However, some of the military campaigns he was later involved in were less successful. The expedition he sent in 1424 to capture Gran Canaria from its indigenous inhabitants ended in humiliation; his ambitions to oust the Moors from Granada never came to anything; and his attempt to capture Tangiers in 1437 was a disaster, particularly as he reneged on his agreement to return Ceuta to the Moors, a volte-face which led directly to the death of his younger brother whom he had handed over as a hostage. But his determination to expand Portuguese trade and territory elsewhere, under the guise of spreading Christianity amongst the heathen, was more successful. It also brought him the fame, though not the fortune, he was almost certainly seeking.

Ceuta's garrison, for which Henry became responsible, had to be provisioned from Portugal. This led to the development of the caravel, and it was not long before Henry began to send some of his out into the Atlantic to search for the places he had heard about and which were marked on the early charts he studied. Some like Brasil were fictitious, but Madeira was rediscovered by his ships during the 1420s, as almost certainly were the Azores, and Henry's financial support of the colonization of these islands paid him handsome dividends, though he spent lavishly and died in debt.

But Henry is best remembered for his patronage of a succession of seamen, Portuguese and others, who from 1434 onwards made voyages of discovery down the west coast of Africa (Guinea) in search of gold and slaves, and who in the 1450s found the first islands of the Cape Verde archipelago. His captains brought back little gold, but the number of slaves captured or traded made these ventures well worthwhile. At the time of Henry's death this exploration by sea had reached present-day Gambia, and later led to the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope by Bartholomew Diaz and the sea route to India.

Henry's sobriquet, ‘the navigator’, is something of a misnomer. He was no sailor and historians now dismiss the stories of his school of navigation at Sagres. ‘Far from teaching practical navigation to his pilots as the myth has it,’ writes one (P. Russell, Prince Henry ‘The Navigator’: A Life (2001), 238), ‘it is much more probable that at first it was they who taught the Prince about their craft, so enabling him to relate his book knowledge of astrology, astronomy and cartography to the needs of practical navigation, even though he had little direct experience of the latter … His own unshakeable self-confidence that it was his destiny to succeed as a sponsor of oceanic exploration communicated itself to mariners and sea-going knights and squires alike, even before the caravel started to trade profitably in Guinea. All these people trusted Henry because they believed, probably not always correctly, that he knew what he was about. It was also a touch of genius on his part to exploit the religious and chivalric sentiments of the squires of his overlarge household by offering them the chance to win in great waters, as crusaders for the Faith on remote African shores, the fame and glory they sought.’


Subjects: Maritime History.

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