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The Portuguese prince Henry (1394–1460)— the epithet “Navigator” was not bestowed upon him until the nineteenth century—is best remembered for the voyages he sponsored to the West African coast, one of which resulted in the discovery of a sea route to India. But his settlements and the ensuing economic development in Madeira and the Azores held more immediate benefits for him and for Portugal as a whole.
Henry the Navigator was one of the earliest and most vigorous proponents of European overseas expansion and exploration. Prince Henry (Dom Henrique) was the third son of King Joao I of Portugal and his queen, Philippa of Lancaster, of England’s house of Plantagenet. Often credited with founding a school of navigation at Sagres in southwest Portugal, Henry was not actually a mariner—he probably never sailed farther than northern Morocco—and he had no school at Sagres or anywhere else. A strong advocate of the church militant, in 1415 he took part in the capture of the Moroccan port of Ceuta, a place of little economic or strategic significance that proved costly to maintain but impossible to surrender without loss of face. A subsequent attack on Tangier failed, and Henry eventually turned to more commercial pursuits that took his caravels into the archipelagoes of the eastern Atlantic and along the Guinea coast of West Africa. Although the chief impetus for these voyages was commercial, Henry was also motivated by an abiding belief in the medieval concepts of just war and crusade, and an obligation to preach the true faith to heathens and crusade against heretics and Muslims.
Henry’s overseas interests began when he was made donatory (lord-proprietor) of Madeira in 1433, whereupon he began to organize the colonization and exploitation of the islands for lumber, wine, and sugar. He likewise began the settlement of the Azores in 1439. Henry’s interest in the coast of Africa derived from his failed efforts to establish Portuguese control of the Canary Islands, which were claimed by Castile. In the 1420s, Henry began sponsoring a series of voyages down the west coast of Africa in the hope of establishing a kingdom rich in slaves, gold, and the produce of the coastal fisheries. By 1434, the Portuguese knew the coast of Africa as far south as Cape Bojador, in the latitude of the Canaries—widely believed to be the southern limit of safe navigation. By 1445, a large expedition (reportedly numbering 26 ships) sailed for Rio de Oro, and a few vessels reached the Senegal River and Cape Verde even farther south. Three years later a fort was built on the island of Arguin (in Mauritania), from which the Portuguese conducted a lucrative trade in ivory, gold, and slaves. By Henry’s death twelve years later, the Portuguese had explored about 4,000 kilometers of the coast of West Africa, including expeditions up the Senegal, Gambia, and other rivers, and they had discovered the Cape Verde Islands.
Henry’s sponsorship of these voyages was predicated on returns, and he set clear objectives for his captains, regulating the distances to be covered and ensuring that details about the navigation and geography of the coast, trade goods, and local languages were collected. One result of these African voyages was the discovery of a sea route to India, but neither Henry nor any of his contemporaries had any such end in mind. They did, however, believe they could reach the lands of Prester John, the Ethiopian Christian king of medieval legend and a potential ally in any prospective crusade against Islam. The route there was thought to be via the Sinus Aethiopicus, a hypothetical African gulf first described in the fourteenth century, from the head of which Ethiopia was thought to be a short march overland. The possibility that a sea route around Africa to the Indies might exist took hold only after the Portuguese had passed Cape Verde and turned east into the Gulf of Guinea.
Although the economic development of Madeira and the Azores held more immediate benefits for him and for Portugal as a whole, Henry is best remembered for his sponsorship of the African voyages, thanks especially to the flattering chronicle of his contemporary, Gomes Eanes de Zurara. More reliable is the account by the Venetian Alvise Cadamosto, who made two voyages under Henry’s auspices in 1455 and 1456. On the strength of Henry’s Plantagenet ancestry, Samuel Purchas also claimed that he was the “true foundation of Greatnesse, not of Portugall alone, but . . . especially of these Heroike endeavours of the English” (Russell 2001, 1). The more extravagant epithet, “Navigator,” was not bestowed until the nineteenth century. Another more immediate legacy is the indirect connection between Henry and Christopher Columbus. In 1446, Henry assigned the administration of Porto Santo in the Madeiras to Bartolomeu Perestrelo, who had grown up in Henry’s household and who probably advised him on the subject of Atlantic navigation. Perestrelo’s daughter Felipa Muniz married Columbus, who thereby received her father’s maps and papers.
- Cadamosto, A. (1937). The voyages of Cadamosto and other documents on western Africa in the second half of the fifteenth century (G. R. Crone, Ed. & Trans.). London: Hakluyt Society.
- Diffie, B. W., & Winius, G. D. (1977). Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415–1580: Vol. 1: Europe and the world in the age of expansion. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
- Phillips, W. D., Jr., & Phillips, C. R. (1992). The worlds of Christopher Columbus. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Russell, P. E. (2001). Prince Henry “the Navigator.” New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Zurara, G. E. (1896–1899). The chronicle of the discovery and conquest of Guinea (2 vols.). C. R. Beazley & E. Prestage (Trans.). London: Hakluyt Society.
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