The man chiefly responsible for Portugal's age of exploration was Prince Henry the Navigator, the third son of King Joao I (John) and his English wife, Queen Philippa of Lancaster. Henry was born in 1394. As a youth, he participated in the capture of Ceuta. In 1419, his father made him governor of Portugal's southernmost coasts. From 1419 until his death in [1460], Prince Henry sent expedition after expedition down the west coast of Africa to outflank the Muslim hold on trade routes and to establish colonies. These expeditions moved slowly due to the mariners' belief that waters at the equator were at the boiling point, that human skin turned black, and that sea monsters would engulf ships.






It wasn't until 27 years after Henry's death that Bartolomeu Dias braved these "dangers" and rounded the Cape of Good Hope in [1487]. Henry was keenly interested in and studied navigation and mapmaking. He established a naval observatory for the teaching of navigation, astronomy, and cartography about [1450]. Unfortunately, Portugal began slaving operations along the west coast of Africa. Sailors could offer glass beads and colored cloth in exchange for tribal captives. In 1452, Pope Nicolas V issued his papal bull allowing the enslavement of "pagans and infidels." Prince Henry's interest in the slaves was mainly to convert them to Christianity.


Henry of Portugal, surnamed the "Navigator", Duke of Viseu, governor of the Algarve, was born at Oporto on the 4th of March 1394. He was the third (or, counting children who died in infancy, the fifth) son of João I, the founder of the Aviz dynasty, under whom Portugal, victorious against Castile and against the Moors of Morocco, began to take a prominent place among European nations; his mother was Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt. When Ceuta, the "African Gibraltar", was taken, in 1413, Prince Henry performed the most distinguished service of any Portuguese leader, and received knighthood; he was now created Duke of Viseu and lord of Covilham, and about the same time began his explorations, which, however, limited in their original conception, certainly developed into a search for a better knowledge of the western ocean and for a sea-way along the unknown coast of Africa to the supposed western Nile (now Senegal), to the rich negro lands beyond the Sahara desert, to the half-true, half-fabled realm of Prester John, and so ultimately to the Indies.


Disregarding the traditions which assign 1412 or even 1410 as the commencement of these explorations, it appears that in 1415, the year of Ceuta, the prince sent out one John de Trasto on a voyage which brought the Portuguese to Grand Canary Island. There was no discovery here, for the whole Canarian archipelago was now pretty well known to French and Spanish mariners, especially since the conquest of 1402-06 by French adventurers under Castilian overlordship; but in 1418 Henry's captain, João Gonçalvez Zarco rediscovered Porto Santo, and in 1420 Madeira, the chief members of an island group which had originally been discovered (probably by Genoese pioneers) before 1351 or perhaps even before 1339, but had rather faded from Christian knowledge since. 


The story of the rediscovery of Madeira by the Englishman Robert Machim or Machin, eloping from Bristol with his lady-love, Anne d'Arfet, in the reign of King Edward III (about 1370), has been the subject of much controversy; in any case it does not affect the original Italian discovery, nor the first sighting of Porto Santo by Zarco, who, while exploring the west African mainland coast, was driven by storms to this island. In 1424-25 Prince Henry attempted to purchase the Canaries, and began the colonization of the Madeira group, both in Madeira itself and in Porto Santo; to aid this latter movement he procured the famous charters of 1430 and 1433 from the Portuguese crown. In 1427, again, with the cooperation of his father King João, he seems to have sent out the royal pilot Diogo de Sevill, followed in 1431 by Gonçalo Velho Cabral, to explore the Azores, first mentioned and depicted in a Spanish treatise of 1345 (the Conosçimiento de todos los Reynos) and in an Italian map of 1351 (the Laurentian Portolano, also the first cartographical work to give us the Madeiras with modern names), but probably almost unvisited from that time to the advent of Sevill. 


This rediscovery of the far western archipelago, and the expeditions which, even within Prince Henry's life (as in 1452) pushed still deeper into the Atlantic, seem to show that the infante was not entirely forgetful of the possibility of such a western route to Asia as Christopher Columbus attempted in 1492, only to find America across his path. Meantime, in 1418, Henry had gone in person to relieve Ceuta from an attack of Morocco and Granada Muslims; had accomplished his task, and had planned, though he did not carry out, a seizure of Gibraltar. About this time, moreover, it is probable that he had begun to gather information from the Moors with regard to the coast of Guinea and the interior of Africa. In 1419, after his return to Portugal, he was created governor of the kingdom of Algarve, the southernmost province of Portugal; and his connection now appears to have begun with what afterwards became known as the "Infante's Town" (Villa do Iffante) at Sagres, close to Cape St. Vincent; where, before 1438, a Tercena Nobel or naval arsenal grew up; where, from 1438, after the Tangier expedition, the prince certainly resided for a great part of his later life; and where he died in 1460.


In 1433 died King João, exhorting his son not to abandon those schemes which were now, in the long-continued failure to round Cape Bojador, ridiculed by many as costly absurdities and in 1434 one of the prince's ships, commanded by Gil Eannes, at lengh doubled the cape. In 1435 Affonso Gonçalvez Baldaya, the prince's cup-bearer, passed fifty leagues beyond; and before the close of 1436 the Portuguese had almost reached Cape Blanco. Plans of further conquest in Morocco, resulting in 1437 in the disastrous attack upon Tangier, and followed in 1438 by the death of King Edward (Duarte) and the domestic troubles of the earlier minority of Affonso V, now interrupted Atlantic and African exploration down to 1441, except only in the Azores. Here rediscovery and colonization both progressed, as is shown by the royal license of the 2nd of July 1439, to people "the seven islands" of the group then known. In 1441 exploration began again in earnest with the venture of Antam Gonçalvez, who brought to Portugal the first slaves and gold dust from the Guinea coasts beyond Bojador; while Nuno Tristam in the same year pushed on to Cape Blanco. 


These successes produced a great effect; the cause of discovery, now connected with boundless hopes of profit, became popular; and many volunteers, especially merchants and seamen from Lisbon and Lagos, came forward. In 1442 Nuno Tristam reached the Bay or Bight of Arguim, where the infante erected a fort in 1448, and where for years the Portuguese carried on vigorous slave-raiding. Meantime the prince, who had now, in 1443, been created by King Henry VI a Knight of the Garter of England, proceeded with his Sagres buildings, especially the palace, church and observatory (the first in Portugal) which formed the nucleus of the "Infante's Town", and which were certainly commenced soon after the Tangier fiasco (1437), if not earlier. In 1444-46 there was an immense burst of maritime and exploring activity; more than 30 ships sailed with Henry's license to Guinea; and several of their commanders achieved notable success. Thus Diniz Diaz, Nuno Tristam, and others reached the Senegal in 1445; Diaz rounded Cape Verde in the same year; and in 1446 Alvaro Fernandez pushed on almost to the present-day Sierra Leone, to a point 110 leagues beyond Cape Verde. 


This was perhaps the most distant point reached before 1461. In 1444, moreover, the island of St. Michael in the Azores was sighted (May 8), and in 1445 its colonization was begun. During this latter year also John Fernandez spent seven months among the natives of the Arguim coast, and brought back the first trustworthy first-hand European account of the Sahara hinterland. Slave-raiding continued ceaselessly; by 1446 the Portuguese had carried off nearly a thousand captives from the newly surveyed coasts; but between this time and the voyages of Alvise Cadamosto in 1455-56, the prince altered his policy, forbade the kidnapping of the natives (which had brought about fierce reprisals, causing the death of Nuno Tristam in 1446, and of other pioneers in 1445, 1448, etc.), and endeavored to promote their peaceful intercourse with his men. In 1445-46, again, Dom Henry renewed his earlier attempts (which had failed in 1424-25) to purchase or seize the Canaries for Portugal; by these he brought his country to the verge of war with Castile; but the home government refused to support him, and the project was again abandoned. After 1446 our most voluminous authority, Azurara, records but little; his narrative ceases altogether in 1448; one of the latest expeditions noticed by him is that of a foreigner in the prince's service, "Vallarte the Dane", which ended in utter destruction near the Gambia, after passing Cape Verde in 1448. 


After this the chief matters worth notice in Dom Henry's life are, first, the progress of discovery and colonization in the Azores - where Terceira was discovered before 1450, perhaps in 1445, and apparently by a Fleming, called "Jacques de Bruges" in the prince's charter of the 2nd of March 1450 (by this charter Jacques receives the captaincy of this isle as its intending colonizer); secondly, the rapid progress of civilization in Madeira, evidenced by its timber trade to Portugal, by its sugar, corn and honey, and above all by its wine, produced from the Malvoisie or Malmsey grape, introduced from Crete; and thirdly, the explorations of Cadamosto and Diogo Gomez. Of thes the former, in his two voyages of 1455 and 1456, explored part of the courses of the Senegal and the Gambia, discovered the Cape Verde Islands (1456), named and mapped more carefully than before a considerable section of the African littoral beyond Cape Verde, and gave much new information on the trade routes of northwest Africa and on the native races; while Gomez, in his first important venture (after 1448 and before 1458), though not accomplishing the full Indian purpose of his voyage (he took a native interpreter with him for use "in the event of reaching India"), explored and observed in the Gambia valley and along the adjacent coasts with fully as much care and profit. As a result of these expeditions the infante seems to have sent out in 1458 a mission to convert the Gambia negroes. Gomez' second voyage, resulting in another "discovery" of the Cape Verde Islands, was probably in 1462, after the death of Prince Henry; it is likely that among the infante's last occupations were the necessary measures for the equipment and despatch of this venture, as well as of Pedro de Sintra's important expedition of 1461.


The infante's share in home politics was considerable, especially in the years of Affonso V's minority (1438, etc.) when he helped to make his elder brother Pedro regent, reconciled him with the queen-mother, and worked together with them both in a council of regency. But when Dom Pedro rose in revolt (1447), Henry stood by the king and allowed his brother to be crushed. In the Morocco campaigns of his last years, especially at the capture of Alcazar the Little (1458), he restored the military fame which he had founded at Ceuta and compromised at Tangier, and which brought him invitations from the pope, the emperor and the kings of Castile and England, to take command of their armies. The prince was also grand master of the Order of Christ, the successor of the Templars in Portugal; and most of his Atlantic and African expeditions sailed under the flag of his order, whose revenues were at the service of his explorations, in whose name he asked and obtained the official recognition of Pope Eugenius IV for his work, and on which he bestowed many privileges in the newly-won lands -- the tithes of St. Michael in the Azores and one-half of its sugar revenues, the tithe of all merchandise from Guinea, the ecclesiastical dues of Madeira, etc. As "protector of Portuguese studies", Dom Henry is credited with having founded a professorship of theology, and perhaps also chairs of mathematics and medicine, in Lisbon -- where also, in 1431, he is said to have provided house-room for the university teachers and students. 


To instruct his captains, pilots and other pioneers more fully in the art of navigation and the making of maps and instruments he procured, says Barros, the aid of one Master Jacome from Majorca, together with that of certain Arab and Jewish mathematicians. We hear also of one Master Peter, who inscribed and illuminated maps for the infante; the mathematician Pedro Nunes declares that the prince's mariners were well taught and provided with instruments and rules of astronomy and geometry "which all mapmakers should know"; Cadamosto tells us that the Portuguese caravels in his day were the best sailing ships afloat; while, from several matters recorded by Henry's biographers, it is clear that he devoted great attention to the study of earlier charts and of any available information he could gain upon the trade routes of northwest Africa. Thus we find an Oran merchant corresponding with him about events happening in the negro-world of the Gambia basin in 1458. Even if there were never a formal "geographical school" at Sagres, or elsewhere in Portugal, founded by Prince Henry, it appears certain that his court was the center of active and useful geographical study, as well as the source of the best practical exploration of the time.


The prince died on the 13th of November 1460, in his town near Cape St. Vincent, and was buried in the church of St. Mary in Lagos, but a year later his body was removed to the superb monastery of Batalha. His great-nephew, King Dom Manuel had a statue of him placed over the center column of the side gate of the church of Belem. On the 24th of July 1840, a monument was erected to him at Sagres at the instance of the Marquis de Sá da Bandeira.


The glory attaching to the name of Prince Henry does not rest merely on the achievements effected during his own lifetime, but on the subsequent results to which his genius and perseverance had lent the primary inspiration. To him the human race is indebted, in large measure, for the maritime exploration, within one century (1420-1522), of more than half the globe, and especially of the great waterways from Europe to Asia both by east and by west. His own life only sufficed for the accomplishment of a small portion of his task. The complete opening out of the African or southeast route to the Indies needed nearly forty years of somewhat intermittent labor after his death (1460-98), and the prince's share has often been forgotten in that of pioneers who were really his executors -- Diogo Cam, Bartholomew Diaz or Vasco da Gama. Less directly, other sides of his activity may be considered as fulfilled by the Portuguese penetration of inland Africa, especially of Abyssinia, the land of the "Prester John" for whom Dom Henry sought, and even by the finding of a western route to Asia through the discoveries of Columbus, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Ferdinand Magellan.



Born: 4-Mar-1394
Birthplace: Oporto, Portugal
Died: 13-Nov-1460
Location of death: Vila do Infante, Portugal
Cause of death: unspecified
Gender: Male
Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Royalty

Nationality: Portugal
Executive summary: Spurred European global exploration

Father: João I (King of Portugal)
Mother: Philippa of Lancaster (dau. of John of Gaunt)




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