Henry the Navigator

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Alternate titles: Henrique o Navegador, Henrique, infante de Portugal, duque de Viseu, senhor da Covilhã

Henry the Navigator

Born: March 4, 1394 Porto Portugal . (Show more) Died: November 13, 1460 (aged 66) Portugal . (Show more)

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Henry the Navigator, Portuguese Henrique o Navegador, byname of Henrique, infante (prince) de Portugal, duque (duke) de Viseu, senhor (lord) da Covilhã, (born March 4, 1394, Porto, Portugal—died November 13, 1460, Vila do Infante, near Sagres), Portuguese prince noted for his patronage of voyages of discovery among the Madeira Islands and along the western coast of Africa. The epithet Navigator, applied to him by the English (though seldom by Portuguese writers), is a misnomer, as he himself never embarked on any exploratory voyages.

Early life

Henry was the third son of King John I and Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt of England. Henry and his older brothers, the princes Duarte (Edward) and Pedro, were educated under the supervision of their parents. Henry emerged with pronounced tastes for chivalric romance and astrological literature, as well as with ambitions to take part in military campaigns and, if possible, win a kingdom for himself.

The starting point of Henry’s career was the capture of the Moroccan city of Ceuta in 1415. According to Henry’s enthusiastic biographer, Gomes Eanes de Zurara, the three princes persuaded their still-vigorous father to undertake a campaign that would enable them to win their knightly spurs in genuine combat instead of in the mock warfare of a tournament. King John consented and, with Ceuta in mind, began military preparations, meanwhile spreading rumours of another destination, in order to lull the Moroccan city into a feeling of false security.

Although a plague swept Portugal and claimed the queen as a victim, the army sailed in July 1415. King John found Ceuta unprepared, as he had hoped, and its capture unexpectedly easy. Though Zurara later claimed the principal role in the victory for Henry, it would seem that the experienced soldier-king actually directed the operation. That Henry distinguished himself, however, is indicated by his immediate appointment as the king’s lieutenant for Ceuta, which did not require his permanent residence there or confer civil authority or administrative responsibilities but did oblige him to see that the city was adequately defended.

An emergency arose in 1418, when the Muslim rulers of Fez (Fès) in Morocco and the kingdom of Granada in Spain joined in an attempt to retake the city. Henry hastened to the rescue with reinforcements but on arrival found that the Portuguese garrison had beaten off the assailants. He then proposed to attack Granada, despite reminders that this would antagonize the kingdom of Castile, on whose threshold it lay. But his father, who had spent years fighting the attempts of the Castilians to annex Portugal, wanted peace with them and sent peremptory orders to return home.

On his return to Portugal, Henry was made duke of Viseu and lord of Covilhã. In 1420, at the age of 26, he was made administrator general of the Order of Christ, which had replaced the Crusading order of the Templars in Portugal. While this did not oblige him to take religious vows, it was reported that he afterward resolved to lead a chaste and ascetic life. However, the traditional view of Henry as indifferent to all but religion and the furtherance of his mission of discovery is not supported by later scholarship. Indeed, Henry had not always refrained from worldly pleasures; as a young man, he had fathered an illegitimate daughter. Moreover, his brother Duarte, especially after becoming king, did not hesitate to lecture and reprove Henry for such shortcomings as extravagance, unmethodical habits, failure to keep promises, and lack of scruples in the raising of money.

Sponsorship of expeditions

exploration sponsored by Henry the Navigator

Funds appropriated from the Order of Christ largely financed the Atlantic voyages along the western coast of Africa that Henry began to promote in the mid-1420s. He sought opportunities to take part in West African commerce, especially the trade of gold and of enslaved persons, and to establish potentially profitable colonies on underexploited islands, the most successful of which he helped to found on Madeira.

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Henry’s interest in geography unquestionably was influenced by the travels of Prince Pedro, his older and perhaps more brilliant brother. In 1425 Pedro set out on a long tour of Europe on which he visited England, Flanders, Germany, Hungary, and the principalities of Moldavia and Walachia (now Romania) before returning home through Italy, Aragon, and Castile. In eastern Europe he was close enough to Ottoman Turkey to appreciate the Muslim danger. From Italy Pedro brought home to Portugal, in 1428, a copy of Marco Polo’s travels that he had translated for Prince Henry’s benefit.

Henry’s other older brother, Duarte, succeeded King John in 1433. During the five years of Duarte’s reign, lack of success in the Canary Islands induced Henry’s captains to venture farther down the Atlantic coast in search of other opportunities. Tradition has claimed that the most important achievement was the rounding of Cape Bojador in 1434 by Gil Eanes, who overcame a superstition that had previously deterred seamen. It seems, however, that this is at best an exaggeration, resulting from the vagueness of the sailing directions reported in Portuguese sources. What Eanes mistakenly called Cape Bojador was actually Cape Juby, which had already been passed by many earlier navigators. During the next years, Henry’s captains pushed southward somewhat beyond the Río de Oro. They also began the colonization of the recently discovered Azores, through the orders of both Henry and Pedro.

In 1437 Henry and his younger brother, Fernando, gained Duarte’s reluctant consent for an expedition against Tangier. Ceuta had proved an economic liability, and they believed that possession of the neighbouring city would both ensure Ceuta’s safety and provide a source of revenue. Pedro opposed the undertaking. Henry and Fernando nevertheless attacked Tangier and met with disaster; Henry had shown poor generalship and mismanaged the enterprise. The Portuguese army would have been unable to reembark had not Fernando been left as hostage in exchange for Henry’s broken promise to surrender Ceuta. Fernando’s death at Fez in 1443 seems to have been felt by Henry as a grave charge upon his conscience.

King Duarte died in 1438, shortly before Henry’s return. His heir, Afonso V, was only six at the time, and Pedro assumed the regency over the bitter opposition of the boy’s mother, Leonor of Aragon, who would willingly have accepted Henry as regent. Nevertheless, for most of the next decade Pedro and Henry worked in harmony.

Study the history of the African slave trade and its economic effect on western Africa, where coastal states became rich and powerful while savanna states were destabilized as their people were taken captive

Study the history of the African slave trade and its economic effect on western Africa, where coastal states became rich and powerful while savanna states were destabilized as their people were taken captive

In 1441 a caravel returned from the West African coast with some gold dust and enslaved persons, thus silencing the growing criticism that Henry was wasting money on a profitless enterprise. One of Henry’s voyagers, Dinís Dias, in 1445 reached the mouth of the Sénégal (then taken for a branch of the Nile), and a year later Nuño Tristão, another of Henry’s captains, sighted the Gambia River. By 1448 the trade in enslaved persons to Portugal had become sufficiently extensive for Henry to order the building of a fort and warehouse on Arguin Island.

Afonso V attained his legal majority at the age of 14 in 1446. His embittered mother had meanwhile died in Castile, and, although the young king presently married Pedro’s daughter, Isabel, Pedro turned full power over to the youth with obvious reluctance.

Armed conflict between the two became inevitable, and Henry in the end felt obliged to side with the king, though he remained as much as possible in the background. He took no part in a skirmish at Alfarrobeira in May 1449, in which Pedro was killed by a chance shot from a crossbowman. Henry’s biographer, Zurara, on the other hand, declared that his hero had done everything possible to prevent Pedro’s death and promised to explain the circumstances further in later writings, but, if he did so, the account is lost.

Profile of Prince Henry the Navigator

Monument of the Discoveries in Lisbon, Portugal

Portugal is a country that has no coast along the Mediterranean Sea, only the Atlantic Ocean, so the country’s advances in worldwide exploration centuries ago may come as no surprise. That said, it was the passion and goals of one man that truly moved Portuguese exploration forward, the man known as Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460). Formally, he was Henrique, duque de Viseu, senhor da Covilhã.

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Fast Facts: Prince Henry the Navigator

  • Known For: He founded an institute for explorers, and people from around the world visited to learn about the latest discoveries in geography and navigation technology.
  • Born: 1394 in Porto, Portugal
  • Parents: King John I of Portugal, Philippa of Lancaster, of England
  • Died: 1460 in Sagres, Portugal
  • Spouse: None
  • Children: None

Although Prince Henry never sailed on any of his expeditions and rarely left Portugal, he became known as Prince Henry the Navigator because of his patronage of explorers, who increased the world’s known geographic information through the sharing of knowledge and by sending expeditions to places previously uncharted.

Early Life

Prince Henry was born in 1394 as the third son of King John I (King Joao I) of Portugal. At the age of 21, in 1415, Prince Henry commanded a military force that captured the Muslim outpost of Ceuta, located on the south side of the Strait of Gibraltar, on the northern tip of the African continent and bordering Morocco. It became Portugal’s first overseas territory.

On this expedition, the prince learned about gold routes and became fascinated with Africa.

The Institute at Sagres

Three years later, Prince Henry founded his navigational institute at Sagres on the southwestern-most point of Portugal, Cape Saint Vincent—a place ancient geographers referred to as the western edge of the earth. The institute, best described as a 15th-century research and development facility, included libraries, an astronomical observatory, shipbuilding facilities, a chapel, and housing for staff.

The institute was designed to teach navigational techniques to Portuguese sailors, to collect and disseminate geographical information about the world, to invent and improve navigational and seafaring equipment, and to sponsor expeditions.

Prince Henry’s school brought together some of the leading geographers, cartographers, astronomers, and mathematicians from throughout Europe to work at the institute. When people returned from voyages, they brought back with them information about currents, winds—and could improve existing maps and seafaring equipment.

A new type of ship, called a caravel, was developed at Sagres. It was fast and was much more maneuverable than prior types of boats, and though they were small, they were quite functional. Two of Christopher Columbus’ ships, the Nina and the Pinta, were caravels (the Santa Maria was a carrack).

Caravels were dispatched south along the western coast of Africa. Unfortunately, a major obstacle along the African route was Cape Bojador, southeast of the Canary Islands (located in Western Sahara). European sailors were afraid of the cape, for supposedly to its south lay monsters and insurmountable evils. It also hosted some challenging seas: tough waves, currents, shallows, and weather.

Expeditions: Goals and Reasons

Prince Henry’s expeditionary goals were to increase navigational knowledge along the western coast of Africa and find a water route to Asia, to increase trade opportunities for Portugal, to find gold to provide the trips’ own funding, to spread Christianity around the world, and defeat Muslims—and perhaps even to find Prester John, a legendary wealthy priest-king thought to reside somewhere in Africa or Asia.

The Mediterranean and other ancient East sea routes were controlled by the Ottoman Turks and Venetians, and the breakup of the Mongol Empire made some known land routes unsafe. Thus came the motivation to find new water routes heading East.

Exploring Africa

Prince Henry sent 15 expeditions to navigate south of the cape from 1424 to 1434, but each returned with its captain giving excuses and apologies for not having passed the dreaded Cape Bojador. Finally, in 1434 Prince Henry sent Captain Gil Eannes (who had previously attempted the Cape Bojador voyage) south; this time, Captain Eannes sailed to the west prior to reaching the cape and then headed eastward after passing the cape. Thus, none of his crew saw the dreadful cape, and it had been successfully passed, without catastrophe befalling the ship. This was the first European expedition to sail past this point and successfully return.

Following the successful navigation south of Cape Bojador, exploration of the African coast continued.

In 1441, Prince Henry’s caravels reached Cap Blanc (the cape where Mauritania and Western Sahara meet). The expedition brought back natives as exhibits of interest to show the prince. One negotiated his and his son’s release by promising to present people to enslave upon their safe return home. And so it began. The first 10 enslaved African people arrived in 1442. Then it was 30 in 1443. In 1444, Captain Eannes brought a boatload of 200 African people back to Portugal to be enslaved.

In 1446, Portuguese ships reached the mouth of the Gambia River. They were the first Europeans to sail that, too.

In 1460 Prince Henry the Navigator died, but work continued at Sagres under the direction of Henry’s nephew, King John II of Portugal. The institute’s expeditions continued to venture south, then rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed to the east and throughout Asia over the next few decades.

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The European Age of Discovery and Its Aftereffects

The 100-year period from the mid-15th century to the mid-16th is called the European Age of Discovery or Age of Exploration, when Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France sent out voyages to previously unknown lands and claim their resources for their country. The cheapest labor to work on plantations for crops such as sugar, tobacco, or cotton were enslaved people, brought on a triangular trade route, one brutal leg of which was known as the middle passage. Countries that are former colonies still suffer the aftereffects today, especially in Africa, where there is poor or inconsistent infrastructure in many areas. Some of the countries just gained their independence in the 20th century.

European Exploration of Africa

Map of Africa

Europeans have been interested in African geography since the time of the Greek and Roman Empires. Around 150 CE, Ptolemy created a map of the world that included the Nile and the great lakes of East Africa. In the Middle Ages, the large Ottoman Empire blocked European access to Africa and its trade goods, but Europeans still learned about Africa from Islamic maps and travelers, like Ibn Battuta. The Catalan Atlas, created in 1375, which includes many African coastal cities, the Nile River, and other political and geographical features, shows how much Europe knew about North and West Africa.

Portuguese Exploration

By the 1400s, Portuguese sailors, backed by Prince Henry the Navigator, began exploring the West coast of Africa looking for a mythical Christian king named Prester John and a way to the wealth of Asia that avoided the Ottomans and the powerful empires of South West Asia. By 1488, the Portuguese had charted a way around the South African Cape and in 1498, Vasco da Gama reached Mombasa, in what is today Kenya, where he encountered Chinese and Indian merchants. Europeans made few inroads into Africa, though, until the 1800s, due to the strong African states they encountered, tropical diseases, and a relative lack of interest. Europeans instead grew rich trading gold, gum, ivory, and enslaved people with coastal merchants.

Science, Imperialism, and the Quest for the Nile

In the late 1700s, a group of British men, inspired by the Enlightenment ideal of learning, decided that Europe should know much more about Africa. They formed the African Association in 1788 to sponsor expeditions to the continent. With the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808, European interest in the interior of Africa grew quickly. Geographical Societies were formed and sponsored expeditions. The Parisian Geographical Society offered a 10,000 franc prize to the first explorer who could reach the town of Timbuktu (in present-day Mali) and return alive. The new scientific interest in Africa was never wholly philanthropic, however. Financial and political support for exploration grew out of the desire for wealth and national power. Timbuktu, for instance, was believed to be rich in gold.

By the 1850s, interest in African exploration had become an international race, much like the Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Explorers like David Livingstone, Henry M. Stanley, and Heinrich Barth became national heroes, and the stakes were high. A public debate between Richard Burton and John H. Speke over the source of the Nile led to the suspected suicide of Speke, who was later proven correct. Explorers’ travels also helped pave the way for European conquest, but the explorers themselves had little to no power in Africa for much of the century. They were deeply dependent on the African men they hired and the assistance of African kings and rulers, who were often interested in acquiring new allies and new markets.

European Madness and African Knowledge

Explorers’ accounts of their travels downplayed the assistance they received from African guides, leaders, and even slave traders. They also presented themselves as calm, cool, and collected leaders masterfully directing their porters across unknown lands. The reality was that they were often following existing routes and, as Johann Fabian showed, were disoriented by fevers, drugs, and cultural encounters that went against everything they expected to find in so-called savage Africa. Readers and historians believed explorers’ accounts, though, and it was not until recent years that people began to recognize the critical role that Africans and African knowledge played in the exploration of Africa.

Source https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-the-Navigator

Source https://www.thoughtco.com/prince-henry-the-navigator-1435024

Source https://www.thoughtco.com/european-exploration-of-africa-43734

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