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Henry the Navigator

From Academic Kids

Infante Dom Henrique, duke of Viseu, generally known in English as Henry the Navigator, (March 4, 1394November 13, 1460), a prince of Portugal, looms large as an important figure in the early days of European colonial expansion.

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Henry the Navigator

Henry the Navigator was the third son of John I of Portugal, the founder of the Aviz dynasty; and of Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt. In 1414 he reportedly convinced his father to mount a campaign of conquest against the Muslim port of Ceuta, on the North African coast across the Straits of Gibraltar from the Iberian peninsula. The Portuguese conquered the city in August 1415, and while there Henry saw the fruits of the Saharan trade routes, for Ceuta served as a terminus for that trade. The trade dried up after Ceuta fell into Portuguese hands, however, and Henry became fascinated with tapping into that wealth, as well as with Africa in general, and with the legend of Prester John.

On May 25, 1420, Henry gained appointment as the governor of the very rich Order of Christ, the Portuguese successor to the Knights Templar, which had set up its headquarters in 1413 at Sagres, near Cape St Vincent at the extreme southwestern tip of Portugal (Braudel 1985). Henry would hold this position for the remainder of his life, and as time passed he became more and more devoted to Christianity. For the purposes of his interest in exploration, however, the appointment proved important as a source of funds through the 1440s.

Henry also had other resources. When John I died in 1433, Henry's eldest brother Duarte became king, and granted Henry a "royal fifth" of all profits from trading within the areas discovered as well as the sole right to authorize expeditions beyond Cape Bojador (in present-day Western Sahara). When Duarte died five years later, Henry supported his brother Pedro for the regency during Alphonso V of Portugal's minority, and in return received a confirmation of this tax. Henry also arranged for the colonization of the Azores during Pedro's regency (1439–1448).

At his Vila do Infante ("Prince's Town") at Sagres, Henry gathered around him a school of navigators and map-makers and became the patron of the Portuguese voyages of discovery, which commenced soon after the capture of Ceuta. Henry's court rapidly grew into the technological base for exploration, with a naval arsenal, an observatory, and a school for the study of geography and navigation added over time. Jehuda Cresques, a noted cartographer, received an invitation to come to Sagres and compile geographic knowledge for Henry, a position he accepted. The nearby port of Lagos provided a convenient harbor, and became a center for ship-building. The development of the caravel, a light and maneuverable vessel that combined square-rigging with the lateen sail of the Arabs, made the complicated return voyages, headed upwind, possible; without it, the brothers Ugolino and Guido Vivaldo had sailed into oblivion.

As a first fruit of this work João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira re-discovered the Madeira Islands in 1420, and at Henry's instigation Portuguese settlers colonized the islands.

In 1427, one of Henry's navigators discovered the Azores — possibly Gonçalo Velho. Portuguese soon colonized these islands too, in 1430. Portuguese vessels encountered the Cape Verde islands in 1455.

Until Henry's coastal explorations, Cape Bojador remained the most southerly point known to Europeans on the unpromising desert coast of Africa, although the Periplus of the Carthaginian Hanno the Navigator described a journey further south about 2,000 years earlier. Gil Eanes, the commander of one of Henry's expeditions, became the first European known to pass the cape in 1434.

Using the new ship type, the expeditions then pushed onwards. Nuno Tristão and Antão Gonçalves reached Cape Blanco in 1441. The Portuguese sighted the Bay of Arguin in 1443 and built an important fort there in about 1448. Dinis Dias soon came across the Senegal River and rounded the peninsula of Cap-Vert (in modern-day Senegal) in 1444. By this stage the explorers had passed the southern boundary of the desert, and from then on Henry had one of his wishes fulfilled: the Portuguese had circumvented the Muslim land-based trade routes across the western Sahara Desert, and slaves and gold began pouring into Portugal. By 1452, the influx of gold sufficed for the minting of the first gold cruzado ("crusade") coins. From 1444 to 1446 as many as forty vessels sailed from Lagos on Henry's behalf, and the first private mercantile expeditions began. At some time in the 1450s mariners discovered the Cape Verde Islands (António Noli claimed the credit). By 1460 the Portuguese had explored the coast of Africa as far as present-day Sierra Leone.

Henry also continued his involvement in events closer to home. He functioned as a primary organizer of the Portuguese expedition to Tangier in 1437. This proved a disastrous failure: the Moroccans captured Henry's younger brother Fernando and held him captive until his death eleven years later. Henry's military reputation suffered as a result, and for most of his last twenty-three years he concentrated on his exploration activities, or on Portuguese court politics.

Henry had a considerable impact on the course of history, arguably having sparked the European interest in colonial exploration that would so transform the world for the next four centuries. The school at Sagres achieved several advances in the art of navigation, and the discoveries Henry made possible provided the groundwork for the development of Portugal's colonial empire when his great-nephew, King John II of Portugal, continued his policy of exploration on assuming the throne in 1481. Within thirty years of Henry's death Bartolomeu Dias had rounded the Cape of Good Hope (1488); and Vasco da Gama reached India a decade later. Within yet another decade Pedro Álvares Cabral had discovered Brazil (1500). Christopher Columbus also spent some time in and around the school at Sagres, and while no record exists showing any formal association with it, he did spend the late 1470s sailing around the Portuguese possessions of Madeira and on the African coast.


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