Prince Henry the Navigator was a member of the Portuguese royal family who used his private fortune to sponsor expeditions of discovery in the Atlantic Ocean and down the coast of Africa.
Although he was called Henry the Navigator by the English, Prince Henry never actually sailed on any of the many voyages of discovery he sponsored to the Madeira Islands and the west coast of Africa. He used his wealth to establish a maritime school for the study of the arts of navigation, mapmaking, shipbuilding, and maritime commerce. His goals were to test and gain scientific knowledge, find a route to the rich spice trade of the Indies, and spread the Christian faith. Born on March 4, 1394, in Pôrto, Portugal, Henry was the third son of King John I of Portugal and Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt of England. Under the supervision of their parents, Henry and his brothers were taught soldiering, statecraft, and literature.
Recognized for valor
During the Crusades, much of Portugal and Spain had been conquered by the Moors. By Henry's time, Portugal was devoutly Catholic but the Portuguese still feared Muslim domination. In 1415 Henry took part, along with his father and brothers, in an assault on the port of Ceuta in northern Morocco. In recognition of his distinguished service, Henry was named Duke of Viseu by King John.
While fighting in Morocco, Henry had become interested in Africa; in 1416 he established a base for exploring the continent at Sagres in southwest Portugal, which was conveniently located near the port of Lagos. By 1418 he had begun sponsoring voyages, and over the next two years he had excellent results: one of his navigators rediscovered the Madeira Islands, which had been discovered and abandoned by the Romans. Henry's expeditions were also exploring the west coast of Africa.
Establishes navigation school
After Henry was appointed governor of the Algrave, Portugal's most southern province, he constructed a school for navigation at Sagres. Under his direction a new and lighter ship known as the Portuguese caravel was developed. He surrounded himself with scientists and experts on navigation and began to formulate a plan for the systematic exploration of the west coast of Africa. He was intrigued with stories he had heard of gold in Africa and hoped to locate the legendary kingdom of Prester John, a Christian priest and king who reputedly ruled over an empire in either Asia or Africa.
In 1420 Henry was made grand master of the Order of Christ, which was sponsored by the pope and dedicated to converting pagans to Christianity. This group financed many of Henry's voyages; his ships were easily identified by distinctive white sails emblazoned with large red crosses.
Backs important voyages to Africa
Henry had difficulty persuading his captains to go beyond Cape Bojador on the coast of what is now the western Sahara. According to legend, only dangerously churning water would be found beyond this point. It took 14 voyages over a period of 12 years to overcome this psychological barrier. In 1434 Gil Eannes, one of his navigators, finally had the courage to sail round the cape.
Following Eannes's achievement Henry's ships advanced over 250 miles farther down the coast in the next two years. Henry was disappointed when the pope granted the Canary Islands to Spain in 1436. The following year, Henry took part in an abortive attack on Tangier in Morocco with his younger brother, Ferando. Taken hostage, Ferando died in captivity in 1443.
Continuing to make progress in exploring Africa, Henry's ships reached Cape Blanco, midway down the west coast, in 1441. During an expedition in 1443 the Portuguese discovered the Bay of Arguin; they built a fort and warehouse on nearby Arguin Island, thus founding the first European trading post in Africa. It was soon being used for the slave trade, which Antao Gonçalves initiated when he brought captives back to Portugal from the Rio De Oro area. (In 1455 Henry would forbid the kidnapping of Africans for the slave trade.)
Continues exploration of Africa
During the two-year period from 1444 to 1446, Henry intensified exploration of Africa, sending between 30 and 40 of his ships on missions. Dinis Dias, brother of Bartolomeu Dias, sailed as far as the Senegal River near the present-day city of Dakar. In 1444 Henry sent out a large fleet to attack and destroy the Moroccan fort at Tider. After the victory, a ship under the command of Alvaro Fernandes continued on to reach the Cape of Masts near the Gambia River. Rounding the cape, Alvise da Cadamosto discovered the Cape Verde Islands soon thereafter. The last voyage sponsored by Henry was captained in 1460 by Pedro de Sinta, who sailed as far south as Sierra Leone, 1,500 miles down the African coast.
During this period of pioneering exploration Henry lived and studied at his home in Sagres. He never married and he is usually described as a highly disciplined person who was entirely devoted to his religion and his mission of discovery. His voyages in the mid-fifteenth century are generally regarded as having launched Portugal's golden era of colonial and maritime expansion.
Upon Henry's death in 1460, one of his captains, Diogo Gomes, wrote: "In the year 1460 the lord infant Henry fell ill in his town at Cape St. Vincent and died of the illness on the 13th November ... and on the night of his death, he was taken to the Church of St. Mary at Lagos and there honorably buried. And the King Afonso ... was very saddened, both he and his people, by the death of so great a lord, because he spent all his revenues and all he got from Guinea in war and continual fleets at sea against the Saracens [Muslims] for the faith of Christ."
- Beazley, C. Raymond, Prince Henry the Navigator: The Hero of Portugal and of Modern Discovery, 1394-1460 A.D., 1895; reprinted, Burt Franklin, 1968.
- Bradford, Ernle, A Wind from the North: The Life of Henry the Navigator, Harcourt, Brace, 1960.
- Chubb, Thomas Caldecot, Prince Henry the Navigator and the Highways of the Sea, Viking Press, 1970.
- Fisher, Leonard Everett, Prince Henry the Navigator, Macmillan, 1990.
- Sanceau, Elaine, Henry the Navigator: The Story of a Great Prince and His Times, Norton, 1947.
- Ure, John, Prince Henry the Navigator, Constable, 1977.