Henry, Prince of Portugal


Henry, Prince of Portugal
(1394-1460)
   Fourth son of King Joâo I of Portugal. In the English-speaking world he is known as "Henry the Navigator," though he ventured to sea only for military expeditions against the Muslim rulers of Morocco. His public career began in 1415 when he accompanied his father on a campaign to conquer the Moroccan port of Ceuta, where the Portuguese established a military outpost. His experience in North Africa convinced him that overland trade routes across the Sahara Desert led to lands of great commercial value. In 1418 Henry became governor of the Algarve, Portugal's southernmost province. He established himself at Sagres on the coast, building a castle, an astronomical observatory, and a chapel. Between 1420 and the 1440s his captains explored and began planting colonies in the offshore Atlantic islands, the Madeiras, the Canaries, and the Azores.
   Sometime not long after he settled at Sagres, Henry also began sending ships south along the African coast. In 1434 one of his captains got past Cape Bojador, which seems to have been both a topographical and a psychological barrier to further progress. Once the expeditions reached tropical Africa, there were commercial profits from the trade in gold, ivory, pepper, and slaves to justify the expense and risks of exploration. Henry continued sending his captains farther and farther south until his death in 1460. By that time, exploration of West Africa had become so well established that it continued without his leadership, though more slowly. Only under King Joâo II (1481-1495) was there again an active leadership to promote rapid progress, culminating in the expedition of Bartolomeu Dias that in 1488 reached and passed the Cape of Good Hope and the expedition led by Vasco da Gama that reached Calicut in India in 1498.
   Although historians have speculated about Prince Henry's activities and intentions, relatively little is known for sure. The Portuguese seem to have deliberately kept information about their discoveries secret. Henry gathered mapmakers and geographers at Sagres, and Portuguese shipbuilders developed new types of sailing ships better suited to long voyages far from home. Whether Henry from the very first was seeking a way around Africa into the Indian Ocean remains uncertain. He certainly was interested in colonial trade with West Africa, and even before his death, Portugal had set up fortified trading factories in the region and developed a profitable trade with the Guinea coast. By the end of the 1470s, Spanish interlopers were trying to exploit the same region, and the important fort at Elmina was established in 1482 to keep Spanish traders out of the region. Henry was a deeply religious man, and conversion of the natives to Christianity was among his motives.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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