Henry the Navigator

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Dom Henrique de Avis was born on March 4, 1394; until his death on November 30, 1460 he achieved many things of importance for the history of mankind; he was a Prince and an explorer, and he is still remembered as Henry the Navigator.

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." - A. Einstein.

As the middle ages were dwindling to an end because of social and economic changes derived from the Black Death, including depletion of farm fields and migration to the city and unemployment[125.1], the stability of commerce routes that have supplied European nations for centuries was in jeopardy. The need to obtain supplies and to expand the area of influence of various nations led them to look at new alternatives to the new troubles they were facing, and one that took the lead during the fourteenth century was Portugal.

Henry was born during those times of change as one of the sons of king João I of Portugal[1.4][118](see João I de Portugal) and his wife and queen consort, Philippa of Lancaster[1.135][119]; he was baptized shortly thereafter and received the name of his maternal uncle, Henry, who would became Henry IV of England[1.136][120] (see Dom Iago de Sampayo y Belmonte).

He was one of the members of the "Illustrious generation" which is the group of sons and daughters of Philippa of Lancaster and João I that survived into adulthood and were especially noted for their education and leadership skills[117].

His career as an intrepid man probably started during his childhood, but little is known about that period of his life. But by 1414, as a young man, he had convinced his father to attack and seize Ceuta, in North Africa, for the Portuguese kingdom. By 1415 the strategic goal had been achieved and so, Portugal gained complete control over the commercial routes between the peninsula and the Levant. For his entrepreneurship he was made Duke of Viseu and received other titles. The conquest of Ceuta is considered the beginning of the Age of Discoveries[125.2].

It is no coincidence that the "Illustrious generation" achieved so many things for the kingdom of Portugal; first of all, the country was already embarked in an expansionist project and was developing the institutions, techniques and the economy required to increase its power and safety. Up to the time of Dinis I (XIII - XIV centuries), Portugal was trying to survive against the Muslims; then, once the invaders were expelled at last, the country focused on expanding its commerce. What Henry did was to organize such activities with good leadership.

Exploration and the formation of armadas were already ongoing activities when Henry the Navigator was born, and by the time the children of Philippa of Lancaster were born, the notion that rulers should be well educated was already state policy. What happened is that a window of opportunity opened, and Portugal was in a perfect spot to take advantage of it[130.2].

In 1416 Henry the Navigator was put in charge of Ceuta, and in 1418 he managed to break a siege around the city; as part of that campaign, he planned to attack Gibraltar[125.3] but meteorological conditions prevented him from doing so. But what everyone could see was his definitive zeal against Islam.

Nevertheless, during his whole life he was considered as a kind, generous man who was famed for not letting anyone in his presence go away empty handed.

After receiving orders directly from his father to refrain from attacking Gibraltar, he organized a corsair fleet in the same area with which he gained a source of income and his men began gaining experience at sea. Some of these men would later take part in the exploration trips sponsored by the prince.

Around 1419 or 1420 his lieutenants, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, landed in Madeira. These islands were known to Portuguese seamen for a century but were of not much use to them. Nevertheless, after the landing of Henrique's men the archipelago proved to be very important for its cereal production, especially since there were periodic food shortages in the mainland.

In 1420 Henrique became the master of the Ordem de Cristo (Order of Christ) which was responsible for the assets of the Templars in Portugal. He kept this title for his whole life and the resources of the Order of the Templars proved essential for Henrique's projects.

In 1427 his explorers discovered the Azores and began populating the islands. The discoverer of this archipelago was likely Gonçalo Velho Cabral

Between 1424 and 1433, Henrique sent fifteen expeditions with express orders to attempt surpassing Cape Bojador, but it was only in 1434 when another of his lieutenants, Gil Eanes, sailed beyond the cape, which was considered a point of no return for European sailors since antiquity, despite that there are reports that some Phoenicians actually sailed around Africa many centuries into the past. Up to the time of Henry the Navigator and his explorers, European seamen – which were rather superstitious – feared the Bojador promontory like death itself and called it "Cabo Miedo" (Cape Fear). After achieving the feat, Gil Eanes was knighted by Henry the Navigator, who also arranged a good marriage for his lieutenant[122]. Europeans also believed that their world was surrounded by cold and hot regions in which nobody could live: To the north, they knew that the polar regions did not allow for sustainable colonization. So, as the southern part of Europe was warmer, and Africa was even warmer that southern Europe, they assumed that the further south anyone went, the hotter it would become until eventually, any explorer will not survive.

The problem with Cape Bojador was the combination of several factors like sand banks that several kilometers into the sea reduce the depth to just a couple of meters, high waves and reefs. That turned navigation into a very complicated affair in the area, especially with ships and sailing techniques that prevented ships from navigating far away from the coast.

Precisely, Gil Eanes, on approaching the cape, sailed westwards for a whole day with a primitive ship – still from the pre–caravel era – (see The Caravel) equipped with sails but also with paddles for rowing, and so he circumvented the sandbanks and other dangers. He then turned southwards and passed the cape.

The caravel was a fundamental type of ship used at this time; the origin of the name is not clear, and there are records of the use of "caravels" from 1255 to 1766, which makes it likely that the term was actually used to describe several different types of ships[123].

But at the time of Henry the Navigator, there were two types of caravels. One was the Lateen or Latin, which is probably the ship described by the chronicles since 1255. Then, as a result of the proposals forwarded by Barholomeu Dias, the "round" or oceanic caravel was developed. Probably the secrecy that surrounded Portuguese shipyards at the time prevented this knowledge from becoming mainstream, and so relatively few records exist confirming these facts. Nevertheless, they are true.

The caravel allowed the Portuguese, Spanish and other European navigators to expand their horizons, exploration trips and sea trade routes because this was the first kind of ship truly capable of crossing oceans.

Cabo Verde and Guinea were reached by the explorers of Henry the Navigator shortly after; the Sahara southern limit was surpassed. The significance of this achievement was monumental, for from then on, the caravan routes of the desert, in the hands of Muslims, could be avoided completely. According to Gomes Eanes de Zurara[126], Henry the Navigator had five goals:


Exploring the lands found beyond the Canary Islands and Cape Bojador.

Get goods for the kingdom.

Learning the extent of Muslim power.

Finding allies.

Expanding Christian faith.


These goals were inscribed in a strategy that intended to circumvent and surround Muslim nations in order to weaken their position and at the same time, to gain direct access to the countries that produced high-value goods that so far had been imported into Europe via Constantinople and the Venetians. As Bizantium finally fell, the transit towards India and China by means of caravans was interrupted, and so, finding a route around Africa became essential[125.4].

The portraits:

The Painéis de São Vicente de Fora by Nuno Gonçalves[127][128] were found around 1880 in the monastery of San Vicente de Fora, in Lisbon. They portray prominent figures from the Portuguese court born during the XIV and XV centuries. These panels are highly symbolic but the figures depicted are real and true to life. Certainly, they include members of the royal family but there is, however, disagreement as to whom these panels depict[128.1].

Traditionally, the man-in-the-chaperon has been assumed to be Henry the Navigator, but there are reasons to think that he was actually Henry's brother, king Duarte I, and that a figure located in another of the panels, a kneeling knight in penitence is really Henry.

Henry the Navigator, traditional.
Henry the Navigator, traditional[115][128.2].
Henry the Navigator, alternative.
Henry the Navigator, alternative[116][128.3].

Later Years:

In 1437 he was involved as one of the leaders of a military campaign that attempted to conquer Tanger; the attack was a failure and one of Henry's brothers – Fernando – was captured. He was kept there as a prisoner until his death, eleven years later. Henry suffered a major setback that affected particularly his military reputation; he spent the rest of his life mostly away from military activities, dedicating his time to politics and exploration, except for a large, succesful campaing against the fortress of Alcácer-Sequer.

Originally, the expedition was meant as a counter attack against the Ottomans that took Constantinople, but realizing that there was scan support among other European nations, the king of Portugal sought a different target of the 200-ship armada gathered for the occasion. Henry wanted a revenge attack on Tangiers, but the king was of a different opinion and instead decided to attack Alcácer – Sequer. It is said that Henry was one of the first to land during the initial attack; the defenders were no match for the Portuguese and soon Henry accepted their surrender[129].

A lot has been said about the creation of a research and development center in Sagres, but there is no evidence to support that; however, the house of Henry did become a reference point where cartographers, seamen and explorers converged[130.3]. Henry also sponsored research and development of naval technology and the study of astronomy at the Universidade de Coimbra.

In 1450, the Portuguese crown commissioned Fra Mauro – a Venetian Priest and cartographer – to compose a mapamundi of the old world. The map is very accurate, still exists and is known as the "Fra Mauro Map"[124]. Maps and marine charts were then very expensive to produce at the time and mostly were guarded as state and trade secrets, for they gave essential information about the trade routes and their vital outposts. Having such information meant controlling trade (see The mapamundi of Fra Mauro).

By 1452 enough gold was reaching Portugal thorough these new sea routes that the first golden cruzados of absolute purity could be minted, and by 1460, the African coast had been explored down to Sierra Leona. Also, a lucrative European slave trade developed despite ostensible moral condemnation (see Slave Traders).

Despite that he has been known ever since as "Henry the Navigator", "Enrique el navegante" or "Henrique o navegador" he wasn't a seaman; some authors remark that he probably never sailed too far from home and essentially sent others to do the job, much like astronauts are sent by space agencies which take credit for the achievements of their astronauts. Henry should be better understood as someone who fulfilled the same role that now NASA or ESA have. He had an immense personal fortune – the third in Portugal -, plentiful of resources, political power and was indeed a learned person and a good leader.

On his death he left his assets and titles to the son of his brother, the king. Prince Fernando, duke of Beja became the person in charge of leading Portugal's exploration and expansion enterprises started by his uncle, Henry the Navigator.


Glazed tipes depicting Henry the Navigator in Igreja do Corpo Santo de Massarelos, Porto, Portugal.
Glazed tipes depicting Henry the Navigator in Igreja do Corpo Santo de Massarelos, Porto, Portugal.
From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia. Public domain[114]



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