"The glorious Henry" - Infante Henry, Duke of Viseu, better known as Henry the Navigator

4 March 1394, Infante Henry, Duke of Viseu, better known as Henry the Navigator, was born in Porto

“The glorious Henry — kindling at his name / Behold my sailors' eyes all sparkle flame! / Henry the chief, who first, by Heav'n inspir'd, / To deeds unknown before, the sailor fir'd, / The conscious sailor left the sight of shore, / And dar'd new oceans, never plough'd before. / The various wealth of ev'ry distant land / He bade his fleets explore, his fleets command.“ (Luís Vaz de Camões, The Lusiads)



A detail of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the “Monument to the Discoveries”
on the northern bank of the Tagus River estuary in Lisbon, established in 1960
on the occasion of the fifth centenary of the death of Henry the Navigator,
showing the Prince carrying a caravel and leading the way to the Age of Discoveries.


It all began when the Crusader states in the Near East fell and the Ottoman Turks began to roll up Asia Minor, threatened Constantinople itself and, for the first time since the Arabs did more than 700 years before, Muslim forces threatened Europe itself. Probably far worse than the ideological conflict between Orient and Occident was the fact, that a decidedly hostile power controlled the last leagues of the Silk Road and all the other trade channels with the Far East. Something had to be done and quick beyond the slow, dragging military conflict with enemies that were at least on an equal footing with the West. And beyond the idea to involve the Muslim world in a war on two fronts by finding the fabulous Christian kingdom of Prester John, first in Asia, then in Africa, as potential ally, the sea route to India was the only feasible solution.


A contemporary likeness of Prince Henry the Navigator, probably by the Portuguese court painter  Nuno Gonçalves (around 1470)
A contemporary likeness of Prince Henry the Navigator, probably by the Portuguese court painter
Nuno Gonçalves (around 1470)


Neither in Europe nor along the Levant was a type of ship used or even known that was able to defy the heavy seas of the broad Atlantic or tack against the wind. In theory, the land beyond Cape Bojador, at the beginning of the 15th century the southern end of the world, was approachable, but there was no way to sail a ship back to Europe against the wind and current. But when the Portuguese prince Henry got an idea of the riches that were amassed in Central Africa and transported by caravans to the Muslim cities on the northern coast, when he took Ceuta in 1415, a city on the Moroccan shore opposite of Gibraltar, his mind was set. Find the sea route to India around Africa and exploit the riches of the southern lands. And during the 1430s, with Henry gathering map- and instrument makers as well as ship builders in his seafarers’ academy, the escola náutica, at Sagres on the Algarve near Cape St Vincent, the first new ships, the caravels, developed on Henry’s instigation, sailed beyond Cape Bojador. 


A 19th century depiction of a caravel from the 15th century
A 19th century depiction of a caravel from the 15th century

The caravels reached the Gulf of Guinea in 1435 and sailed on the rivers Senegal and Gambia by 1445 and discovered the Cape Verdes in the Central Atlantic in 1455 and even a crossing of the ocean seemed possible. The Age of Exploration and Portugal’s rise as a major colonial and naval power had begun in earnest. Henry the Navigator never set foot on the African continent again after the fall of Ceuta and was content to dream and organise and commission expeditions, even relinquishing his claim to the throne of Portugal. He died at the age of 66 in Sagres and already during his life and times, the explorers and early colonists began to reap the ugly fruits of colonisation – a trading post in Arguin in present-day Mauretania established by Nuno Tristão on the order of Prince Henry in 1445, started Portugal’s slave trade in Africa.



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