Henry, Prince the Navigator (1394-1460)
Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460)
History and Legend. Besides Christopher Columbus, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal has been the subject of more mythmaking than any other historical figure of Europe’s age of exploration and expansion. Portuguese historians since the 1400s have exalted him as a national hero and credited him with many of the key technological, intellectual, and navigational innovations that during his lifetime made Portugal a leading maritime power. According to the traditional heroic accounts of his life, Henry supposedly attracted to Sagres on Portugal’s southwestern tip the leading navigators and thinkers of his day. From Sagres, Henry directed a grand imperial scheme, dispatching his mariners into the unknown waters of the African coast and the islands of the Atlantic. In so doing he laid the foundations for the later 1497–1499 voyage of Vasco da Gama to India and the growth of a global commercial empire that would eventually stretch from India and Malaysia in the east to Brazil in the west. In recent years, however, historians have discovered that much of the legend surrounding the historical figure of Prince Henry is hollow and misleading. Yes, the “real” Prince Henry was one of the leading proponents of Portuguese expansion in the middle decades of the 1400s, and he did in fact play a leading role in organizing the early Portuguese voyages along the African coast. However, the available evidence suggests that Henry’s supposed navigational “school” at Sagres may not have existed and that instead of an innovative visionary Henry was a man of his time. In many ways, in fact, the historical Henry that emerges from a careful study of the evidence is even more interesting than the mythical Henry of traditional Portuguese legend.
Royal Family. Henry was born in 1394, the third son of Portuguese king John I. As a younger son Prince Henry was destined never to inherit the throne himself. Yet he remained throughout his adult life one of the key figures in Portuguese politics, at times becoming involved in confrontations and power struggles with his brothers and other members of the royal family. When Henry’s nephew Afonso inherited the throne as a young boy in 1538, Henry lost a power struggle with his own elder brother Prince Pedro over who would serve as regent to govern the kingdom until the boy-king reached adulthood. Never at the center of the royal decision-making processes, Henry nonetheless exerted considerable influence, becoming the leading voice in favor of a military offensive against the Muslims of North Africa.
On Campaign. Henry distinguished himself in the 1415 attack on the Muslim city of Ceuta on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. While his brothers feared that holding the city would spread military resources too thinly and make Portugal itself vulnerable to Muslim or Spanish attacks, Henry advocated not only continued occupation of Ceuta but also new offensives against other North African locales. His grandiose ambitions brought disaster when in 1437 he led a failed assault on the city of Tangier. The fiasco at Tangier discredited Henry in policy-making circles, and in the coming years he was to spend most of his time in the southern coastal city of Sagres, far from the royal court in Lisbon.
Roots of Expansion. Even before taking up residence in Sagres, Henry had already begun to patronize Portuguese maritime expeditions south along the African coast. The goals and motives of these missions were various. They included gaining a military advantage against the Muslims of North Africa, finding allies to help in the struggle against Islam, establishing direct contact with the African gold trade then dominated by the Muslims, and simple curiosity concerning what they might find in these previously uncharted regions. During these early stages of Portuguese exploration, there is no evidence that Henry envisioned sailing directly to India by rounding Africa’s southern tip, as Vasco da Gama would later succeed in doing in his 1497–1499 voyage long after Henry’s death. A key mental obstacle to these early voyages was the long-held belief among Portuguese mariners that if a ship sailed past Cape Bojador on the African coast, strong currents and unfavorable winds would make it impossible to return to Portugal. It was one of Henry’s captains, Gil Eannes, who finally disproved this myth in 1434 by successfully navigating around the cape and returning to Portugal. Subsequent Portuguese voyages, some commissioned by Henry and others financed by private commercial interests, continued to sail further down the African coast. In 1446 Henry received as a grant from his nephew King Afonso a commercial monopoly on all trade south of Cape Bojador. Portuguese expeditions in the later years of Henry’s life developed along the African coast a flourishing trade in gold, ivory, and even slaves, many of whom were shipped to Portugal’s colonies in the Madeira Islands to work on sugar plantations. By the time of Henry’s death in 1460, Portuguese navigators had sailed as far south as the mouth of the Gambia River.
Myth and Reality. Traditional biographies of Henry have credited him with other revolutionary achievements such as the invention of the oceangoing caravel ship and the perfection of the critical navigational instrument called the astrolabe. Both claims are groundless because Henry was no navigator. A politician and soldier, he actually spent little time at sea. Rather than a heroic figure who single-handedly fathered the Portuguese empire, Henry was just one key political advocate of a broad and gradual process of Portuguese expansion that involved the efforts of hundreds of sailors, scholars, and statesmen.
Bailey W. Diffie and George D. Winius, Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415–1580 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).