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Gil Eannes

fl. 1433-1445

Portuguese Explorer

Viewed purely in geographical terms, Gil Eannes's 1434 rounding of west Africa's Cape Bojador was a small achievement. From a psychological standpoint, however, his voyage had an enormous impact, opening the way for other European expeditions further southward.

A native of Lagos, a town in southern Portugal, Eannes had grown up in the service of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), in whose household he served as a squire. Henry in 1420 established a navigational "school," sponsoring voyages of exploration southward and westward to islands such as the Madeiras, the Canaries, and the Azores, as well as the western coast of Africa.

The latter presented a challenge, however, in the form of Cape Bojador, a 25-mile (40-km) westward projection from the mainland just below latitude 27° north. Hazardous weather conditions and shallows associated with the cape made it difficult to pass, and Portuguese sailors were inclined to believe Arab geographers who called the region beyond Cape Bojador the "Green Sea of Darkness"—that is, the point of no return.

Frustrated in his attempts to find a mariner brave enough to attempt the voyage, Henry in 1433 ordered Eannes to undertake the expedition. No doubt spurred on more by a sense of duty than of curiosity or adventure, Eannes came as close as the Canary Islands before returning to Portugal. In the following year, 1434, Henry sent him out again with exhortations to ignore all the legends and establish a name for himself: "Make the voyage from which, by the grace of God, you cannot fail to derive honor and profit."

This time Eannes rounded the cape, where he found not the edge of the world, but a calm sea along a desert coast. He landed and collected what little plant life he could find—a species thenceforth known to the Portuguese as "St. Mary's roses"—and brought them back to Henry's court at Sagres in Portugal.

A year later, Eannes sailed a bit further down the coast past Cape Bojador, where he and fellow explorer Alfonso Gonçalves Baldaya saw signs of life: human footprints and camel tracks. Baldaya continued further south, where he traded for sealskins, the first commercial cargo brought back to Europe from West Africa. By then, Baldaya was not the only man daring to venture ever southward along the African coast. Thanks to Eannes's pioneering voyage, the way was opened for more and more Portuguese mariners to make their way past Cape Bojador without fear of annihilation.

As for Eannes, he last appears on the pages of history on August 10, 1445, when he left Portugal with an armada of caravels bound for the island of Tidra off the coast of what is now Mauritania. There the Portuguese forces did battle with the Muslim inhabitants, taking 57 captives. Eannes himself may have died in the fighting; or he may have been part of the group that left Tidra after the battle to sail south to Cape Verde, at that time the furthest point of Portuguese exploration along Africa's west coast.

JUDSON KNIGHT

Gil Eannes

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