Prince Henry The Navigator

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Prince Henry The Navigator


Portuguese Prince, Explorer, and Navigator

Prince Henry of Portugal did not earn the title "The Navigator" because he himself sailed the seas. In fact, Henry did not venture out on any of his country's many expeditions. But his quest to establish Portugal as one of the wealthiest trading nations in the world drove his country's ships further down the African coast than any previous European missions. During his lifetime, Prince Henry not only made significant advances in navigation and shipbuilding, he helped establish Christian Europe's authority over Africa and Asia, while breaking down Muslim control over trade and sea routes.

Prince Henry was born in 1394, the third son of the Portuguese monarch King John I and his wife Queen Philippa, sister of England's King Henry IV. He was taught to be a great statesman and soldier, and proved himself as both in 1415, when he led the Portuguese army in the conquest of Ceuta, a Muslim stronghold in Morocco. At the time, the Moors of North Africa ruled most of the Iberian peninsula (Portugal and Spain). Europe's Christians, including the Portuguese, were determined to drive these Muslims out.

Portugal's conquest of Ceuta was not only a defeat over the Muslims—it established Portuguese control of shipping lanes across the Mediterranean Sea. All trading vessels from Africa and Asia would now have to pass through Portuguese-controlled waters. To celebrate their victory, the king knighted Prince Henry, along with his brothers, Princes Duarte and Pedro.

But once King John gained control of Ceuta, traders who had no desire to do business with the Christians began to take their business elsewhere. And there was more trouble for Portugal: Ceuta's Muslim neighbors were threatening the Portuguese stronghold. The king sent his son Henry to aid the embattled city.

In 1418, while serving as governor of Ceuta, Prince Henry began learning the trade routes to Africa and Asia, believing that control of these sea routes could offer Portugal unprecedented wealth. That year he returned to Portugal, setting up his new home on the tip of the Iberian peninsula, the Cape of Sagres. There, he began to plot a Portuguese expedition along Africa's west coast, but knew that no European ships had ever sailed as far down the coast as he was planning.

As a child, the prince had heard the legend of a man named Prester John, a Christian king who was rumored to rule a huge empire in either Africa or Asia. If he could find this man he could, he thought, create an alliance that would conquer Muslim influence in Africa, and make Portugal one of the richest nations on earth.

Besides securing wealth, Henry had an additional motive in his quest to conquer Africa. As a devout Christian, he strove to convert the region's pagans to Christianity. He was promoted in this endeavor by the Order of Christ, a supreme ministry under the Pope himself. The order made him a grand master, which required him to lead a chaste and ascetic life, but in exchange, they promised to bankroll his voyages.

Also aiding Henry were the best mapmakers and navigators in Europe, who helped him make significant improvements to several navigational tools. Henry and his scholars invented a portable version of the circular astrolabe, which measured the angle of stars above the horizon, and improved upon the triangular quadrant, which measured the height of the sun and stars above the horizon, as well as the compass. The latter two devices helped sailors pinpoint their correct latitude, or position, in relation to the equator.

Prince Henry was also frustrated with the slow, clunky ships that were available at the time. He had his shipbuilders create a faster, more maneuverable ship that would travel the ocean with ease, called a caravel.

After 1418, Henry began his explorations in earnest, sending his ships to the south, where his captains discovered the island of Santo Porto. On the following voyage, his vessels traveled just beyond Santo Porto and found the island of Madeira.

Henry sponsored voyage after voyage, each of which traveled a bit further down Africa's coast. In 1427, Henry's ships discovered and took control of the Azores, a group of islands approximately one thousand miles (1,600 km) due west of Sagres. He yearned to conquer even more of Africa, but his captains were always afraid to venture further south than Cape Bojador for fear that their ships would be caught up in the region's dangerous currents.

Finally, in 1434, Henry convinced his squire Gil Eannes to complete the voyage. With Cape Bojador in sight, Eannes steered his ships westward, then made an arc back towards land, finally making it to the south side of the Cape. Now that the boundary had been crossed, Prince Henry's expeditions began to travel faster and further down the African coast.

In 1441, a caravel returned to Portugal with gold dust and slaves. Henry's captain Dinís Dias in 1445 reached the mouth of the Sénégal River, and a year later Nuño Tristão discovered the Gambia River. By 1448, Henry had established an armed fort in Arguim Bay to handle Portugal's growing gold and slave trade along the African coast.

By the time of his death in 1460, Henry the Navigator had sent his ships further down the coast of Africa than any previous European sponsored expedition. He had established for Portugal a thriving sea trade with Africa, and the nation boasted colonies all across the Atlantic.


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Prince Henry The Navigator

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