Prince Henry the Navigator

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jan 27, 2024

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Infante Dom Henrique de Avis (Infante Dom Henrique de Avis, Porto, 4 March 1394 - 13 November 1460), now known as Henry the Navigator, a member of the House of Avis, was an important figure in Portuguese politics in the 15th century and the early days of the Portuguese Colonial Empire. He was also one of the most famous medieval figures active in the field of maritime exploration, his era became known as the "Age of Great Discoveries".

Henry was the third surviving son of King John I the Great of Portugal, founder of the Avis Dynasty, and Philip of Lancaster, daughter of John of Ghent. Henry was the originator of Portuguese exploration and Portuguese trade with other continents, he explored the coast of West Africa and discovered the Atlantic islands, his aim being to seek new routes. He first persuaded his father to conquer Ceuta (1415) an important port in northeastern Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar and Iberia. He recognised the enormous importance that trade with caravans from the Sahara could gain and was greatly fascinated by the whole of Africa. Henry was greatly inspired by the Christian legend of the mythical King John the Elder, he became known as the "father of Portuguese exploration".

At the time his father and brothers conquered the Muslim port of Ceuta in northern Morocco, Henry was 21 years old. Ceuta was the most important base for the Barbary pirates from which they raided the Portuguese coast, raided the Portuguese coast, kidnapped inhabitants and sold them to the African slave markets. After this important conquest, Henry began to explore Mauritania and the coast of West Africa, which became known as "European". His goals were to discover gold trade routes in West Africa and to stop the activity of the Berber pirates. The ships plying the Mediterranean at the time were too heavy and slow, unsuitable for ocean exploration. On his orders, a new type of ship was built that was much lighter, more agile and could change its motion according to the wind, the Caravel. With the Caravela, the Portuguese could explore shallow rivers, lagoons as well as the open ocean with greater ease. The construction of the Caravela was the main means by which Portugal became dominant in oceanic exploration. His father appointed him governor of Algarve (1419), the southernmost province in Portugal (1419). Henry the Navigator was appointed Grand Master of the "Military Order of Jesus Christ" (25 May 1420) which replaced the Knights Templar in Portugal, their headquarters being Tomar in central Portugal. Henry retained this position until his death, it was the most important source of money for him to proceed with his explorations and conquests, his main objective was to conquer the Canary Islands discovered by the Portuguese before 1346.

His second brother Peter, Duke of Coimbra, began touring Europe in order to find material to help Henry in his explorations (1425). When he returned from the Republic of Venice he brought back an important map drawn by a Venetian cartographer. Henry began to donate many neighboring buildings to become scientific seats of astronomy, music, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy and oratory, each building decorated according to its use. These buildings will soon become the 'University of Lisbon'. The elderly King John the Great died of plague (1433), succeeded by his eldest son Edward of Portugal. Edward ceded to Henry all profits from trade in the areas he had discovered and permission to continue expeditions beyond Cape Bosador; he also had a monopoly of the bluefin tuna trade in the Algarve. When Edward died eight years later the heir Alfonso V of Portugal was still a minor, Henry supported his second brother Peter in the regency, who as a reward armed him with new resources. Henry the Navigator was the organizer of the disastrous campaign in Tangier against the Sultan of Morocco (1437). His younger brother Ferdinand surrendered as a hostage to the Moroccans until the terms of the treaty, which was the surrender of Ceuta, were fulfilled. However, the Portuguese Cortes convened by his older brother King Edward refused to fulfill the terms of the treaty and surrender Ceuta as promised, Ferdinand remained a prisoner until his death six years later. Infante Peter during his regency (1439-1448) played an important role in explorations in the Atlantic and Africa with considerable assistance, during this period the Azores were colonized.

In the last years of his life, Henry the Navigator was exclusively engaged in his naval activities at the court of Portugal. The historian João di Barros (1496-1570) wrote that a village called Tersanabal was settled in the Algarve. This village was of paramount importance for all subsequent expeditions and was later named 'Villa de la Infante'. Tradition has it that Henry established a school of navigators and cartographers in his courtyard on the Sagres peninsula, but modern historians dispute this. The reality is that he used some cartographers in his expeditions to Mauritania but there is no historical evidence that he established this particular school. The Portuguese mathematician and geographer Pedro Nunes (1502-1578) noted about Sagrès "in it the sailors were taught and received the necessary instruments for their expeditions". However, the view that Henry the Navigator created a large school and base of navigation in his court, as popular tradition believes, is not true in reality. Henry did, however, have at his disposal many great cartographers such as Judas Cresques, who was invited to Portugal to make maps for the Infante. Cresques' distinguished presence at Henry's court probably created "the legend of the creation of the great school of Sagres that did not actually exist". The first contacts with African markets were aimed at freeing Portuguese prisoners captured by pirates in their attacks on Portuguese ports and ships. The historian Peter Russell (b. 1946) writes that "in Henry's sphere, conversion and enslavement were exchangeable terms".

Henry the Navigator financed travel with 20% of the taxes, a practice used in all Iberian states at the time. The port of Lagos in Nigeria was one of his main bases, the ships were usually the Caraveles small and light ships, resistant to manoeuvring. The caravels usually used the sails that all ships from early Christian times usually had. On most voyages Henry sent one or two ships that sailed along the coast and docked at night to rest. Ships in the Atlantic Ocean followed the famous current called the "turning of the sea", the western currents from the equator sent ships to the center of the ocean at the point where the Azores were located. The currents then changed course to head east, helping the ships return to Lagos. A full understanding of the sea currents greatly helped the navigators thereafter, the ships needed a strong and calm wind to achieve their goals. Christopher Columbus used the same winds on his transatlantic voyages.

The first exploratory expeditions began after the conquest of Ceuta (1415), Henry's aim being to discover the source of the caravans bringing gold to the city. During the time when John the Great was king, João Gonzalves Zarco (1390-1471) and Tristao Teixeira were sent along the African coast. Joao Gonsalves Zarco was a nobleman in Henry's service, he had been given orders to guard with his caravels the coast of the Algarve from Moorish raids, he did the same in Ceuta. At the time when Joao Gonsalves Zarco and Tristao Teixeira were returning to Portugal by way of the eastern current they were caught in a storm, landing on the island of Porto Santo, which was settled. The Kingdom of Castile was keen to colonise the Canary Islands, Henry the Navigator in response ordered Madeira to be colonised, the first Portuguese settlers arrived there (1420). A map by a Catalan cartographer from Palma de Mallorca shows that the Azores were first discovered by Diogo de Silves (1427). The monk Gonzalo Velio was instructed to determine the actual position of the islands identified by Diogo de Silves (1431), reached as far as Formiga in the eastern Archipelago, but returned thanks to bad weather. At the same time Portuguese navigators reached the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic, named after the many seaweeds in the area, "Sargasso" translates as "seaweed" in Portuguese.

Until the time of Henry the Navigator, Cape Bosador was believed to be the southernmost point in Europe, beyond which lay the end of the world. Gilles Haunesse, the leader of Henry's expedition, was the first European to cross the cape (1434). With the new type of ship, conquests expanded, the Portuguese reached the bay of Arguin in Mauritania (1443) and built a strong castle (1448). Diniès Diaz crossed the Senegal River and reached the bay where Cape Verde was located (1444). At this point Henry the Navigator realized his great dream, he reached the western Sahara and interrupted the Mauritanian gold caravans, many slaves and large quantities of gold were transported to Portugal. These actions economically plundered Algeria and Tunisia, made Portugal very rich. With the importation of a large amount of gold into Portugal a new type of gold coinage was minted called the "Cruzado" which at the time was equivalent to 400 "Real". In the period 1444-1446 the first private trade shipments started from Lagos.

The navigator Alvise Ca da Molto explored the Atlantic coast of West Africa and discovered several islands off Cape Verde in the period 1455-1456. On the first voyage (22 March 1455) he visited Madeira and the Canary Islands, the following year (1456) Alvise da Molto became the first European navigator to reach the islands of Cape Verde. This feat was later claimed by Antonio di Noli (1419-1497). The Portuguese continued to explore the coast of West Africa and reached Sierra Leone (1462). Bartholomew Diaz proved in 28 years that Africa is a vast accessible island, reaching the southernmost tip of the continent known as the Cape of Good Hope. Vasco da Gama became the first European sailor to reach India by sea (1498).

The nickname "Navigator" was never used for the Portuguese Infante Henry in his lifetime. The term was first used in the 19th century by the German historians Heinrich Schaeffer and Gustav di Vere; it was strongly popularised by the English historians Henry Major (1868) and Raymond Beasley (1895). In Portugal even in modern times they never use the nickname 'Seafarer' when referring to him, he is better known as 'Infante Henry'.


  1. Prince Henry the Navigator
  2. Ερρίκος ο Θαλασσοπόρος
  3. ^ The traditional image of the Prince presented in this page, and coming from the Saint Vincent Panels, is still under dispute.
  4. Bulliet, Richard W. The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011
  5. «Αρχειοθετημένο αντίγραφο». Αρχειοθετήθηκε από το πρωτότυπο στις 7 Απριλίου 2016. Ανακτήθηκε στις 5 Μαρτίου 2020.
  6. ^ João I o Giovanni I d'Aviz era figlio del re del Portogallo Pietro I il Giustiziere e della sua amante, Teresa Lourenço, figlia di un mercante di Lisbona, Lourenço Martins de Praza, il cui cognome, Praza denota l'origine galiziana della famiglia e di Sancha Martins.
  7. ^ Filippa di Lancaster era figlia Giovanni Plantageneto, I duca di Lancaster (figlio di Edoardo III d'Inghilterra e zio del re d'Inghilterra, Riccardo II) e di Bianca di Lancaster (1345-1369), figlia di Enrico Plantageneto, I duca di Lancaster.
  8. ^
  9. a b c d e f g h Saraiva, José (1993). História de Portugal. Mem Martins: Publicações Europa-América
  10. a b c d e DOMINGUES, Mário. O Infante D. Henrique. Lisboa: Romano Torres, 1957
  11. Markl, Dagoberto (1988). O Retábulo de S. Vicente da Sé de lisboa e os Documentos. Lisboa: Editorial Caminho SA. p. 67-98
  12. Monumenta Henricina Volume VII (1439-1443). [S.l.]: UC Biblioteca Geral 1

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