Prince Henry “the Navigator”
The Magellanic Diaries 6
Longer-term readers of Homo Vitruvius know that I am currently working on a novel about the Ferdinand Magellan expedition of 1519-22, which resulted in the first circumnavigation of the earth. Periodically, I have been sharing, through these Magellanic Diaries, some historical background to the expedition, which turned out to be both world-historical and a tragic disaster of dramatically stunning proportions, Because of the 3-month clock on free posts, most of the Diaries now reside behind the paywall. I am also, as of this entry, including the Diaries among the regular Monday special features for paid subscribers only. All the entries are catalogued under the Magellanic Diaries hashtag on the top horizonal menu of the Homo Vitruvius homepage.
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Just as most people know little of Ferdinand Magellan beyond an elementary school memory that he was “an explorer” and, perhaps, more, that he was the first explorer to circumnavigate the earth (he wasn’t – he died in battle halfway through the journey), very probably none reading this will know anything of Henrique of Portugal, the Duke of Viseu, and Lord of Covilhã, better known since the late Nineteenth Century, thanks to its popularization in the work of geographer R.H Major and others, by the misnomer “Prince Henry the Navigator.” However, without Henry the Navigator, there is no Ferdinand Magellan, not as history knows him. Without Henry, the history of European sea exploration, conquest, and colonization is rewritten. So, too, is the history of the European Sub-Saharan African slave trade.
Henry (1394-1460) was the third son of Portuguese King João I and Queen Philippa. Henry IV of England was his uncle. As a third son, Portugal’s Henry had little prospect of achieving the crown, so threw himself instead into other nationalistic, religious, and adventurous passions. During much of Henry’s lifetime, Portugal, still only recently an independent nation, still, with Spain, fighting to complete the Reconquista – the Christian European reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the centuries-long Muslim Almohad caliphate – existed as a small, poor, relatively powerless European nation. But due to its comparative paucity of natural resources and its position on the Atlantic, it was a seafaring nation. In fact, despite the famous role that Spain went on to play in its naval, exploratory, and colonial rivalry with the smaller Portugal, it was the latter that led the way. This was largely due to Henry.
Like many men of notable birth and achievement, Henry had a chronicler on his side, Gomes Eannes de Azurara, an early recorder of this galvanic period in Portuguese history, who began to develop the legend.
He had force of mind and acute intelligence in a high degree. His desire to accomplish great deeds was beyond all comparison. Lust and avarice never obtained a hold upon his heart . . ., His house gave welcome to all men of the realm who possessed merit, and even more to foreigners whose renown justified the expense he was at to have them there; for as an ordinary thing he had about him men of different countries, men of very distant countries, and all held him for a great marvel, and never departed without receiving great benefits from him. All his days were filled with assiduous labour; for surely among all the nations of mankind one could not find any more able than he to subdue himself. It would be hard indeed to count the nights during which his eyes knew no sleep . . . He was quiet in manner, and his words were calm; in adversity he was constant, and humble in prosperity. Never was known in him hatred or ill-will toward any, even though heavy faults were committed against him.
Sounds a saint. Well. What seems more like the real Henry? He desired the economic expansion of Portugal and Christian reconquest and conquest of Muslim lands, and he was a seafaring innovator, though no notable seaman himself. He encouraged his father in the conquest of Cueta, on the Moroccan coast, in which the King and all three brothers subsequently fought. With the Portuguese victory, Henry was knighted, further titled, and appointed by the Pope to be administrator of the Order of Christ, descended of the Knights Templar. With Cueta as foothold near the Strait of Gibraltar, Portugal now controlled the sea route between the Atlantic and Middle East. It was possible now to ward off the pirates who plagued Portuguese shipping, and Henry developed plans, too, to access African gold, which had been making its way into Europe via Arab traders; he thus, planned accordingly to extend knowledge of and access to the Western African coast by sea. This required inceasing Portuguese seafaring knowledge and capabilities, which so far had not ventured beyond Cape Bojador at the south of the Western Sahara.
The legend, still repeated everywhere in popular sources as fact, is that Henry established the first seafaring academy, or technical school, to teach piloting, navigation, cosmography, and cartography. All experts were welcome and employed, including Jew and Muslim. From his own home base in Lagos, Portugal, Henry led the school that was located in nearby Sagres, the Southwestern-most tip of Portugal, thrust out into the Atlantic, and of the European continent. According to contemporary historians, however, the school is legendary nonsense, though not the leadership in seafaring education and the developed employment of new and adopted instruments, from the compass to the hourglass, to the quadrant, to the astrolabe. Henry led development, as well, of the Caravelle, a new, Portuguese-designed light ship that employed lateen, or triangular, sails, which enabled nimble maneuverability and sailing against the wind.
In time, the feared Cape Bojador was doubled and armed Portuguese exploratory merchant ships were extending their reach down the West African coast. By the time of Henry’s death, the Portuguese had reached present-day Sierra Leone. They had not managed to gain access to African gold, however. But Henry had identified a different commodity of value – West African slaves, and he led the way in developing that trade from Africa to Europe, which in time would spread to the Western Hemisphere, where Portugal would be the first to reach present-day Brazil.
In 1488, decades after Henry’s death, but as a result of the mission of seafaring discovery and commerce he initiated, Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to sail around the southern tip of Africa (the Cape of Good Hope), in a voyage demonstratinmg that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans flowed into each other. From this would follow Portuguese commerce and warfare in India and the West Indies, during which, after his own heroic exploits in North Africa, the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan would make his reputation and gain the knowledge to plot what would serve as his own ultimate grand design – to contest with Spain for the prized spices of the East Indies by sailing not east around the Cape of Good Hope but west, via a passage through the “New World” land mass that Magellan was convinced existed.
In 1960, Portugal celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death, commemorating a monument to him in Lisbon, then under the long-time dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. At the same time, U.S. naval ships, as part of the celebration, joined vessels from all over the world in a parade off Cape St. Vincent – the Sagres of the fifteenth century. Little if any reference was made to the half millennia of atrocity that accompanied the world-altering events Henry played a key role setting in motion.
During his Henry’s lifetime, Italian scholar Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, a near-exact contemporary of Henry, wrote a letter to him once in which he compares Henry’s accomplishments to those of Alexander the Great and Julius Cesar.
Among the reasons for Bracciolini’s own fame is his discovery among monastery libraries many lost volumes of varied Roman thinkers and writers, including the architect Vitruvius, from whom this Substack partly draws its name.
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