Henry the Navigator
of numerous voyages along the western coast of
Prince Henry was born in
Oponto, Portugal, in 1394, the third surviving
son of King John and Queen Philippa of Lancaster.
How he spent his early years is unknown, nor is
it known where he received his basic education.
Henry's first military
experience came in 1415, when he played a major
role in his father's capture of Ceuta, a Muslim
stronghold in what is now Morocco. Ceuta was
important because it served as a port for the
rich trade in African goods, but it proved
worthless to Portugal because the trade routes
within Africa were still controlled by Muslims.
Since all-out war with the Muslims was out of the
question, Henry determined that Portugal needed
to establish a sea route around the west coast of
Africa to bypass the Muslim-controlled trade
routes. His father agreed, and, in 1419, Henry
was made governor of Algarve so he would have a
source of funds to finance his plans; his
appointment as governor of the Order of Christ in
1520 provided even more funds.
About 1420, Henry established a naval
observatory at Sagres, where he sponsored the
study of navigation, astronomy, ship building,
and cartography. The first notable achievement
made at the observatory was development of the
caravel, a sailing ship that combined cargo
capacity with maneuverability and seaworthiness,
making it an ideal ship for voyages of
exploration and trade.
Once Prince Henry had the right kind of
ship available, he began sending expeditions down
the western coast of Africa. One of his
expeditions reached the Canary Islands in 1420
and another sailed as far west as the Azores in
1427, but he was unable to find anyone willing to
sail past Cape Bojador because sailors believed
that the waters beyond that point were too
dangerous. That obstacle was finally overcome
when Gil Eannes agreed to make the voyage, which
he completed in 1434.
Once Cape Bojador had been
"conquered," Henry's navigators
gradually extended their knowledge of Africa's
west coast farther and farther south. Rio de Oro
was reached by Alfonso Gonçalves Baldaya in
1436, Cape Blanco by Nuno Tristão and Antao
Gonçalves in 1441, and Cape Verde by Dinis Dias
in 1445. In 1444, Eannes returned to Portugal
with 200 slaves captured near Cape Blanco,
beginning the Portuguese slave trade. The first
Portuguese foray into the African interior came
in 1456, when Alvise da Cadamosto saild up the
Gambia River to its junction with the Geba River.
The most southerly point reached by one of
Henry's navigators was Cape Palmos, which was
rounded by Diogo Gomes in 1458.
Although Prince Henry never
sailed on any of the voyages he sponsored, he is
nevertheless credited with expanding European
knowledge of western Africa. He died in 1460.
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