Prince Henry the Navigator Promotes Portuguese Exploration

Prince Henry dispatched exploratory expeditions that removed the imagined terrors of the deep sea, established the first commercial trade ventures of modern times, and marked the start of the African slave trade.

Summary of Event

The court of Prince Henry the Navigator at Sagres became famous as a place that attracted mathematicians, geographers, and, in general, any scientific-minded person from East or West interested in exploration, discovery, and the expansion of maritime knowledge. The center of Henry’s maritime activity was not his court at Sagres, but at Lagos, where nearly all the early expeditions were equipped. Although Henry financed and directed many expeditions along the coast of Africa, he did not accompany them. His aim was not personal adventure, but rather the expansion of scientific knowledge and the extension of Portugal’s wealth. [kw]Prince Henry the Navigator Promotes Portuguese Exploration (1415-1460)
[kw]Henry the Navigator Promotes Portuguese Exploration, Prince (1415-1460)
[kw]Portuguese Exploration, Prince Henry the Navigator Promotes (1415-1460)
Henry the Navigator, Prince
Portugal;exploration of
Portugal;1415-1460: Prince Henry the Navigator Promotes Portuguese Exploration[3140]
Exploration and discovery;1415-1460: Prince Henry the Navigator Promotes Portuguese Exploration[3140]
Trade and commerce;1415-1460: Prince Henry the Navigator Promotes Portuguese Exploration[3140]
Henry the Navigator, Prince
Gonsaluez, John
Gonçalves, Antão
Tristão, Nuno
Gomes, Diogo

Inspired by the crusading zeal of his mother, he claimed that his primary goal was the propagation of Christianity even beyond Moorish lands. While he also sought to draw commercial profit from the new-found lands to underwrite the vast expense of the voyages, the sincerity of his religious and scientific motives is not easily discredited. Determined to wipe out medieval fears of the sea and unknown lands, he was passionately involved in supervising the compilation and dissemination of the knowledge gained from new voyages. The influence of the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy was still great: His view that the world was flat attracted supporters, and many believed that while the known portion of the earth was neatly divided into ordered segments, the unknown area was full of sea monsters and boiling waters. Henry not only studied the ancient geographers and medieval maps, but engaged an expert map and instrument maker, James of Majorca, so that his explorers might have the best nautical information. Cartography;Portugal

Henry’s enthusiasm was fed not only by the experiences of the traders of his own day, but also by his knowledge of past expeditions of Crusaders and explorers such as Marco Polo and John de Plano Caprini. Little was known of the Viking adventures in crossing the Atlantic to Greenland and America or their penetration of Russia, but Henry became interested in studying their sea ventures and was strongly influenced by them. Between 1250 and 1410, many new geographical vistas had opened up. In 1270, the Italian Lancelot Malocello found the Canary Islands, and in 1281 and 1291, the Italians Tedisio Doria and Vivaldi discovered Cape Horn while trying to reach India by sea. Around 1350, the Catalonians found Guinea. The Englishman Robert Machin reached Madeira, only to die there; however, his servant managed to escape from the island and eventually reported the discovery to Henry.

Henry’s captains used all the reliable knowledge of the sea available to them from such explorations, and used the compass and other instruments to navigate in the open sea. Henry’s first venture in expansion, however, was the Portuguese conquest in 1415 of Ceuta, Ceuta, conquest of (1415) the Moorish port opposite Gibraltar. Fulfilling the mission of the Military Order of Christ, of which he was grandmaster, his ships carried on a constant war against the Muslims Islam;Christians and . He envisioned the conquest of Ceuta as part of the Crusade against Islam. The permanent occupation of Ceuta marks the beginning of imperialism by nation-states three generations in advance of the general movement. Again in 1418, when John Gonçalves Gonçalves, John rediscovered the Canaries and Madeira, colonization followed.

It was after the fall of Ceuta that Henry entered his career of discovery, and his immediate objects were to know the country beyond Cape Bojador, the farthest limit of the known world on the west side of Africa, to open up trade Trade;Europe relations and to spread the Christian faith. After twelve years of voyages down the African coast, one of his seamen, Gil Eanes, finally rounded Cape Bojador off the coast of modern Rio de Oro in 1434 or 1435. He found habitable land and not sea monsters. From that date events moved quickly.

An unsuccessful attempt to take Tangier occupied Henry’s attention between 1437 and 1445. Nevertheless, Antão Gonçalves Gonçalves, Antao landed on the coast of Africa in 1441 and brought back the first captives. Nuno Tristão Tristão, Nuno penetrated as far as Cape Blanco, and a few years later to Arguim Bay, and also returned with captured indigenous people, thus inaugurating the slave Slavery;Portugal trade of Guinea. Although Henry’s school has been reproached with encouraging slavery, it was an age that saw no harm in the traffic, and he would claim that the Africans brought to Portugal were employed in domestic offices and fairly treated, and that nearly all of them became Christians. There is little doubt, however, about his interest in the discovery of gold around Guinea. In 1445, a number of caravels sailed to Cape Verde. Ten years later, Alvise Cadamosto Cadamosto, Alvise (whose narrative proved a most significant contribution to the knowledge of Africa and its adjoining waters) sailed 500 miles (800 kilometers) farther to Cape Palmar. The discovery of the Azores to the west of Spain by Gonzalo Cibial Cibial, Gonzalo in 1436, and the further discovery of two more groups of islands before 1450, led to the colonization of the whole archipelago before Henry’s death in 1460.

From 1458 to 1460, Diogo Gomes Gomes, Diogo explored the Senegal and the Gambia, and sailed down the coast as far as Sierra Leone, marking the final exploring effort during Henry’s lifetime. Henry’s last labor was the commissioning and supervision of the beautiful Camaldalese Chart of Fra Mauro, which carefully illustrated the systematic and scientific discoveries of Henry’s “school.” He died in November, 1460, deeply in debt as the price of his lifelong service to the cause of Christianity and science and to the pursuance of his motto, Talent de bien faire (“The desire to do well”).


The more remote achievements resulting from the pioneering efforts of Henry and his court include the voyage of Bartholomeu Dias around Cape Horn in 1486, the voyage to India round Africa by Vasco da Gama from 1497 to 1499, and the establishment of the first outpost of empire by Albuquerque between 1506 and 1515. All of these men were trained in the techniques of Prince Henry’s techniques, and their voyages were inspired or encouraged by his school. Ultimately, the discovery of America by Columbus—and by the Italian Amerigo Vespucci—and the circumnavigation of the globe by Magellan’s crew were inspired by the achievements of Henry’s captains and their successors. Thus, Henry’s thirst for inquiry, empire, and crusading led to the opening of a new age and a new world.

Further Reading

  • Aczel, Amir D. The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention that Changed the World. New York: Harcourt, 2001. A brief but detailed and thorough account of the invention of the compass. Also discusses the history of navigation to the fifteenth century.
  • Beazley, Charles Raymond. Prince Henry, the Navigator: The Hero of Portugal and of Modern Discovery, 1394-1460 A.D. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, 1968. Considered a standard biography of Prince Henry that closely follows primary sources and presents a sympathetic picture.
  • Bradford, Ernle D. S. A Wind from the North: The Life of Henry the Navigator. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960. A favorable assessment of the character and outlook of Prince Henry based on source documents.
  • Goodman, Jennifer R. Chivalry and Exploration, 1298-1630. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1998. A survey of medieval exploration, with chapters on Prince Henry’s chivalry, chivalric literature in the age of exploration, and the romance as a literature of travel. Includes a bibliography and index.
  • Hanson, Carl. Atlantic Emporium: Portugal and the Wider World, 1147-1497. New Orleans, La.: University Press of the South, 2001. A brief survey of Portugal’s period of discovery, including Henry’s expeditions. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, and index.
  • Oliveira Martins, J. P. The Golden Age of Prince Henry, the Navigator. Translated by James Johnston Abraham and W. Edward Reynolds. London: Chapman and Hall, 1914. Classic Portuguese work by a noted scholar in the field with a primary emphasis on politics and the personalities of the court. Makes a critical portrayal of Prince Henry.
  • Russell, Peter. Portugal, Spain, and the African Atlantic, 1343-1490: Chivalry and Crusade from John of Gaunt to Henry the Navigator and Beyond. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995. A history of Portuguese—and Spanish—exploration along the African coast during Prince Henry’s time.
  • Russell, Peter. Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A history of Prince Henry and his expeditions. Provides many illustrations, a map of discoveries, and a translated letter of Henry’, written to his father. Includes an extensive bibliography and index.
  • Sanceau, Elaine. Henry the Navigator: The Story of a Great Prince and His Times. New Haven. Conn.: Archon Books, 1969. A factual and easy-reading narrative by a noted English scholar of Portuguese history.
  • Ure, John. Prince Henry the Navigator. London: Constable, 1977. Portrays Prince Henry as a more complex figure, a man torn between the conflicting influences of his medieval background and a pragmatic, forward-looking personality.
  • Winius, George D., ed. Portugal, the Pathfinder: Journeys from the Medieval Toward the Modern World, 1300-circa 1600. Madison, Wis.: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1995. Chapters look at figures such as Prince Henry, Vasco de Gama, and their successors; the “discovery” of the Atlantic as a space; the evidence of medieval maps; and Portuguese expansion in West Africa. Includes a bibliography and index.