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Henry the Navigator

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Henry the Navigator
Duke of Viseu

Henry the Navigator1.jpg
Portuguese infante and patron of the Portuguese exploration [1]
House House of Aviz
Father John I of Portugal
Mother Philippa of Lancaster
Born 4 March 1394(1394-03-04)
Oporto, Portugal
Died 13 November 1460 (aged 66)
Sagres, Algarve, Portugal
This article is about the Portuguese prince. For the Dutch prince sometimes known as "Henry the Navigator", see Prince Henry of the Netherlands.

Henry the Navigator (Portuguese pronunciation: [ẽˈʁik(ɨ)]; Portuguese: Henrique o Navegador Porto, 4 March 1394 – 13 November 1460 in Sagres) was an infante (prince) of the Kingdom of Portugal and an important figure in the early days of the Portuguese Empire, being responsible for the beginning of the European worldwide explorations.

Henry the Navigator was the third child of King John I of Portugal, the founder of the Aviz dynasty, and of Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt. Henry encouraged his father to conquer Ceuta (1415), the Muslim port on the North African coast across the Straits of Gibraltar from the Iberian peninsula, with profound consequences on Henry's worldview: Henry became aware of the profit possibilities in the Saharan trade routes that terminated there and became fascinated with Africa in general; he was most intrigued by the Christian legend of Prester John and the expansion of Portuguese trade.

It is a common conception that Henry gathered at his Vila on the Sagres peninsula a school of navigators and map-makers. He did employ some cartographers to help him chart the coast of Mauritania in the wake of voyages he sent there, but for the rest there was no center of navigational science or any supposed observatory in the modern sense of the word, nor was there an organized navigational center. In “Crónica da Guiné” Henry is described as a person with no luxuries, not avaricious, speaking with soft words and calm gestures, a man of many virtues that never allowed any poor person leave his presence empty handed.

Template:House of Aviz

Early life

Armas duque viseu

Coat of Arms of Infante Henry the Navigator, 1st Duke of Viseu.

Henry was born in 1394 in Porto, probably when the royal couple was being housed in the old mint of the city, nowadays called Casa do Infante (Prince's House). He was the third son born to Philippa of Lancaster, the sister of King Henry IV of England. Henry was 21 when he, his father and brothers conquered the Moorish port of Ceuta in northern Morocco, that had been for a long time the base for Barbary pirates that assaulted the Portuguese coast, depopulating villages by capturing their inhabitants to be sold in the African slave market. This attack was successful, as it inspired Henry to explore down the coast of Africa, most of which was unknown to Europeans. The desire to locate the source of the West African gold trade, find the legendary Christian kingdom of Prester John, and stop the pirate attacks on the Portuguese coast were three of his main interests in the region. The ships that sailed the Mediterranean at that time were too slow and too heavy to make these voyages. Under his direction, a new and much lighter ship was developed, the caravel, which would allow sea captains to sail further, faster and much more efficiently. In 1419, his father appointed him the governor of the province of the Algarve.

Resources and income

On 25 May 1420, Henry gained appointment as the governor of the very rich Order of Christ, the Portuguese successor to the Knights Templar, which had its headquarters at Tomar. Henry would hold this position for the remainder of his life, and the order was an important source of funds for Henry's ambitious plans, especially his persistent attempts to conquer the Canary Islands, which the Portuguese had claimed to have discovered before the year 1346.

Henry also had other resources. When John I died, Henry's eldest brother, Edward became head of the castles council, and granted Henry a "Royal Flush" of all profits from trading within the areas he discovered as well as the sole right to authorize expeditions beyond Cape Bojador. He also held various valuable monopolies on resources in the Algarve. When Duarte died eight years later, Henry supported his brother Pedro for the regency during Afonso V of Portugal's minority, and in return received a confirmation of this levy. Henry also promoted the colonization of the Azores during Pedro's regency (1439–1448).

Vila do Infante, patron of Portuguese exploration

According to João de Barros, in Algarve he repopulated a village that he called Terçanabal (maybe from * dársen'Anibal). This village was situated in a strategic position for his maritime enterprises and was later called Vila do Infante.

From his Vila do Infante, or Town of the Prince, on the Sagres peninsula, Henry sponsored voyages down the coast of Mauretania that were primarily exploration expeditions, later on bringing back to the nearby town of Lagos, from whence they set out, numerous African slaves and goods.

Azulejos Parque Eduardo VII-1

Panel of glazed tiles by Jorge Colaço (1922) representing Henry the Navigator at the Promontory of Sagres. Lisboa, Pavilhão Carlos Lopes.

The first contacts with the African slave market were made by expeditions to ransom Portuguese subjects enslaved by pirate attacks on Portuguese ships or villages. Henry justified this on the grounds that he was converting these captives to Christianity. As Sir Peter Russell remarks in his biography, "In Henryspeak, conversion and enslavement were interchangeable terms." The view that Henry's court rapidly grew into the technological base for exploration, with a naval arsenal and an observatory, etc., is believed by some historians, though not actually proven. Henry did possess geographical curiosity, though, and therefore employed cartographers. Jehuda Cresques, a noted cartographer, received an invitation to come to Sagres and probably make maps for Henry, a position he accepted. Henry was somewhat interested in profits from his voyages. From the first Africans that were brought to Lagos for sale in 1444 (see his contemporary biography by Zurara), he received from the merchants the value corresponding to the fifth part (o quinto) as the expedition had been sponsored by the shipowners.

The nearby port of Lagos provided a convenient harbor from which these expeditions left. The voyages were made in very small ships, mostly the caravel, a light and maneuverable vessel that used the lateen sail which had been the prevailing rig in Christian Mediterranean navigation since late antiquity.[2] Most of the voyages sent out by Henry consisted of one or two ships that navigated by following the coast, stopping at night to tie up along some shore.

Early results of Henry's explorers

Until Henry's time, Cape Bojador remained the most southerly point known to Europeans on the unpromising desert coast of Africa, although the Periplus of the Carthaginian Hanno the Navigator described a journey farther south about 2,000 years earlier.

As a second fruit of this work João Gonçalves Zarco, Bartolomeu Perestrelo and Tristão Vaz Teixeira rediscovered the Madeira Islands in 1420, and at Henry's instigation Portuguese settlers colonized the islands.

In 1427, one of Henry's navigators, probably Gonçalo Velho, discovered the Azores. Portugal soon colonized these islands in 1430.

Gil Eanes, the commander of one of Henry's expeditions, became the first European known to pass Cape Bojador in 1434. This was a breakthrough as it was considered close to the end of the world, with difficult currents that did not encourage commercial enterprise.

Henry the Navigator

Henry and the navigators in the Padrão dos Descobrimentos ("Monument to the Discoveries"), Lisbon

Henry also continued his involvement in events closer to home. In 1431 he donated houses for the Estudo Geral to reunite all the sciences — grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music and astronomy — into what would later become the University of Lisbon. For other subjects like medicine or philosophy, he ordered that each room should be decorated according to each subject that was being taught.

He functioned as a primary organizer of the Portuguese expedition to Tangier in 1437. This proved a disastrous failure; Henry's younger brother Fernando was given as a hostage to guarantee that the Portuguese would fulfill the terms of the peace agreement that had been made with Çala Ben Çala. The agreement was first broken by the Moors, who attacked the Portuguese and captured the Portuguese wounded when they were being carried to the ships, killing those who tried to resist. The Archbishop of Braga and the count of Arraiolos refused to approve the terms in the reunion of the Portuguese Cortes, thus condemning Fernando to remain in miserable captivity until his death eleven years later. Henry for most of his last twenty-three years concentrated on his exploration activities, or on Portuguese court politics.


Henry's tomb in the Monastery of Batalha.

Using the new ship type, the expeditions then pushed onwards. Nuno Tristão and Antão Gonçalves reached Cape Blanco in 1441. The Portuguese sighted the Bay of Arguin in 1443 and built an important fort there around the year 1448. Dinis Dias soon came across the Senegal River and rounded the peninsula of Cap-Vert in 1444. By this stage the explorers had passed the southern boundary of the desert, and from then on Henry had one of his wishes fulfilled: the Portuguese had circumvented the Muslim land-based trade routes across the western Sahara Desert, and slaves and gold began arriving in Portugal. By 1452, the influx of gold permitted the minting of Portugal's first gold cruzado coins. A cruzado was equal to 400 reis at the time. From 1444 to 1446, as many as forty vessels sailed from Lagos on Henry's behalf, and the first private mercantile expeditions began.

Alvise Cadamosto explored the Atlantic coast of Africa and discovered several islands of the Cape Verde archipelago between 1455 and 1456. In his first voyage, which started on 22 March 1455, he visited the Madeira Islands and the Canary Islands. On the second voyage, in 1456, Cadamosto became the first European to reach the Cape Verde Islands. António Noli later claimed the credit. By 1462, the Portuguese had explored the coast of Africa as far as the present-day nation Sierra Leone. Twenty-eight years later, Bartolomeu Dias (can be spelt Diaz) proved that Africa could be circumnavigated when he reached the southern tip of the continent. This is now known as the "Cape of Good Hope." In 1498, Vasco da Gama was the first sailor to travel from Portugal to India.



  • Arkan Simaan, L'Écuyer d'Henri le Navigateur, Éditions l'Harmattan, Paris. Historical novel based on Zurara's chronicles, written in French. ISBN : 978-2-296-03687-1
  • Mentioned in the prologue of the SNES game, Uncharted Waters.
  • Appears as the Portuguese Leader in the Age of Empires 3 Videogame

See also


  1. The traditional image of the Prince presented in this page, and coming from the Saint Vincent Panels, is still under dispute.
  2. Castro et al. 2008, p. 2

Template:Portuguese infantes

ar:هنري البحار

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