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Henry the Navigator

Although Henry the Navigator’s name suggests that he was a great navigator, he was not. He acquired his name by beginning a school of navigation, funding many explorations along the coast of Africa and funding the building of a lighter, faster ship called a caravel that would allow explorers to go farther into the Atlantic than before.

Under his guidance, the Portuguese systematically began exploring and colonizing the islands off the coast of Africa.

Early Life

Henry the NavigatorHenry was the son of John I of Portugal. His mother was Philippa of Lancaster who was the sister of King Henry IV of England. John I was from the House of Aviz which was the first family outside of Afonstine Dynasty to rule Portugal since its founding by King Afonso I in 1139 A.D.

When Henry was 21 he and his father and brothers captured the Moorish port of Ceuta in Morocco. Cueta had been a haven for the Barbary Pirates who harassed the citizens of Portugal by capturing its citizens and selling them in the African slave market.

After the capture of Ceuta, Henry became interested in exploring the African coast. At the time little was known about the African coast and there were many legends that had come out of its mystery.

One legend, in particular, would influence Henry and that was the Christian Kingdom in Africa founded by Prester John.

Prester John never existed, but Henry sought to find him. While Prester John was one of his motivations, it was certainly not the only one. He also wanted to find the West African gold trade and rid Portugal of the Barbary Pirates.

To accomplish his goals Henry supervised the building of a new ship, the caraval. The caraval was a much lighter and faster ship than what was used. The caraval would allow for more exploration down the African coast due to its ability to handle the rough currents. Christopher Columbus would use caravals for his travels approximately 60 years later.

In 1420 Henry would be appointed to the Orders of Christ. This appointment gave Henry the funding he needed to carry out his ambitious plans

After his father John I died, his brother Edward became King. Edward allowed Henry to continue his pursuit of exploration of the African Coast. Most notably, was Edward’s permission to fund voyages past Cape Bojador. Cape Bojador was the furthest that any explorer had ever reached and many believed it to be the end of the world.

Exploration of the African Coast

Henry the Navigator supported the colonization of the Azores in 1439. The Cape Bojador was the southernmost point any explorer had been. Many ships had tried and due to its violent weather had been carried away. This led many to believe that there were sea monsters in the area.

Gil Eanes was funded by Henry to sail past Cape Bojador. In his first attempt, he failed, but in his second attempt, he managed to sail past the cape and return home safely. This was a huge breakthrough and proved that the caraval could handle the currents and put an end to the superstition of sea monsters.

After the Portuguese sailed past Cape Bojador there was an explosion in discoveries:

  • In 1436 Portuguese Explorers discovered Rio Do Ouro
  • In 1441, explorer Nuno Tristao discovered Cape Branco and then 2 years later discovered Arquim
  • In 1444 Dinis Dia discovered Cape Verde and one year later Fernes discovered Red Cape.
  • In 1444, after Dinis discovered Cape Verde, Henry met one of his goals which were to circumvent around the Muslim land-based trade routes across the western Sahara Desert. In 1452 Portugal started receiving an influx of gold which allowed them to mint the first gold cruzado coin.
  • In 1443, Portuguese explorers discovered the Bay of Arguin and built a fort there in 1448.

Alvise Cadamosto discovered several islands off of the Cape Verde archipelago.

In 1431 Henry helped found the University of Lisbon By the time of Henry’s death in 1460 Portugal had successfully navigated as far as Sierre Leone. Henry had laid a foundation for a global empire.

Twenty-eight years after his death Bartolomeu Dias would prove that there was a sea-route around the southern tip of Africa. 38 years later Vasco da Gama would successfully navigate to India and began a lucrative spice trade.

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