Henry the Navigator was born on March 3, 1394, in Portucale, Portugal, the third child of King Joao I and Queen Phillipa. The prince earned his nickname because he did not venture on any voyages himself; instead, he financed and organized Portuguese explorations to satisfy his curiosity, increase the country’s territorial reach, and spread Catholicism. These endeavors inspired Europeans’ Age of Exploration. However, this effort also started the process of European colonialism, capitalism, and eventually the Atlantic Slave Trade. In Malindi town, his effort has been commemorated by the erection of the Prince Henry the Navigator monument.
Al Andalus was a medieval kingdom located in present-day southern Spain whose territory extended over large portions of modern-day Portugal and northwestern Morocco. The name “al” means “the,” while “Andalus” refers to the Arabic word for “conqueror.” This term came to refer to the Moorish rulers after they captured Toledo in 711 AD. In 1492, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile united the kingdoms under the House of Habsburg, creating the Kingdom of Spain.
Portugal gained its independence from Spain after a series of wars fought between 1580–1640. The country remained under Spanish rule until 1807 when Napoleon invaded the peninsula. After defeating the French forces at Waterloo, he granted independence to Portugal.
King John’s eldest son, Prince Henry, led the Portuguese army across the Strait of Gibraltar into North Africa in 1415. This action was taken after he heard rumors of Muslim pirate attacks along the coast. He wanted to prove himself worthy of becoming a knight in court. His brothers followed him over the strait. They also hoped to gain recognition for themselves and win glory for their father.
Ceuta was once home to thriving trade routes connecting Europe with North Africa and India. The city provided a unique educational opportunity for Prince Henry the Navigator; he studied Arabic, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, law, history, literature, music, art, architecture, engineering, cartography, navigation, shipbuilding, mining, metallurgy, chemistry, botany, zoology, geodesy, hydrography, geography, mineralogy, optics, mechanics, hydraulics, pneumatics, acoustics, electricity, magnetism, thermodynamics, hydrostatics, ballistics, meteorology, seismology, oceanography, climatology, cosmogony, chronology, ethnography, philology, archaeology, numismatics, palaeontology, and many others. He also spent much time studying the works of Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna, Averroes, Alkindi, Ibn Sina, Rhazes, Rasis, Haly Abbas, Abū Rayḥān alBīrūni, Abu Maʿshar ibn Burdah, Ṣadr al-Din ibn Ḥusayn, Al-Jazari, and many others.
Henry the Navigator was inspired by his religion; he wanted to fight against Islam and spread Christianity. His goal was to unite Christians around the globe under his banner. To do this, he imagined joining forces with King Prester John, a mythical ruler who supposedly lived somewhere in Central America.
Henry’s ambitious plans required significant financing. Finding enough money proved challenging for a small country facing economic turmoil. A wealthy Jewish community supported him through this period. The Church also helped fund some of his endeavors.
Henry the Navigator wanted to achieve greatness through scientific discovery and exploration. To do this, he assembled scientists, sailors, engineers, architects, cartographers, and navigators at the port city of Sagres, located near Cape St Vincent on the Portuguese coast. With its location between Africa and Europe, Sagres served as a center for trade routes connecting both continents. The city also provided access to the Atlantic Ocean. This made it ideal for maritime expeditions.
A variety of navigational devices were created over the centuries, many of which were derived from existing technologies. These included the caravel, the type of vessel used for Henry’s maritime explorations; this craft was likely inspired by a type of Portuguese fishing boat called caïques. Caiques were small, maneuverable sailing vessels. They differed from larger Portuguese vessels because they used triangular rather than square sails. Triangular sails enabled ships to sail against the wind. Another instrument adapted for sea travel was the compass, a tool invented around 1000 AD that measured direction. A similar device, known as an astrolabe, was also used during Henry’s voyages. An astrolabe calculates celestial positions. These instruments aid mariners in determining their location and course.
Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean is not only challenging but also dangerous. Henry’s experts at Sager made the journey safely thanks to some clever adaptations. In fact, the company created its own wind instrument called “the Sager Wind Instrument” to measure prevailing winds along the route. These instruments helped sailors navigate through treacherous waters.
Portugal began its overseas expansion under King John II during the reign of Henry III. The king sent explorers to explore the Atlantic Ocean, leading to the discovery of several previously unknown lands. These included the Canaries, the Azores, and Madeira.
Henry the Navigator needed money to keep his expeditions going. He was searching for ways to get around this obstacle. The Prince had wanted access to West African Gold. However, West Africans kept control over local gold mines, mostly trading gold dust with the Portuguese during Henry’s lifetime. So he decided to shift his attention toward slaves. The Portuguese started systematically raiding villages on the Island of Arguin, capturing locals and enslaving them. They then took those captives to Portugal. In 1448, the Portuguese established a Fort, Warehouse, and Trading Station on the Island, located off the coast of present-day Mauritania.
In the 1500s, enslaved Africans were forced to work on sugar plantations in Madeira. The economy of this island colony relied heavily on exporting its sugar crops to fund trade routes throughout Europe. These slave laborers worked under harsh conditions until Portugal abolished slavery in 1867.
During this period, Portugal was expanding its empire throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. By the time of King Henry IV’s death, in 1460, the Portuguese had reached what is now Sierra Leone. Many of his dreams would continue to prosper. His sailors explored the coastlines of Africa. They established settlements along West and East African shores.
Portuguese explorers such as Vasco da Gama opened trade routes across Africa and Asia, establishing commercial links between Europe and East Asia. The Portuguese also traveled extensively throughout South America during this period.
Portugal was at war with France during this era, and French troops occupied Lisbon in 1762. The occupying forces confiscated many items belonging to the royal family, among them paintings and tapestries. During the occupation, the king sent several artists to Paris to purchase artworks to replace those taken. One artist returned with a painting he purchased called “View of the Sea off Cape St Vincent near Lisbon.” This artwork would later come to represent the entire country of Portugal.
Henry the Navigator’s legacy was both positive and negative. While he opened trade routes and connected diverse communities, his colonial policies created many of our modern-day issues today. Colonialism has historically resulted in resource depletion, environmental destruction, cultural genocide, religious persecution, and political oppression. The establishment of colonies has often taken precedence over the rights of existing societies and indigenous people. In 1501, King Ferdinand I signed the Treaty of Tordesillas dividing the New World among Spanish and Portuguese explorers. This division left Native Americans without representation at the treaty table.