Henry The Navigator

Henry Navigator

Under his true name Infante Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu was an important figure in 15th century Portuguese politics and in the early days of the Portuguese Empire. Through his administrative direction, he is regarded as the main initiator of what would be known as the Age of Discoveries. Henry was the third child of the Portuguese king John I and responsible for the early development of Portuguese exploration and maritime trade with other continents through the systematic exploration of Western Africa, the islands of the Atlantic Ocean, and the search for new routes.

Henry The Navigator was the 5th child of the king of Portugal and Algarve, João I and his wife, Philippa of Lancaster. The five blue shields with five white coins on each, and the ten gold castles on a red border, are still part of the flag of Portugal, although some changes were made across time. His father, King João I, gave him a very good education and a good instruction, as well as to his other five brothers and sisters who came to adulthood: Edward (Duarte), Peter (Pedro), Isabella, João de Aviz and Ferdinand, in a quiet and devoid of intrigue environment. The great Portuguese poet, Luís de Camões, mentioned them in the epic tale, “Os Lusiadas” as an illustrious generation. In 1414, he convinced his father to undertake the conquest of Ceuta, on the North African coast, near the Strait of Gibraltar.

In the summer of 1415, he was along his father and brothers, Edward and Peter at the conquest of Ceuta, and the day following the capturing of the city, he was made a knight. The fall of the city came shortly after the death of his mother, Philippa, on 19 July 1415. It occurred in August 1415 and opened to Portugal a great potential for commercial development. As a result of this undertaking, on 11 September 1415, Henry was awarded the Duchy of Viseu, together with his brother Peter, who received the duchy of Coimbra. These were the first two duchies created in Portugal.

On 25 May 1420, Henry was appointed as Grand Master of the Order of Christ, a religious and military order founded in 1319 by King Dionysius to incorporate the properties of the Order of the Templars, suppressed by Pope Clement V on 3 April 1312. This appointment will accompany him throughout his life of fervent and industrious Christian. As for the exploration of the Atlantic Ocean, his appointment as the Grand Master of the Order was important because the vast revenues of the Order helped him to finance his Atlantic expeditions, the true passion of the Prince. In 1427, Gonçalo Velho and others discovered for the first time the Azores islands. These uninhabited islands were soon colonized. At his father’s death, the King, in 1433, Prince Henry’s eldest brother, Duarte ascended to the throne as Edward I and granted him a fifth of the commercial goods from the newly discovered areas, along with the exclusive exploration rights beyond Cape Bojador.

Starting from 1450, Alvise Cadamosto explored the Atlantic coast of Africa, reaching to the Gambia River of the nowadays Senegal and between 1455 and 1456, he discovered (probably sighted the islands without intending to explore them) the top five islands of the archipelago of Cape Verde. Antonio da Noli arrived there in the same year and then explored and colonized them.

In 1459 a Venetian geographer and cartographer of the 15th century, Fra Mauro, sent to Portugal a world map of the old world (now lost), which was ordered by Henry. In 1460, the African coast had been explored to the current state of Sierra Leone. Twenty-eight years later, Bartolomeu Dias confirmed that Africa could be circumnavigated, by reaching the southernmost point of the African continent, now called the Cape of Good Hope. In 1498, Vasco da Gama, became the first Portuguese to reach India by sea.

For most of the latter part of his life, Henry concentrated on his maritime activities or on Portuguese court politics. No one used the nickname ‘Navigator’ to refer to prince Henry during his lifetime or in the following three centuries. The term was coined by two 19th century German historians: Heinrich Schaefer and Gustav de Veer. Later on, it was made popular by two British authors who included it in the titles of their biographies of the prince. In Portuguese, even in modern times, it is uncommon to call Henry by this epithet. The preferred term for him is “Infante D. Henrique”.

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