Prince Henry of Portugal was fondly known as the patron of explorers. He was a royal prince whose fascination with explorations substantially paved the way for the age of exploration, also known as the age of discovery. Despite being nicknamed as the navigator, he did not sail himself. Instead, he encouraged explorers in Portugal and beyond. There is no evidence or even the suggestion that he had sailed on any of the expeditions that he planned, encouraged or sanctioned.
Back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, explorations or any massive endeavor was not part of an institutionalized regimen. Any major voyage was either courtesy a rich merchant and trader or due to a commission from kings and princes. Prince Henry, in his relatively short life of sixty six years, managed to transform the dynamics of exploration voyages. Here is a listing to some of the major accomplishments of Prince Henry the Navigator.
1. Mapping the West Coast of Africa
In the fourteenth century, the Europeans knew trade routes to India and China. The Silk Route and other popular routes had been well documented. Large missions used to frequent across the present day Middle East all the way to the Orient, especially for trade and commerce. However, the sea routes were not known. Very little was known of what lies south of the Mediterranean. There were two purposes at the time that propelled Prince Henry to commission the voyages southward. One was to spread Christianity. At the time, the Middle East and large parts of Central and South Asia were dominated by Muslims. The spread of Islam was essentially unchallenged.
This was increasing the risk to Christians in Europe. Islam was being spread with the help of violence and the diminishing influence or control of the Church was not in the interest of most of the royal families across Europe. The other purpose of Prince Henry was to establish routes for trade. It was obvious that traversing the entire Middle East to reach India and China was not a viable option, not for frequent or perennial trade. These two quests saw him commissioning several voyages down the west coast of Africa.
2. Founded the World’s First School for Oceanic Navigation
Prince Henry is credited to a large extent for being responsible for the Great Age of Discovery. He is credited so partly because of his encouragement but also because he founded the school for oceanic navigation. It is perhaps this reason why he came to be known, fondly of course, as the navigator. Circa 1418, he set up an astronomical observatory in Portugal. Enthusiastic and aspiring voyagers or explorers underwent training in maps, navigation and science involved in sailing.
3. First Voyage beyond the Sea of Darkness
In the first decades of the fifteenth century, European sailors could not venture beyond Cape Bojador. It was considered fatal. The area was stormy, the troubled waters would drown even some of the largest ships of the time and very few actually returned alive after reaching Cape Bojador. Europeans used to refer to the waters beyond Cape Bojador as the Sea of Darkness. Spanning more than a decade, Prince Henry had commissioned fourteen expeditions that were all instructed to venture beyond Cape Bojador. It must be noted that most sailors would refuse at the time. His school for oceanic navigation reaped rich dividends when Gil Eannes successfully sailed beyond Cape Bojador in 1434 and returned to Portugal, having mapped his route.
4. The Sea of Explorers
The accomplishments of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, John Cabot and many others are well known. From cruel Spanish conquistadors to benevolent explorers, we have heard their stories. These icons have inspired many and still encourage adventurists today. But someone had to inspire this legion of explorers. While there were many, Prince Henry clearly stands out for having laid one of the foundation stones for the sea of explorers or the generations to emerge.
Gil Eannes who was the first European to venture beyond Cape Bojador used to work at Henry’s home. Later, Prince Henry encouraged one Alfonso Goncalves Baldaya who sailed with Eannes. The duo led an exploration down south and eventually transported thousands of seal skins back to Europe. It was the first of its kind commercial cargo brought back to Europe from southern Africa.
5. Laid the Path Down for Future Explorers
Prince Henry would encourage many such explorers in his lifetime. He commissioned one Antao Gonçalves who went on voyages to further the slave trade. There was one Nuno Tristao who managed to sail to Cabo Blanco during that time. Prince Henry convinced Alivise de Cadamosto, a well known Venetian navigator of the fifteenth century, to embark on two voyages. Cadamosto eventually explored Gambia River, sailed upriver and also reached the Islands of Cape Verde.
Prince Henry also commissioned one Diogo Gomes who sailed and reached Cape Palmas. That was the last expedition commissioned or sanctions by Prince Henry. He died soon after the return of Gomes in 1460.