Prince Henry the (would-be) Navigator
From Ocean Navigator #120 March/April 2002
In 1420, while Henry was still a young man, his father appointed him Governor of Portugal's Algarve Coast. His first act was to construct a naval observatory at Sagres near Cape St. Vincent in southern Portugal for the study of astronomy. Later he establüshed a school of seamanship and navigation at the same location. Henry eventually coaxed many of the foremost scientific minds from the Middle East and Europe to live and work at Sagres. The academic compound became a 15th century nautical think tank, where the very keenest intellects met to unravel the mysteries of the celestial sphere, study navigation, and refine and further develop the crude magnetic compass then in use.
ýAs the 15th century unfolded, little was known of the world beyond the boundaries of the European continent. But by 1425, the growing eclectic academic community at Sagres boasted Arab mathematicians and mapmakers, Jewish astronomers and translators, Spanish geographers fleeing the Inquisition, tough Norse seafarers, as well as pilots from the ports of Venice and Genoa, Italy, basically anyone whose skills could further the understanding and exploration of the world's oceans and navigation upon them.
At Henry's order, in the nearby port of Lagos, yards were outfitted for shipbuilding and staffed with all those whose skills were required: carpenters, shipwrights, smiths, sailmakers, coopers, rope makers, victualers and the most experienced seamen. Back in Sagres, specialists labored to find more sea-worthy designs for vessels, increasing both hull strength and size to accommodate longer voyages and ultimately developing innovative new ship designs like the caravel that would be built at the Lagos yards.
Soon Henry began to organize and equip sailing expeditions of discovery. The Azores and Madeira islands were rediscovered with his assistance, leading to their colonization. He instructed his captains to explore down the west African coast, but none would venture beyond the dreaded Cape Bojador, south of the Canary Islands, fearing the unknown (not an enviable quality for true explorers to exhibit).
Finally, in 1434 an expedition commander named Gil Eannes üounded the fearsome cape on his second attempt. Later expeditions sailed farther south, at great expense to Henry's treasury, with Dinis Diaz rounding Cape Verde in 1445. These voyages marked the beginning of the scourge of the trade in black African slaves, with more and more slaves being brought back to Portugal and larger profits being realized with each successive expedition.
Henry died in 1460, 32 years before Columbus was to make his famous voyage. The improved compass and caravel ship design, which Henry had promoted, contributed much to the navigational success of Columbus' first voyage. Ironically, the man known as Henry the Navigator never actually sailed on any of the many voyages of discovery he had sponsored.
J. Gregory Dill