Henry the Navigator

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Henry the Navigator (1394-1460, in Portuguese Henrique o Navegador) was a prince of Portugal, third son of John I. He won acclaim in a series of campaigns against the Moors in Morocco; however he is famous for his support for, and patronage of, the seamen who made the many voyages of discovery down the west coast of Africa in attempts to find a sea route to India.

His inspiration led to the rediscovery (and subsequent colonization) of Madeira (1420) and the Azores (1427). By 1444 one of his captains had rounded Cape Blanco and explored the beginnings of sub-Saharan Africa. Slaves and gold were brought back to Portugal, and suddenly the voyages became profitable. Captains were now less afraid to leave the coast so avoiding shoals and reefs and unfavourable currents that sweep up the coast of Africa. In 1456 the Cape Verde Islands, 600 km off the coast of Africa, were discovered. By the time of his death, in spite of his ban on the kidnapping of Africans for the slave trade, the business was booming, and his captains were starting to push down past what is now Sierra Leone.

His inspiration outlived him. In 1488 Bartholomew Diaz rounded Cape of Good Hope, and about ten years later Vasco da Gama reached India.

He based himself at Sagres on the southwest tip of Portugal where he built a naval arsenal and observatory. He brought in experts from Europe and beyond, Arabs and Jews; mathematicians and geographers, ship builders and cartographers. His captains went to sea with the best ships of the era, and with as much knowledge as was available.

It is to the shame of a later hero of the Age of Discovery that Francis Drake, in 1587, destroyed Sagres, and all in it, in a senseless act of vandalism.


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