Henry the Navigator

Discover fascinating facts about one of Portugal’s best known princes

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2017


Stay-at-home explorer

  • Although Prince Henry (Henrique) the Navigator (1394-1460) sent many expeditions from Portugal to Africa’s west coast, he himself preferred to stay at home and never came along on these explorations.
  • Still, by sponsoring all the journeys and mapping much of West Africa’s coastline, he was responsible for Portugal’s influence in the Great Age of Exploration. He also was a founder of the Atlantic slave trade. (Don’t mistake him for Vasco da Gama1460s-1524; that’s the guy who sailed to India).


Sea of darkness

  • Leading an attack on the Moroccan city of Ceuta in 1415, Henry became fascinated with Africa, wanting to conquer the Muslims and exploit the continent’s many resources. In the following decades he’d sponsor many expeditions there.
  • An important one was Gil Eanes’ expedition in 1434, where Gil managed to go further than Cape Bojador (just below latitude 27°N on Africa’s coast). Previously, no European had sailed beyond that point and returned, as it was plagued by fierce currents and brutal storms. The ocean after Cape Bojador was believed to be the home of sea monsters and known as the ‘sea of darkness’.


School of Navigation

  • Around 1418, Prince Henry started the first school for oceanic navigation in the area of Sagres. Here, people were trained in navigation, map-making, and science; all with the goal of sailing down the west of Africa.
  • Some historians, however, dispute this and claim that Henry’s reputation as a patron of learning has been massively over exaggerated as he didn’t sponsor any real school, but just had a group of devoted followers. Fact is that Henry lived in a time of naval discoveries, including refined cartography, the improved sundial and the caravel.


So why is he called the Navigator?

  • It seems a bit strange calling someone who didn’t actually participate in any naval exploration expeditions ‘the Navigator’. Especially when the rumours are true and Henry didn’t actually establish a School of Navigation.
  • Indeed, Prince Henry was never called ‘the Navigator’ in his lifetime, or the three centuries after it. Two 19th century German historians came up with the term and two British authors later used it in the titles of their biographies of the prince, making the nickname more popular. In Portuguese, however, he’s known as ‘Infante Dom Henrique’.


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2017

Posted in Typical Portugal.