Prince Henry the Navigator seldom left his home in Portugal, but he helped make it possible for the first Europeans to explore Africa. In Henryвs time, the ocean was very dangerous, and Africa was a mysterious place that seemed to contain endless miles of sand. Today we know this sand as the Sahara Desert. Although it isnвt endless, the Sahara is the largest desert in the world, and its expanse isolated many sophisticated cultures south of the deserts from the rest of the world. Henry wanted to find a water route to India. The passage to India over land was long, slow, and dangerous. A ship could carry more goods to and from India than the largest caravans, but Europeans could only guess that sailors could circumnavigate, or go around, Africa. Prince Henry helped unlock the secrets of Africa. Henry set up a school for sailors to learn the secrets of the ocean. He paid for many sailing expeditions out of the Portuguese treasury. Henry also employed cartographers who created the most sophisticated maps of their time. The maps made it possible for sailors to learn from previous expeditions. Henry was a visionary. A visionary is someone who can imagine something that hasnвt yet happened. Henry owned a globe when many people thought the world was flat. Though the region had not been explored by Europeans, Henry believed that Africa was not infinite and that if his sailors could circumnavigate the continent; he would find a water route to India.
When Henry died in 1460, his sailors had only reached as far as the Canary Islands in West Africa. Twenty-eight years later, Bartholomeu Dias proved that it was possible to circumnavigate Africa when he reached the southern tip of the continent, now known as the вCape of Good Hope. \” In 1499, Vasco da Gama was the first sailor to travel from Portugal to India. Just a few years earlier, Queen Isabella of Spain hired a sailor from Genoa to reach India by sailing west. It wasnвt until years later that anyone understood that the вIndians\” he encountered werenвt from India after all.
Portugal is a country that has no coast along the Mediterranean Sea so the country s advances in worldwide exploration centuries ago comes at no surprise. However, it was the passion and goals of one man who truly moved Portuguese exploration forward. Prince Henry was born in 1394 as the third son of King John I (King Joao I) of Portugal. At the age of 21, in 1415, Prince Henry commanded a military force that captured the Muslim outpost of Ceuta, located on the south side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Three years later, Prince Henry founded his Institute at Sagres on the southwestern-most point of Portugal, Cape Saint Vincent – a place ancient geographers referred to as the western edge of the earth.
The institute, best described as a fifteenth century research and development facility, included libraries, an astronomical observatory, ship-building facilities, a chapel, and housing for staff. The institute was designed to teach navigational techniques to Portuguese sailors, to collect and disseminate geographical information about the world, to invent and improve navigational and seafaring equipment, to sponsor expeditions, and to spread Christianity around the world – and perhaps even to find. Prince Henry brought together some of the leading geographers, cartographers, astronomers, and mathematicians from throughout Europe to work at the institute. Although Prince Henry never sailed on any of his expeditions and rarely left Portugal, he became known as Prince Henry the Navigator. The institute s primary exploration goal was to explore the western coast of Africa to locate a route to Asia. A new type of ship, called a caravel was developed at Sagres. It was fast and was much more maneuverable than prior types of boats and though they were small, they were quite functional. Two of Christopher Columbus ships, the Nina and the Pinta were caravels (the Santa Maria was a carrack. ) Caravels were dispatched south along the western coast of Africa. Unfortunately, a major obstacle along the African route was Cape Bojador, southeast of the Canary Islands (located in Western Sahara).
European sailors were afraid of the cape, for supposedly to its south lay monsters and insurmountable evils. Prince Henry sent fifteen expeditions to navigate south of the cape from 1424 to 1434 but each returned with it s captain giving excuses and apologies for not having passed the dreaded Cape Bojador. Finally, in 1434 Prince Henry sent Captain Gil Eannes (who had previously attempted the Cape Bojador voyage) south; this time, Captain Eannes sailed to the west prior to reaching the cape and then headed eastward once passing the cape. Thus, none of his crew saw the dreadful cape and it had been successfully passed, without catastrophe befalling the ship. Following the successful navigation south of Cape Bojador, exploration of the African coast continued. In 1441, Prince Henry s caravels reached Cape Blanc (the cape where Mauritania and Western Sahara meet). In 1444 a dark period of history began when Captain Eannes brought the first boatload of 200 slaves to Portugal. In 1446, Portuguese ships reached the mouth of the Gambia River. In 1460 Prince Henry the Navigator died but work continued at Sagres under the direction of Henry s nephew, King John II of Portugal. The institute s expeditions continued to venture south and then rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed to the east and throughout Asia over the next few decades.