1400 Henry the Navigator

Statue of Infante Don Henrique [Lord Prince Henry] overlooking Lagos, Portugal. Lagos is where Henry kept his fleet of ships. The colonnade behind him to the right housed the first black-African slave market.(1)

Most likely Europeans would have re-discovered America much later than they did were it not for Henry the Navigator. Henry was the grandson of Kings Pedro I of Portugal and Edward III of England. He was the third of King João I’s sons to reach adulthood, the brother of King Duarte of Portugal. And he was the great-uncle of King João II of Portugal, Queen Isabella of Castile, Maximilian I Holy Roman Emperor, and King Manoel I of Portugal – all of whom will benefit from his research and exploration. Henry never became king because he had two older brothers: Duarte [Edward in English] and Pedro [Peter]. Henry’s name was spelled Anrique. His monogram AA stood for Anrique of Avis.

Henry never married, and he had no children of record. But he became very attached to his nephew Fernando [the younger brother of the heir apparent to King Duarte, Afonso], treating him “like a son.” Fernando will inherit Henry’s estate, titles, and an extremely important, Pope-blessed patent.(2) This abbreviated family tree shows only family members who reached adulthood, affected Henry’s life, or were significant descendants.

History credits Henry for revolutionizing navigation for the western world. With the support of his father and older brothers, he encouraged the advancement of the technology needed for way-finding on the open ocean. His carpenters improved ship design. In turn, explorers more easily found the Atlantic Islands, explored the west coast of Africa, and searched for a southeastern passage to India. Unfortunately, in the process, Henry kicked off the slave trade between Western Europe and the Muslim African countries.

You will find statues of Henry the Navigator sprinkled throughout Portugal. They are usually labeled Infante Don Henrique [Lord Prince Henry]. We have included a few below. In the first a young version of Henry stands above Porto overlooking the Rio Douro from where he departed on his first adventure to Ceuta. The second statue greets visitors at the entrance to the Convento do Cristo [Convent of Christ], which was the headquarters of the Order of Christ in Tomar. The third graces a park in Sagres, in Southern Portugal, where he built his navigation center. He holds a sea chart in one hand and points to a far-off place across the Atlantic with the other. The final version of this man is in the Age of Discovery Wax Museum in Lagos. Note the astrolabe hanging from his right hand.(3)

The word navigate came from the Latin words navis, meaning ship, and agere, which meant to drive. Henry the Navigator never drove his own ships. But because of him, ship captains and explorers accomplished amazing things. By the time Captain Christopher Jones sailed the Mayflower to Cape Cod in 1620, ship pilots could position their vessel’s location on Earth within one mile. The only tools at their disposal were sea charts, the compass, the astrolabe, the cross-staff, globes, quadrants, the hourglass, and dividers. The spy glass [telescope] was invented in the Netherlands around 1608 and improved by Galileo in 1609, so maybe Captain Jones owned one. The chronometer and sextant were not invented until a hundred years later.

Prince Henry was “of good height and stout of frame.” He had “bristly hair and a fair complexion darkened by so much exposure to the sun.” Normally he was calm and dignified. He showed great enthusiasm toward men who “pursued enemies of the faith.” But he could be harsh when angry and obsessive about efficiency.

Henry started his illustrious career when he was seventeen years old. Granada was still a Muslim country. Moorish corsairs [pirates from Morocco] harassed Portuguese trading ships as they sailed the Mediterranean. Barbary pirates [early residents of Northwest Africa called Berbers] raided Portuguese ports to capture the residents and sell them as slaves elsewhere – probably to people in Arab countries.

In 1415, King João learned that Ceuta, the headquarters of the fierce corsairs, was weakened by a civil war. The leaders had fled to Granada and left the port undefended. As noted in earlier articles, the port of Ceuta lay at the northern tip of Africa and across the strait from Gibraltar. The spiked rock at the entrance to its harbor was one of the Pillars of Hercules that guarded the gateway between the Mediterranean and the Ocean Sea [Atlantic].

The channel of water between Ceuta and the Iberian Peninsula was so narrow [less than eight miles] that on a clear day, a Muslim corsair in Ceuta could easily see the rock of Gibraltar on the northern side. The map below showing the two fabulous cities of Ceuta on the left and Gibraltar on the right was drawn a hundred years later by an Ottoman Turk named Piri Reis.

Piri Reis, Detail of the Strait of Gibraltar from an illuminated manuscript on navigation, 1518.(4 )

We will repeat the computer generated image of the Strait of Gibraltar from our earlier article. The port of Ceuta was built between the mountain peaks of Monte Hocho [aka Mons Abyla] and Jebel Musa.

“Strait of Gibraltar Perspective” by NASA / JPL / NIMA.(5)

To obtain more information about Ceuta’s plight, King João sent a prior [monk] from the Order of Christ to Ceuta on the pretense of a social mission. When the prior returned to Portugal, João called a meeting of the princes; that included Henry’s half-brother Afonso, who was thirty years old; Duarte, who was twenty; Pedro, who was nineteen; and Henry, who was seventeen. João Jr., fifteen, and Fernando, thirteen, were apparently still too young to participate in military campaigns.

King João invited the prior to give his report. Before commencing, the prior asked for two sacks of sand, a half-bushel of beans, a roll of ribbon, and a porridge bowl. With these items he created a relief map that showed Gibraltar to the north and the twin peaks of Ceuta to the south. The record is not clear which pillar the porridge bowl stood for, but the beans represented the houses in the city of Ceuta. The ribbon formed the protective wall around the city. And the sand illustrated the beaches where, the prior said, there was a perfect anchorage for King Joao’s ships to land his troops.

The princes quickly understood that by capturing Ceuta(6), Portugal could control the passage of trading vessels in and out of the Mediterranean Sea. She could build a base of operations for eliminating the Moorish corsairs. Portuguese merchants would gain an edge over the Genoese, who, with their swifter and more maneuverable ships, and their new guns that employed Chinese gun powder to shoot stone balls, were still profiting the most from trade with Africa.

Preparations for the attack took three years. The massive amount of ship construction worried Castile, Granada, and Aragon. The Portuguese had to assure their European neighbors they were not the targets while keeping the real destination a secret. Pope Urban issued a bull bestowing the Portuguese with the privileges and indulgences(7) of a crusade.

A tragic event nearly halted the expedition. An outbreak of plague spread in Lisbon just as the fleet prepared to leave and Queen Philippa contracted the dreaded disease. As she lay on her bed dying, she asked her husband, King João, and her sons to promise they would not stop their plans because of her death. Philippa was, after all, a Plantagenet and the granddaughter of Edward III, who, during his fifty year reign, had [as Wikipedia put it] “transformed the Kingdom of England into one of the most formidable military powers in Europe.” She was a descendent of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine who launched the Second Crusade, and a grand-niece of Richard the Lionhearted. She knew how important this new campaign was for “carrying the cross” to North Africa which, by that time, was more Muslim than Palestine.

Queen Philippa ordered one of her courtiers to bring forth four gleaming swords she had had forged and presented them to her husband. She told João that after the conquest, he was to use the swords to dub each son to knighthood. With equal ceremony, she unhooked a chain that hung from her neck holding a small gold reliquary(8). Cocooned within the tiny container was a wooden sliver from the True Cross [the wooden cross on which Jesus had been crucified]. Philippa divided the sliver into four splinters and handed one to her husband and one to each son. With that, she blessed them on their journey. That afternoon, the moon eclipsed the sun. That night, King João I buried his beloved English wife.

In June of 1415, the fleet of 240 sail [ships] departed Lisbon. Twenty-seven magnificent triremes led the way rowed by three banks of oarsmen. King João and Henry shouted orders from a pinnace [an open-decked ship of about twenty feet] that maneuvered them in and out of the other vessels. Each vessel was adorned with the square banner of the Order of Christ. Pennants fluttered from masts with the Order’s motto “Talent de Bien Faire,” [“Desire to do well”].

As the ships rounded Cape St. Vincent, where the bones of the fourth century martyr were buried, and which had from ancient times been a sacred place, they dipped their sails in respect.

The view of the Atlantic facing north from  Cape St Vincent toward Portugal, from where Henry’s fleet sailed.(9)

Not until the ships pulled into nearby Lagos Harbor did João and Henry reveal to their captains their true destination. The fleet arrived to the beach near Ceuta before dawn in late August. When the Moors saw the Portuguese ships coming, they fled. So did the populace of Ceuta. Even the resident Genoese took refuge. The Christians landed, but the skirmish was short and they lost only eight men.

The violence occurred when the Portuguese set about sacking and claiming the city. Ceuta’s markets were the richest in all the Mediterranean. Seamen and soldiers pillaged the bazaars, causing havoc everywhere. They ripped open sacks of expensive spices, not understanding their value, searching for gold.

An image commemorating Henry’s capture of Ceuta is painted on blue tiles known as azulejos in the lobby of Porto’s São Bento [Saint Benedict] train station.(10)

João awarded Prince Henry the governorship of Ceuta, which meant Henry received all the privileges of the lord of the land. He had proven himself so admirably that he would become famous throughout the courts of Europe for this accomplishment. It was the first step in the Christian crusade to conquer a Muslim port in Africa. To maintain the conquest, King João placed a commanding force of 2,600 men under the leadership of General Pedro de Menses. Henry would govern from Portugal. Finally, taking up the swords Queen Philippa had had forged, King João bestowed the title of Duke of Viseu on Henry and Duke of Coimbra on Pedro.

On September 2, after only a few weeks in Ceuta, the royals of the House of Avis turned their fleet for home, each ship filled to its gunwales(10) with spoils: richly colored rugs; crates piled high with sparkling plates of silver and gold; and barrels overflowing with pungent cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, and other spices.

Once home in Lisbon, King João divided up the tasks of running his country between his sons. He assigned Duarte, the heir apparent, to manage the kingdom. He asked the fair-haired, blue-eyed, red-bearded Pedro, Duke of Coimbra, who was fluent in Latin, and the more personable and social of the brothers, to take care of international relations. Henry, Duke of Viseu was to be in charge of trade and exploration.

The young prince took his charge seriously. He dedicated himself to finding a passage under Africa to India that avoided the Muslim and Venetian monopolies. While he was at it, he would carry out the Order of Christ’s mission to spread the True Faith among the infidels.

Thorough scientist that he was, Henry began to gather information that already existed. He first collect every map and portolan available. He and his courtiers interviewed mariners who passed through Lisbon to find out what they knew first and second hand. And he ordered every sea captain to investigate the knowledge and technology of other nations.

As indicated by this statue of Henry the Navigator in Sagres, he encouraged the development of new charts that enabled the discovery of new lands.

Henry read the ancient travelogues, he read about Hanno the Navigator’s trip to Cape Bojador; Eudoxus of Cyzicas’ travels westward under Africa from India; and learned that some captains claimed it was possible to reach India by sailing west with “a few days of fair wind.” Henry read Sir John Mandeville’s travelogue from 1371.

He listened to every rumor about ships finding land west of the Ocean Sea. One of those rumors passed through the Plantagenet court. It claimed that a year earlier, an English sea captain was blown offshore to the west, where he ran into an island paradise.

Arabian maps had been indicating a river of gold in Africa for hundreds of years. The Portuguese referred to it as Rio do Oro. In 1154, cartographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi placed it on the west coast. In 1367, the Pizigano brothers of Venice copied it on their portolan. When cartographer Abraham Cresques drew his Catalan Atlas in 1375, he included a blurb about a Moroccan explorer who went on a futile search for the river, with a tiny illustration of a boat to go with it.

The explorer’s name was Jaume Ferrer. In 1346, twenty-one years before Cresques drew his atlas, the Aragonians hired Ferrer to inspect the western shore of Africa in search of the river. Ferrer left on August 10 in an uxer, which was, according to Wikipedia, “a single-mast, square-rigged and oar-powered cargo galley with a rounded stern and low prow, commonly used to freight horses.” He left Aragon heading to the west, but was never heard from after that. Even so, the fact that the Aragonians believed in such a river convinced Prince Henry to look for it.

As part of his campaign to convert the infidels, Henry wanted to find Prester John. Henry and the Order of Christ wanted to know if the Christian elder would help the Europeans fight the Ottoman Turks moving in from the East. They also wanted his help converting the Africans to the “true faith.” Henry had a copy of the Pizigani Portolan of 1367 showing the location of Prester John in Ethiopia/Abyssinia. And Henry learned from maps drawn in 1385 of the supposed bay called Sinus Aethiopicus south of Cape Bojador that lead inland toward that land. Henry planned to reach Prester John by finding and entering that bay.

With all this encouragement that the Indies were reachable and worth reaching, Henry needed to figure out how to sail under Africa. Even the Arabs did not know that the African continent was 5000 miles long, north to south. That was more than one and a half trips across the Atlantic Ocean from Portugal to New England. That was more than the distance between Palestine and Cathay. The Arabs had surveyed the east coast only as far as the southern end of Madagascar.

By the time Henry began his quest, the Genoese, Venetians, Catalonians, and Majorcans were regularly trading with the African port of Safi. The French and Castilians had claimed the Canary Islands off the coast of Cape Bojador at the western edge of the Sahara Desert. And Portuguese navigators had reached the Sargasso Sea, the western section of the North Atlantic. [They named it after the sargassum seaweed growing there – sargaço or sargasso in Portuguese.]

However, the latest European ships and navigation tools were not sufficient for taking them farther south. The Genoese and Venetians had perfected the low flat galleys that had evolved from the Phoenician ships. Newer galleys could withstand raids from Muslim corsairs patrolling the Mediterranean between the Middle East and Venice. But galleys were heavy, slow, and cumbersome on the vast ocean. They were open to the air and vulnerable to tall waves. They were difficult to maneuver in thrashing seas. The biggest shortfall was that galleys needed many oarsmen to power them. All those oarsmen took up space, space required to transport food and provisions needed on long voyages.

A typical galley from the 1300s with a steering oar.(12)

Some galleys had masts with large rectangular sails. But rectangular sails only allowed ships to sail forward with the wind, not tack against it. The galleys could sail south but they could not sail north again.

The galley’s steering mechanisms needed redesigning, too. Old barks [barges and barques] were steered by a steering oar, a very large paddle that extended down the right side of the ship. [Trivial note: from this steering board came the term starboard, which meant the right side of a ship. Port side meant the left side of the ship and evolved from the necessity to sidle ships up to port on the side of the ship where there was no steering board.]

Henry’s clever captains and shipbuilders observed Arabian ships zooming against the wind in their narrow ships with triangular sails [The term lateen(13) used for triangular shaped sails did not come into use until later.] Henry instructed his men to find out how the Arabs built their ships, what instruments they used, and how they maneuvered their vessels. He also instructed them to copy Arabian sea charts.

It was equally important that the captains study the wind patterns of the Ocean Sea and chart how they changed with the seasons. The circular winds and currents of the Atlantic were known as the gyre, from the Latin word gyrus, which meant ring or swirl [as in gyro]. As we have mentioned, the Portuguese called the pattern Volta do Mar [Twist or Turn of the Sea]. Understanding this pattern would become essential when surveying the African coast. As we have also noted, a ship sailing from the south had to circle west, then loop north toward the Azores – nearly traversing the Atlantic twice – before it could turn east for the ports of Lagos or Lisbon.

Once Henry had gathered all this information, he sent his shipbuilders to their drawing boards to come up with a new ship design. It will take them almost twenty years.

Meanwhile, the best ship available was a nau – the term literally meant ship and came from the Latin word navi for ship, [We get our word navy from navi, too.] A nau was probably similar to the Moorish Carib [or Carabo]. It was a broad beamed [wide] vessel with a square sail [sometimes two], covered by a partial deck, used to haul cargo to accompany the galley fleets. Naus were stout enough to handle the rolling waves of the Atlantic. Filled with as much food as possible, the Portuguese set out to seek trade and gold in Africa and find Paradise among the Atlantic Islands.


  1. Photo of statue of Henry the Navigator in Lagos ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  2. Henry died a debtor. Fernando inherited Henry’s grant from the Pope for the monopoly of trade with the Indies and Henry’s title, Duke of Viseu.
  3. Photos of statues of Henry the Navigator ©2105 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  4. Reis, Piri. Detail from illuminated manuscript on Navigation, Majorca, 1518. Public Domain, Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons /7/70/Piri_reis_world_map_01.jpg
  5. “Strait of Gibraltar perspective” by NASA / JPL / NIMA - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA03397. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Strait_of_Gibraltar_perspective.
    jpg#/media/File:Strait_of_Gibraltar_perspective.jpg Spain inherited Ceuta from the Portuguese in 1580/81, when King Philip II of Spain became the king of both Spain and Portugal. Today, Ceuta is part of Spain as an autonomous city, even through it is surrounded by Morocco. The official language is still Spanish.
  6. Spain inherited Ceuta from the Portuguese in 1580/81, when King Philip II of Spain became the king of both Spain and Portugal. Today, Ceuta is part of Spain as an autonomous city, even through it is surrounded by Morocco. The official language is still Spanish
  7. An indulgence was a promise from the Pope that if a person worked in the service of God [in this case, for the crusade] he/she would be pardoned of his/her sins and not go to purgatory or hell after death.
  8. A small container for holding religious relics.
  9. Photo of Cape St Vincent ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  10. Photo of tile illustration of Henry the Navigator entering Ceuta ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  11. The upper edge of the side of a ship oftentimes used to support large guns.
  12. Image source. We traced this image from an illustration found at http://forum.paradoxplaza.com/forum/
  13. Triangular sails were later called lateen sails. Lateen was the French word for Latin. The triangular sails were called Lateen only after the Latins [Europeans] began using them frequently.

Next article: The Age of Discovery Begins