1418 – The Age of Discovery Begins

Claiming the Madeiras

In 1418, Henry sent two knights of the Order of Christ to look for the Islands of the Blessed: John Gonçalves – nicknamed Zarco for his blue eyes – and Tristão vas Teixeira. Teixeira had fought alongside Prince Henry to obtain Ceuta. As Zarco and Teixeira coasted North Africa, they were caught up in the Volta do Mar and blown 450 miles west and 600 miles south of Lisbon. When they finally came to a small island with a sheltered harbor, they thanked God profusely and named the island Pôrto Santo [Holy Harbor]. No human inhabitants or wild beasts presented themselves. Plenty of fresh water, fertile soil, and fresh air welcomed the Portuguese. Zarco and Teixeira returned to Lisbon with the news of their find. Henry wondered if their discovery was the same island the English had seen a few years earlier.

The following year, 1419, Henry sent Zarco and Teixeira back to Pôrto Santo in a ship commanded by a Genoese captain named Bartolomeu Perestrello. As a usual source of fresh meat, Perestrello shipped cages full of coelhos [rabbits in English and conejos in Spanish]. He thought the rabbits were all bucks [males]. But there was one doe [female], and she got pregnant. Upon arrival, Zarco and Teixeira unloaded their building supplies and animals, then began constructing their settlement and planting crops. Meanwhile, Perestrello loaded the ship with the gum of a fruit tree that produced a red dye called dragon’s blood. [Red pigments were rare, hard to find, popular, and therefore valuable.] Perestrello sailed the loaded ship back to Lisbon, leaving Gonçalves and Teixeira to manage their island.

Come spring, the doe had her kits [babies], and their descendants devoured the crops faster than they grew. When Perestrello returned with the ship full of new provisions, Zarco and Teixeira decided to abandon the rabbit-invested island and look for something new. They headed southwest. After some thirty-five miles, they observed a cloud hanging over the horizon. They wondered if it covered the mythical Isle of Brazil, or masked the edge of the Ocean of Darkness.

When they heard crashing breakers, they feared they were coming to the Boiling Seas. Just as Perestrello was about to turn the ship about [180 degrees around], the mist lifted and revealed a beautiful, lush, green, volcanic island. The explorers dropped anchor, unloaded a small shoreboat, and rowed to the beach. The island was amazing. There were no inhabitants, no wild beasts, and trackless forests of enormous trees. Zarco and Teixeira named it Madeira, the Portuguese word for Wood.

Rendering of Madeira Island, by Luis Miguel P. Freitas.(1)

Perestrello quickly delivered Zarco and Teixeira back to Lisbon, where they reported their good fortune to Henry. In reward, Henry appointed Zarco and Teixeira hereditary co-capitaños [co-captains, or governors] of Madeira. He awarded Perestrello the hereditary capitaño of Pôrto Santo. A hereditary position meant that the sons and future heirs inherited the governorship. Henry then ordered Perestrello to deliver cattle to Pôrto Santo. [Remember Perestrello for later articles. He, post mortem, will become Christopher Columbus’ father in law.]

It was not long before the explorers discovered the nearby cluster of islands known today as Les Deserta [the Deserts] that are part of the Madeiras archipelago. They were stocked with cattle as well.

Madeira’s soil was unbelievably fertile. It generated wheat that yielded sixty fold [sixty times the amount of seeds planted]. Over the next twenty-five years, the Portuguese will import vines and sugar cane from Sicily, boast four towns, and a population of 800 people with 100 horses. Ships will frequent Madeira’s main harbor at Funchal. One fifth of the profits from the island’s sugar, lumber, wine, honey, beeswax, and cattle hides will go to Henry, and Henry will pass the profits on to the Order of Christ to fund exploration and fight the infidels. Henry’s brother Duarte, after becoming king in 1433, will appoint Henry sovereign [king] of the archipelago. The archipelago will serve as a base of operations for the slave trade. But lets get back to 1420.

Funds from the Order of Christ

In order for Henry’s father, King João I, to retain control of Portugal, he continuously needed to manage the divide between the Lusitanian faction who placed him on the throne and the opposing lords who sided with Castile. The different factions retained separate military orders and armies. Each order owned different parts of Portugal.

By this time, Portugal had three principal military orders: the Order of Avis, the Order of São Thiago [Order of Saint James] and the Order of Christ. In 1420, João exercised his right as king to choose the Grand Masters for each order. He made all the  positions hereditary.

The Order of Avis was João’s personal entourage. He served as Grand Master, the highest commanding officer. When his youngest son [Henry’s brother] Fernando came of age [thirteen], João appointed him to be the Grand Master of this order.

When King João’s son João [Henry’s younger brother] came of age, the king placed him as Grand Master of the Order of São Thiago [Order of Saint James]. This order had been responsible for driving the Moors out of the Algarve, the southern edge of Portugal. [You probably remember that João’s great-grandfather King Dinis separated the Portuguese branch of the order from the Castilian branch back in 1320, which was confirmed by Pope John XXII.]


When a knight was responsible for driving the Moors out of a particular piece of land, he was usually awarded or commended for that action by receiving the governorship of that land, just as Prince Henry received the governorship of Ceuta. A land reward was known as a comenda, as in the word command. A comenda was similar to a captaincy. The governors or lords received all profits from farms, mines, or any other industries carried out on his comenda. Comendas gave knights status and income, and were greatly sought after. Since the beginning of the Reconquista, over a hundred comendas had been awarded – in other words, there were over a hundred knights with governor status. By Prince Henry’s time, knights of the Order of São Tiago governed most of the land south of the Rio Tejo [south of Lisbon]. What made things difficult for King João was that most of those lords favored Castile.

Fortunately, the Order of Jesus Christ set up by King Dinis, balanced things out. Portugal’s branch of the Knights Templar was the largest, most powerful and wealthiest order. It still headquartered in the majestic castle in Tomar on the Rio Tejo. Its knights controlled most of northern Portugal and were the most loyal to the Lusitanian faction. João placed Prince Henry as their Grand Master, and in charge of their treasury.

Henry was already considered pious. When he became the Grand Master of the Order of Christ, he vowed to follow its rules of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Unlike his brothers, Henry determined not to marry. He gave up wine, frivolous comforts, and personal possessions.

With his new income, the gate to the Mediterranean, and Madeira in his pocket, Henry could step up his efforts to find a passage under Africa to Cathay. First he needed to build better ships, create superior sea charts, and refine his captains’ navigation tools.


  1. Rendering of Madeira Island, by Luis Miguel P. Freitas [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Next article: Henry’s Navigation Center on Cape St. Vincent