This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

Henry the Navigator had to found a Portuguese Empire overseas

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, Sea, Ships on Friday, 31 January 2014

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about Henry the Navigator first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Henry the Navigator,  picture, image, illustration

Henry the Navigator at the school of navigation at Sagres by C L Doughty

A small sailing vessel was rolling and surging southwards beneath a blazing sun. There was land on her port hand, as there had been for many days now and ahead, off her port bow, a great flat-topped mountain rose against the sky.

The long voyage continued. The sun disappeared, storm clouds gathered and the little ship was tossed about by huge waves. But still she pressed on, along the coast now bearing away eastwards.

Then the clouds cleared away. The sun shone again. The land fell right away, farther and farther to the east, and then to the north. A new ocean lay ahead. . . .

This voyage was a historic one. Bartolomeo Dias had pioneered a route to the Orient round the south of the great continent of Africa. The final cape he had rounded, once known as the Cape of Storms, was rechristened the Cape of Good Hope because of the promise it gave of new prospects of exploration, conquest and trade. The huge waves the little ship had encountered were to become well known to mariners as the Cape Rollers.

Bartolomeo Dias made his epic voyage towards the end of the 15th century, in the year 1488. He was Portuguese. During the whole of that century it was Portugal that led the way in exploration by sea.

How did such a small country become such a great seafaring nation?

The answer lies partly in Portugal’s geographical situation. Portugal is really just a strip of coastal land on the Atlantic coast of Europe. It is isolated from the rest of the continent by Spain and the only way it could expand was seawards.

It also lies in the fact that in the 15th century Portugal produced many great and courageous sea-captains, and during the first half of the century her royal house produced a man who was nothing short of a genius where seafaring matters were concerned.

This man was Prince Henry, sometimes called the Prince of the Sea, but more widely known as Henry the Navigator.

Henry did not make any great voyages himself. He did go to sea with his father when he was a young man, but his fame rests on the brilliant work he did in developing ship design and in introducing new and improved methods of navigation.

Henry devoted his whole life to seafaring matters. As a young man he turned his back on the ordinary pleasures of court life and established himself at Sagres, a small town on the south-west tip of Portugal. There, within sound of the Atlantic breakers and no more than a stone’s throw of beaches on which strange birds and plants were sometimes washed up – evidence of the existence of mysterious, as yet unknown lands across the ocean – he gathered round him a great company of sailors and ship-designers, map-makers, astronomers and mathematicians.

It was Prince Henry and these experts of his who developed the caravelle, the world’s first really seaworthy, ocean-going ship. It was in this sort of ship that Bartolomeo Dias sailed.

The typical caravelle was a long, shallow-draught vessel with three masts. It was stable, quite fast, and much better at sailing against the wind than any of its predecessors had been. The caravelle was in fact such a successful design that it sailed the seas of the world for the next 100 years.

Henry also spent a lot of time organising the despatch of expeditions, and in questioning the men who went on them when they returned. But it is as Henry the Navigator that he is chiefly remembered. His interest and encouragement led to great improvements in ocean charts and navigational instruments. It was as a result of the work of his team that mariners were first able to calculate their latitude by measuring the height of heavenly bodies above the horizon. Before that they had had to rely on dead reckoning; in other words, on steering by compass and estimating how far they had sailed on their various courses.

The people of the ancient world believed that the promontory on which Sagres stands was the end of the Earth. It must be, they thought because every night the sun was swallowed up by the sea. The Portuguese of the 15th century, however, and in particular Henry the Navigator, believed that the ocean was a pathway to a new world; and they set out to prove it.

Their first discoveries were the Atlantic island groups of Madeira and the Azores. These opened the way to West Africa. Then came Bartolomeo Dias’s great voyage, and ten years after that, in 1498, another famous Portuguese sea-captain, Vasco da Gama, reached India.

Other tremendous voyages followed, and the men who made them could themselves justly be called Princes of the Sea. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach Brazil, Greenland, the west coast of North America, Alaska, the Moluccas, China, Japan and Australia.

Portugal’s possessions overseas continued to spread and multiply until she had a vast empire in four continents. But the very vigour of her expansion exhausted her. She had gone too far too fast. From her peak as a world power she rapidly declined until her empire was only a shadow of its former self.

But she had had her day of glory. Testimony to that is the magnificent Monument to the Discoveries in her great capital city and port of Lisbon.

It was from Lisbon that the caravelles set out on their brave ventures into the unknown, and the Monument looks almost as though it is putting to sea on just such a voyage itself. It is shaped like the prow of a ship, and it juts out boldly from the bank of Lisbon’s river, the Tagus.

The Monument to the Discoveries is an elaborate piece of work, and the figures carved on it tell an eloquent story. On the very prow of the ship stands Henry the Navigator, holding a model of a caravelle. Behind him, close together, as though pressing forward eagerly after him, are sailors and ship-builders, learned men and other examples of all those people who were associated with him in his work. There are also priests and poets, and weeping women – weeping because their men were going away, or had never come back.

On the open space at the foot of the Monument there is a star-shaped compass card on which the lands and seas which Henry the Navigator inspired his people to discover are mapped in marble of various colours. And not far away there is a maritime museum in which charts, navigational instruments and models of the ships of Portugal’s days of greatness are displayed.

The Monument is a modern one. It was erected in 1960, to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death.

Lisbon is a big and bustling port. And Henry is there to supervise things, just as he did when he was alive.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.