Henry the Navigator

Henry the Navigator, son of King John I of Portugal, earned the respect of his countrymen early in life by his bravery in the Battle of Ceuta (1415), a victory over Muslim forces that allowed European forces to establish their first permanent position in North Africa. Military interests aside, Henry devoted much of his energy to the study of the sea and distant exotic places, real and imagined.

Portugal, in the early 15th century, was one of the first European nations to unify, but had been plagued by its geographic isolation; it faced westward toward the Atlantic Ocean and was surrounded to the east and north by Spain. Direct access to the Mediterranean — the heart of Western civilization — was denied.

By seeking papal approval first, Henry began the sponsorship of a long series of exploratory ventures southward along the coast of Africa. A lucrative trade in slaves and gold quickly developed. Henry’s commercial success and other military victories enabled him to concentrate on his first love — exploration and the arts and sciences associated with it.

Henry the Navigator’s greatest contribution was the establishment of a government-sponsored institute at Sagres, which maintained a school, an observatory, and a base for exploratory ventures at nearby Lagos. Books and charts were collected in a library and reports were solicited from contemporary travelers.

This concentration of experts and information fostered advances in navigational instruments and cartography. Further, a new ship design that became the Portuguese caravel employed new rigging techniques that enabled mariners to more easily negotiate strong headwinds and unfavorable currents. This ship quickly made Portugal the leading maritime power.

During Henry the Navigator’s lifetime, Portuguese interests were not confined to the West African coast, but pushed westward into the Atlantic to Madeira and the Azores. He helped to establish the foundation for the budding Portuguese empire and contributed mightily to the Christian European effort to avoid Muslim-controlled trade routes in the Middle East and eastern Asia.