Prince Henry – The navigator


Prince Henry was a prince of Portugal in the 15th Century. He was born on 04th March 1394 and died on 13th November 1460. Henry was the fourth child of the Portuguese King John – I. Henry was popularly known as – Prince Henry – the Navigator, although he never sailed in his explorations. He was a passionate patron of sea-going ships and geographical discoveries. He arranged geographical experts like cartographers, sailors and other experts of the sea. He encouraged them and funded them.His sea-men explored the coast of Africa, most of which was unknown to Europeans. Henry’s purpose was to find the source of the west African Gold trade, to find the legendary Christian kingdom of Prestor John and to stop the pirate attacks on Portuguese ships.

          At that time, the cargo ships of the Mediterranean Sea were too slow and heavy to undertake such voyages. Under Henry’s direction, a new and much lighter ship was developed. Its name was Caravel. It could sail further and faster. With this ship Portuguese mariners freely explored uncharted waters around the Atlantic, from rivers and shallow waters to trans-ocean voyages.

          Henry sponsored voyages collecting a 20% tax on profits, the usual practice of the time in Iberian Islands. The nearby port Lagos provided a convenient home port for these expeditions. The voyages were made in small ships, mostly the Caravel. Most of the voyages sent out by Henry consisted of one or two ships that navigated by following the coast, stopping at night to tie up along some shore. Probably this is an imitation of Phoenician Sailors.

          It may here be mentioned that in the year 1453 Constantinople city was captured by the Turks during the Crusade. This stopped the land route to India of the Europeans who were in dire need of spices from India and nearby Islands. This compelled the Europeans to find alternate route through the sea to reach India for spices. But Prince Henry’s expeditions were earlier voyages because Prince Henry died in the year 1460.

          Prince Henry sponsored explorations that accomplished much for Portugal. Much of West Africa was discovered. Also, they spread Christianity defeating Muslims enemies of the Portuguese at the time and they found new trade routes. Price Henry is considered as a pioneer of the age of discovery. He paved the way for future European travelers around the World. Prince Henry did a yeoman service for the sea going people.

          The monarchs wanted to be more open to new ideas. Spain and Portugal wanted to find a sea route to Asia because Portugal did not share trade routes with Asia and Europe (No Mediterranean ports).

          Prince Henry started a new school of navigation where sailors and map makers could learn their trades. And they were successful also. Bartholomu Dias was the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa.

          In the book of Geography, Prince Henry’s name is written in Golden letters. His passion for navigation was proverbial. He remained a bachelor throughout his life. Prince Henry will be remembered as a legendary figure of the early stages of European exploration and discovery as well as an example of Portuguese nationalism.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own.)

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Radhakanta Seth is an Income tax officer in Sambalpur.  He is a freelance writer and his articles have been published in some Oriya dailies like Sambad, Samaj, Dharitri, and English dailies like The Telegraph and in a sociological journal ‘Folklore’ published from Kolkata.

He can be reached at [email protected]