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Prince Henry the Navigator

sponsor of numerous voyages along the western coast of Africa

Henry the Navigator

Prince Henry was born in Oponto, Portugal, in 1394, the third surviving son of King John and Queen Philippa of Lancaster. How he spent his early years is unknown, nor is it known where he received his basic education.

Henry's first military experience came in 1415, when he played a major role in his father's capture of Ceuta, a Muslim stronghold in what is now Morocco. Ceuta was important because it served as a port for the rich trade in African goods, but it proved worthless to Portugal because the trade routes within Africa were still controlled by Muslims. Since all-out war with the Muslims was out of the question, Henry determined that Portugal needed to establish a sea route around the west coast of Africa to bypass the Muslim-controlled trade routes. His father agreed, and, in 1419, Henry was made governor of Algarve so he would have a source of funds to finance his plans; his appointment as governor of the Order of Christ in 1520 provided even more funds.

About 1420, Henry established a naval observatory at Sagres, where he sponsored the study of navigation, astronomy, ship building, and cartography. The first notable achievement made at the observatory was development of the caravel, a sailing ship that combined cargo capacity with maneuverability and seaworthiness, making it an ideal ship for voyages of exploration and trade.

a caravel

Once Prince Henry had the right kind of ship available, he began sending expeditions down the western coast of Africa. One of his expeditions reached the Canary Islands in 1420 and another sailed as far west as the Azores in 1427, but he was unable to find anyone willing to sail past Cape Bojador because sailors believed that the waters beyond that point were too dangerous. That obstacle was finally overcome when Gil Eannes agreed to make the voyage, which he completed in 1434.

Once Cape Bojador had been "conquered," Henry's navigators gradually extended their knowledge of Africa's west coast farther and farther south. Rio de Oro was reached by Alfonso Gonçalves Baldaya in 1436, Cape Blanco by Nuno Tristão and Antao Gonçalves in 1441, and Cape Verde by Dinis Dias in 1445. In 1444, Eannes returned to Portugal with 200 slaves captured near Cape Blanco, beginning the Portuguese slave trade. The first Portuguese foray into the African interior came in 1456, when Alvise da Cadamosto saild up the Gambia River to its junction with the Geba River. The most southerly point reached by one of Henry's navigators was Cape Palmos, which was rounded by Diogo Gomes in 1458.

points reached by Henry's navigators

Although Prince Henry never sailed on any of the voyages he sponsored, he is nevertheless credited with expanding European knowledge of western Africa. He died in 1460.

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This page was last updated on 03/17/2017.