Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life – Peter E. Russell

Henry begins with a text listing his view of what the objectives of any man’s life are…First of all is man’s duty to secure salvation for his soul. This is by definition the most important goal of human life. Next is the pursuit of honour for himself, his name, his lineage and his nation. Honour, declares the prince, is passed on by inheritance from generation to generation and so concerns the very essence of worldly existence. If he possesses honour, a man’s name and reputation will endure until the world’s end…He dismisses as worthless most of the activities necessary either to make life tolerable or, indeed, to keep going at all.

Prince Henry “The Navigator” is a detailed biography by Peter Russell of the famous Portuguese prince who started the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the 15th century.

The Prince was obsessed by his crusading destiny and, under his pressure, the Portuguese conquered Ceuta. He then goes against everyone, seasoned sailors and common knowledge, to fund expeditions going beyond Cape Bojador, a place after which sailing was considered impossible. This was a crucial moment that defined the destiny of Portugal.

A splendid expeditions and commerce organizer.

Prince Henry also organized and pushed the discoveries for decades, until his death, despite the fact he was constantly struggling with bankruptcy. The trade with Guinea (mainly slaves) and, principally, the riches from Madeira (wood, dyes, sugar) brought much wealth to the country and showed that profit could be made from maritime discoveries.

He was open to people of skill, hiring foreigners in his service, mainly Genoese to develop trade. Rusell suggests that some of the funds to finance the expeditions were coming from the Genoese merchant houses in Portugal.

The ascetic Prince was very close to his retinue, always trying to help them and give them positions. Maybe his court was not always paid in time, but he tried to take care of his knights and servants.

The biographer is a balanced writer of Price Henry’s life. The debacle of Tangier, when the Portuguese attacked the Marinid Morocco’s port, again at the Prince’s pressure, shows a darker side of the noble. To be allowed to leave, the Prince agreed to give back Ceuta, leaving his brother as guarantee. He never returned the city to the Moroccans and his brother died in prison.

While the Prince always presented his expeditions as religious attempts to christianize Africa, the purpose looks more likely to be profit. Putting the cross of the Order of Christ, where he was leader, on the sails certainly helped to boost this image. In practice, no churches were built in Africa and he cruelly defended his monopoly of trade to Guinea, especially against the Castilians.

But, why was he starting the expeditions? Why not others? Maybe the answer lies on two aspects: first, he was conditioned to go towards the sea, there was nothing of enough value, or too costly to get if North Africa was attacked; secondly, he wanted more than others to become famous. The biographer suggests that the Prince strongly believed that he could get by sea to the mythical kingdom of Preacher John, a Christian kingdom full of riches in Africa. Of course, the conditions were set for discovery: internal stability in Portugal, with Castile fighting internal wars, no threat from Africa, ships that could travel such long distances, enough wealth to finance the expeditions, skilled and courageous sailors, etc..

The books is lengthily, still not enough detailed as it could have been. However, it is a classic, maybe the best biography of the famous Portuguese prince.

[Featured photo by André Luís from Lisbon, Portugal]

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