Someone might amplify to me why Liverpool’s Sefton Park, outside the Palm House, features a (rather fine — especially for a piece of late Victoriana) statue of Prince Henry the Navigator. The clue seems to be there are seven other statues, all ‘discoverers’, in the same location. I’m told it is by Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud, and closely parallels an original in Lisbon’s Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
But allow to focus on the subject, not the object.
Ay time I look at medieval history I seem to come across the generations who sprang from
Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster
Here’s another one. How João I Aviz got the top job (1385) and founded his dynasty is a story in itself, but he promptly married Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt. That spawned a litter of first generation descendants (though João seems to have done his bit for progeny via other bits on the side).
By any primogeniture, short of plagues, Borgias and mass assassination, the fourth child and third son of João I would have have been more than ‘spare’. What he did become, though, was a very effective director of Portuguese trade policy.
There are two kinds of interpreters:
- one is either of the ‘Great Man’ lot; or
- one looks for the economic and other conditions that facilitated the ‘Great Man’.
I am, by temperament, most definitely one of the latter.
In the early fifteenth century, the location of Portugal, at the end of the European landmass, was its opportunity.
Trade eastwards was becoming increasingly sticky. Those pesky Ottoman Turks were becoming increasingly commercial: they sat across all the traditional routes to the orient, and recognised the need to be paid for the privilege. Gold was coming in across the Sahara — the Venetians had trading posts well into sub-Sahara: other profitable commodities from that supply chain were salt and slaves.
There is a corollary in that. When the Latins finally recognised the loss of Jerusalem (and that’s an historical ‘given’ after 1244), and when the Tartars overthrew the Bagdad Caliphate (1258), ‘normal relations’ could be established with the Ottomans. We can have a useful discussion sometime about how ‘crusading’ (and its targeted opposition) involves war-making, trading, and diplomacy. Then, as later, christian missionaries were in the company of traders and import/export dealers. So, around the thirteenth century Europeans are appearing across Asia. Marco Polo may get the credit (and his journey was 1271-1295), but initially he was following the footsteps of his father, Niccolò, and uncle Maffeo. Lest we forget — his was a route well-travelled: Roman traders were calling on the 27th Chinese Han emperor in AD166, and Justinian’s spies brought back the silk-worms and mulberry bushes around AD557.
Another ‘theatre’ of the crusading period was Iberia. Lisbon was taken from the Almoravids after the siege of July-October 1147. The Reconquista was complete only after the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212).
Two centuries later …
Along comes our ‘Great Man’.
He made his first mark by driving the plan to capture Ceuta (the other Pillar of Hercules, opposite Gibraltar) — not only a strategic location, but the centre of tunny fishing. As significantly, a way of spiting the Castilians.
Once João was sold on the scheme, full mobilisation was ordered. That’s something not easily disguised, and soon all Europe and north Africa were puzzling over the intended target — a crusade? Granada? Castile? Further afield? The king’s ploy was to cook up a dispute with Holland — credibly, because of the ongoing Hook and Cod Wars (though, discreetly, Count William VI was let in on the secret).
On 21-22 August 1415, João I Aviz and his expedition secured Ceuta, with young Henrique as a wounded hero. Which is why the flag of Ceuta is that of Lisbon, and both include the arms of Portugal. Ceuta was no great gain for Portugal (and that, too, is another story), but it had turned the country’s attention to Africa.
Henrique’s due reward was to be named as governor of the Algarve and based himself at Sagres, than which Europe does come further west and south.
Henrique was a ‘navigator’ by delegation (that cognomen came along only in the nineteenth century, and popularised through two English biographies). What he did was be the centre of information at this personal court — in effect a one-man technological institute.
The motive was to locate the source of that wealth — the gold, slaves and salt — the other side of the Sahara (and, since Ceuta didn’t produce the expected dividend, there were bills to pay). Plus, there was the legend of a christian kingdom of ‘Prester John’, in need of aid, surrounded by Islamics.
Several innovations and adaptations lay behind Henrique’s explorations:
- The Portuguese had learned from the Moors and Catalans, and further developed portolans.
- Navigation improved as the magnetic compass and compass rose improved;
- The Portuguese shipbuilders took the Arab qārib — a very ancient vessel, compare the Latin carabus or even the Greek καραβος — and its lateen sail, made a hybrid with the whaler, the ballinger. Add a rudder, from northern European experience and the result was the caravel, far more sea-going and far more load-carrying.
Then there was ‘method’. Henrique’s instructions to his navigators came down to: head west for x days, crossing the air stream coming from the south, and then swing towards the south in a great arc. As time went by, the westing was increased, and the arcs outwards similarly.
Admittedly the navigators had some precedents. Under Juba II of Mauretania, a contemporary and sometime guest of Julius Caesar, Berbers are alleged to have located the Canary Islands — but found evidence of previous occupation. The Catalans had shown interest in the Canaries as a route for slaves and a source of dyes from the dragon tree. Henrique moved in: first in 1424 (which was a military failure) but with more success later.
Meanwhile, Madeira had moved up Henrique’s agenda.
Portuguese histories claim Joao Gongalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz, squires of Henrique, were driven by a storm and ‘discovered’ the smaller island of Porto Santo in 1425. Odd, that, because the whole archipelago had been on charts since around 1351. Henrique accepted that here could be Portugal’s first overseas colony. We can also assume uninhabited Madeira hadn’t been targeted by others because [a] it wasn’t a source of valuable slaves, and [b] it couldn’t counts as a crusade. Sending rabbits as a meat-source may not have been Henrique’s idea, but it devastated Porto Santo — with no natural predators, the rabbit bred … err … like rabbits. The main island was soon exploited as a source of timber and that red ‘dragon’s blood’ dye. Once ground had been cleared, first wheat and then wine became a profitable export. And then sugar (which required the importation of commuted felons and then a slave work-force). All of which went to finance Henrique’s naval academy.
Or, in Arabic, Abū Khaṭar (‘the father of peril’) was generally regarded as the limit of European knowledge of the African coast. Again we have Portuguese history magnifying a dubious ‘first’. In 1434 Gil Eanes is supposed to have rounded the Cape. In truth, French out of Lanzarote were there three decades earlier — and there is doubt which cape Gil Eanes rounded. Even Henrique didn’t advance the claim until 1443, whence was angling from the regent, his brother, Don Pedro, a grant a monopoly of the Guinea trade.
Henrique was not entirely a cartographer: there are always mercenary ends lurking behind his projects. The Guinea coast had been on European maps since c.1320: the camel caravans from across the Sahara were bringing some two-thirds. of Europe’s consumption of gold. Jaume Ferrer had gone looking for the legendary Riu d’Oro a century earlier — and had disappeared without trace. Guinea was also a source of ivory — and slaves. So the Portuguese exploration of the coast was the search for a suitable landing place, and a means of busting the Moorish control of the trans-Saharan trade — even if it was presented as yet another crusading venture. Note, too, that Gil Eanes’ second expedition brought back, not gold, but oil and seal skins — and Henrique had a monopoly on soap production.