Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal is a man who, according to legend and history, saved his nation from economic stagnation by pointing their explorers seaward. Henry was born the fourth son of John I of Portugal in 1394. Raised in this noble family, he rose to prominence in the Order of Christ, the Portuguese extension of the Knights Templar. This order's original purpose had been to give travelers safe passage to the Holy Land, but now it was a royal army analogous to Loyola's Italian Society of Jesus. It is not surprising, then, that his motivations are best explained as an extension of Portuguese knightly traditions. Along with his coat of arms and crest, Henry chose his chivalric motto to be "Talent de bien faire", or "the desire to do well". In the context of chivalry, this motto meant for Henry that he would seek to magnify his glory by succeeding in battle, spreading his Christian faith, and making a name for his country.

Unfortunately for Henry, in 1411 his father formed a 101-year treaty with Castille, and so Portugal had no neighboring enemies to attack. King John proposed a yearlong jousting tournament with contestants from all over Europe in which his sons might find an alternate path to glory, but they remained unconvinced. Therefore Portugal began its expansionist military campaigns with a crusade against Ceuta, a North African port city across the sea from Gibraltar noted for housing pirates and Christian slaves. The campaign was a smashing success and it not only led to increased Portuguese territory but also greater knowledge; for Henry learned of northern Africa and the complex network of trade within what was presently thought to be a vast desert. Additionally, the capture of Ceuta provided Portugal with maps much more precise than what the Portuguese presently possessed, perhaps inspiring Henry to support exploration of Africa.

In 1420, Henry became the leader of the Order of Christ following the former master's death. He carried through his religious devotion faithfully and moved to Sagres, a town in the very southwest of Portugal, where he is said to have set up an explorers' school that specialized in cartography, shipbuilding, and navigational advancement. Here he made it his personal goal to explore past Cape Bojador, the southernmost point of west Africa presently known to Europe, with the dual purposes of circumventing the Muslim trade to open up new sea routes and finding (or creating) Christian allies against the Muslim threat--"Christians and spices". In 1434 one of his explorers, Gil Eannes, rounded this troublesome Cape at last and from here Portuguese exploration proceeded more quickly. In a few more years, Portuguese explorers finally had more to show for their troubles than improved maps, for they found civilization past the Sahara Desert. They used the African coast both as trade ports and as sources of slaves. Portuguese progress down the coast remained slow but steady, and when Henry died in 1460, sailors had reached only as far as the Canary Islands. Another thirty years passed before Bartholomeu Dias proved in 1488 that that southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, could be rounded.

Henry never went on any of the exploratory expeditions he authorized, but nonetheless he is regarded as a figure central to Portugal's economic expansion and the prominent status it gained in Europe once it established a sea route to India. It is not so much Henry's actions as an explorer or a thinker that affected future generations; rather, the spirit and zeal he exhibited are of prime importance in understanding why Portugal reached out, against all common superstition concerning the world, in the way that it did.


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