Era of Prince Henry of Portugal
Prince Henry of Portugal
The supreme idea of a century finds always one spirit, in whom and through whom the
dreams change into realities. One of these rare men was Prince Henry of Portugal, a
son of King John I. He made the chief aim of his life to extend the boundaries of
maritime discovery, and devoted all the powers of his energetic mind, and all the
influence of rank and riches to the realization of this noble object.
From the Castle of Sagres near Cape St. Vincent, where,
far from the court, he had fixed his residence in order to be less disturbed in his
favourite studies, his eye glanced over the Atlantic, which constantly reminded him of the
unknown lands which held out such brilliant prospects to the navigator who should venture
to steer southwards along the African coast. The experienced seamen and learned
geographers that surrounded him confirmed him in his hopes, and encouraged him to attempt
the realisation of his generous ideas.
At that time Portugal was full of the bold and enterprising spirit
which the expulsion of the Moors and long native wars had called to life. The
geographical position of the country, bounded on every side by the dominions of a mightier
neighbour, forbade all extension by land, and pointed to the ocean as the only field in
which a comparatively small but spirited people could hope to reap a rich harvest of
wealth and glory.
The first two ships which Prince Henry sent out on a voyage of
discovery along the African coast in 1412 did not reach further than Cape
Bojador. Cape's rocky cliffs, stretching far out into the Atlantic scared their
Discovery of Porto Santo and Madeira
Six years later in 1418 Juan Gonsalez Zarco and Tristan Vaz Tejeira were
intrusted with a new expedition, and sailed with express commands to double that ill-famed
promontory. Unfortunately a terrible gale drove them out to sea, and forced them to
seek a refuge on an unknown island, to which they thankfully gave the name of Porto Santo.
This discovery, thought extremely unimportant in itself, served to confirm the prince in
his projects, and encouraged him to send out in the following year a new expedition under
the same commander, to take possession of the island.
This led to a more important discovery. During landing on Porto
Santo the attention of the Portuguese was struck by a black and noticeable spot,
rising above the southern horizon. They directed their course to that spot, and soon they
approached a large island. At that time the island was covered by dense forests up to the
very top. They name the island of Madeira.
Prince Henry immediately equipped a considerable fleet to carry
a colony of his countrymen to the new land of promise. He had furnished his expedition
with the wine of Cyprus, and the sugar-cane of Sicily, which raised so well
on the Atlantic isle, that after a few years the produce of Madeira began to be of
consequence in the trade of the mother country.
The first undertakings of Prince Hanry were not left unrewarded.
But besides the commercial advantages arising from the possession of Madeira, it
encouraged the Portuguese navigators to no longer sail along the coasts, but boldly steer
into the open sea.
Doubling of Cape Bojador
Don Gilianez, by avoiding the shore-currents, succeeded at last in doubling the
dreaded Cape Bojador in 1433, and opening a new time to navigation.
Discovery of the Cape Verde Islands
Now, one discovery rapidly followed another. Gonsalez and Nunio Tristan (1440-1442)
penetrated as far as the Senegal. Cape de Verd was reached in 1446,
and three years later, the limits the known earth were extended as far as the islands of
the same name and the Azores.
It may easily be imagined how much these successes contributed to
encourage the universal longing for discovery. Adventurers from all countries runned to
Portugal. Even many Venetians and Genoese, who were at that time
superior to all other nations in naval science, reckoned it as an honour to serve under a
flag which might justly be considered as the high school of the seaman. Thus before Prince
Henry closed his eyes in 1463 the aim of his glorious life had been achieved.
True, he did not live to see his countrymen penetrate into the Indian Ocean, but he
witnessed the mighty impulse which in a short time was to lead to that important result.
Equator and Southern Hemisphere
In the year 1471 the equator was crossed for the first time.
The Portuguese discovered the error of the ancients, who believed that the intolerable
heat of a vertical sun makes the equatorial regions uninhabitable to man.
Under John the Second a mighty fleet discovered the kingdoms of Benin
and Congo in 1484 and followed the coast 1500 miles beyond the equator, and
revealed to Europe the constellations of another hemisphere.
The farther their ships penetrated to the south, the higher rose their
hopes. As the African continent bend towards the East as they proceeded, they no longer
doubted that the way to the Indian Ocean would now soon be found, and give them the
exclusive possession of a trade which had enriched Venice, and made that city the
envy of the world.
The ancient long forgotten tale of the Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa
became trustful, and Bartholomew Diaz sailed from Lisbon for the purpose of
solving the important problem. The storms of an unknown ocean, the famine caused by the
loss of his store-ship, and the frequent mutinies of a dispirited crew, could not stop the
progress of this fearless mariner, who, boldly advancing in the face of a thousand
difficulties, discovered the high promontory which forms the southern extremity of Africa.
But, his weather-beaten ships were no longer able to challenge the mountain size breakers
and furious gales foaming or roaring round that stormy headland. He had to give up the
attempt to double the Cape of Tempests, Cabo tormentoso, as he called it,
but to which the king gave the more inviting name of the Cape of Good Hope.
Vasco de Gama & Columbus
But before Vasco de Gama set sail from Lisbon to accomplish the great
work in 1498 and win the prize to which so many navigators had gradually paved the
way, the remarkable news had flashed through Europe that on the 12th of October, 1492,
Columbus had discovered a new world in the west.
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