He ordered two gentlemen to proceed down the Barbary coast on a voyage of discovery.
Continuing Portugese Discovery and Atlantic Slavery Begins,
our selection from The Spanish in America by Sir Arthur Helps published in 1855. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Portugese Discovery Begins; Atlantic Slavery Begins.
We now turn to the history of the discoveries made, or rather caused to be made, by Prince Henry of Portugal. This Prince was born in 1394. He was the third son of John I of Portugal and Philippa, the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. That good Plantagenet blood on the mother’s side was, doubtless, not without avail to a man whose life was to be spent in continuous and insatiate efforts to work out a great idea. Prince Henry was with his father at the memorable capture of Ceuta, the ancient Septem, in 1415. This town, which lies opposite to Gibraltar, was of great magnificence, and one of the principal marts in that age for the productions of the East. It was here that the Portuguese nation first planted a firm foot in Africa; and the date of this town’s capture may, perhaps, be taken as that from which Prince Henry began to meditate further and far greater conquests. His aims, however, were directed to a point long beyond the range of the mere conquering soldier. He was especially learned, for that age of the world, being skilled in mathematical and geographical knowledge. And it may be noticed here that the greatest geographical discoveries have been made by men conversant with the book knowledge of their own time. A work, for instance, often seen in the hands of Columbus, which his son mentions as having had much influence with him, was the learned treatise of Cardinal Petro de Aliaco (Pierre d’Ailly), the Imago Mundi.
But to return to Prince Henry of Portugal. We learn that he had conversed much with those who had made voyages in different parts of the world, and particularly with Moors from Fez and Morocco, so that he came to hear of the Azeneghis, a people bordering on the country of the negroes of Jalof. Such was the scanty information of a positive kind which the Prince had to guide his endeavors. Then there were the suggestions and the inducements which to a willing mind were to be found in the shrewd conjectures of learned men, the fables of chivalry, and, perhaps, in the confused records of forgotten knowledge once possessed by Arabic geographers. The story of Prester John, which had spread over Europe since the crusades, was well known to the Portuguese Prince. A mysterious voyage of a certain wandering saint, called St. Brendan, was not without its influence upon an enthusiastic mind. Moreover, there were many sound motives urging the Prince to maritime discovery; among which, a desire to fathom the power of the Moors, a wish to find a new outlet for traffic, and a longing to spread the blessings of the faith may be enumerated. The especial reason which impelled Prince Henry to take the burden of discovery on himself was that neither mariner nor merchant would be likely to adopt an enterprise in which there was no clear hope of profit. It belonged, therefore, to great men and princes, and among such he knew of no one but himself who was inclined to it.
The map of the world being before us, let us reduce it to the proportions it filled in Prince Henry’s time: let us look at our infant world. First, take away those two continents, for so we may almost call them, each much larger than a Europe, to the far west. Then cancel that square, massive-looking piece to the extreme southeast; happily there are no penal settlements there yet. Then turn to Africa: instead of that form of inverted cone which it presents, and which we now know there are physical reasons for its presenting, make a cimetar shape of it, by running a slightly curved line from Juba on the eastern side to Cape Nam on the western. Declare all below that line unknown. Hitherto, we have only been doing the work of destruction; but now scatter emblems of hippogriffs and anthropophagi on the outskirts of what is left in the map, obeying a maxim, not confined to the ancient geographers only — where you know nothing, place terrors. Looking at the map thus completed, we can hardly help thinking to ourselves, with a smile, what a small space, comparatively speaking, the known history of the world has been transacted in, up to the last four hundred years. The idea of the universality of the Roman dominions shrinks a little; and we begin to fancy that Ovid might have escaped his tyrant. The ascertained confines of the world were now, however, to be more than doubled in the course of one century; and to Prince Henry of Portugal, as to the first promoter of these vast discoveries, our attention must be directed.
This Prince, having once the well-grounded idea in his mind that Africa did not end where it was commonly supposed, namely, at Cape Nam (Not), but that there was a world beyond that forbidding negative, seems never to have rested until he had made known that quarter of the globe to his own. He fixed his abode upon the promontory of Sagres, at the southern part of Portugal, whence, for many a year, he could watch for the rising specks of white sail bringing back his captains to tell him of new countries and new men. We may wonder that he never went himself; but he may have thought that he served the cause better by remaining at home and forming a centre whence the electric energy of enterprise was communicated to many discoverers, and then again collected from them. Moreover, he was much engaged in the public affairs of his country. In the course of his life he was three times in Africa, carrying on war against the Moors; and at home, besides the care and trouble which the state of the Portuguese court and government must have given him, he was occupied in promoting science and encouraging education.
In 1415, as before noticed, he was at Ceuta. In 1418 he was settled on the promontory of Sagres. One night in that year he is thought to have had a dream of promise, for on the ensuing morning he suddenly ordered two vessels to be got ready forthwith, and to be placed under the command of two gentlemen of his household, Joham Gonzalvez Zarco and Tristam Vaz, whom he ordered to proceed down the Barbary coast on a voyage of discovery.