D. Henrique Infante de Portugal

“D. Henrique Infante de Portugal,” Histoire de la Conquete de La Floride: ou Relation de Ce Qui S’est Passé Dans La D’ecouverte de Païs Par Ferdinand de Soto; Composee en Espagnol Par L’Inca Garcillasso de la Vega & Traduite en François Par Sr. Pierre Richelet, 1735, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E123.C5 rare.

Prince Henry the Navigator

1394 CE - 1460 CE


Primary Goal:
To find the Christian Kingdom of Prester John and find a way to Asia by sailing around Africa.
He set up a navigational school for sailors, sponsored Portuguese sailors to explore the African coast in an effort to navigate around Africa to get to Asia, and started the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Henry was the son of King John I of Portugal and his English wife, Philippa of Lancaster. By the age of twenty-one, Henry played an instrumental role in capturing Cetua from the Spanish Moors. Cetua is located on the North African coast near the Straits of Gibraltar. In 1416, Henry set up the “School of Sagres,” an informal university and the first vocational school in Europe. He gathered mathematicians, astronomers, cartographers, and instrument makers to teach the art of sailing. The development of the caravel-designed ship was built in Lagos, a nearby port of Segres. Henry’s goal was to navigate around Africa to Asia and find the legendary Christian Kingdom of Prester John. Henry’s first group of sailors was sent out in 1415 and went as far as the Canary Islands. The Canaries were known, but were never explored, and Henry could not claim the Canaries for Portugal because the Spanish had already claimed them. Three years later, a second group went out to the Guinea Coast, but they were thrown off course and discovered Porto Santo in the Maderia Islands. Porto Santo was the first European Colony in modern history. Prince Henry’s goal for his crew was to pass Cape Bojador, on the African coast just below the Canaries. Sailors believed that if they went beyond Cape Bojador, their skin would turn black, sea monsters would eat their boats, or the ships would never return home. From 1421 on, Henry sent out expeditions with orders to pass Cape Bojador. The superstitious captains and crews would never follow those orders, coming up with excuses for why they didn’t pass Cape Bojador. In 1423, Gil Eannes, one of those superstitious sailors in the crew, only went as far as the Canaries. Henry talked with him about not following orders and the next time Eannes went out, he became the first sailor to sail past the Cape, and was surprised to discover nothing bad happened. “The seas as easy to sail in as waters at home” was the answer he gave to Henry when asked about his trip. Because of Eannes’s voyage in 1436, the Portuguese had reached Rio de Ouro. From then to 1441, the expeditions were suspended because of the death of Prince Henry’s brother, King Edward, and the disaster with the crusade at Tangier.


“Reception des Portugais a ‘a Cour de Congo,” Histoire des Déouvertes et Conquestes des Portugais dans le Nouveau Monde: Avec des Figures en Taille-Douce, 1733-34, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, DP583.L16 rare.

In 1441, Henry returned to Segres and launched an expedition to explore the West African coast with Nuno Tristao as the captain. Antao Gonclaves who was a hunter, not an explorer, accompanied him; his duties were to hunt the Mediterranean monk seal that were found on the west coast of Africa. Gonclaves filled his small boat with the sealskins and then he and nine of his crewmen captured some Africans to take back to Portugal. When Tristo arrived in the same area as Gonclaves, the two crews joined together and kidnapped 10 more Africans. Gonclaves headed back to Portugal with his “catch” while Tristao went southward. The following year, Gonclaves returned to Africa with an African chief he had captured the year before to trade for a larger number of Africans. Gonclaves received 10 more Africans, gold dust, and some ostrich eggs. A few years after that, Prince Henry built a fort at the Bay of Argium, and the Bay became the center of the slave trade. By 1443, a royal decree granted Prince Henry the sole right to send vessels south of Cape Bojador as well as to receive one-fifth of all the profits from the area. Henry became overwhelmed with merchants wanting licenses for voyages to the Guinea Coast so they, too, could make profits from the slave trade. Henry wanted the merchants to bring back Africans so he could learn about their country, customs, race, and language. He also wanted to introduce them to Christianity and train them to become missionaries to the people in their country. The traders and captains were much more interested in simply making money. In 1445, Diniz Dias and Nuno Tristan reached Senegal, and Diniz went on to reach Cape Verde. In 1446, Tristan passed the two hundred miles beyond Cape Verde when natives started shooting poisoned arrows and attacked the expedition. Tristan was killed and only five of the crew survived the attack. By the time of Prince Henry’s death in 1460, the Portuguese had gone as far as present day Sierra Leone. After Henry’s death, the Portuguese continued searching for a way around Africa to Asia. It wouldn’t be until 28 years after the death of Prince Henry that Vasco de Gama made it to India by sailing around Africa.