Beyond the Threatening Cape

Unlike Columbus, who would aim straight for the Indies, Prince Henry the Navigator had a larger, a vaguer, and more modern destination – true to his horoscope. […].

We have no evidence that Prince Henry had in mind the specific purpose of opening a sea-way around Africa to India. What beckoned him was the unknown, which lay west and southwest into the Sea of Darkness and southward along the uncharted coast of Africa. The Atlantic islands – The Azores (one-third of the way across the Atlantic Ocean!), the Madeiras, and the Canaries – had probably been discovered by Genoese sailors in the mid-fourteenth century. Prince Henry’s efforts in that direction were less an enterprise of discovery than of colonization and development. But when his people landed in Madeira (madeira means wood) in 1420 and set about clearing the thick woods, they set a fire that raged for seven years. Although they never planned in that way, the potash left from the consumed wood would prove a perfect fertilizer for vineyards of the Malmsey grapes imported from Crete to replace those forests. The justly famous “Madeira” wine was the lasting product. Yet, as his stars foretold, Prince Henry was by nature and by preference not a colonizer but a discoverer.

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987