Portuguese Discoverers


Prince Henry’s caravel was specially designed for these explorer’s needs. He found some clues in the caravos, ships used by Arabs since ancient times off the Egyptian and Tunisian coasts, modeled on the still more ancient fishing vessels that the Greeks had made of rushes and hide. These dhows, rigged with “lateen”, slanting ant triangular sails, carried Arab crews of as many as thirty, in addition to seventy horses. A similar smaller, even more maneuverable vessel, called the caravela (-ela = diminutive) was in use on the Douro River in northern Portugal. Prince Henry’s shipbuilders produced the famous caravel, which combined some of the cargo-carrying features of the Arab caravos with the maneuverability of the Douro River caravelas.

These remarkable little vessels were large enough to hold an explorer’s supplies for a small crew of about twenty, who usually slept on deck but in bad weather went below. The caravel displaced about fifty tons, was about seventy feet in length and about twenty-five feet in the beam, and carried two or three lateen sail. “The best ships that sailed the seas” was what Alvise da Cadamosto (1432?-1511), the experienced Venetian mariner, called the caravels in 1456 after his African voyage in a caravel organized by Prince Henry. The caravel became the discoverer’s standard ship. Columbus’ three ships – the Santa Maria, The Pinta, and the Niña – were all of caravel design, and the Santa Maria was only one-fifth as big as the large Venetian square-riggers of his day. The caravel proved that bigger was not always better. […]

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

At Sagres and at the nearby port of Lagos, experiments in shipbuilding produced a new type of ship without which Prince Henry’s exploring expeditions and the great seafaring adventures of the next century would not have been possible. The caravel was a ship specially designed to bring explorers back. The familiar heavy, square-rigged barca or the still larger Venetian carrack was suited for sailing with the wind. These worked well enough within the Mediterranean, where the size of a trading vessel was a measure of its profit, and by 1450 there were Venetian square-riggers of six hundred tons or more. A larger ship meant a bigger profit from more cargo.

A discovery ship had its own special problems. It was not a cargo-vessel, it had to go long distances in unfamiliar waters and had to be able, if necessary, to sail into the wind. An exploring ship was no good unless it could get there and back. Its important cargo was news, which could be carried in a small parcel, even in the mind of one man, but which was definitely a return product, While discovery ships did not need to be big, they had to be maneuverable, and adept at the return. […]

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

To Sagres came sailors, travelers, and savants from all over, each adding some new fragment of fact or some new avenue to facts. Besides Jews, there were Muslims and Arabs, Italians from Genoa and Venice, Germans and Scandinavians, and, as exploring advanced, tribesmen from the west coast of Africa. At Sagres, too, were manuscript records of the great travelers that Prince Henry’s brother Pedro had collected during his grand tour (1419-1428) of the European courts. In Venice Pedro had received a copy of Marco Polo’s travels along with a map “which had all the parts of the earth described, whereby Prince Henry was much furthered.”

With these facts came the latest navigating instruments and newest navigating techniques. The mariner’s compass was already well known, but its use was still haunted by superstitious fears of its occult power, believed to be akin to necromancy. Only a century before, tricks such as those performed with the lodestone had got Roger Bacon in trouble. At Sagres the compass, like other instruments, was tested only by whether it helped the mariner reach out farther and then find his way home. […]

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

Prince Henry, for all these reasons, made Sagres a center for cartography, for navigation, and for shipbuilding. He knew that the unknown could be discovered only by clearly marking the boundaries of the known. This meant, of course, junking the caricatures drawn by Christian geographers and replacing them with cautious, piecemeal maps. And this required an incremental approach.

In the spirit of the portolanos, the coast pilots, he accumulated the bits of many mariner’s experiences to fill out an unknown coast. The Jews, wherever they were, had long since become powerful cultural ambassadors and cosmopolitanizers. The Catalan Jew from Majorca, Jehuda Cresques, son of the cartographer Abraham Cesques, whom we have already met, was brought to Sagres, where he supervised the piecing together of the geographic facts brought back by Prince Henry’s seafaring explorers. […]

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

The visitor to Portugal today can see a lighthouse on the ruins of the fortress that Prince Henry made his headquarters for forty years. There Prince Henry initiated, organized, and commanded expeditions, on the frontier of mystery. In the first modern enterprise of exploring, from that spot he sent out an unbroken series of voyages into the unknown. Today’s visitor to the harsh inhospitable cliffs of Sagres senses the appeal that place must have had for an ascetic prince who wanted to separate himself from the formalities of an effete court.

At Sagres Prince Henry became the Navigator. There he applied the zeal and energy of the crusader to the modern exploring enterprise. Prince Henry’s court was a primitive Research and Development Laboratory. In the crusader’s world the known was dogma ant the unknown was unknowable. But in the explorer’s world the unknown was simply the not-yet discovered. And all the trivia of everyday experience could become signposts. […]

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

But still the crusader, he organized a Portuguese fleet and declared his intention to capture Gibraltar from the infidels. When King John forbade that expedition after it was already underway, Prince Henry returned home sulking. Instead of joining the court in Lisbon where he would have shared the burdens of royal government, he went far southward through the Algarve to Portugal’s Land’s End, Cape Saint Vincent, the southwestern tip of Europe.

Ancient geographers had given a mystic significance to that extremity of land, the borderland of the watery unknown. “Sacred Promontory” (Promentorium Sacrum) was what Marinus and Ptolemy had christened it. The Portuguese, translating this into Sagres, made it the name of the nearby village.

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

Prince Henry gathered information about the interior lands from which the treasures of Ceuta had come. He heard tales of a curious trade, “the silent trade”, designed for peoples who did not know each other’s language. The Muslim caravans that went southward from Morocco across the Atlas Mountains arrived after twenty days at the shores of the Senegal River. There the Moroccan traders laid out separate piles of salt, of beads from Ceutan coral, and cheap manufactured goods. Then they retreated out of sight. The local tribesmen, who lived in the strip mines where they dug their gold, came to the shore and put a heap of gold beside each pile of Moroccan goods. Then they, in turn, went out of view, leaving the Moroccan traders either to take the gold offered for a particular pile or to reduce the pile of their merchandise to suit the offered price in gold. Once again the Moroccan traders withdrew, and the process went on. By this system of commercial etiquette the Moroccans collected their gold. Tales of the bizarre process fired Prince Henry’s hopes.

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

The Portuguese armada stormed the fortress at Ceuta on August 24, 1415, in a onde-sided battle. Well armed and armored, and supported by a contingent of English archers, they overwhelmed the Muslims, who were reduced to hurling rocks. Within a day the Portuguese crusaders had taken the Infidel stronghold and provided Prince Henry his moment of glory. Only eight Portuguese had been killed, while the city streets were piled with Muslim bodies. By afternoon the army had begun sacking the city, and the spiritual rewards of killing infidels were supplemented by more worldly treasure. This occasion gave Prince Henry his first dazzling glimpse of the wealth that lay hidden in Africa. For the loot in Ceuta was the freight delivered by the caravans that had been arriving there from Saharan Africa in the south and from the Indies in the east. In addition to the prosaic essentials of life – wheat, rice, and the salt – the Portuguese found exotic stores of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and other spices. Ceutan houses were hung with rich tapestries and carpeted with Oriental rugs. All in addition to the usual booty of gold and silver and jewels. […].

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

Prince Henry, still only nineteen, was assigned the task of building a fleet up north in Oporto. After two years’ preparation, the Crusade against Ceuta was launched in an aura of miracles and omens. A monk near Oporto had a vision of the Virgin Mary handing a glittering sword to King John. There was an eclipse of the sun. Then Queen Philippa, after a long and ill-advised religious fast, fell mortally ill. Summoning the King and her three eldest sons, she gave each a fragment of the True Cross to wear in holy battle. To each prince she also gave a knightly sword, and with her expiring breath she blessed the expedition against Ceuta. A papal bull, solicited for the occasion, offered all the spiritual benefits of a Crusade to those who died in this effort.

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

To celebrate his formal treaty of friendship with Castile in 1411, King John followed the chivalric custom of the age by planning a tournament, to last a full year. Knights were to be invited from all over Europe, and the jousts would give the King’s three eldest sons who had just reached manhood the opportunity to earn their knighthoods by public acts of chivalry. But the three princes, reinforced by the King’s treasurer, dissuaded King John from this expensive panoply. They urged him instead to offer them opportunity for deeds of Christian valor by launching a Crusade against Ceuta, a Muslim stronghold and trading center of the African side opposite Gibraltar. There, too, the King could atone for the Christian bloodshed in his earlier campaigns by “washing his hands in the blood of the infidel.” Young Prince Henry helped Plan this expedition, which, in a number of unexpected ways, was to shape his life.

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

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