Henry the Navigator

Navigator, Portuguese Prince, & Cartographer

Born: 1394

Died: 1460

The founder of the Portuguese empire, Prince Henry of Portugal was a patron of explorers and one of the earliest geographers. In honor of the discoveries he inspired, he came to be called Henry the Navigator.

Henry was born in Oporto on March 4, 1394, the third surviving son of King John I of Portugal. His mother, Philippa, was the daughter of the English duke John of Gaunt. In 1415 Prince Henry distinguished himself in a campaign in which the Portuguese captured the Moroccan citadel of Ceuta on the African coast across the straits from Gibraltar. While he was in Ceuta he became interested in the continent of Africa and decided to send out expeditions to explore its coasts.

From 1418 the prince sponsored numerous voyages of exploration. The islands of the Azores, Madeira, and the Cape Verde Islands were discovered or rediscovered, and the African coast was explored as far as present-day Sierra Leone. Prince Henry set up a base near Cape St. Vincent, the southwestern tip of Portugal, not far from the port of Lagos.

There, on a rocky promontory called Sagres, Henry created a small court of his own called Vila do Infante. The most brilliant scholars did pioneer work here in navigation, ship design, astronomy, and mapmaking. From Sagres he sent out most of his expeditions. The prince expended his entire fortune on these projects. He was in debt when he died in Vila do Infante on Nov. 13, 1460.

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