Innovation in the Age of Exploration

The following by Anthony Disney appears in Historically Speaking (June 2010). Recently posted to Project Muse, the full issue and this article are here.

Prince Henry of Portugal and the Sea Route to India
Anthony Disney

In 1497-98 a Portuguese fleet commanded by Vasco da Gama made one of the most momentous communications breakthroughs in global history by successfully sailing from Western Europe to India via the Cape of Good Hope. Yet Gama’s breakthrough was neither surprising nor particularly sudden, for it came as the climax of a long, cumulative process of voyaging and exploration that had been set in motion some eight or nine decades before, in the early years of the 15th century. The person long regarded as most responsible for this process was Prince Henry, third son of King John I of Portugal, generally referred to in Anglophone historiography as Henry the Navigator. Henry is traditionally considered to have had more influence on the direction of world history than any other Portuguese, and he is certainly the best-known individual from his nation who has ever lived. But now, in the early 21st century, to what extent can his illustrious reputation still be sustained?

Henry’s involvement in voyages of exploration began as a by-product of a great amphibious expedition mounted in 1415 by John I against the Moroccan port city of Ceuta. While Portuguese fishermen seeking to exploit the rich fishing grounds off North Africa and Portuguese corsairs cruising in search of Muslim shipping to prey upon had probably already gained some experience of sailing in these waters before this major expedition, it was only in its aftermath that systematic, organized Portuguese voyaging off Atlantic Africa commenced. Ceuta, located on the African side of the narrow Straits of Gibraltar, was only a short sea passage from Portugal. It was both the hub of a flourishing agricultural region, and a well-known trading center serving as a clearinghouse for exotic goods from trans-Saharan and Near East caravans. Some Portuguese merchants also saw Ceuta as a potential source of wheat, which Portugal did not produce in abundance and therefore needed to import. Nevertheless, recent historiography has tended to view the main impetus for the expedition as coming less from the mercantile sector than from the Portuguese service nobility supported by elements from within the clergy. These groups saw attacking Ceuta as an extension of Iberia’s long tradition of Reconquest—a new stage in the war against Islam. In any event, in 1415 the Portuguese duly succeeded in occupying the city, and a long and draining period of Portuguese territorial involvement in Morocco then followed.

Soon after the 1415 conquest of Ceuta, Prince Henry, who had been one of the expedition’s most active participants and who remained a dedicated proponent of Portuguese expansion in Morocco for the rest of his life, began to sponsor voyages of exploration southward along the Moroccan Atlantic coast. The common assumption that, in doing this, Henry was specifically trying to reach the Indian Ocean by sailing around the southern tip of Africa, is not borne out by the evidence. Actually, his objectives are discussed in some detail in the much-cited seventh chapter of Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s classic Crónica do descobrimento e conquista da Guiné, the main contemporary source for his voyages, where they are placed into three broad categories.2 These may be summarized as (1) an economic agenda in which the pursuit of personal material gain was paramount; (2) a political-ideological agenda with the expansion of Christendom (particularly at the expense of Islam) as its principal component; and (3) a proto-scientific agenda that included, on the one hand, acquiring more geographical knowledge, and, on the other, refining ship design and improving techniques of navigation in order to make longer ocean voyaging possible. read on>>>