March 4 – Happy Birthday, Henry the Navigator

Posted on March 4, 2014

It may not surprise you to hear that, when this particular Henry was born (on this date in 1394), he was not called “Henry the Navigator.” That was a name that he earned, a name for the history books. As a baby boy, the third child of the King of Portugal, he was called Infante Henry, Duke of Viseu.

As a young man, Henry was intrigued by tales of Africa, by the idea of expanding Portugal's trading partners, and by the lure of exploration. At age 21 he convinced his father to conquer the African port Ceuta, which was only a short distance from Portugal across the Straits of Gibraltar. He wasn't doing it just on a lark—after all, Barbary pirates based in Ceuta had been raiding Portuguese villages for years, kidnapping Portuguese people and selling them in the African slave market.

The venture succeeded, and Henry began to send expeditions to explore the coast of Africa. At the time very few Europeans knew much about Africa. Henry's expeditions expanded Europeans' knowledge of new lands while looking for the source of West African gold trade—and of course trying to stop the pirate attacks!

Notice that Henry didn't go on these expeditions himself! He wasn't captain OR navigator of the ships—he waited safe and cozy at home!

The ships of the time just weren't up to the far-away travel and exploration. So Henry directed Portuguese ship builders to create a new, lighter-weight sort of ship called a caravel. It could sail much faster, much further. The caravel revolutionized ocean travel!

With Henry pushing his people to explore and make maps and trade, the Portuguese discovered and colonized the Azores and the Madeira Islands and sailed for the first time past the storms and strong currents of Cape Bojador, into what was known as the “Sea of Darkness.” Within Henry's lifetime, his explorers ended up sailing as far south as Cape Palmas.

Of course, all was not lollipops and roses. Henry may have succeeded in ransoming some Portuguese people who had been enslaved, thus freeing them, but he also enslaved some African people and ordered violent actions against Muslims and others.

Learn more about Henry the Navigator with the videos, books, and lessons from this Pinterest board

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