It is 1417 when Prince Henry, son of King João of Portugal, accepts the governorship of the Order of Christ. This order, set up in 1319 following the suppression of the Templar’s by Pope Clement in 1311, provides the resources for Prince Henry to change the future of ocean going exploration.
Following the conquest of Ceuta in Northern Africa, Henry begins a personal mission to extend the reach of the Holy Faith of Jesus Christ. With his spurs won in battle, he is pushes for further expansion. The Azores, the Canary Islands and more specifically down the West African coast. But he first sets his sights on going past Cape Bojador, just south of the Canaries, whose reefs and currents are the limit of previous expeditions. Finally Henry’s urgings (and promises of rewards) drive Gil Eannes (originally his household servant) past this psychological barrier hence opening up the rest of the Atlantic African coast.
In the 1420’s, with an increasing mercantile motive, Henry drives Portuguese exploration down the coast of Africa at the same time bringing cartographers and instrument makers to the town of Sagres in southern Portugal to boulster the expeditions he sponsors.
Soon after, his brother, Prince Pedro returns from a wide ranging European trip, with a copy of Marco Polo’s Travels which he translates for Henry. Does it excite him with a vision to reach India and far of lands? The truth is unclear. But we do know Henry continues to use his resources to innovate and seed the exploration of West Africa. He adopts the use of the caravel as his vehicle of exploration and in 1444 a vessel finally returns with 200 slaves – a hint of the wealth to come.
However, by the time of Henry’s death in 1460 Portugal has probably only reached as far as Sierra Leone.
But Portugal is about to launch forth into the oceans with even more vigor…