Prince Henry of Portugal: Biography & Facts

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  • 0:00 Prince Henry & the Age…
  • 0:38 Life of Henry
  • 1:31 Portuguese Exploration
  • 3:34 Henry's Other Accomplishments
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the life and achievements of the Portuguese Prince 'Henry the Navigator' and test your understanding of the Age of Exploration, the Portuguese Empire, and the origins of modern world travel.

Prince Henry & the Age of Exploration

We're likely all familiar with the famous urge from Star Trek to 'boldly go where no man has gone before'. But long before Kirk or Spock were testing the limits of their fictional universe, there was Prince Henry of Portugal (1394-1460).

Prince Henry, often called Henry the Navigator by historians, is often credited with initiating the Age of Exploration, an era in the 15th century when European powers raced ships across the globe in the spirit of discovery and exploration.

Life of Henry

Prince Henry was born in 1394, the third son of King John I of Portugal. When he was 21, he encouraged his father to invade the Moorish port Ceuta in Morocco. The port was a base for Islamic pirates that raided the Portuguese coastal villages and sold Portuguese people into slavery. The King agreed and, along with his family, Henry helped capture Ceuta.

Henry began exploring the African coast to find the source of the African gold trade. Portuguese ships were big and slow, so Henry commissioned the invention of a new, lighter ship called the caravel that was fast and could sail into the wind. In 1419, Henry's father appointed him the governor of Algarve, the southernmost part of Portugal.

Portuguese Exploration

Henry began sponsoring exploration voyages along the coast of Africa using the new caravel ships. These voyages made it as far as modern day Guinea in West Africa. In 1420, Henry's explorers discovered and settled the Madeira Islands, and later the Azores in 1427.

With each set of islands Portugal colonized, their empire reached a little farther. New islands meant new ports from which to launch new voyages, and the Portuguese explorers under Henry were the first to perfect the Volta do Mar, a navigational technique that relied on a precise understanding of east Atlantic trade winds and currents. The Portuguese were the first to really understand these winds and currents, which opened up the Atlantic to European boats.

By 1444, Portuguese explorers reached modern-day Senegal, south of the Sahara Desert. The desert had always been impassable, which made Islamic trade networks in Africa untouchable. Now, Henry was able to disrupt Muslim gold and slave trade and started importing these goods to Portugal. This made Portugal very wealthy.

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