Front Matter A Little Old World Early Mariners Is the World Flat Herodotus the Traveller Alexander Explores India Pytheas Finds British Isles Julius Caesar as Explorer Strabo's Geography The Roman Empire and Pliny Ptolemy's Maps Pilgrim Travellers Irish Explorers After Mohammed Vikings Sail Northern Seas Arab Wayfarers Travellers to the East Marco Polo Mediaeval Exploration Ends Mediaeval Maps Prince Henry of Portugal Bartholomew Diaz Christopher Columbus A Great New World Vasco da Gama Reaches India Discovery of Spice Islands Balboa Sees Pacific Ocean Magellan Sails Round World Cortes Conquers Mexico Explorers in South America Cabot Sails to Newfoundland Cartier Explores Canada Search for a Northwest Passage Frobisher Searches for Passage Drake's Famous Voyage Davis Straight Barents Sails to Spitzbergen Hudson Finds His Bay Baffin Finds His Bay Raleigh Searches for El Dorado Champlain and Lake Ontario Discoverers of Australia Tasman Finds Tasmania Dampier Discovers a Straight Behring Finds his Straight Cook Discovers New Zealand Cook's Third Voyage Bruce in Abyssinia Mungo Park and the Niger Vancouver and his Island Mackenzie and his River Parry and Lancaster Sound The Frozen North Franklin's Land Voyage Parry's Polar Voyage The Search for Timbuktu Landers Discover the Niger Ross Discovers North Pole Flinders Names Australia Sturt's Discoveries in Australia Ross in the Antarctic Seas Franklin Discovers Passage David Livingstone Burton and Speke in Africa Livingston Traces Nyassa Expedition to Victoria Nyanza Baker Finds Albert Nyanza Livingstone's Last Journey Through the Dark Continent Nordenskiold's NE Passage The Exploration of Tibet Nansen Reaches Farthest North Peary Reaches the North Pole The Quest for the South Pole Dates of Chief Events

Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge

Prince Henry of Portugal

But now a new era was about to begin—a new age was dawning—and we open a wonderful chapter in the history of discovery, perhaps the most wonderful in all the world. In Portugal a man had arisen who was to awaken the slumbering world of travel and direct it to the high seas.

And the name of this man was Henry, a son of King John of Portugal. His mother was an Englishwoman, daughter of "John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster." The Prince was, therefore, a nephew of Henry IV. and great-grandson of Edward of England. But if English blood flowed in his veins he, too, was the son of the "greatest King that ever sat on the throne of Portugal," and at the age of twenty he had already learned something of the sea that lay between his father's kingdom and the northern coast of Africa. Thus, when in the year 1415 King John planned a great expedition across the narrow seas to Ceuta, an important Moorish city in North Africa, it fell to Prince Henry himself to equip seven triremes, six biremes, twenty-six ships of burden, and a number of small craft. These he had ready at Lisbon when news reached him that the Queen, his mother, was stricken ill. The King and three sons were soon at her bedside. It was evident that she was dying.

"What wind blows so strongly against the side of the house?" she asked suddenly.

"The wind blows from the north," replied her sons.

"It is the wind most favourable for your departure," replied Philippa. And with these words the English Queen died.

This is not the place to tell how the expedition started at once as the dead Queen had wished, how Ceuta was triumphantly taken, and how Prince Henry distinguished himself till all Europe rang with his fame. Henry V. of England begged him to come over and take command of his forces. The Emperor of Germany sent the same request. But he had other schemes for his life. He would not fight the foes of England or of Germany, rather would he fight the great ocean whose waves dashed high against the coast of Portugal. He had learned something of inland Africa, of the distant coast of Guinea, and he was fired with the idea of exploring along this west coast of Africa and possibly reaching India by sea.

Let us recall what was known of the Atlantic only six centuries ago. "It was," says an old writer, "a vast and boundless ocean, on which ships dared not venture out of sight of land. For even if the sailors knew the direction of the winds they would not know whither those winds would carry them, and, as there is no inhabited country beyond, they would run great risk of being lost in mist and vapour. The limit of the West is the Atlantic Ocean."

The ocean was a new and formidable foe, hitherto unconquered and unexplored. At last one had arisen to attempt its conquest. As men had lifted the veil from the unknown land of China, so now the mists were to be cleared from the Sea of Darkness.

On the inhospitable shores of southern Portugal, amid the "sadness of a waste of shifting sand, in a neighbourhood so barren that only a few stunted trees struggled for existence, on one of the coldest, dreariest spots of sunny Portugal," Prince Henry built his naval arsenal. In this secluded spot, far from the gaieties of Court life, with the vast Atlantic rolling measureless and mysterious before him, Prince Henry took up the study of astronomy and mathematics. Here he gathered round him men of science; he built ships and trained Portuguese sailors in the art of navigation, so far as it was known in those days.

Then he urged them seawards. In 1418 two gentlemen of his household, Zarco and Vaz, volunteered to sail to Cape Bojador towards the south. They started off and as usual hugged the coast for some way, but a violent storm arose and soon they were driven out to sea. They had lost sight of land and given themselves up for lost when, at break of day, they saw an island not far off. Delighted at their escape, they named it Porto Santo and, overjoyed at their discovery, hastened back to Portugal to relate their adventures to Prince Henry. They described the fertile soil and delicious climate of the newly found island, the simplicity of its inhabitants, and they requested leave to return and make a Portuguese settlement there. To reward them, Prince Henry gave them three ships and everything to ensure success in their new enterprise. But unfortunately he added a rabbit and her family. These were turned out and multiplied with such astonishing rapidity that in two years' time they were numerous enough to destroy all the vegetation of the island.

So Porto Santo was colonised by the Portuguese, and one Perestrello was made Governor of the island; and it is interesting to note that his daughter became the wife of Christopher Columbus. But the original founders, Zarco and Vaz, had observed from time to time a dark spot on the horizon which aroused their curiosity. Sailing towards it, they found an island of considerable size, uninhabited and very attractive, but so covered with woods that they named it Madeira, the Island of Woods.

But although these two islands belong to Portugal to-day, and although Portugal claimed their discovery, it has been proved that already an Englishman and his wife had been there, and the names of the islands appear on an Italian map of 1851.

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


The story of this first discovery is very romantic. In the reign of Edward a young man named Robert Machin sailed away from Bristol with a very wealthy lady. A north-east wind carried them out of their course, and after thirteen days' driving before a storm they were cast on to an island. It was uninhabited and well wooded and watered. But the sufferings and privations proved too much for the poor English lady, who died after three days, and Machin died a few days later of grief and exposure. The crew of the ship sailed away to the coast of Africa, there to be imprisoned by the Moors. Upon their escape in 1416 they made known their discovery.

So Zarco and Vaz divided the island of Madeira, calling half of it Funchal (the Portuguese for fennel, which grew here in great quantities) and the other half Machico after the poor English discoverer Machin. The first two Portuguese children born in the island of Madeira were called Adam and Eve.

Year after year Prince Henry launched his little ships on the yet unknown, uncharted seas, urging his captains to venture farther and ever farther. He longed for them to reach Cape Bojador, and bitter was his disappointment when one of his squires, dismayed by travellers' tales, turned back from the Canary Islands.

"Go out again," urged the enthusiastic Prince, "and give no heed to their opinions, for, by the grace of God, you cannot fail to derive from your voyage both honour and profit."

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


And the squire went forth from the commanding presence of the Prince resolved to double the Cape, which he successfully accomplished in 1434. Seven years passed away, till in 1441 two men—Gonsalves, master of the wardrobe (a strange qualification for difficult navigation), and Nuno Tristam, a young knight—started forth on the Prince's service, with orders to pass Cape Bojador where a dangerous surf, breaking on the shore, had terrified other navigators. There was a story, too, that any man who passed Cape Bojador would be changed from white into black, that there were sea-monsters, sheets of burning flame, and boiling waters beyond. The young knight Tristam discovered the white headland beyond Cape Bojador, named it Cape Blanco, and took home some Moors of high rank to the Prince. A large sum was offered for their ransom, so Gonsalves conveyed them back to Cape Blanco and coasted along to the south, discovering the island of Arguin of the Cape Verde group and reaching the neighbourhood of Sierra Leone, reached by Hanno many centuries before this.

Here he received some gold dust, and with this and some thirty negroes he returned to Lisbon, where the strange black negroes "caused the most lively astonishment among the people." The small quantity of gold dust created a sensation among the Portuguese explorers, and the spirit of adventure grew. No longer had the Prince to urge his navigators forth to new lands and new seas; they were ready and willing to go, for the reward was now obvious. The news was soon noised abroad, and Italians, then reckoned among the most skilful seamen of the time, flocked to Portugal, anxious to take service under the Prince.

"Love of gain was the magic wand that drew them on and on, into unknown leagues of waters, into wild adventures and desperate affrays."

The "Navigator" himself looked beyond these things. He would find a way to India; he would teach the heathen to be Christians. He was always ready to welcome those with superior knowledge of navigation; so in 1454 he sent an Italian, known to history as Cadamosto, to sail the African seas. The young Venetian was but twenty-one, and he tells his story simply.

"Now I—Luigi Ca da Mosto—had sailed nearly all the Mediterranean coasts, but, being caught by a storm off Cape St. Vincent, had to take refuge in the Prince's town, and was there told of the glorious and boundless conquests of the Prince, the which did exceedingly stir my soul—eager as it was for gain above all things else. My age, my vigour, my skill are equal to any toil; above all, my passionate desire to see the world and explore the unknown set me all on fire with eagerness."

In 1455 Cadamosto sailed from Portugal for Madeira, now "thickly peopled with Portuguese." From Madeira to the Canaries, from the Canaries to Cape Blanco, "natives black as moles were dressed in white flowing robes with turbans wound round their heads." Here was a great market of Arab traders from the interior, here were camels laden with brass, silver, and gold, as well as slaves innumerable.

But Cadamosto pushed on for some four hundred miles by the low, sandy shore to the Senegal River. The Portuguese had already sailed by this part of the coast, and the negroes had thought their ships to be great birds from afar cleaving the air with their white wings. When the crews furled their sails and drew into shore the natives changed their minds and thought they were fishes, and all stood on the shore gazing stupidly at this new wonder.

Cadamosto landed and pushed some two hundred and fifty miles up the Senegal River, where he set up a market, exchanging cotton and cloth for gold, while "the negroes came stupidly crowding round me, wondering at our white colour, which they tried to wash off, our dress, our garments of black silk and robes of blue cloth."

Joined by two other ships from Portugal, the Italian explorer now sailed on to Cape Verde, so called from its green grass.

"The land here," he tells us, "is all low and full of fine, large trees, which are continually green. The trees never wither like those in Europe; they grow so near the shore that they seem to drink, as it were, the water of the sea. The coast is most beautiful. Many countries have I been in, to East and West, but never did I see a prettier sight."

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


But the negroes here—big, comely men—were lawless and impossible to approach, shooting at the Portuguese explorers with poisoned arrows. They discovered that the capital of the country was called Gambra, where lived a king, but the negroes of the Gambra were unfriendly; there was little gold to be had; his crews fell sick and ill, and Cadamosto turned home again. But he had reached a point beyond all other explorers of the time, a point where "only once did we see the North Star, which was so low that it seemed almost to touch the sea." We know that he must have been to within eleven degrees of the Equator, and it is disappointing to find the promising young Italian disappearing from the pages of history.

And now we come to the last voyage planned by Prince Henry, that of Diego Gomez, his own faithful servant. It followed close on Cadamosto's return.

No long tine after, the Prince equipped a ship called the Wren  and set over it Diego Gomez, with two other ships, of which he was commander-in-chief. Their orders were to go as far as they could. Gomez wrote his own travels, and his adventures are best told in his own words. We take up his story from the far side of Cape Blanco.

"After passing a great river beyond Rio Grande we met such strong currents in the sea that no anchor could hold. The other captains and their men were much alarmed, thinking we were at the end of the ocean, and begged me to put back. In the mid-current the sea was very clear, and the natives came off from the shore and brought us their merchandise. As the current grew even stronger we put back and came to a land, where were groves of palms near the shore, with their branches broken. There we found a plain covered with hay and more than five thousand animals like stags, but larger, who showed no fear of us. Five elephants with two young ones came out of a small river that was fringed by trees. We went back to the ships, and next day made our way from Cape Verde and saw the broad mouth of a great river, which we entered and guessed to be the Gambia. We went up the river as far as Cantor (some five hundred miles). Farther than this the ships could not go, because of the thick growth of trees and underwood. When the news spread through the country that the Christians were in Cantor, they came from Timbuktu in the north, from Mount Gelu in the south. Here I was told there is gold in plenty, and caravans of camels cross over there with goods from Carthage, Tunis, Fez, Cairo, and all the land of the Saracens. I asked the natives of Cantor about the road to the gold country. They told me the King lived in Kukia and was lord of all the mines on the right side of the river of Cantor, and that he had before the door of this palace a mass of gold just as it was taken from the earth, so large that twenty men could hardly move it, and that the King always fastened his horse to it. While I was thus trafficking with these negroes, my men became worn out with the heat, and so we returned towards the ocean."

Fra Mauro's Great Map


But Diego Gomez had succeeded in making friends with the hostile natives of this part. He left behind him a better idea of Christian men than some of the other explorers had done. His own account of the conversion of the Mohammedan King who lived near the mouth of the river Gambia, which was visited on the return voyage, is most interesting.

"Now the houses here are made of seaweed, covered with straw, and while I stayed here (at the river mouth) three days, I learned all the mischief that had been done to the Christians by a certain King. So I took pains to make peace with him and sent him many presents by his own men in his own canoes. Now the King was in great fear of the Christians, lest they should take vengeance upon him. When the King heard that I always treated the natives kindly he came to the river-side with a great force, and, sitting down on the bank, sent for me. And so I went and paid him all respect. There was a Bishop there of his own faith, who asked me about the God of the Christians, and I answered him as God had given me to know. At last the King was so pleased with what I said that he sprang to his feet and ordered the Mohammedan Bishop to leave his country within three days."

So when the Portuguese returned home, Prince Henry sent a priest and a young man of his own household to the black King at the mouth of the Gambia. This was in 1458.

"In the year of our Lord 1460, Prince Henry fell ill in his town on Cape St. Vincent," says his faithful explorer and servant, Diego Gomez, "and of that sickness he died."

Such was the end of the man who has been called the "originator of modern discovery." What had he done? He had inspired and financed the Portuguese navigators to sail for some two thousand miles down the West African coast. "From his wave-washed home he inspired the courage of his men and planned their voyages, and by the purity of his actions and the devotion of his life really lived up to his inspiring motto, 'Talent de bien faire.' " And more than this. For each successive discovery had been carefully noted at the famous Sagres settlement, and these had been worked up by an Italian monk named Fra Mauro into an enormous wall-map over six feet across, crammed with detail—the work of three years' incessant labour.