Friday, July 08, 2005

Prince Henry the Navigator?

As we mentioned yesterday, the conventional story of European expansion usually starts with Prince Henry the Navigator. (That's certainly where we pick up the thread on our Macau walk.) He's said to have created a school of navigation and encouraged scholars and seafarers alike to develop new maritime technologies that brought about the Age of Discovery and that ultimately put European ships into the world's largest oceans and opened new trading routes.

Yet recent research has actually shown his role to be far less instrumental. The Portuguese undeniably were the first Europeans to round the cape of Africa, but their interest was far more economic than has been previously realized, focused specifically on the trade of slaves and to a lesser extent, of gold. Prince Henry, as only being third in line to the throne, realized his destiny not to be a ruler and instead focused on amassing titles and power, and the means to reward his followers with patronage. His father Joao had been the first real king of Portugal after defeating the Castilians at the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, and to consolidate his position assigned his son, young Henrique, as head of the influential military order, the order of Christ (more on that in this link). The eldest, Duarte, was heir to the throne, and the next youngest, in order: Pedro, Henrique and Fernao, were given commissions and governorships or at least the hope of them.

Prince Henrique had actually been influential in pushing for the attack on the successful capture of Ceuta on the Moroccan coast. But he had preferred that more attention be brought to bear on a crusade in Morocco, instead of on other voyages down the African coastline; however, as his father Joao opposed any further expeditions, he had to keep silent until his father's death in 1433, when Henrique's elder brother Duarte took to the throne. He then immediately called for renewed attacks on the Sultanate of Fez in Morocco, ending in a disastrous attack on Tangier in 1437 that saw the imprisonment of his younger brother Fernao. To top it off, Duarte died in 1438, leaving a six-year old heir. Pedro took over as regent, and put the country back on track by making peace with Castile. Pedro and Henrique shared in the royal profits from licensing and commissioning slaving expeditions to Western Africa and later, to gold trading in the same region. Malyn Newitt (whose excellent book I mentioned in my last post) states:

"Pedro's importance in establishing Portuguese overseas commerce on a sound footing has often been underestimated, but it is now clear that he, rather than his much more famous brother Henrique, was the real driving force behind commercial expansion in the 1440s...It has even been claimed that Pedro and not Henrique should be seen as the real pioneer of the 'discoveries'. It was during his regency that ships' captains sailing to Guinea began for the first time seriously to chart the winds, currents river mouths and anchorages, and it was during these years that more African coastline was 'discovered' and exploited commercially than at any time until the 1470s.

However, in 1449 Pedro was defeated and killed at the battle of Alfarobeira by the Braganza faction which now re-established its suprenacy at the centre of the Portuguese monarchy. Henrique, concerned for his titles, jurisdictions and commercial monopolies, not to mention his governorship of the Order of Christ [the former Knights Templar], stood aside from the conflict and refused to intervene. He was rewarded by a confirmation of his titles and privileges by the young king - not least among them the monopoly rights over the trade with West Africa.

A few years after this political revolution it appears that the king, or more probably Henrique himself, commissioned a chronicle outlining the Infante's achievements in opening up the trade with West Africa. The chronicler appointed to do the work was Gomes Eannes de Zurara...a knight of the Order of Christ, and, as such, very much one of Henrique's men. It appears that he 'borrowed' the partly finished chronicle of the life of Dom Pedro...and adapted it for his purposes...In doing this he produced one of the most famous chronicles of the late middle agfes - a work in which with great skill he indelibly established the image of his patron in the minds not only of his contemporaries but also of posterity."

So basically, Henrique, our famous Prince Henry the Navigator, had his henchman steal his dead brother's biography, whom he betrayed, and take credit for many of his deeds. Because this is practically the only long source from this period, everyone had tended to believe in this fabricated tale. It is also a tale that has been embellished over the centuries many times, as Newitt points out, by one Joquim Bensaude in 1946:

" the Infante D. Henrique we meet the religious vision of a Dante...neither the sufferings of Dante, nor those of Milton or Beethoven, nor the sixty years of the artistic anguish of Michelangelo have the tragic grandeur of the martyrdom of the Infante."

But then Newitt turns the academic knife into the Prince:

"There is little real evidence that Henrique was a dedicated patron of exploration. Once Pedro was removed from the scene and Henrique was left to exploit his commercial monopoly, no further 'discoveries' were made. The last eleven years of Henrique's life were spent on diplomacy at the papl court to secure further rights for the Order of Christ and in organising a new Morccan expedition which was successfully launched in 1458. Diogo Gomes recorded that, while an expedition to Morocco was being organised, 'the Prince Henrique, being fully occupied gave no attention to Guinea. Exploiting the commerce of West Africa was left to merchants, many of them Italian, who came to Henrique for licenses but who were left very much to their own devices to make what profits they could.

Modern research has entirely demolished the idea that Henrique was a scientist, a mystic and the founder of a 'school' of navigation and geography. As Ballie Diffie wrote definitely in 1977, 'there is not found one single word of his love of books...nor does any contemporary praise his knowledge of astronomy...Henry was not learned in geography nor was he a mathematician. Those who knew him confirmed that he introduced no new navigational skills...The existence of scientists who supposedly gathered around Henry is equally difficult to verify.""

I suppose Regent Peter the Navigator just doesn't have the same ring.


~ trail of ink ~ said...
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