top of page

Henry the Navigator

1394 – 1460
Portuguese Prince
Exploration Ranking 5th of 26

Prince Henry directing the fleet; 500th Anniversary of his birth. Portuguese stamp from 1894.

Prince Henry the Navigator wanted to explore the world and set up a base at Sagres on the tip of the southern coast in Portugal. He attracted navigators, shipwrights, astronomers, pilots, cosmographers and cartographers where they cooperated in the enterprise of exploring the world. From 1422 to 1434, Prince Henry sponsored fourteen voyages, predominantly along the western coast of Africa. He also aided in the rediscovery and colonization of the Madeira Islands starting in 1418 and the discovery and colonization of the Azores island group starting in 1427. The surname Navigator, applied by the English to the Prince, though seldom by Portuguese writers, is a misnomer as he himself never embarked on voyages of discovery. His efforts however initiated the great Age of Discovery and the European thrust towards world dominion.(1)


Colonizing Madeira Island


The first Atlantic islands colonized were in the Madeira archipelago. The islands were uninhabited when the one-eyed João Gonçalves Zarco and his colleague Tristão Vez, squires of Prince Henry, explored Porto Santo near Madeira in 1418 and a little later Madeira itself. After 1433 the colonization of Madeira really took off when the old King João I, died, and Henry found himself in full charge of the island. “. . .it was thanks to Henry, . . .that this small island became an economic powerhouse.”(2) He pioneered the introduction of grape vines and sugar cane from Crete, which flourished in the warm, damp climate. The famous Madeira wines made from the grapes were exported throughout Europe, and sugar cane production showed equally spectacular profits.


Henry supported the first settlers by sending them seeds and tools.(3) The island’s abundant hardwood became one of its best early exports. Madeira as well as Lisbon became a center of shipbuilding. By 1498 about 600,000 kilograms of sugar were sent to Flanders alone, with 225,000 bound for Venice and only 105,000 for consumption in Portugal--the total for just these places approached 1,000,000 kilograms, but that year a decision was made to limit the quantity exported to 1,800,000 kilograms, which was just as well, as the sugar cane was beginning to exhaust the land.(4) Europe had developed a sweet tooth. By this time Madeira was the world’s greatest producer of sugar.(5) The sugar industry developed on Madeira until the seventeenth century. Since the seventeenth century Madeira’s most important product is wine, sugar production moving to Brazil and elsewhere. Madeira wine became perhaps the most popular luxury beverage in the colonial Western Hemisphere during the 17th and 18th centuries.(6)


Colonizing the Azores Islands


Impressed by the hawks that hovered over the islands, the Portuguese gave them the name ‘Hawk Islands,” (Açores in Portuguese). These islands were completely uninhabited by humans. In 1439 Henry the Navigator received permission from the Crown to settle “the seven islands of the Azores,” so they already had their name and a number for how many islands, though it was the wrong number.  By the late sixteenth century, the Azores became the strategic center of a network of trade routes; ships arriving from South America and round the Cape from India gathered at Angra on Terceira, before proceeding in convoy to Portugal, in order to escape predators such as the English pirates who lurked in those waters. They were also important resupply centers for long-distance shipping.


Down the Coast of Africa


On the west coast of Africa, a key challenge was Cape Bojador, near the Canary Islands. Each voyage up to 1434 turned back at Cape Bojador. This was as far south as the sailors dared go. They believed that at the equator, in an area known as the “Green Sea of Darkness,” the sun was so close to the Earth that people’s skins were burned black, the sea boiled and there were whirlpools and thick green fogs where monsters lurked waiting to devour them.

Then, in 1434, one of Henry’s courtiers named Gil Eannes managed to persuade his crew to carry on beyond the dreaded Cape. They survived to tell the tale, and from then on, other Portuguese expeditions ventured farther and farther south. The last two important mariners sent out by Henry were the Venetian Alvise Ca’ da Mosto (Cadamosto) and the Portuguese Diogo Gomes, who between them discovered several of the Cape Verde Islands in 1460.


The farthest point south along the African coast reached during Henry’s lifetime is generally considered to have been Sierra Leone.



(1) Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, Volume 5, 1993, 15th Edition, p. 853.

(2) David Abulafia, The Boundless Sea (New York, 2019), p. 484.

(3) Ibid., p. 484.

(4) Ibid., p. 485.

(5) “History of Madeira,” Wikipedia, accessed May 11, 2020;

(6) Ibid.


Key References


1. Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea by Gomes Eanes de Zurara, translated by C.R. Beazley and E. Prestage, 1896, reprinted 2010.

2. Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’: A Life by Peter Russell, 2000.

Click map to enlarge
bottom of page