TCS Daily

Follow Henry the Navigator to the Oceans of Our Age

By James Pinkerton - June 25, 2001 12:00 AM

So, you want to be famous? Not just flash-in-the-pan notorious, not just a soon-to-be-forgotten name printed in a program or chiseled on a cornerstone somewhere, but truly, enduringly etched into the meme-stream? Here's how one man did it, and did it so well that he's still known about and talked about more half a millennium after his death. And while the bad news may be that the particular path he took is now closed, the good news is that the general direction in which he found his destiny has opened wider than ever - in outer space. Meet Henry the Navigator, the man with a plan for historical immortality, who challenges all of us today to think as big and boldly as he did. Because if, as the poets say, fame is the food of the dead, then Henry is eating well.

What's my evidence? Consider. Last year, the distinctly top-drawer Yale University Press published Prince Henry 'The Navigator': A Life, a thick-448 pages, including 28 pages of color pictures-biography, written by an Oxford don, Sir Peter Russell. How many second-tier Portuguese royals from the late Middle Ages-he was born in 1394, died in 1460--are getting such treatment?

Indeed, Henry's renown has been steady across the ages. In 1625, the English geographer Samuel Purchas declared him "the true foundation of the Greatnesses, not of Portugall alone, but of the whole Christian World, in Marine Affairs, and especially of those Heroike endeavors of the English (whose flesh and bloud hee was)." The last is only partly true; Henry --strictly speaking, Henrique-was the son of King John-Joao--of the Portuguese Aviz family, while his mother, Philippa of Lancaster, was a Plantagenet, the Anglo-French royal line.

The 18th century Scottish poet James Thomson was on firmer ground when he praised Henry as "the Lusitanian prince, unbounded commerce mixed the world." Commerce? And Samuel Johnson, while praising Henry as "the first encourager of remote navigation," also noted his early sponsorship of the African slave trade. The English scholar and moralist concluded, "What mankind has lost and gained by the genius and designs of this Prince, it would be long to compare and difficult to estimate."

Yup, that's right: more than anyone else, Henry was the father of Western colonialism. That may put him in ill favor these days. But judged by the standards of his time, he was just another expansionist-and a more successful one than most. Even today, after the imperialist tide has ebbed, Lusophone culture still predominates far beyond the motherland, to such states and places as Brazil, Mozambique, Macao, and East Timor.

Yet none of this was ordained; Henry made it happen. As biographer Russell observes, "The Portuguese world into the which the Prince was born exhibited no features that could have caused anyone to suppose that, forty years on, Portugal would become Europe's first maritime empire." Portugal had been a Muslim territory for 500 years; the final Christian reconquest of the country was not until 1249. After that came a century-and-a-half of on-and-off fighting with Portugal's larger neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain.

Even as a young man, Henry had a sense of purpose. He chose as his personal motto talant de bien fere; those words, translated from the Norman language of his mother, come out as, "a hunger to perform worthy deeds." Wary of further war with Spain, it was perhaps natural that he would look elsewhere, across the waters, for great challenges. In 1415, when he was just 21, he led an expedition across the Strait of Gibraltar and captured the Moroccan city of Ceuta. In an age when territory-grabbing was the norm, this was Portugal's first conquest, and indeed, it is today the longest-held European overseas possession.

Dispatched by the energetic young prince, Portuguese vessels occupied the Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores in the 1420s. New riches came back home: fish, sugar, wheat, and also commodities that were once precious, such as "dragon's blood," the resin from the dragon tree (Dracaena draco), which was used across Europe as both a dye and as a medicine.

Portugal at the time was developing the caravel, the supership of the age. These vessels, sporting two or three masts of triangle-shaped sail, were far more maneuverable than traditional square-riggers, and thus far more able to negotiate their way along the uncharted shoreline of West Africa. And it was there that the Portuguese began the slave trade; the first human cargo of "Moors" came back to Portugal in 1444.

Today, of course, everybody joins in condemnation of slavery, but in Henry's defense, in his day it was a standard practice, in Africa as well as Europe. Indeed, Westerners had little, if any, advantage in weaponry; their slow-loading and inaccurate bombards and culverins were not nearly as fearsome as the poison-tipped arrows of the faster-firing Africans. So the Portuguese traded, not raided, along the Guinea Coast for slaves.

In the meantime, not all of Henry's missions were successful. His forces were repulsed outright by the indigenous inhabitants of the Canary Islands in 1424, and later defeated there by the Spanish; the Prince himself was nearly killed in 1428 when he ventured south across the Strait a second time in a failed attempt to capture the Moroccan city of Tangier.

After that, he concentrated on outflanking the Moroccans at sea, not defeating them on land. And in the century after his death, Henry's grand strategy unfolded, as Portuguese mariners not only outflanked the infidels but found fantastic wealth as they planted their banners in the Congo (1482), South Africa (1486), India (1498), Brazil (1500), Indonesia (1511), the Persian Gulf (1515), and China (1557). And while Portugal did not survive as a superpower, Henry's legend survives to this day.

So what lesson should would-be fame-feasters learn from Henry's life?

The lesson is this: think big and act boldly. Six centuries ago, Henry gazed out and saw opportunity across the blue horizon of the Atlantic. The rewards of financial fortune came to him almost immediately; the reward of renown has been coming to him ever since.

The obvious parallel today, of course, is outer space, the ocean of our age; vast strategic and commercial benefits await the next round of Navigators. Yes, space is cold, uninviting, and costly to get to, but so far as we know at least, there are no indigenous populations to fight us--or to be cruelly oppressed by us.

As he himself said, Henry hungered for worthy deeds. Today, those with an appetite for the same eminence must do the same: seek the most difficult challenges, and surmount them. Those who strive as Henry did may fall short of his famous greatness, but those who do not strive at all have no chance at all.


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