Prince Henry the Navigator — Father of the Age of Exploration

March 4, 1394–November 13, 1460

Prince Henry the Navigator was a Portuguese soldier and prince who promoted the exploration of Africa, leading to the Age of Exploration, the development of the African Slave Trade, and the growth of Mercantilism.

Prince Henry the Navigator, Illustration

Prince Henry the Navigator. Image Source: The Discoveries of Prince Henry the Navigator by Richard Henry Major, 1877, Archive.org.

Who was Prince Henry the Navigator?

Prince Henry the Navigator, also known as Infante Dom Henrique, was a Portuguese prince born on March 3, 1394, in Porto, Portugal. He was the third surviving son of King John I and Philippa of Lancaster. 

Although he was neither a sailor nor a navigator, he sponsored a great deal of exploration along the west coast of Africa. Under his patronage, Portuguese crews founded the country’s first colonies and visited regions previously unknown to Europeans. He is regarded as an originator of the Age of Discovery and the Atlantic slave trade. 

He first visited Africa when participated in the Conquest of Ceuta with his father and brothers in August 1415. During the battle, Henry led an assault on the city that led to the Portuguese victory, which started the Portuguese Empire.

Henry was inspired by the Catalan Atlas of 1375 to organize expeditions to find new trade routes to Africa that bypassed land routes in Italy that were controlled by powerful city-states like Genoa, Florence, Milan, Naples, Venice, and Naples.

He also wanted to find the eastern kingdom of the legendary Christian king, Prester John. Henry and others hoped that by uniting with Prester John, the Christian kingdoms in Europe could defeat their Muslim adversaries during the Crusades. In 1420, he was appointed the Grand Master of the Order of Christ.

Prince Henry earned his title “the Navigator” because he assembled a learned group of designers and maritime experts to design new ships, maps, and navigational instruments. Henry then funded expeditions to use this knowledge to sail the High Seas and explore the West African coast. 

Over time, he sent 14 expeditions south toward Africa to explore what was known as the “Sea of Darkness.” Building up a massive body of maritime know-how with each expedition, Henry oversaw the first stages of a process that helped Portugal build a global empire.

Prince Henry the Navigator Facts

Prince Henry the Navigator was a Portuguese prince, known as an “Infante,” born in Porto, Portugal on March 3, 1394.

Prince Henry is regarded as an originator of the Age of Discovery and the Atlantic Slave Trade.

He sponsored expeditions of discovery along the west coast of Africa, which led to the establishment of Portuguese trading posts and colonies along the West African coast.

Prince Henry the Navigator assembled a team of experts in cartography, navigation, astronomy, mathematics, and other fields to design new ships, maps, and navigational instruments.

Prince Henry helped to establish Portugal as a major force in the global economy, as Portuguese explorers were among the first Europeans to reach Asia and the Americas.

He played a significant role in European discovery during the 15th century and was responsible for the early advances in exploration, including the establishment of colonies and a Trading Post Network in Africa.

Prince Henry the Navigator helped to initiate the process of European colonization and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which helped shape the history of the world.

Prince Henry earned the title “the Navigator” because he assembled a group of designers and maritime experts to design new ships, maps, and navigational instruments, and funded expeditions to use this knowledge to sail the High Seas and explore the coast of West Africa.

Prince Henry died in 1460.

Landing of Columbus, Vanderlyn, AOC
Christopher Columbus followed in the footsteps of Prince Henry’s expeditions. Landing of Columbus, John Vanderlyn, 1847. Image Source: Architect of the Capitol.

Prince Henry the Navigator’s Expeditions to Africa

Like many merchants, Henry sought to find new trade routes to Africa and Asia, which would allow his ships could bypass the Muslim-controlled land routes. He also hoped to find a sea route to the Orient.

In Africa, he wanted to establish Portuguese trading posts and colonies along the West African coast, and he also hoped to find gold and spread Christianity to the continent. Prince Henry also intended to expand geographic knowledge of Africa and map the coast.

Impact of Prince Henry’s Expeditions to Africa

The Portuguese expeditions Prince Henry sponsored opened up the African continent to European exploration and colonization. The expeditions brought back gold, ivory, and slaves from Africa to Portugal, enriching the Portuguese economy and helping fund further expeditions.

The expeditions led to the establishment of Portuguese trading posts and colonies along the West African coast, which affected existing African trade networks and political systems.

Over time, the establishment of the slave trade between Africa and Portugal had a devastating effect on African people. Millions were taken captive, forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, and sold into slavery. Eventually, many were transported to the Americas as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Prince Henry and the African Slave Trade

Prince Henry the Navigator’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade was significant, as his expeditions helped initiate the process of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Henry hoped to find gold in Africa, and his men seized Africans and traded some for gold dust. Others were taken back to Portugal. The business brought Henry riches, and he was recognized for finding a new source of wealth.

Sugar Cane Plantation, Enslaved Workers, Sugar Act Image
Enslaved Africans working on a Sugar Cane Plantation. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Prince Henry and Advances in Cartography and Sailing

At the time, there were significant challenges when it came to making accurate maps, including:

  • Limited geographic knowledge — The African continent was largely unknown to Europeans at the time.
  • Inaccurate information — The information collected by Portuguese explorers during their expeditions was often inaccurate or incomplete, which made it difficult for cartographers to produce accurate maps.
  • Limited technology — Cartographers working with Prince Henry the Navigator had limited technology to work with, which made it difficult to produce accurate maps.
  • Language barriers — Portuguese explorers often encountered language barriers when interacting with African peoples, which made it difficult to collect accurate information about the geography of the region.
  • Dangerous conditions — The expeditions were often dangerous on sea and on land, and cartographers faced the same risks as other members of the crew. This made it difficult to produce accurate maps under challenging conditions.

The expeditions he sponsored contributed to the development of cartography by mapping previously unknown territories. 

Starting around 1418, at his headquarters in Sagres in southern Portugal, he assembled a team of experts in cartography, navigation, astronomy, mathematics, and other fields and had them design new ships, maps, and navigational instruments.

Prince Henry the Navigator, Ruins of Church at Sagres, Illustration
This illustration depicts the ruins of the church at Sagres. Image Source: The Golden Age of Prince Henry the Navigator, 1914, Archive.org.

During the expeditions, his men produced some of the earliest and most accurate maps of the African coast. They also developed the “Portolan Chart,” which is a navigation map showing, coastlines, harbors, and other features important to sailors.

Henry’s men learned how to make better use of navigational tools like the compass and astrolabe. They also developed the Caravel, a new type of sailing ship.

Prince Henry and the Caravel Sailing Ship

The design of the 80-ton caravel was based on a Portuguese fishing vessel. It was built to perform well on the open ocean, but also so it could explore coastal waters and large rivers. The caravel had:

  • Triangular sails, known as “lateen sails,” allowed it to sail against the wind.
  • Square sails that made it fast.
  • A rudder that gave it better maneuverability.
  • Raised decks at the front — forecastle — and back — stern castle — to defend the ship.

Impact of Prince Henry’s Expeditions on Portugal’s Economy

Overall, his expeditions had a significant impact on the Portuguese economy, as they brought new sources of wealth, expanded trade routes, and helped establish Portugal as a major player in the global economy.

Portuguese explorers were among the first Europeans to reach Asia and the Americas, and they created new trade routes and markets for Portuguese merchants to buy and sell goods and products.

Prince Henry’s expeditions brought back gold, ivory, and slaves from Africa to Portugal, which enriched the Portuguese economy and helped fund further expeditions.

The expeditions led to the establishment of Portuguese trading posts and colonies along the West African coast, which encouraged the development of Mercantilism as the prevailing economic theory in Europe. 

Eventually, other European nations followed Portugal’s lead in establishing colonies based on Mercantilism. The Mercantile System helped shape England’s colonies in America.

Prince Henry the Navigator APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study Prince Henry the Navigator and the Age of Exploration for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Prince Henry the Navigator APUSH Definition

Prince Henry the Navigator was a Portuguese prince who established an observatory and school of navigation at Sagres and directed voyages that spurred the growth of Portugal’s exploration and trade. He gathered experts in science, mapmaking, and shipbuilding whose work led to a fleet of ships that explored the African coast and established Portuguese trading posts and colonies. Prince Henry played a significant role in the Age of Exploration and was responsible for the early advances in exploration, the establishment of what became the African Slave Trade, and the development of the Mercantile System as an economic theory.

Prince Henry the Navigator Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Flash Point History discusses Henry the Navigator.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Prince Henry the Navigator — Father of the Age of Exploration
  • Date March 4, 1394–November 13, 1460
  • Author
  • Keywords Prince Henry the Navigator, Who was Prince Henry the Navigator, What did Prince Henry the Navigator do, When did Prince Henry the Navigator explore Africa, Where did Prince Henry the Navigator send his expeditions, Why did Prince Henry the Navigator explore Africa, How did Prince Henry the Navigator contribute to the Age of Exploration
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update September 13, 2023

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