The School of Navigation founded by Henry the Navigator at Sagres, Portugal


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The most southerly community in Portugal and the most south-westerly in continental Europe is at Sagres, overlooking the Bay of Sagres, which is itself flanked by two headlands: Atalaia Point and Sagres Point.

It is only when you catch sight of the grey ramparts of the fortress blocking off the massive plateau of Sagres Point and cast your eye around the 10 km arc of sheer cliffs to the lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent that you get a real feeling for the tremendous historical importance of this place. It was at least as important during the Age of Discovery as Cape Canaveral was during the early years of space exploration. When the weather is fair, it can be a powerful sensation to sit quietly anywhere along the clifftops here and look out to sea and ponder the extraordinary adventurers who have passed this way.

The Navigators and the Discoveries
It was to this place that the Infante D. Henrique, Prince Henry the Navigator, came in the 15th century to work on his obsession to push back the frontiers of the known world, and opened the phase in Portuguese history called The Discoveries.

While precise information about Henry is far from complete, it is clear he was a most remarkable man. He was a prince, politician, warrior and grand master of the Order of Christ, but his fame endures mainly because of his monumental contribution to geographical discovery and the opening up of trade and cultural links between Europe and the East. When he arrived to settle in the Algarve as Governor in 1419 he was a young man of 25, austere and devoutly religious. A veteran of the invasion of Ceuta, he retained an abiding zeal to banish Muslims from North Africa and the Holy Land once and for all. While in Ceuta he had learned from traders about gold routes across the Sahara which were thought to originate in Guinea on the African west coast. Crusading reverence coupled with a thirst for gold revenue were soon to be augmented by an obsession to find Prester John, the legendary priest-king who ruled supreme amid fabulous wealth somewhere in Africa or the Orient. Religion and economics - God and gold - were the catalysts. Sagres was the crucible.

The exact location of Henry's School of Navigation is not known. It is generally accepted that he sited his headquarters at Sagres and created a settlement on land granted by the crown. The settlement came to be known as Vila do Infante, or Prince's town. This is popularly believed to have been situated on the headland within the walls of the forteleza which were rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake. The only building still surviving and thought to have been around in more or less its present form in Henry's day, is the starkly simple little church within the fortress.

The school of navigation was like a magnet to the best brains in Europe concerned with the nautical sciences. Under Henry's patronage, a community of brilliant scholars came here to teach and to study, and accumulated and correlated nautical knowledge as it was brought back by captains of successive voyages to hitherto unknown places. The scholars in turn instructed less experienced captains about Atlantic currents and wind systems and the latest navigational methods. Cartography was refined with the use of newly devised instruments. Maps were regularly updated and extended. A revolutionary type of vessel, the caravel, was designed.

When Henry began master-minding and directing operations at Sagres and Lagos in 1419, the known southern limit of the Atlantic Ocean was the dreaded Cape Bojador in West Africa just below latitude 27´┐ŻN. Apart from all the superstitions about seething serpents and monsters, it is notoriously dangerous because of the violence of its waves and currents, and the treacherous nature of its shallows and frequent mists. All this fuelled the deep-seated belief that if you rounded the cape, there was no possibility of return. Cape Bojador, therefore, was not only a dreadful physical barrier but a terrible psychological one. Many attempts failed before the barrier was finally overcome by the Portuguese in 1434. The first European captain to round Cape Bojador was Gil Eanes, of Lagos, and his heroic feat represented perhaps the greatest achievement of Henry's lifetime.

Henry lived in the vicinity of Sagres for most of his life and this is where he died on November 13, 1460 at the age of 66. He had opened the way, but had not lived long enough to savour and share the successes of Bartolomeu Dias who rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, and Vasco da Gama who finally pushed through the sea route to India in 1498.