Spurred by Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), the Portuguese discovered precisely what Columbus was seeking – the fabled Indies. They also charted new sea routes halfway around the world to destinations as far as Japan.
But it was at Ponta de Sagres (indicated on the map below), the somewhat bleak and very windy headland at the south-westernmost tip of both Portugal and mainland Europe, that Prince Henry the Navigator revolutionised the art of seafaring in an age when ships never willingly ventured out of coastal waters and man’s knowledge of the oceans halted abruptly at the horizon.
By founding a school of navigation at this very spot, he decided to plunge his countrymen into the great bluey-green unknown that stretched both west and south of the remote Sagres promontory in the western Algarve.
To help him conquer the dark seas, he recruited sailors, scholars, cartographers and scientists from all over Europe and gathered them all together at this lonely, windswept headland.
Patiently poring over charts and tinkering with an array of astronomical instruments such as the ancient astrolabe, grand master Henry finally managed to convince his people, whose minds were mostly constrained by the realities of geography, that he’d discovered the sea path to greatness.
In 1419, one of Henry’s ships returned with news about a small uninhabited island 643 km to the south-west, which was Porto Santo. A year later its sister island, Madeira, was discovered and he promptly colonised it with farmers from the Algarve.
Gradually, the African continent began to reveal its secrets each time Prince Henry’s vessels returned safely to Portugal’s sandy shores laden with exotic birds, flowers, fruits, spices, ivory and gold never before seen by Europeans, the latter of which served to finance future expeditions.
Then Gil Eanes, a seafarer recruited by Henry, took an important first step in 1434 when he sailed fearlessly out into the open ocean well beyond Cape Bojador in the Western Sahara.
From 1444 to 1446 Henry licensed more than thirty voyages to Guinea midway down the West African coast, where he set up a base on Arguin Island (which today belongs to Mauritania) as a mid-15th century prototype for future fortified trading posts throughout the Portuguese empire.
Prince Henry was very much the ascetic visionary with a grand design to tame the coast of Africa in order to carve a crucial sea passage to the East, a plan that finally came to fruition on the 20th of May, 1498, when Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut after almost ten months at sea.
Even on the sunniest of days, the Ponta de Sagres can be a very hostile and uncompromising place as the sea claws and smashes at the base of the high dolomite cliffs.
Try to picture the scene some five hundred and fifty years previously, with Prince Henry pondering the fortunes of his country’s future on that blustery clifftop as he etched a vivid impression of far-flung lands and untold riches into his mind.
Traces of his pioneering School of Navigation can still be seen at Ponta de Sagres, most visibly the vast mariner’s wind compass known as the Rosa dos Ventos, which is marked in stone on the ground.
Sadly, the prince died in 1460, long before the greatest of the Portuguese discoveries were accomplished, although his sea captains had already reached Sierra Leone and paved the path for future successes prior to his passing.
But his was the momentum and spirit that guided those epic voyages as if he only had plotted their courses with his very own hands.