Cape Bojador

By the time Duarte became king, Henry’s explorers had passed Cape Nun, and he had set a new bar at the Bulging Cape [Cape Bojador]. South of Cape Bojador, Henry hoped to find the Rio do Oro. He offered a great reward – we don’t know how much – to the first explorer who sailed south of Cape Bojador and returned with captured natives.

Slavery was a thriving business in Muslim Africa. Since the eighth and ninth centuries, the Muslims had been collecting European slaves, known as saqaliba, from Iberian, Sicilian, Grecian, and other Mediterranean shores. They transported the saqaliba across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, across the Indian Ocean to India, and by caravan across the Sahara desert to western Africa. Henry the Navigator knew this. He had witnessed the corsairs from Africa raiding Portuguese ports.

But as a Knight of the Order of Christ, Henry claimed he wanted to convert the infidels of Africa to Christianity, not enslave them. The reason Henry requested his explorers to collect natives from the lands they visited was because he wanted proof that the explorers had been where they said they had been. As a student of foreign lands, he wanted to inspect and study foreign people [as if they were exotic specimens].

Nonetheless, slaving turned out to be profitable. During the next ten years, Henry’s captains became more interested in capturing slaves than in reaching the southern end of Africa.

Gil Eannes Passes Cape Bojador

The first explorer to pass Cape Bojador was Captain Gil Eannes. It took him two tries. He set out first in 1433 with just one vessel from the southern port of Lagos in the Algarve region of Portugal. Eannes was unable to go the distance. But on the way, or on the way back, he got caught up in the Volta do Mar, which blew him to the Canary Islands – probably FuerteVentura. In spite of the tiny colony of Castilians and French who claimed occupation, Eannes dutifully snatched some natives of the land and headed home. He whined to Prince Henry that he ran into too many dangers to venture farther south.

Henry had no patience for the excuses his captains gave for not sailing past the bulging cape. He told them, “There is no peril so great that the hope of reward will not be greater.” Then he shipped Captain Eannes out again in 1434.

This time Eannes did pass Cape Bojador. But he could not find any inhabitants on the Saharan beach where he landed. As a substitute for proof of his visit, he dug up a type of succulent plant that would become known as the Rose of Santa Maria, packed it carefully in a barrel, and shipped it home to Henry.

In spite of Eannes’ failure to bring home human trophies, the Portuguese celebrated Eannes accomplishment with great fanfare. King Duarte was so pleased, he appointed Henry the Sovereign of the Madeiras.


Statue of Gil Eannes in Lagos, Portugal. ©2015 Mitchell.

Angra do Ruivos

The next year, in 1435, Captain Eannes set out on a third trip in a “barcha” [bark]. Another explorer, Afonso Gonçalves Baldaia, followed close behind him in a “swift barinel” [single mast with a square sail]. The two captains were told, “See how far you can go.” They made it some 30 to 50 leagues [89 to 149 miles] past Cape Bojador, where they arrived at a river swarming with red mullets [fish]. They named it Angra do Ruivos [Creek of the Redheads]. When they saw human and camel footprints in the sand, they followed the trail for “some distance,” but came to no one.

Nonetheless, Eannes and Baldaia returned to Portugal happy with their accomplishment. They felt certain they had reached the end of the uninhabitable Sahara [but they had not].

Crossing the Tropic of Cancer

The next year, 1436, Afonso Gonçalves Baldaia set out on his own with Henry’s standard instructions, “Look for the River of Gold, bring back a local inhabitant of Africa, seek the whereabouts of Prester John, and find a water passage under Africa.” Stopping in at various coves along the way, Baldaia coasted about 125 miles below Cape Bojador, 70 leagues [about 242 miles] past where he had sailed before with Gil Eannes. Baldaia was the first European to sail to the Tropic of Cancer.

When he reached a sizable river, he sent two seventeen-year-old scouts upstream on horseback. The young men ran into a band of nineteen natives who attacked them with assegais [slender, iron-tipped spears], wounding one of the scouts in the foot. The scouts took refuge behind some rocks. At one point, they had been separated from their horses, which meandered back to the ship without them. When night fell, the scouts started their trek back to the ship and arrived the next morning.

Their report encouraged Baldaia to sail his ship upriver. Another group of natives saw him coming and ran for the trees, leaving their belongings on the beach. Baldaia scooped up the paraphernalia to take back to Portugal as a souvenir for Henry and headed back down river.

As he reached the rivermouth, his crew spotted a pod of monk seals.(1) They caught as many as they could and set up camp on the beach, where they skinned the seals and extracted their oil. The oil would be used to manufacture soap back in Portugal. After packing the pelts and oil in the ship’s hold, Baldaia pushed another 50 leagues [173 miles] south until he came to another large river. He noted its location by a rock promontory at the rivermouth that was “shaped like a galley-ship.”

The Portuguese hunted down more seals on their way home. Their expedition received mixed reviews. Henry was thrilled Baldaia had traveled so far, but discouraged that the products brought back from Africa fetched so little money. Proceeds from the skins and oil did not cover the cost of the expedition.

Andrea Bianco’s 1436 Planisphere

While Baldaia coasted Africa, a Venetian cartographer named Andrea Bianco drew a planisphere of the Ecumene that illustrates what the Europeans knew about it in 1436. Very important to our story, the planisphere shows us what the Portuguese expected to find – a bay at the southern end of Africa that would lead to an inland route to Ethiopia or Abyssinia and the Kingdom of Prester John. Bianco placed north at the bottom, so we have turned the original 180 degrees to bring north to the top. Like Pietro Vesconte, Bianco painted the sea green. Both artists had obtained information about the Far East from The Travels of Marco Polo.


Andrea Bianco, Planisphere of the World, Venice, 1436 [turned 180 degrees counter-clockwise].(2)

For comparison, here is Bianco’s Ecumene next to the version Pietro Vesconte drew fifteen or sixteen years earlier.

There are several interesting features to note.

  1. Bianco shows us more of the Atlantic and placed both newly discovered and mythical islands in it.
    • Antilla is situated west of Iberia, where Christopher Columbus would expect to find it in 1492.
    • St. Brandon’s island is located at the end of a string of islands that is probably the eastern cluster of the Azores. Historians think this was the first map to include Terceira Island, which Gonçalo Velho Cabral had discovered eight years earlier in 1424.
  2. Both artists show the African coastline turning eastward after Cape Bojador, as it really does. Europeans had not explored that part of the world yet.
  3. Bianco has enlarged the bay at the southern end of Africa. Was he drawing the mythical Sinus Aethiopicus leading to Prester John
  4. Following the ancient example set by Eratosthenes, both artists drew Oceanus circling the Ecumene, implying there was a water passage under Africa as well as over Europe and Asia [in contrast to Ptolemy’s map].

Check out this comparison of Bianco’s map to Eratosthenes’ map. Do you think mariners in the 1400s thought they were sailing under the world when they followed the west coast of Africa?


Comparison of Bianco’s 1436 Planisphere and Eratosthenes’ map of the Ecumene from 194 BCE.

Prince Fernando and Tangier

Family matters and the fight against the infidels interrupted Henry’s discovery project for the next four years. His youngest brother Fernando was more intent on overcoming the infidels of Africa than the other brothers. In 1437, he tried to convince them to attack Tangier, the Muslim port just west of Ceuta. Possession of Tangier would give the Christians complete control over the Strait of Gibraltar.

King Duarte and their older, half-brother Afonso of Barcelos thought it was a bad idea. But Henry was convinced Fernando had a good plan, so Duarte relented.

The expedition was a disaster. Instead of laying siege to Tangier, the Portuguese found themselves trapped in the port and were forced to surrender. While negotiating a treaty, the Muslims and the Portuguese exchanged hostages. Fernando volunteered. The Muslims wanted Ceuta returned to them. However, as representatives of Christian Europe, the Portuguese had no choice but to refuse. [Ceuta is still a Spanish city surrounded by Arab lands.] Fernando stayed in Ceuta when the rest of his fleet was released to go home. Henry was so distraught that when he reached home, he went to his bed for four months. King Duarte was equally desolate. Negotiations would continued for eleven years while Fernando remained in captivity.

Death of King Duarte

Duarte blamed himself for letting Henry and Fernando try for Tangier in spite of his better judgment. Legend has it that his normally frail constitution could not take the heart-ache and guilt caused by Fernando’s captivity, so he died in 1438 at age forty-seven. His death was a tragedy,. So was the new war of succession it caused.

Duarte’s son and heir, Afonso, was only six years old. Duarte, in his will, left his kingdom to the care of his wife, Leonor of Aragon. She was to act as regent for Afonso until he gained his majority at age thirteen. But Pedro, who was married to the other Aragonian princess, did not want a foreigner governing Portugal, especially a monarch who was loyal to the Castilians. With some political maneuvering, Pedro convinced the Cortes(3) to elect him as regent instead of Leonor.

Pedro served as regent for nine years, from 1439 to 1448. He did not have as much power as a king because the Cortes oversaw his actions. However, he was still able to support Prince Henry’s monopoly of the exploratory efforts and resulting trade.

Notes

  1. According to Wikipedia, “Cabo Blanco, in the Atlantic Ocean, is the only place in the world where Mediterranean monk seals form a true colony.”
  2. Bianco, Andrea. Planisphere of the World, Venice, 1436. {{PD-Old}} Public Domain in USA and Italy. Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/Biancomap.jpg.
  3. Portugal’s Cortes was like England’s House of Lords today. There was no equivalent House of Commons.

Next article: The Caravel