I’ve been thinking about Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal today, and re-reading bits of Peter Russell’s excellent biography, Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life
You remember Prince Henry. He’s the first in a series of names that you learned in grade school: Prince Henry the Navigator, Columbus, Dias, Magellan–maybe Henry Hudson if your teacher was into the Great Explorers and the Age of Discovery.
If you got hooked, you trotted down to the school library and checked out a biography–or three. (Not that I admit to having done anything of the sort.) They introduced you to the princely scholar who founded a school on the coast of Portugal where he taught new arts of navigation to his sailors. The visionary who sent men out explore the cost of Africa with the goal of reaching India. The gifted mathematician whose theories made oceanic navigation possible. The dynamic symbol of Portugal’s imperial destiny. In short, a heroic figure a nerd could love.
Not surprisingly, the story told in a biography suitable for a ten-year-old is little more than a series of half-truths. Even the nickname “the Navigator” is a misnomer, invented by nineteenth century historians eager to establish the Portuguese grandson of John of Gaunt as the forefather of British maritime success. In fact, the prince’s only personal experience of seafaring was trips along the Portuguese post and the occasional short hop to Morocco.
Henry was an ambitious prince, a would-be Crusader, a celibate Christian knight, a talented administrator, and a shrewd businessman. For more than forty years he funded expeditions of exploration along the west coast of Africa, pushing Portuguese seamen to sail further than they ever had before. By providing the financial support and intellectual stimulus for Portugal’s voyages of discovery, Prince Henry the Navigator transformed Portugal from a small, impoverished nation into Europe’s first maritime empire. Now that I think about it, a hero that a grown-up nerd can still admire.