Throwback Thursday: Henry the Navigator and the edge of the world
Henry the Navigator was pretty sure that if you sailed into the abyss of the Atlantic, you wouldn’t fall off the edge of the earth. Prince of Portugal and Duke of Viseu, Henry was master planner for the Age of Discovery, bringing together explorers and mapmakers in Lagos, Portugal, funding expeditions into the unknown and taking 20% of the profits.
He’d sit here on these cliffs at Cabo de Sao Vincente at sunset like I did, watching the glowing orb as its color warmed and it touched the curved horizon, revealing that the earth, was in fact, round. But he wouldn’t sail into the setting sun, but head south to Africa where—sadly—he founded the African Slave Trade in 1441. Ironically Portugal would abolish slavery in 1761, years before the US declared independence.
16 years after Henry’s death, a shipwrecked seaman named Columbus swam ashore at Lagos. His convoy of five ships from Genoa was attacked and sunk by French pirates. (One theory is that Columbus was actually one of the pirates who created a fictionalized Genoese past.) Whatever the case, he quickly married into Portuguese nobility and discovered Henry’s charts and documents—family possessions of his father in law’s widow. These inspired this lousy sailor to become an explorer.
Motivated by power and money, but not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Columbus figured the earth was round, but didn’t know how big the ball was. In 1483, the Portuguese court, well versed in Henry’s findings, knew exactly how big the earth was and denied Columbus the means for his futile quest to sail west and find a faster route to India. With his wife dead in her 20s (leaving him cast out of the noble circles) Columbus decided to try his hand in Spain. Ten years later he would follow the sun west seeking spice and instead founding an ill-fated attempt at enslaving five million natives of the Americas. Henry was ultimately responsible for enslaving twelve million Africans.
I wish these guys had just played with boats in their bathtubs.