Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
M. B. Synge

Prince Henry, the Sailor

"There lies the port—the vessel puffs her sails;

There gloom the dark broad seas."


O NCE back from the wars, the purpose of his life now began to take definite shape. Forsaking the gaiety of court life, he took up his abode on the inhospitable shores of southern Portugal. Amid the sadness of a waste of shifting sand, in a neighbourhood so barren that only a few stunted trees struggled for existence, on one of the coldest, dreariest spots of sunny Portugal, Prince Henry built himself a palace, a chapel, and an observatory.

And here, with the vast Atlantic stretching before him, he devoted himself to the study of the stars, of seamanship, of mathematics. He gathered round him men skilled in the art of drawing maps and men of science. In the neighbouring port of Lagos he built new ships, and trained the Portuguese sailors in the art of seamanship.

"Desire to do well." This was the Prince's motto, and never did man follow any nobler watchword than this.

It was not long before his ships sailed forth in quest of the unknown. Two squires of Prince Henry's household, anxious for fame and wishing to serve their master, set out on an exploring expedition to the coast of West Africa; but being overtaken by a storm they were driven on an island, which they called Porto Santo, as it had saved them from the dangers of the storm. They returned in triumph to Prince Henry, suggesting that a little colony would thrive on their newly found island. The prince took up the idea, and sent out a little settlement of people, to start life on the new island. He also sent with his captain a Spanish pilot who came into his service relating this story:—

Fifty years before an Englishman had run away from Bristol with a very beautiful lady. The boat in which they were flying to France was driven by storms out of its course, finally reaching an island, where the lady died of fright and exposure and her lover a few days later of grief. The sailors who were with them sailed away from the island, only to be wrecked on the coast of Africa and to be thrown into a Moorish prison; but they had told their story to this man, and he was now on his way to act as guide to the island of Madeira. Rediscovered then by the Portuguese, they took it in the name of Prince Henry, and to the Portuguese the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo belong to-day.

Year after year the energetic prince despatched his little ships on the voyages into the unknown sea, ever urging his captains and sailors to venture farther and farther. He gave them new maps and better compasses, and he imparted his enthusiasm to all. To the faint-hearted he gave new courage; those who listened to fables of the sea he rebuked, until one and all determined not to return till they could report some success to their enthusiastic master.

Farther and still farther the ships sailed southward, till at last they reached Cape Bojador, on the west coast of Africa. Here a dangerous surf broke upon the shore, and even the prince's mariners dared not venture farther. There was a popular fable that any man who passed Cape Bojador would be changed from white to black. Men whispered of serpent rocks, sea-monsters, water-unicorns, of sheets of liquid flame and boiling waters!

It was seven years later that the prince's ships reached Cape Blanco, the white headland beyond. Slowly but surely the fables about the great heat were melting away, and men were venturing farther and farther south, but never far from the coast of Africa, never out into the Sea of Darkness. But they brought back gold dust from the coast of Guinea, and they brought back some of the black men as captives to Prince Henry, whose wish was that they should become Christians.

As ship after ship now returned with gold and captives or slaves, Prince Henry's service became more and more popular. No longer had the sailor prince to beg his men to sail forth; all were eager to go and enrich themselves from this newly discovered land. Love of gain was the magic wand that now drew on the Portuguese sailors into the unknown waters, and made them ready for adventure and dangers.

This love of gold and slaves did not appeal to the prince. He still sent out his ships to the west coast, ever hoping for some new light to be shed over the Sea of Darkness, ever longing for some one to discover a pathway through the great waters to distant India.