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Discovery Of The Canary Islands And The African Coast
By Arthur Helps
Jun 7, 2008 - 11:13:10 AM


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We now turn to the history of the discoveries made, or rather caused to be made, by Prince Henry of Portugal. This Prince was born in 1394. He was the third son of John I of Portugal and Philippa, the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. That good Plantagenet blood on the mother's side was, doubtless, not without avail to a man whose life was to be spent in continuous and insatiate efforts to work out a great idea. Prince Henry was with his father at the memorable capture of Ceuta, the ancient Septem, in 1415. This town, which lies opposite to Gibraltar, was of great magnificence, and one of the principal marts in that age for the productions of the East. It was here that the Portuguese nation first planted a firm foot in Africa; and the date of this town's capture may, perhaps, be taken as that from which Prince Henry began to meditate further and far greater conquests. His aims, however, were directed to a point long beyond the range of the mere conquering soldier. He was especially learned, for that age of the world, being skilled in mathematical and geographical knowledge. And it may be noticed here that the greatest geographical discoveries have been made by men conversant with the book knowledge of their own time. A work, for instance, often seen in the hands of Columbus, which his son mentions as having had much influence with him, was the learned treatise of Cardinal Petro de Aliaco (Pierre d'Ailly), the Imago Mundi.

But to return to Prince Henry of Portugal. We learn that he had conversed much with those who had made voyages in different parts of the world, and particularly with Moors from Fez and Morocco, so that he came to hear of the Azeneghis, a people bordering on the country of the negroes of Jalof. Such was the scanty information of a positive kind which the Prince had to guide his endeavors. Then there were the suggestions and the inducements which to a willing mind were to be found in the shrewd conjectures of learned men, the fables of chivalry, and, perhaps, in the confused records of forgotten knowledge once possessed by Arabic geographers. The story of Prister John, which had spread over Europe since the crusades, was well known to the Portuguese Prince. A mysterious voyage of a certain wandering saint, called St. Brendan, was not without its influence upon an enthusiastic mind. Moreover, there were many sound motives urging the Prince to maritime discovery; among which, a desire to fathom the power of the Moors, a wish to find a new outlet for traffic, and a longing to spread the blessings of the faith may be enumerated. The especial reason which impelled Prince Henry to take the burden of discovery on himself was that neither mariner nor merchant would be likely to adopt an enterprise in which there was no clear hope of profit. It belonged, therefore, to great men and princes, and among such he knew of no one but himself who was inclined to it.

The map of the world being before us, let us reduce it to the proportions it filled in Prince Henry's time: let us look at our infant world. First, take away those two continents, for so we may almost call them, each much larger than a Europe, to the far west. Then cancel that square, massive-looking piece to the extreme southeast; happily there are no penal settlements there yet. Then turn to Africa: instead of that form of inverted cone which it presents, and which we now know there are physical reasons for its presenting, make a cimetar shape of it, by running a slightly curved line from Juba on the eastern side of Cape Nam on the western. Declare all below that line unknown. Hitherto, we have only been doing the work of destruction; but now scatter emblems of hippogriffs and anthropophagi on the outskirts of what is left in the map, obeying a maxim, not confined to the ancient geographers only - where you know nothing, place terrors. Looking at the map thus completed, we can hardly help thinking to ourselves, with a smile, what a small space, comparatively speaking, the known history of the world has been transacted in, up to the last four hundred years. The idea of the universality of the Roman dominions shrinks a little; and we begin to fancy that Ovid might have escaped his tyrant. The ascertained confines of the world were now, however, to be more than doubled in the course of one century; and to Prince Henry of Portugal, as to the first promoter of these vast discoveries, our attention must be directed.

This Prince, having once the well-grounded idea in his mind that Africa did not end where it was commonly supposed, namely, at Cape Nam (Not), but that there was a world beyond that forbidding negative, seems never to have rested until he had made known that quarter of the globe to his own. He fixed his abode upon the promontory of Sagres, at the southern part of Portugal, whence, for a many year, he could watch for the rising specks of white sail bringing back his captains to tell him of new countries and new men. We may wonder that he never went himself; but he may have thought that he served the cause better by remaining at home and forming a centre whence the electric energy of enterprise was communicated to many discoverers, and then again collected from them. Moreover, he was much engaged in the public affairs of his country. In the course of his life he was three times in Africa, carrying on war against the Moors; and at home, besides the care and trouble which the state of the Portuguese court and government must have given him, he was occupied in promoting science and encouraging education.

In 1415, as before noticed, he was at Ceuta. In 1418 he was settled on the promontory of Sagres. One night in that year he is thought to have had a dream of promise, for on the ensuing morning he suddenly ordered two vessels to be got ready forthwith, and to be placed under the command of two gentlemen of his household, Joham Goncalvez Zarco and Tristam Vaz, whom he ordered to proceed down the Barbary coast on a voyage of discovery.

A contemporary chronicler, Azurara, whose work has recently been discovered and published, tells the story more simply, and merely states that these captains were young men, who, after the ending of the Ceuta campaign, were as eager for employment as the Prince for discovery; and that they were ordered on a voyage having for its object the general molestation of the Moors, as well as that of making discoveries beyond Cape Nam. The Portuguese mariners had a proverb about this cape - "He who would pass Cape Not, either will return or not"; intimating that, if he did not turn before passing the cape, he would never return at all. On the present occasion it was not destined to be passed; for these captains, Joham Goncalvez Zarco and Tristam Vaz, were driven out of their course by storms, and accidentally discovered a little island, where they took refuge, and from that circumstance called the island Porto Santo. "They found there a race of people living in no settled polity, but not altogether barbarous or savage, and possessing a kindly and most fertile soil."

I give this description of the first land discovered by Prince Henry's captains, thinking it would well apply to many other lands about to be found out by his captains and by other discoverers. Joham Goncalvez Zarco and Tristam Vaz returned. Their master was delighted with the news they brought him, more on account of its promise than its substance. In the same year he sent them out again, together with a third captain, named Bartholomew Perestrelo, assigning a ship to each captain. His object was not only to discover more lands, but also to improve those which had been discovered. He sent, therefore, various seeds and animals to Porto Santo. This seems to have been a man worthy to direct discovery. Unfortunately, however, among the animals some rabbits were introduced into the new island; and they conquered it, not for the Prince, but for themselves. Hereafter, we shall find that they gave his people much trouble, and caused no little reproach to him.

We come now to the year 1419. Perestrelo, for some unknown cause, returned to Portugal at that time. After his departure, Joham Goncalvez Zarco and Tristam Vaz, seeing from Porto Santo something that seemed like a cloud, but yet different - the origin of so much discovery, noting the difference in the likeness - built two boats, and, making for this cloud, soon found themselves alongside a beautiful island, abounding in many things, but most of all in trees, on which account they gave it the name of "Madeira" (Wood). The two discoverers entered the island at different parts. The Prince, their master, afterward rewarded them with the captaincies of those parts. To Perestrelo he gave the island of Porto Santo to colonize it. Perestrelo, however, did not make much of his captaincy, but after a strenuous contest with the rabbits, having killed an army of them, died himself. This captain has a place in history as being the father-in-law of Columbus, who, indeed, lived at Porto Santo for some time, and here, on new-found land, meditated far bolder discoveries.

Joćo Goncalvez Zarco and Tristam Vaz began the cultivation of their island of Madeira, but met with an untoward event at first. In clearing the wood, they kindled a fire among it, which burned for seven years, we are told; and in the end, that which had given its name to the island, and which, in the words of the historian, overshadowed the whole land, became the most deficient commodity. The captains founded churches in the island; and the King of Portugal, Don Duarte, gave the temporalities to Prince Henry, and all the spiritualities to the Knights of Christ.

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