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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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While these things were occurring at Madeira and at Porto Santo, Prince Henry had been prosecuting his general scheme of discovery, sending out two or three vessels each year, with orders to go down the coast from Cape Nam, and make what discoveries they could; but these did not amount to much, for the captains never advanced beyond Cape Bojador, which is situated seventy leagues to the south of Cape Nam. This Cape Bojador was formidable in itself, being terminated by a ridge of rocks with fierce currents running round them, but was much more formidable from the fancies which the mariners had formed of the sea and land beyond it. "It is clear," they were wont to say, "that beyond this cape there is no people whatever; the land is as bare as Libya - no water, no trees, no grass in it; the sea so shallow that at a league from the land it is only a fathom deep; the currents so fierce that the ship which passes that cape will never return;" and thus their theories were brought in to justify their fears. This outstretcher - for such is the meaning of the word bojador - was, therefore, as a bar drawn across that advance in maritime discovery which had for so long a time been the first object of Prince Henry's life.

The Prince had now been working at his discoveries for twelve years, with little approbation from the generality of persons; the discovery of these islands, Porto Santo and Madeira, serving to whet his appetite for further enterprise, but not winning the common voice in favor of prosecuting discoveries on the coast of Africa. The people at home, improving upon the reports of the sailors, said that "the land which the Prince sought after was merely some sandy place like the deserts of Libya; that princes had possessed the empires of the world, and yet had not undertaken such designs as his, nor shown such anxiety to find new kingdoms; that the men who arrived in those foreign parts - if they did arrive - turned from white into black men; that the King Don John, the Prince's father, had endowed foreigners with land in his kingdom, to break it up and cultivate it - a thing very different from taking the people out of Portugal, which had need of them, to bring them among savages to be eaten, and to place them upon lands of which the mother country had no need; that the Author of the world had provided these islands solely for the habitation of wild beasts, of which an additional proof was that those rabbits the discoverers themselves had introduced were now dispossessing them of the island.

There is much here of the usual captiousness to be found in the criticism of bystanders upon action, mixed with a great deal of false assertion and premature knowledge of the ways of Providence. Still, it were to be wished that most criticism upon action was as wise; for that part of the common talk which spoke of keeping their own population to bring out their own resources had a wisdom in it which the men of future centuries were yet to discover throughout the peninsula. Prince Henry, as may be seen by his perseverance up to this time, was not a man to have his purposes diverted by such criticism, much of which must have been, in his eyes, worthless and inconsequent in the extreme. Nevertheless, he had his own misgivings. His captains came back one after another with no good tidings of discovery, but with petty plunder gained, as they returned from incursions on the Moorish coast.

The Prince concealed from them his chagrin at the fruitless nature of their attempts, but probably did not feel it less on that account. He began to think: Was it for him to hope to discover that land which had been hidden from so many princes? Still, he felt within himself the incitement of "a virtuous obstinacy," which would not let him rest. Would it not, he thought, be ingratitude to God, who thus moved his mind to these attempts, if he were to desist from his work, or be negligent in it? He resolved, therefore, to send out again Gil Eannes, one of his household, who had been sent the year before, but had returned, like the rest, having discovered nothing. He had been driven to the Canary Islands, and had seized upon some of the natives there, whom he brought back. With this transaction the Prince had shown himself dissatisfied; and Gil Eannes, now intrusted again with command, resolved to meet all dangers rather than to disappoint the wishes of his master. Before his departure, the Prince called him aside and said: "You cannot meet with such peril that the hope of your reward shall not be much greater; and in truth, I wonder what imagination this is that you have all taken up - in a matter, too, of so little certainty; for if these things which are reported had any authority, however little, I would not blame you so much. But you quote to me the opinions of four mariners, who, as they were driven out of their way to Frandes or to some other ports to which they commonly navigated, had not, and could not have used, the needle and the chart; but do you go, however, and make your voyage without regard to their opinion, - and, by the grace of God, you will not bring out of it anything but honor and profit."

We may well imagine that these stirring words of the Prince must have confirmed Gil Eannes in his resolve to efface the stain of his former misadventure. And he succeeded in doing so; for he passed the dreaded Cape Bojador - a great event in the history of African discovery, and one that in that day was considered equal to a labor of Hercules. Gil Eannes returned to a grateful and most delighted master. He informed the Prince that he had landed, and that the soil appeared to him unworked and fruitful; and, like a prudent man, he could not tell of foreign plants, but had brought some of them home with him in a barrel of the new-found earth - plants much like those which bear in Portugal the roses of Santa Maria. The Prince rejoiced to see them, and gave thanks to God, "as if they had been the fruit and sign of the promised land; and besought Our Lady, whose name the plants bore, that she would guide and set forth the doings in this discovery to the praise and glory of God and to the increase of his holy faith."

 

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