Prince Henry’s navigatorsDom Manuel ascended the throne at a turbulent period of Portuguese politics. He succeeded his cousin King John II, who had personally assassinated Manuel’s uncle and other aristocrats in a campaign to break the power of the nobility. It was a big surprise when Dom John nominated Manuel his successor, but John’s only surviving son was illegitimate, which ruled him out.
Manuel has been called ‘The Fortunate’ because he reaped the benefit of policies put in place by predecessors like Prince Henry, known as the navigator although he never went to sea. The Institute of Navigation at Sagres was the foremost nautical school of its time. Its alumni included such names as Vasco da Gama, Dias, D’Abreu, who had pushed Portuguese exploration down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Storms later renamed the Cape of Good Hope and established the sea route to Asia.
As a page in the court of Queen Leonora Ferdinand Magellan received a good education and had access to the latest news of explorations and cutting-edge techniques of navigation and seamanship. Portugal was the greatest sea-power of its time and these were exciting times. Lisbon was the most cosmopolitan of cities.
Magellan was about 25 years old when he embarked on his nautical career under admiral de Almeida. They rounded the Cape of Storms and sailed north up the east coast of Africa to the Sultanate of Kilwa, which was then the most prosperous enclave in the region. After a brief siege, Almeida conquered the city and set about building a Portuguese fortress. Another attraction in this region for the Portuguese was the fabled realm of Prester John, thought to be a Christian king in central Africa.
Returning home, Magellan was sent to fight in Dom Manuel’s war in Morocco in which he received a wound to his leg that caused him to limp for the rest of his life. He was also accused of corruption in a matter concerning distribution of war booty. He was never convicted of the offence but when he applied for an increase in his allowance from the king, Dom Manuel for some unknown reason refused. Then Magellan proposed to sail a fleet westwards to the Spice Isles. He believed the route would be shorter than the eastbound course. Again, Dom Manuel refused him. Magellan had been wounded in the service of his country and was no doubt offended by his sovereign’s lack of respect.
‘Well then,’ he said,‘I shall take my project to the king of Spain.’
‘You may do whatever you please,’ Dom Manuel replied.
As a sign of respect, Magellan offered to kiss the king’s hand. Dom Manuel thrust his hand behind his back and Magellan stormed out no doubt in a rage. Nowadays, Portugal has more or less made peace with its famous errant son. The explorations are honoured with a museum in the Tower of Belem, a popular tourist attraction, and an elaborate sculpture celebrating Prince Henry’s work on a bank of the River Tagus.
Tower of Belém