From the archives

Statue of Prince Henry

The sixteenth-century myth of Prince Henry as a man of knowledge
In the year of the birth of Christ the Saviour of human beings 1433, King John of Portugal, the first of his name, called of fond memory, passed away. He released Portugal from the raids and assaults of the Castilians which had almost devastated all the kingdom. Among the children whom he left, Henry was the most learned, especially in the discipline of mathematics. He did not marry and only lived for the study of the stars. He spent his life at the holy promontory called Cape St Vincent to examine the motion of the stars more carefully. He chose this place where the sky is rarely misty so that the clouds would not prevent him from observing celestial movements through his instruments. Henry spent many nights awake and had already understood that the Atlantic and Indian Ocean flowed into each other. As he wished to seize the fruits of his studies, he decided to make inquiries with his ships and at his own expenses, and journey after journey, he penetrated good part of the Atlantic coast where strongholds, cities, and many islands were discovered.  
(Damião de Góis, Fides, Religio, Moresque Aethiopum... Leuven: Rutger Reysch, 1540, fl. Aivr)  

Anno ab ortu Servatoris humani generis Christi M.cccc.xxxiii. vita functo Ioanne Lusitaniae Rege eius nominis primo, cognomento bonae memoriae, qui Lusitaniam a Castellanorum incursionibus, oppugnationibusque, quibus eam ferme totam populaverant, liberavit, inter alios, quos reliquit filios, Henricus caeteris omnibus, in disciplinis, praecipue mathematicis doctior fuit, qui propter sola astrorum studia coelebs vixit, ac ut cursus stellarum accuratius meditaretur, vitam in sacro promontorio, quod Caput Sancti Vincentij dicitur, egit, quem locum propterea, quod in eo coelum raro turbidum efficitur, elegit, ne nubibus interpositis instrumentis, quibus ad rationem eius muneris utebatur, consideratio coelestium cursuum impediretur. Is autem Henricus, ut fructus studiorum suorum capesseret, id quod iam ex multis vigiliis compertum habebat, nempe Atlanticum Oceanum, in Indicum rursum Indicum in Atlanticum profluere, navibus propriis suis, ac sumptibus costituit investigare, quibus iterum atque iterum missis, bonam partem litoris Atlantici penetravit, in quo oppida & civitates, insulaeque permultae repertae sunt.

Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s account of the arrival of the first slave ships from West Africa (1444)
The caravels arrived at Lagos, whence they had set out, having excellent weather for their voyage, for fortune was not less gracious to them in the serenity of the weather than it had been to them before in the capture of their booty. And from Lagos the news reached the Infant, who happened to have arrived there a few hours before, from other parts where he had been for some days. […]

And next day Lançarote, as he who had taken the main charge of the expedition, said to the Infant: ‘My Lord, your grace well knoweth that you have to receive the fifth of these Moors, and of all that we have gained in that land, whither you sent us for the service of God and of yourself. And now these Moors, because of the long time we have been at sea; as well as for the great sorrow that you must consider they have at heart, at seeing themselves away from the land of their birth, and placed in captivity, without having any understanding of what their end is to be – and moreover because they have not been accustomed to a life on shipboard – for all these reasons are poorly and out of condition; wherefore it seemeth to me that it would be well to order them to be taken out of the caravels at dawn, and to be placed in that field which lies outside the city gate, and there to be divided into five parts, according to custom; and that your Grace should come there and choose one of these parts, whichever you prefer.’

The Infant said that he was well pleased, and on the next day very early, Lançarote bade the masters of the caravels that they should put out the captives, and take them to that field, where they were to make the divisions, as he had said already. But before they did anything else in that matter, they took as an offering the best of those Moors to the Church of that place; and another little Moor, who afterwards became a friar of St. Francis, they sent to St. Vincent do Cabo, where he lived ever after as a Catholic Christian, without having understanding or perception of any other law than that true and holy law in which all we Christians hope for our salvation. And the Moors of that capture were in number 235.


On the next day, which was the 8th of the month of August, very early in the morning, by reason of the heat, the seamen began to make ready their boats, and to take out those captives, and carry them on shore, as they were commanded. And these, placed all together in that field, were a marvellous sight; for amongst them were some white enough, fair to look upon, and well proportioned; others were less white like mulattoes; others again were as black as Ethiops, and so ugly, both in features and in body, as almost to appear (to those who saw them) the images of a lower hemisphere. But what heart could be so hard as not to be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company? For some kept their heads low and their faces bathed in tears, looking one upon another; others stood groaning very dolorously, looking up to the height of heaven, fixing their eyes upon it, crying out loudly, as if asking help of the Father of Nature; others struck their faces with the palms of their hands, throwing themselves at full length upon the ground; others made their lamentations in the manner of a dirge, after the custom of their country. And though we could not understand the words of their language, the sound of it right well accorded with the measure of their sadness. But to increase their sufferings still more, there now arrived those who had charge of the division of the captives, and who began to separate one from another, in order to make an equal partition of the fifths; and then was it needful to part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers. No respect was shewn either to friends or relations, but each fell where his lot took him. […] And who could finish that partition without very great toil? for as often as they had placed them in one part the sons, seeing their fathers in another, rose with great energy and rushed over to them; the mothers clasped their other children in their arms, and threw themselves flat on the ground with them; receiving blows with little pity for their own flesh, if only they might not be torn from them. And so troublously they finished the partition; for besides the toil they had with the captives, the field was quite full of people, both from the town nd from the surrounding villages and districts, who for that day gave rest to their hands (in which lay their power to get their living) for the sole purpose of beholding this novelty. And with what they saw, while some were weeping and others separating the captives, they caused such a tumult as greatly to confuse those who directed the partition.

The Infant was there, mounted upon a powerful steed, and accompanied by his retinue, making distribution of his favours, as a man who sought to gain but small treasure from his share; for of the forty-six souls that fell to him as his fifth, he made a very speedy partition of these; for his chief riches lay in his purpose; for he reflected with great pleasure upon the salvation of those souls that before were lost. And certainly his expectation was not in vain; for, as we said before, as soon as they understood our language they turned Christians with very little ado; and I who put together this history into this volume, saw in the town of Lagos boys and girls (the children and grandchildren of those first captives, born in this land) as good and true Christians as if they had directly descended, from the beginning of the dispensation of Christ, from those who were first baptised.

(Gomes Eanes de Zurara, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, chs. 24-25, trans. Charles Raymond Beazley and Edgar Prestage)


Chegaram as caravelas a Lagos, donde antes partiram, havendo nobre tempo de viagem, que lhe não foi a fortuna menos graciosa na bonança do tempo que lhe antes fora no filhamento da presa; onde as novas chegaram ao Infante, que antes poucas horas se acertara chegar ali, doutras partes donde havia dias que andava. [...]

E no outro dia Lançarote, como homem que do feito tinha principal cargo, disse ao Infante: ‘Senhor! Bem sabe a vossa mercê como haveis de haver o quinto destes mouros e de tudo que ganhamos em aquela terra, onde por serviço de Deus e vosso nos mandastes. E agora estes mouros, pelo grande tempo que andamos no mar, assim pelo nojo que deveis considerar que terão em seus coraçoes, vendo-se fora da terra de sua natureza e postos em cativeiro, sem havendo algum conhecimento de qual será sua fim; d'aí a usança que não hão de andar em navios; por tudo isto veem assaz mal corregidos e doentes; pelo qual me parece que será bem que de manhã os mandeis tirar das caravelas, e levar àquele campo que está alem da porta da vila, e farão deles cinco partes, segundo o costume, e seja vossa mercê chegardes aí e escolher uma das partes, qual mais vos prouver.’

O Infante disse que lhe prazia; e no outro dia muito cedo mandou Lançarote, aos mestres das caravelas, que os tirassem fora e que os levassem àquele campo, onde fizessem suas repartições, segundo antes dissera; pero primeiramente que se em aquilo outra cousa fizesse, levaram em oferta o melhor daqueles mouros à igreja daquele lugar, e outro pequeno, que depois foi frade de S. Francisco, enviaram a S. Vicente do Cabo, onde sempre viveu como catolico cristão, sem havendo conhecimento nem sentimento doutra lei senão daquela santa e verdadeira em que todolos cristãos esperamos nossa salvação. E foram os mouros desta presa 235.


No outro dia, que eram 8 dias do mês de agosto, muito cedo pela manhã por razão da calma, começaram os mareantes de correger seus bateis e tirar aqueles cativos, para os levarem segundo lhes fora mandado; os quaes, postos juntamente naquele campo, era uma maravilhosa cousa de ver, que entre eles havia alguns de razoada brancura, fremosos e apostos; outros menos brancos, que queriam semelhar pardos; outros tão negros como etiopes, tão desafeiçoados assim nas caras como nos corpos, que quasi parecia, aos homens que os esguardavam, que viam as imagens do hemisfério mais baixo. Mas qual seria o coração, por duro que ser podesse, ti que não fosse pungido de piedoso sentimento, vendo assim aquela companha? Que uns tinham as caras baixas e os rostros lavados com lagrimas, olhando uns contra os outros; outros estavam gemendo mui dolorosamente, esguardando a altura dos ceus, firmando os olhos em eles, bradando altamente, como se pedissem acorro ao Padre da natureza; outros feriam seu rostro com suas palmas, lançando-se tendidos no meio do chão; outros faziam suas lamentações em maneira de canto, segundo o costume de sua terra, nas quaes, posto que as palavras da linguagem dos nossos não podesse ser entendida, bem correspondia ao grau de sua tristeza. Mas para seu dó ser mais acrecentado, sobrevieram aqueles que tinham cargo de partilha e começaram de os apartarem uns dos outros, a fim de poerem seus quinhões em igualeza; onde convinha de necessidade de se apartarem os filhos dos padres, e as mulheres dos maridos e os dos irmãos dos outros. A amigos nem a parentes não se guardava nenhuma lei, somente cada um caía onde o a sorte levava! [...] Quem poderia acabar aquela partição sem mui grande trabalho? Que tanto que os tinham postos em uma parte, os filhos, que viam os padres na outra, alevantavam-se rijamente e iam-se para eles; as madres apertavam os outros filhos nos braços e lançavam-se com eles de bruços, recebendo feridas, com pouca piedade de suas carnes, por lhe não serem tirados! E assim trabalhosamente os acabaram de partir, porque alem do trabalho que tinham com os cativos, o campo era todo cheio de gente, assim do lugar como das aldeias e comarcas de arredor, os quaes leixavam em aquele dia folgar suas mãos, em que estava a força do seu ganho, somente por ver aquela novidade. E com estas cousas que viam, uns chorando, outros departindo, faziam tamanho alvoroço, que poinham em turvação os governadores daquela partilha.

O Infante era ali em cima de um poderoso cavalo, acompanhado de suas gentes, repartindo suas mercês, como homem que de sua parte queria fazer pequeno tesouro, que de 46 almas suas aconteceram no seu quinto, mui breve fez delas sua partilha, que toda a sua principal riqueza estava em sua vontade, considerando com grande prazer na salvação daquelas almas, que antes eram perdidas, E certamente que seu pensamento não era vão, que, como ja dissemos, tanto que estes haviam conhecimento da linguagem, com pequeno movimento se tornavam Cristãos; e eu que esta história ajuntei em este volume, vi na vila de Lagos moços e moças, filhos e netos daquestes, nados em esta terra, tão bons e tão verdadeiros cristãos como se descenderam de começo da lei de Cristo, por geração, daqueles que primeiro foram bautizados.