Henry the Navigator - Explorers for Kids Illustration

Henry the Navigator - Explorers for Kids

Portugal finds a short cut to India

At this time in history, in the 1400’s, Portugal ruled the seas. They were the seafarers. They were the best. Portuguese sea captains were not only capable; they were also brave. They turned their boats into the unknown and sailed away in search of adventure and riches.

At this same time in history, the king of Portugal had several sons. One was named Prince Henry. Like the Portuguese sea captains, Prince Henry loved adventure. He loved the sea. He loved Portugal. He wanted to see Portugal become the most powerful and the wealthiest country in the world.  He knew that one way to accomplish this goal was for Portugal to find a short cut to India.

The costs of traveling overland to India to trade for silk, gold, spices, and gems, were high. The trip was long and dangerous. Prince Henry dreamed of finding a route to India by sea.

Prince Henry was fascinated by Africa, the huge continent to the immediate south of Portugal. It was such a vast place. He had been there during the wars with Morocco in 1415. He had a hunch that maybe, just maybe, his wonderful sailors could find a way around Africa by sea. It had never been done. It might not even be possible. There might not be a river across or a sea around Africa. The way Prince Henry looked at, though, was – what good was it to be a prince if you could not follow your hunches?  He had a hunch that Portugal’s future was to the south.

Prince Henry funded several well organized explorations that left Portugal and sailed down the west coast of Africa in search of a short cut to India. Each time, they pushed a bit further south, following the West African coastline.

Legend says Prince Henry accompanied his men on several trips.but some historians believe that Prince Henry mostly funded explorations but did not ride aboard.

Legend also says that Prince Henry’s nickname was “The Navigator” because he was such a great sailor and navigator. The truth is Prince Henry was not an especially good sailor or a good navigator. In fact, his nickname, "the Navigator", was given to him many hundreds of years after his death by two nineteenth century historians.

Just the same, his hunch that there was a way around the tip of Africa and on to India was right! Towards the end of the 1400s, Vasco da Gama, probably the most famous of the many famous Portuguese explorers, rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom tip off Africa, and was able to continue on to reach India by sea.

You can imagine the excitement!  The Portuguese no longer needed to stop and trade with the once powerful African kingdoms for gold, gems, and spices. Traders could simply sail directly to India for silk, gold, gems, spices, and other wonderful goods - more goods and better goods for far less trouble and danger. The discovery of a shortcut to India marked the beginning of the end of many of the once powerful African kingdoms.

Cities like the once flourishing Timbuktu felt the heat. When the Portuguese showed their own traders and others that it was easier to sail around the coast of Africa than travel overland, Timbuktu began to decline in influence. The city, without its former wealth and importance to protect it, was leveled at the end of the 1500’s by another war with Morocco.  Timbuktu was not the only African city to be affected. Once the African kingdoms lost their trade exclusives, they too began to decline in power. 

  1. Who ruled the seas in the 1400’s?

  1. Who was Prince Henry the Navigator?

  1. What was his dream?

  1. Why did Portugal wish to find a short cut to India? 

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