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By Peter Russell

[pound]20 Yale Univeristy Press

ISBN 0-300-08233-9

At around the time that the Chinese Emperor, Cheng Ho, was receiving a giraffe at the gates of his inner palace in Beijing, the gift of the King of Malindi of East Africa, a young prince was leading an attack on Ceuta on the North African coast. That prince, distinguishing himself with almost fool hardy courage in the battle, could claim aristocratic British, Spanish and French blood - but owed patriotic allegiance to his father, King Joao I, the king of Portugal. His name was Henry, later to be known as Henry the Navigator, and he would make a mark in history as a pioneer of the European transatlantic slave trade.

Ceuta was probably the most important trading entrepot on the North African littoral - and Portuguese interest in capturing the medieval city was two-fold. Firstly, the walled citadel was said to guard an enormous treasure of gold. Secondly, it was governed by the Muslim Marinid dynasty which ruled what is now Morocco; and in common with most European Christian rulers, Henry was motivated by the desire to win his God's favour by the chivalrous duty to crusade against Islam.

Ceuta was to prove a disappointment as far as finding gold was concerned. The Portuguese destroyed the town in their fury at being denied the anticipated spoils of war, and also destroyed much of Ceuta's real wealth - the great stores of spices, oils, conserves and other commodities which represented the profits of a healthy trans-Sahara trading network.

While Ceuta's population were predominantly Muslims, a sizable community of both Christian and Jewish merchants had been permitted to live there. Many were summarily robbed and executed by the victorious Portuguese.

Pivotal moment

For Henry, decorated for bravery by his father, the taking of Ceuta in 1415 would be a pivotal moment. From Moorish prisoners taken at Ceuta he would learn of the wealth that lay beyond the Sahara in the form of gold, silver and slaves. He must have realised that an overland expedition of conquest would almost certainly be doomed to failure, but he concluded that the ocean could provide a means to exploit Africa's riches.

However, virtually nothing was known of the sea routes to West Africa south of Cape Bojador. European seafarers were terrified by tales of sea monsters and the end of the world they believed lay there.

None had sailed beyond and returned to tell what they found, although there is evidence that Chinese mariners had successfully sailed from the Indian Ocean as far north as these waters. These fears were not to deter Henry, but then he was never to actually undertake a voyage of discovery himself.

On returning to Portugal from the victory at Ceuta, he established the world's first naval academy at Cape St Vincent and oversaw radical innovations in ship design, developing the highly manoeuvrable caravel which had three masts fitted with Arab-style lateen sails.

These new ships would allow Portuguese mariners to open sea routes around Africa, cross the Atlantic and circumnavigate the globe in 1521.

Initially, Henry's ambitions were confined to the West African coast. As an astute businessman, commercial considerations played a major role in his thinking though in his public pronouncements he placed more emphasis on a religious duty to counter Islam.

As the voyages he sent from Portugal ventured ever further south along Africa's coastline, they discovered they were travelling eastward. They had only travelled around the bulge of West Africa but the mariners believed they had rounded Africa Then sprang the hope that they might locate the lands of the mythical Prester John. Prester John, it was believed, would ally in Christian brotherhood to provide an eastern flank to attack the lands of Islam that separated Christendom from Asia.

The myths that have grown around this medieval prince are many and various. That he was a lifelong bachelor who eschewed the pleasures of women and drink, regularly wore hair-shirts in religious devotion and dedicated his life to understanding the mysteries of navigation, mathematics and the sciences, and that his life had a huge impact on the shape of world history, is undeniable.

Sir Peter Russell's book is not a biography in the conventional sense. As he explains, direct documentary evidence is lacking. In fact, only one of Henry's personal letters is known to have survived. What the author does is bring his considerable historical expertise to construct a study of Henry's actions which reveals how the prince came to be regarded as a progenitor of 'modernity', whose vision and determination was pivotal in the shift from a medieval era to the eventual expansion of European world-wide power and influence.

As a distinguished scholar of Iberian history, now retired, the author has drawn on his vast experience to collate many different documentary sources to provide a portrait of the man.

One of the problems of the book for the non academic reader, despite it being highly readable, is how cautiously Sir Peter presents his conclusions, invariably adding riders to his evaluation of the evidence.

Nevertheless, the picture that emerges of Prince Henry is that he was, even for his time, a pious man, yet a man of quite extraordinary intellect - even if he was heavily influenced by astrological predictions, a 'science' that in Henry's day was not divorced from formal religion.

What's disturbing is the way that the brutality of Portugal's, and later other European powers' global expansion was so easily justified by the religious devotion of Henry and others of his day.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Williams, Stephen
Publication:African Business
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2000
Previous Article:Tanzania says 'Karibuni'.

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