Prince Henry "The Navigator": a Life.
After a long and distinguished career at Oxford in Spanish and Portuguese studies, Sir Peter Russell has returned to a major subject on which he has been reading for more than fifty years. Prince Henry of Portugal (1394-1460) served for centuries as an icon of the Lusitanian expansion in the world that spread a language now spoken globally by more than those who express themselves in either French or Japanese. His praises were sung under the monarchy which ended in 1910, by the Republic which turned into the New State of Salazar, and by the government which followed the end of authoritarian rule in 1974. Three Portuguese foundations gave generous financial support for this publication. There are thirty-three illustrations of maps, portraits, and places. The portrait believed to be of Henry on the Polyptch of Sao Vicente de Fora by Nuno Goncalves housed in the Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon has been frequently reproduced and adorns the dust jacket of this volume. Statues of Prince Henry abound in Portugal and he is at the forefront of the monument to the Portuguese discoveries at the side of the Tagus.
Such sustained official sanction for his fame and fortune over the centuries mean that there is scant likelihood for the identification of new sources by even the most assiduous archival researcher. Instead, a biographer can attempt to put forward a new interpretation or emphasize materials which have been put to use by earlier writers on the subject. Russell does so starting with the 1415 attack on Ceuta on the Moroccan coast which extended the expulsion of the Muslims from southern Europe. That military drive in its Portuguese manifestation was called the Reconquista. Henry dreamed of invading and expanding Christian domination across the Mediterranean and into North Africa. The inability of his forces to gain a landfall on the mainland then inexorably led him to patronize maritime expansion down the coast of Africa which in 1498 saw the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. The Prince despatched others on these voyages but did not go himself even to Madeira, of which island he was made life donatory in 1433. At the end of 1999 Portugal returned Macau to Chinese control ending the lengthy imperial adventure which began in 1415. A biography of Prince Henry published in 2000 is thus a eulogy of the maritime expansionist vocation of a small nation on the most westerly point of the European continent.
Russell does consider some negative and unsuccessful aspects of Henry's life. He has an informative chapter on the Portuguese participation in the fifteenth-century African slave trade. He examines the Prince's obsession with establishing Portuguese control of the Canary Islands, an obsession which was wasteful of lives and resources and which came to nothing. He also examines the heavy debt load accumulated by Prince Henry which remained unpaid at his death.
Henry the Navigator can also be considered as an exemplar of the Christian knight. His chastity was unusual for warrior knights of his time. He was often referred to as the Virgin Prince. A medieval prince who lived a life of total celibacy and marked personal asceticism was unusual, and linked with the Catholic impetus in the Portuguese missions abroad. The tomb of Prince Henry at Batalha was made on his instructions during his lifetime but, as Russell notes, never became part of a popular cult. Henry was a mythic forebearer for the propaganda in favour of a pluri-continental policy. He was also a creation of official historians. This book reads easily and presents a judicious summary of the voluminous literature on the subject of Prince Henry.
David Higgs University of Toronto
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2002|
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