Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 294-296
[Access article in PDF]
Prince Henry "the Navigator":
Prince Henry "the Navigator": A Life. By Peter Russell (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000) 448pp. $35.00
Prince Henry of Aviz, the son of King John I and Queen Philippa (of Lancaster), has been the subject of far more than his share of historical and political misinformation and manipulation. Best known to English-speaking readers as "the Navigator," his actual maritime adventures were limited to a couple of crossings between Portugal and North Africa. The role played by Prince Henry in the development of nautical science and cartography has been equally distorted. Responses to these myths (as well as several others) await the reader in Russell's major new work on the life and times of this late medieval figure.
As Russell discusses at some length, misinformation and revisionism about Henry, his life, deeds, and motives began even before his death in 1460. They have continued until our own times. One of the major strengths of this work is Russell's ability to peel away the successive veneers that have been applied to Prince Henry, while discussing who may have applied them and why. In his judicious use of primary sources, especially Zurara's Chronicle of the Deeds of Guinea and Cadamosto's Voyages, Russell not only carefully outlines when and why the work was composed, but is able to explain convincingly any apparent contradictions or glaring omissions. 1
Was Prince Henry a Renaissance man, interested in increasing geographical knowledge of the world, or was he a medieval crusader-knight? [End Page 294] Most modern writers have been eager to present Prince Henry as a Renaissance figure. Major and Beazley both wrote nineteenth-century biographies of Prince Henry, molding public views and opinions of the man (at least in the English-speaking world) for the century to follow. 2 Sanceau's work in the 1940s continued many of these same themes, creating and maintaining a figure unassailable in personal virtue, clairvoyant in knowledge of geography, and unrivaled in scientific and technical abilities. 3
The Prince who emerges in this new work by Russell has none of these traits. Instead, he was human in his faults and knew little more of West African cultures and geography than what his sailors told him. Russell's Henry is headstrong, impetuous, vain, self-promoting, and impractical; most important, the Prince Henry in this work is a medieval figure, firmly separated from the Renaissance by the religious fervor that defines his life and deeds. Drawing largely from theMonumenta Henricina, Russell has also uncovered a number of previously unused documents from a variety of archives outside Portugal to construct (deconstruct may be the more appropriate term) his subject. 4 The work follows a chronological order that also addresses the major themes of Prince Henry's life--chief among them being, according to Russell, continuing thereconquista in Morocco, obtaining the Canary Islands from the Castillian Crown, and nurturing a monopolistic trade with coastal Western Africa.
That this work is about the beginning of the modern era is what makes the life and times of Prince Henry so appealing. Prince Henry's sailors began, for better or worse, the global process labeled "the age of discovery." The Portuguese were at the forefront of initial European contacts with non-European peoples. As a result, Russell's study of the beginnings of this process along coastal western Africa will be of immediate interest to all scholars of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, of West Africa, and of maritime history.
The historical literature on this subject is vast. Russell, in his select bibliography, cites English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French sources. The past ten years have seen an unmatched outpouring of discovery- related publications from Lisbon, many of them from the National Commission established to commemorate the two chief quincentenaries [End Page 295] of Vasco da Gama's arrival in India (1498) and Pedro Álvares Cabral's in Brazil (1500). Some of these publications touch on this early phase and...