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Age of Exploration and Discovery
History >> Renaissance for Kids
The Age of Exploration (also called the Age of Discovery) began in the 1400s and continued through the
1600s. It was a period of time when the European nations began exploring the world. They discovered
new routes to India, much of the Far East, and the Americas. The Age of Exploration took place at the
same time as the Renaissance.
Why explore?
Outfitting an expedition could be expensive and risky. Many ships never returned. So why did the
Europeans want to explore? The simple answer is money. Although, some individual explorers wanted to
gain fame or experience adventure, the main purpose of an expedition was to make money.
How did expeditions make money?
Expeditions made money primarily by discovering new trade routes for their nations. When the Ottoman
Empire captured Constantinople in 1453, many existing trade routes to India and China were shut down.
These trade routes were very valuable as they brought in expensive products such as spices and silk.
New expeditions tried to discover oceangoing routes to India and the Far East.
Some expeditions became rich by discovering gold and silver, such as the expeditions of the Spanish to
the Americas. They also found new land where colonies could be established and crops such as sugar,
cotton, and tobacco could be grown.
Henry the Navigator
The Age of Exploration began in the nation of Portugal under the leadership of Henry the Navigator.
Henry sent out ships to map and explore the west coast of Africa. They went further south than any
previous European expedition and mapped much of western Africa for the Portuguese. In 1488,
Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to sail around the southern tip of Africa and
into the Indian Ocean.
Christopher Columbus
Soon the Spanish wanted to find a trade route to the Far East. Explorer Christopher Columbus thought that
he could sail west, across the Atlantic Ocean, to China. He could not get the Portuguese to fund his
expedition, so he went to the Spanish. Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand agreed to pay for
Columbus' trip. In 1492 Columbus discovered the New World of the Americas.
Portugal and Spain
Portugal and Spain became the early leaders in the Age of Exploration. Through the Treaty of Tordesillas
the two countries agreed to divide up the New World. Spain got most of the Americas while Portugal got
Brazil, India, and Asia.
Spain sent over conquistadors to explore the Americas and to conquer the peoples there. Hernan Cortes
conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire in Peru. They
made Spain rich with the gold and silver they found in the Americas.
Portugal sent out Vasco da Gama who found a trade route around the southern tip of Africa and to India.
They also explored much of the Far East and were the first Europeans to establish a trading colony in
China at Macau.
Other countries such as Great Britain and the Netherlands established colonies in the New World.
Eventually Great Britain would surpass all of the European nations in terms of the size of their world wide
empire including the thirteen colonies in the Americas that later became the United States.
The Age of Exploration was one of the most important times in the history of world geography. A
significant portion of the unknown world was mapped during this short period. Also, many advances were
made in navigation and mapping which helped future explorers and travelers.
Interesting Facts about the Age of Exploration
During the Age of Exploration Europeans referred to the entire area of Southeast Asia and India
as the "East Indies".
The first expedition to circle the globe was led by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.
Unfortunately, Magellan was killed during the expedition and did not complete the voyage.
Some areas of the world were not fully mapped or discovered until well after the Age of
Exploration including Eastern Australia, the interior of Africa, the Arctic, and the Antarctic.
Many explorers such as Captain James Cook and Sir Francis Drake searched for a Northwest Passage to
East Asia, but it wasn't until 1906 that explorer Roald Amundsen completed the journey.
Francisco Pizarro
Biography >> Explorers for Kids
Francisco Pizarro
Occupation: Conquistador and Explorer
Born: Around 1474 in Trujillo, Spain
Died: June 26, 1541 in Lima, Peru
Best known for: Conquering the Inca Empire
Where did Francisco Pizarro grow up?
Francisco Pizarro grew up in Trujillo, Spain. His father, Gonzalo Pizarro, was a colonel in the Spanish
army and his mother, Francisca, was a poor woman living in Trujillo. Francisco grew up with little
education and never learned how to read or write.
Growing up was tough for Francisco. He was raised by his grandparents because his parents never got
married. He worked as a pig herder for many years.
Leaving for the New World
Francisco was an ambitious man, however, and wanted to improve his lot in life. He heard stories of the
riches of the New World and wanted to travel there and find his own fortune. He set sail for the New
World and lived on the island of Hispaniola for several years as a colonist.
Joining an Expedition
Pizarro eventually became friends with explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa. In 1513, he joined Balboa on
his expeditions. He was even a member of Balboa's famous expedition that crossed the Isthmus of
Panama to reach the Pacific Ocean.
When Balboa was replaced as the local governor by Pedrarias Davila, Pizarro became friends with
Davila. When Davila and Balboa became enemies, Pizarro turned on Balboa and arrested him. Balboa
was executed and Pizarro was rewarded for his loyalty to the governor.
Expeditions to South America
Pizarro had heard rumors of a land in South America that was full of gold and other treasures. He wanted
to explore the land. He made two initial expeditions into the land.
The first expedition took place in 1524 and was a total failure. Several of his men died and Pizarro had to
turn back without discovering anything of value.
The second trip in 1526 went better as Pizarro reached the Tumbez people on the borders of the Inca
Empire. He now knew for sure that the gold he had heard tales of was more than just rumors. However,
he eventually had to turn back before reaching the Inca.
The Fight to Return to Peru
Pizarro now wanted to mount a third expedition. However, the local governor of Panama had lost
confidence in Pizarro and refused to let him go. Very determined to mount another expedition, Pizarro
travelled back to Spain to get the support of the king. Pizarro eventually received the support of the
Spanish government for a third expedition. He was also named the governor of the territory.
Conquering the Inca
In 1532 Pizarro landed on the coast of South America. He established the first Spanish settlement in Peru
called San Miguel de Piura. Meanwhile the Inca had just fought a civil war between two brothers,
Atahualpa and Huascar. Their father the emperor had died and both wanted his throne. Atahualpa won
the war, but the country was weakened from the internal battles. Many Inca were also sick from diseases
brought by the Spanish such as smallpox.
Killing the Inca Emperor
Pizarro and his men set out to meet with Atahualpa. Atahualpa felt he had nothing to worry about. Pizarro
only had a few hundred men while he had tens of thousands. However, Pizarro set a trap for Atahualpa
and took him prisoner. He held him ransom for a room full of gold and silver. The Inca delivered the gold
and silver, but Pizarro executed Atahualpa anyway.
Conquering Cuzco
Pizarro then marched to Cuzco and took over the city in 1533. He looted the city of its treasure. In 1535
he established the city of Lima as the new capital of Peru. He would rule as governor for the next ten
Pizarro establishing the city of Lima
Dispute and Death
In 1538 Pizarro had a dispute with his long time expedition partner and fellow conquistador Diego
Almagro. He had Almagro killed. However, on June 26, 1541 some of Almagro's supporters led by his son
stormed Pizarro's home in Lima and assassinated him.
Interesting Facts about Francisco Pizarro
He was the second cousin once removed of Hernan Cortez, the conquistador who conquered the
Aztecs in Mexico.
No one is quite sure exactly when Pizarro was born. It was likely between 1471 and 1476.
The famous explorer Hernando de Soto was part of Pizarro's group that conquered the Inca.
Francisco was accompanied by his brothers Gonzalo, Hernando, and Juan throughout his
campaign to conquer the Inca.
When Pizarro captured the Inca Emperor his small force of less than 200 men managed to kill over 2,000
Inca and take 5,000 more as prisoners. He had the advantage of guns, cannons, horses, and iron
Hernan Cortes
Biography >> Explorers for Kids
Hernan Cortes
Occupation: Conquistador and Explorer
Born: 1485 in Medellin, Castile, Spain
Died: December 2, 1547 in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Castile, Spain
Best known for: Conquering the Aztec Empire
Where did Hernan Cortes grow up?
Hernan Cortes was born in MedellÃn, Spain in 1485. He came from a fairly famous family and his father
was a captain in the Spanish army. His parents wanted him to become a lawyer and sent him to school to
study law when he was fourteen. Cortes wasn't interested in becoming a lawyer and returned home when
he was sixteen.
Cortes heard of Christopher Columbus' discoveries in the new world. He wanted to travel and see new
lands. He also wanted to make his fortune and fame.
Going to the New World
Cortes sailed for the New World in 1504. He first arrived on the island of Hispaniola at the city of Santo
Domingo. He got a job as a notary and over the next five years made a name for himself on the island.
Conquest of Cuba
In 1511, Cortes joined Diego Velazquez on an expedition to Cuba. When Velazquez conquered Cuba, he
became governor. Velazquez liked Cortes and helped Cortes to rise in the government. Soon Cortes
became a powerful and wealthy figure on the island of Cuba.
Conquest of Mexico
In 1518, Cortes was put in charge of an expedition to the mainland of Mexico. This was something that he
had wanted to do for many years. At the last minute, Governor Velazquez became worried that Cortes
would become too powerful and he ordered Cortes not to sail. Cortes disobeyed the order and set sail
Arriving in Mexico
Cortes and his men landed at the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico in April of 1519. He had 11 ships, around
500 men, some horses, and some cannon. He soon met a native woman named Dona Marina. Dona
Marina spoke the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs and could help to interpret for Cortes.
Cortes heard of the gold and treasures of the Aztecs. He wanted to conquer them and take their treasure
for Spain. He requested a meeting with the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma II, but was repeatedly turned
down. He then decided to march to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.
March to Tenochtitlan
Gathering his small force of 500 men, Cortes began to march to Tenochtitlan, the heart of the Aztec
Empire. Along the way he met with other cities and peoples. He found out that a number of other tribes
didn't like their Aztec rulers. He made alliances with them, including the powerful Tlaxcala people.
Massacre at Cholula
Cortes next arrived at the city of Cholula. It was the second largest city of Mexico and a religious center of
the Aztec Empire. When Cortes found out that the people at Cholula planned to kill him in his sleep, he
killed around 3,000 nobles, priests, and warriors. He also burned down a portion of the city.
Meeting Montezuma II
When Cortes arrived at Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519 he was welcomed by the Aztec Emperor
Montezuma II. Although Montezuma did not trust Cortes, he thought that Cortes might be the god
Quetzalcoatl in human form. Montezuma gave Cortes and his men gifts of gold. He thought that these
gifts would keep Cortes from taking over the city, but they just made Cortes want more.
Map of Cortes' march to conquer the Aztecs
Montezuma II is Killed
Cortes took Montezuma captive within his own city. However, Governor Velasquez from Cuba sent
another expedition under conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez to take command from Cortes. Cortes left
Tenochtitlan to fight Narvaez.
After taking care of Narvaez, Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan. He found out that his men had killed King
Montezuma. He decided to flee the city. On the night of June 30, 1520 Cortes and his men escaped from
the city. Many of them died. The night is called La Noche Triste, or "The Sad Night".
Conquering the Aztecs
Cortes soon returned to Tenochtitlan with a large army of his allies, the Tlaxcala. He laid siege to the city
and eventually conquered the city and with it the Aztec Empire.
Governor of Mexico
After conquering the Aztecs, Cortes renamed the city of Tenochtitlan to Mexico City. The city became the
Spanish capital of the territory which was called New Spain. Cortes was named governor of the land by
King Charles I of Spain.
Later Life
Later in life Cortes fell out of favor with the King of Spain. He was forced to return to Spain to defend
himself. In 1541, he participated in an unsuccessful expedition to Algiers where he nearly drowned when
his ship was sunk. He died on December 2, 1547 in Spain.
Interesting Facts about Hernan Cortes
Although most people call him Hernan today, he went by Hernando or Fernando during his
He was the second cousin once removed to conquistador Francisco Pizarro who conquered the
Inca Empire in Peru.
Cortes married the sister-in-law of governor Velasquez while living in Cuba. He also had a child
with his interpreter Dona Marina.
While in Mexico he went on an expedition to the north and discovered Baja California.
The Gulf of California was originally named the Sea of Cortes.
Ferdinand Magellan
Biography >> Explorers for Kids
Ferdinand Magellan
Occupation: Explorer
Born: 1480 in Portugal
Died: April 27, 1521 in Cebu, Philippines
Best known for: First to circumnavigate the globe
Ferdinand Magellan led the first expedition to sail all the way around the world. He also discovered a
passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean that is today called the Straits of Magellan.
Growing Up
Ferdinand Magellan was born in 1480 in northern Portugal. He grew up in a wealthy family and served as
a page in the royal court. He enjoyed sailing and exploring and sailed for Portugal for many years.
Magellan had traveled to India by sailing around Africa, but he had the idea that there may be another
route by traveling west and around the Americas. The King of Portugal did not agree and argued with
Magellan. Finally, Magellan went to the King Charles V of Spain who agreed to fund the voyage.
Setting Sail
In September of 1519 Magellan set sail in his attempt to find another route to Eastern Asia. There were
over 270 men and five ships under his command. The ships were named the Trinidad, the Santiago, the
Victoria, the Concepcion, and the San Antonio.
They first sailed across the Atlantic and to the Canary Islands. From there they sailed south to Brazil and
the coast of South America.
One of Magellan's Ships
As Magellan's ships sailed south the weather turned bad and cold. On top of that, they had not brought
enough food. Some of the sailors decided to mutiny and tried to steal three of the ships. Magellan fought
back, however, and had the leaders executed.
Finding the Passage
Magellan continued to sail south. Soon he found the passage he was seeking. He called the passage the
All Saints' Channel. Today it is called the Straits of Magellan. Finally he entered into a new ocean on the
other side of the new world. He called the ocean the Pacifico, meaning peaceful.
Now that they were on the other side of South America, the ships sailed for China. There were only three
ships left at this point as the Santiago had sunk and the San Antonio had disappeared.
Magellan thought it would only take a few days to cross the Pacific Ocean. He was wrong. It took nearly
four months for the ships to make it to the Mariana Islands. They barely made it and nearly starved during
the voyage.
Route taken by Magellan
Click for larger view
Magellan Dies
After stocking up on supplies, the ships headed to the Philippines. Magellan became involved in an
argument between local tribes. He and around 40 of his men were killed in a battle. Unfortunately,
Magellan would not see the end of his historic journey.
Returning to Spain
Only one of the original five ships made it back to Spain. It was the Victoria captained by Juan Sebastian
del Cano. It returned in September of 1822, three years after first leaving. There were only 18 surviving
sailors, but they had made the first trip around the world.
One of the survivors was a sailor and scholar named Antonio Pigafetta. He wrote detailed journals
throughout the voyage recording all that happened. Much of what we know about Magellan's travels
comes from his journals. He told of the exotic animals and fish they saw as well as the terrible conditions
they endured.
Fun Facts about Magellan
The ship that Magellan commanded was the Trinidad.
The total distance traveled by the Victoria was over 42,000 miles.
Magellan's knee was wounded in battle, causing him to walk with a limp.
Many of the sailors were Spanish and did not trust Magellan because he was Portuguese.
The King of Portugal, King Manuel I, sent ships to stop Magellan, but was unsuccessful.
On the long journey across the Pacific the sailors ate rats and sawdust to survive.
Vasco da Gama
Biography >> Explorers for Kids
Vasco da Gama
Occupation: Explorer
Born: 1460 in Sines, Portugal
Died: December 23, 1524 in Kochi, India
Best known for: The first European to sail from Europe to India around Africa
Vasco da Gama (1460 - 1524) was a Portuguese explorer. He led the first expedition that traveled from
Europe to India by sailing around Africa.
Where did Vasco da Gama grow up?
Vasco da Gama was born in a small coastal town in Portugal named Sines. His father was a knight and an
explorer. He followed in his father's footsteps and soon commanded ships in the king's name.
A Trade Route to India
Spices from India were very popular in Europe, however, the only way to travel from Europe to India was
over land. This was a long and expensive trip. The King of Portugal figured if he could find a way to get to
India by sailing on the ocean, he would become rich trading spices in Europe.
An explorer by the name of Bartolemeu Dias had discovered the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa. It
was thought that there may be a way around the Cape and to the northeast towards India. However,
many were skeptical and thought that the Indian Ocean did not connect with the Atlantic Ocean.
Vasco da Gama was given a fleet of ships by the king and told to find a trade route around Africa to India.
He was also told to find any other trading opportunities along the way.
The First Voyage
Vasco da Gama left on his first voyage from Lisbon, Portugal on July 8, 1497. He had 170 men and 4
ships: the Sao Gabriel, Sao Rafael, the Berrio, and a fourth ship unnamed and used for storage.
Route traveled by da Gama on his first voyage
Click to see larger view
The expedition rounded the southern tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope on November 22. They then
headed north up the coast of Africa. They stopped at trading ports along the way including Mombasa and
Malindi. At Malindi they gained a local navigator who knew the direction to India. With the help of a
Monsoon wind they were able to cross the Indian Ocean and arrive in Calicut, India in less than a month.
At Calicut, Vasco ran into issues when trying to trade. He had brought little of value in his ships. This
made the local traders suspicious. Soon he had to leave. The voyage back was disastrous. Around half of
his crew died from scurvy as the trip back took much longer. However, when he returned home, he was a
hero. He had found the much needed trade route to India.
Later Voyages
Vasco da Gama commanded two more fleets to India. The second voyage was more of a military
expedition where he captured Arab ships and tried to show the might of the Portuguese navy.
On the third voyage Vasco was to take over as Viceroy of Portuguese India. However, he died of malaria
shortly after arriving.
Fun Facts about Vasco da Gama
Originally Vasco's father, Estevao, was going to be given the command of the exploration fleet,
but the trip was delayed for many years. Eventually, the command was given to his son Vasco
There is a crater named Vasco da Gama on the Moon.
His fleet on the second voyage consisted of 20 armed ships.
He had six sons and one daughter. His second son became governor of Portuguese India
Christopher Columbus
Biography >> Explorers for Kids
Columbus arriving in the Americas
Occupation: Explorer
Born: 1451 in Genoa, Italy
Died: May 20, 1506
Best known for: Discovering America
Christopher Columbus is the explorer who is credited for discovering America. Of course, there were
already people living in America at the time who we call Native Americans. There even was a European,
Leif Ericsson, who had been to the America's before. However, it was Columbus' voyage that started the
exploration and colonization of the Americas.
Before the Voyage
Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy in 1451. He later lived in Lisbon where he worked as a trader. He
learned how to make maps and navigate a ship.
A Shortcut to China
Columbus and his brother, Bartholomew, knew that there were great riches to be had in China and East
Asia. However, traveling overland by the Silk Road was dangerous and a sea route around Africa seemed
much too long. Columbus thought he could sail straight to China by crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
It would turn out that Columbus was wrong. The Earth was much larger than he thought and there was
another land, the Americas, between Europe and Asia.
Three Ships and a Long Voyage
Columbus spent years trying to convince someone to pay for his voyage. He first tried to get King John II
of Portugal to pay for his journey, but the King was not interested. Finally, he was able to convince Queen
Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to pay for the trip.
He set sail on August 12, 1492 with three ships named the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. The
voyage was long and difficult. At one point his men threatened to mutiny and wanted to turn back.
Columbus promised them he would turn back in two days if they didn't find land. In his journal, however,
he wrote that he had no intention of turning back.
Finding Land
On October 12, 1492 land was spotted. It was a small island in the Bahamas that Columbus would name
San Salvador. He met natives there that he called Indians because he was convinced that he had landed
on islands off the coast of East Asia. He also visited other islands in the Caribbean such as Cuba and
The routes taken by Columbus on his four voyages
Click to see larger map
Returning Home
After making his discovery, Columbus was eager to return home to Spain and claim his riches. Only the
Pinta and the Nina were able to return to Spain, however, as the Santa Maria wrecked off the coast of
Hispaniola. Columbus left 43 men behind on the island to start up an outpost.
Upon returning home, Columbus was treated like a hero. He presented some of the things he had found
including turkeys, pineapples, and some natives he had captured. The King of Spain was pleased enough
to fund future expeditions.
More Voyages
Columbus would make three more voyages to the Americas. He explored more of the Caribbean and
even saw mainland America. He had some difficulties in being the local governor and was even arrested
for his behavior and for mistreating some of the colonists. Columbus died on May 20, 1506. He died
thinking he had discovered a shortcut to Asia across the Atlantic Ocean. He never knew what an amazing
discovery he had made.
Fun Facts about Christopher Columbus
Columbus was first buried in Spain, however his remains were later moved to Santo Domingo in
the new world and then back, again, to Spain.
Columbus brought horses to the new world on his second voyage.
In his original calculations, he thought that Asia would be 2,400 miles from Portugal. He was way
off. It is actually 10,000 miles away! Not to mention the huge continent in between.
You can remember the date Columbus discovered America by using this rhyme "In 1492
Columbus sailed the ocean blue".
The sailor who was first to spot land on the voyage would receive a reward. The winner was Rodrigo de
Triana who spotted land from the crow's nest of the Pinta.
Bartolomeu Dias
Bartolomeu Dias
Bartolommeu Dias (1450?-1500), also spelled Diaz, was a Portuguese sea captain and
explorer. His discovery of a sailing route around Africa helped establish travel between
Europe and Asia.
Bartolomeu Dias came from a noble Portuguese family and his father attended the
Portuguese court. It is believed that Dias came from a family of seamen and explorers
including Joao Dias who sailed around Cape Bojador in 1434 and Diniz Dias who discovered
the Cape Verde Islands
Bartolomeu Dias was well educated as befitted his status and would have been taught
several languages, physics, geometry, mathematics and astronomy. Since his family had a
seagoing background he also would have learned about navigation and sailing.
He was a member of the royal Portuguese court and held the title of Sailing Master of the
Portuguese man-of-war Sao Cristovao (San Christovao).
Interesting Facts
Famous as the first European to lead a 1487 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope on the
Southern most tip of South Africa;
The voyage of exploration lasted sixteen months;
January 1488 he sailed through a terrible storm around the Cape of Good Hope which Diaz
called called Cabo Tormentosa - the Cape of Storms.
In 1487, King John II of Portugal ordered Dias to sail to the southern end of Africa. The king
wanted to know if ships could reach Asia by sailing around Africa. Dias commanded a fleet
of three ships that left Portugal in the summer of 1487. After reaching the mouth of the
Orange River in southern Africa, a storm blew the ships out to sea. Dias and his crews did
not see land for 13 days. When the storm ended, he realized that the ships had been blown
around the southern tip of Africa. He sailed along the southeast shore of the continent,
hoping to reach India. However, the men were exhausted by their long voyage, and their
food supply was running low. They persuaded Dias to return to Portugal. As the expedition
sailed around the tip of Africa toward Portugal Dias sighted what is now called the Cape of
Good Hope. He named it the Cape of Storms. However, King John later renamed it the
Cape of Good Hope because its discovery indicated that a sea route to India would soon be
In 1494, Dias directed the construction of two ships (the Sao Gabriel and its sister ship, the
São Rafael ) for what became the first successful expedition around Africa to India. Vasco
da Gama, another Portuguese explorer led this expedition.
In 1500, Dias commanded four ships in an expedition led by Pedro Alvares Cabal. He tried
to follow da Gama’s route to India, but the fleet drifted off course and reached what is now
Brazil. Dias died during the voyage from Brazil when a storm sank his ship.
Native People
On the voyage to Africa the expedition brought with them six African hostages who had
been taken to Portugal earlier, some by Diogo Cão. They were to be landed at various
places on the coast to praise the greatness of the Portuguese and to explain to local chiefs
that the Portuguese king wished to establish friendly relations and make contact with
Prester John, the legendary Christian king of Ethiopia. The Portuguese king wished them to
know that they were seeking a way to India in order to trade.
His voyage of exploration around Africa to the Indies consisted of two armed caravels, Dias'
ship the São Cristóvão and a second caravel, the São Pantaleão. There was also a supplyship, a square-rigger, which was commanded by his brother, Pero Dias.
Diaz Map
Bartolomeu Dias
Statue of Dias
Dias and da Gama map
Dias ship
Dias caravel
Dias claiming Africa
Dias on ship with African
Flag of Portugal
Prince Henry the Navigator Biography for
Click above to see Prince Henry route map
Prince Henry the Navigator was a Portuguese explorer, soldier and prince. Although Prince
Henry rarely participated in explorations, he sent many expeditions from Portugal to the west
coast of Africa, and was responsible for Portugal’s influence in the Great Age of Exploration.
Because of Prince Henry, Portuguese explorers were the first to sail to Africa’s Gambia River.
Exploring the West African Coast
Prince Henry’s sponsored explorations that accomplished much for Portugal. Not only did his
expeditions succeed in mapping much of the coast of west-Africa, but they also succeeded in
spreading Christianity, defeating Muslims (enemies of the Portuguese at the time), and
establishing new trade routes. Prince Henry’s primary motivation, however, for exploring the
west coast of Africa was to see how far Muslim lands extended to the south (to defeat them),
and to find the legendary Christian empire of the priest-king Prester-John (who didn’t actually
exist). In 1419, Prince Henry started the first school of navigation at Sagres, Portugal. The goal
of the school was to train people in navigation, map-making and science to prepare them to sail
around the west coast of Africa.
Legacy of Prince Henry’s School of Navigation
Prince Henry’s school of navigation resulted in a breakthrough for Portuguese navigation.
Before Prince Henry, sailors and navigators refused to sail toward Africa. They were scared of
sea monsters and boiling water near the equator. In fact, no sailor had ever sailed into the “Sea
of Darkness”, which the Portuguese considered to be any part of the ocean south of 27 degrees
north latitude (about Cape Bojador). Prince Henry’s school sent 14 expeditions into “The Sea
of Darkness”. Prince Henry himself even convinced some explorers to go further south. Prince
Henry’s influence was the first step in finding the vaunted sea route to the Indies.