Henry the Navigator and Ancient Maps of The World Tour

Portugal is a country with no coast along the Mediterranean Sea, but only to the Atlantic Ocean, so this country’s advances in worldwide exploration from centuries ago are very obvious. Besides, it was the passion and goals of a man that moved Portuguese exploration forward, the one known as Prince Henry the Navigator.

Monument to the Discoveries. Lisbon

Photo: Monument to the Discoveries. Lisbon.


Due to its location as the most western European country, Portugal had a key role in the European Age of Discovery and Exploration. Led by Prince Henry the Navigator, Portugal searched for a route to Asia by sailing south around Africa in the 15th century. During the process, the Portuguese found out a lot about navigation and about the geography of the Atlantic Ocean.

Portuguese Tiles

Photo: Portuguese Tiles.

Portugal managed to colonize over 50 countries all around the world, spread across Asia, South America and Africa


For thousands of years, humans left various proofs by their surroundings in different forms: cave paintings, stone tablets, religious or printed maps, until the multi-layered digital maps from nowadays.

Passing through the ancient Babylon, the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration, and getting to the era of the modern cartography, mapping history is fascinating in each period.

If you want to see an ancient Portugal´s map from the 15th century, please visit this page.

Ancient Maps of The World

Photo: Ancient Maps of The World. maps.bpl.org. Adapted under license (CC BY 2.0)


Henry was born in 1394 in Portu, Portugal, and he was the 3rd surviving son of King John (João) I with Queen Philippa. He is better known as Henry the Navigator. He earned his title although he hasn´t been on many expeditions himself, but he helped with the design of new ships, maps, and some navigational instruments.

The Portuguese explorer Prince Henry the Navigator was the first European who explored Africa. Before his time, the European exploration of Africa was limited, because there was not a focus of the trip.

Henry transformed the navigation for the western world

Jerónimos Monastery. Belém, Lisbon

Photo: Jerónimos Monastery. Belém, Lisbon.

With the support of his father and his older brothers, he helped in the development of the technology needed to find a way on the open ocean. Due to his help, the explorers more easily found the Atlantic Islands, they explored the west coast of Africa, and later searched for a southeastern passage to India.

Henry was neither a sailor nor a navigator, but he sponsored the exploration along the west coast of Africa. Under Henry´s command, the Portuguese founded this country’s first colonies and they visited some regions that were previously unknown to the Europeans.

Henry is the originator of the Age of Discovery

His goal was to unite Christians all around the globe under his banner. To do this, he wanted to join forces with King Prester John, who supposedly lived somewhere in Central America.

Tomb of Infante D. Henrique

Photo: Tomb of Infante D. Henrique. André Luís. Adapted under license (CC BY 2.0)


Henry backed and arranged many expeditions because he wanted to satisfy his curiosity, to grow the territory and abundance of Portugal, and also to enlarge Christianity.

Prince Henry is also remembered for two important contributions in the history of Portugal. The fists one is that around the year 1418, he inaugurated the first school for oceanic navigation. Here students had the opportunity to learn about map-making, astrology, scientific practices, and other skills that would help them in their journey down the west coast of Africa.

The other one was the founding of the Transatlantic slave trade. Two of his captains, Antam Gonclaves and Nuno Tristao, had ventured to reach Cape Bianco, what is now Tunisia. These two men were the first Europeans to buy African enslaved and brought them to Europe. In the following years the slave trade grew in size, influence, and power.

Henry the Navigator had the money and the talent to send people into unknown danger on his behalf

Jerónimos Monastery. Belém, Lisbon

Photo: Jerónimos Monastery. Belém, Lisbon.

Monument to the Discoveries. Lisbon

Photo: Monument to the Discoveries. Lisbon.


Prince Henry funded some explorations to sail the High Seas and cruise the West African coast. By building up a massive body of maritime know-how, Henry oversaw the first stages of a process that turned Portugal into a global empire.

The sailors that were under Henry’s command discovered the islands of Cape Verde, the Azores, and Madeira. The last one has served Portugal to this day and provided the Portuguese national football team with Cristiano Ronaldo.

Perhaps one of the most important things to mention is that they documented the trade winds for the North Atlantic, which would become a vital piece for all future European exploration.

Henry the Navigator wanted to fight against Islam and to spread Christianity


Photo: Astrolabe.


The legacy Henry left to the mankind is quite complex. He managed to open trade and to connect various people and cultures. From the historical point of view, the colonization he began has caused a loss of land, resources, life, religion and autonomy for the indigenous people that have been colonized. On the other hand, colonies have enriched the colonizers with little consideration to the people that were living there.

Prince Henry the Navigator would be remembered as the founding father of Portugal’s maritime empire, and also for exploitation and slavery.

Astrolabe parts

Photo: Astrolabe parts.