Post-classical history



HENRY, PRINCE OF Portugal, stands buffeted by the winds on a rocky promontory at the southwestern tip of Europe. A solitary figure dressed in a monk’s garb, he gazes across at Africa, planning new missions to explore the unknown reaches of the world. At his back is the great school he has founded, where the most accomplished cosmologists, cartographers, and pilots of the age gather to advance the science of navigation. As his crews return from their daring missions, he debriefs them and adds the latest information to his incomparable collection of maps, charts, and travelers’ tales. He is no longer Henry the Crusader: he is Henry the Navigator, discoverer of worlds.

So the carefully cultivated legend goes. The truth is rather different. Henry never set foot on an oceangoing ship. His school never existed as a formal institution, though he did take an interest in astronomy and he gave work to a number of leading mapmakers. He wore a hair shirt, was said to be a lifelong celibate, and was a dedicated student of theology, but he was equally fond of throwing wildly extravagant parties. He was the first man to mount a concerted campaign to explore the Ocean Sea, and yet his explorations started as little more than a sideline in piracy.

Henry’s career as a corsair began soon after he earned his spurs at Ceuta. His vessels set out to buzz the coasts of Morocco and intercept Muslim shipping in the Mediterranean, though on occasion they were not above attacking Christian merchants as well, in one case drawing bitter complaints from the king of Castile. His first discovery of unknown lands came directly out of his raiding activities. In 1419 a storm drove two of his captains to an uninhabited archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic, and the following year an expedition was dispatched to claim the islands for the crown. Madeira, marveled one sailor, was “one large garden, and everyone reaps golden rewards,” though Henry, as its lord for life, reaped more than most. It was quickly settled, and the first boy and girl born to the pioneers were named Adam and Eve.

Henry quickly developed a taste for discovery, but the proceeds of piracy were only going to take his ships so far. His prospects changed when, in 1420, King John petitioned the pope to install his favorite son as head of the Portuguese chapter of an infamous order of warrior monks.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Knights Templar had met with a downfall as swift as their spectacular rise. When the Templars had been turned out of the Holy Land, their aura of sanctity had quickly worn thin. Yet they retained a vast network of fortresses, estates, and entire towns that reached deep into European society. The Temple in London was the depository of much of England’s wealth, including the valuables of the king, nobles, bishops, and many merchants and, for a time, the crown jewels. The Temple at Paris was a bristling fortress, ringed by a moat and enclosing a compound the size of a village, from which the order ran France’s exchequer. Their power was prodigious, and Europe’s biggest crowned heads had finally begun to resent the presence of so many mail-clad magnates in their midst, with their monastic discipline and their standing army, their fearsome treasuries and their direct line to the pope. In the early fourteenth century the French king Philip the Fair, who not coincidentally was massively in debt to the Templars, had had the knights arrested on the usual trumped-up charges of heresy, blasphemy, and sodomy, and had coerced the pope into dissolving the entire Templar edifice. Dozens were burned at the stake in Paris, including the grand master, an elderly man who confessed on the rack, recanted his statement afterward, and insisted on his innocence as he was consumed by the flames, his hands tied together in prayer.

Only in Iberia did faith in the warrior monks remain strong. Though their fame rested on their defense of the Holy Land, the Templars had been active in Europe’s far west from their earliest days. They had ridden in the vanguard of the Reconquest, manned castles on the frontiers with Islam, and settled huge tracts of newly seized lands, and to the young Christian nations their zeal and deep pockets had been indispensable. In Portugal they never disappeared; as a sop to their newfound notoriety, they merely changed their name to the Order of Christ. Everything else, including their substantial wealth, stayed intact.

When the pope agreed to the king’s request, Henry suddenly had the resources to match his ambitions, while the Templars, in their new incarnation, had an unexpected afterlife as the sponsors of the Age of Discovery. Even so, exploration was far from Henry’s first concern. Instead he wasted enormous amounts of money and manpower on a vicious tussle over the Canary Islands with Castile, which laid claim to them, and the islands’ Stone Age inhabitants, who covered Henry in military humiliation by beating back his armies three times in a row. With even greater ardor, he campaigned to follow up his heroics at Ceuta with another Moroccan Crusade.

Ceuta had turned out to be fool’s gold for Portugal. The Muslim merchants had quickly diverted the caravan trade to nearby Tangier, and the shorefront warehouses at Ceuta stayed obstinately empty. The colony was permanently under siege; before long every house outside the land walls had to be torn down, since locals kept using them to launch attacks. The troops were badly fed and were forced to endure choruses of jeers from passing Spanish ships, and the posting became so unpopular that the garrison had to be reinforced with convicts working off their sentences. The permanent occupation of an isolated frontier post, supplied from overseas, was a terrible drain on Portugal’s meager resources, and many Portuguese complained that hanging on to it was an act of folly.

Not Henry. To the glory-hungry prince, the debacle was an argument to do more, not less. The Islamic world no longer controlled the Pillars of Hercules, the stony guardians of the gateway to the great unknown. For the first time in seven centuries, Christendom had a foothold on the continent of Africa. The victory, he and his supporters insisted, was proof that God’s benediction shone on their nation, and faith and honor demanded that they forge ahead. After all, North Africa had once been Christian territory; surely to recover it for Christ was merely to push ahead with the Reconquest?

For years Henry vainly pressed his father to launch an attack on Tangier. When John died, much mourned, in 1433 and was succeeded by the bookish Edward, Henry turned all his persuasive powers on his older brother. Edward caved in, and Henry took personal control of the new Crusade. He rushed ahead, overconfident as always, but without any of the subterfuge that had reaped such rewards at Ceuta. When the chartered transport ships failed to arrive on time he refused to delay, even though half the army had to be left in Portugal. Seven thousand men crammed into the available vessels and sailed to Africa, Henry rousing their wrath with increasingly bigoted diatribes against Islam. Yet as the Portuguese marched up to the gates of Tangier, waving a banner depicting Christ in a suit of armor and brandishing a portion of the True Cross sent by the pope, even Henry began to realize that faith alone would not carry the day. Tangier was much larger and much better defended than its neighboring port. The Portuguese artillery was too light to breach the sturdy walls, their ladders were too short to scale them, and the besiegers found themselves besieged in their stockaded camp near the beach. As more Muslim forces poured into the city and the usual sightings of crosses among the clouds failed to work their spell, hundreds of Henry’s knights, including several members of his own household, took to the ships and abandoned him. His only remaining bargaining chip was Ceuta, and his envoys promised its surrender in return for safe passage for the remaining troops. Henry handed over his younger brother Ferdinand as a hostage, retreated to Ceuta, and crawled into bed, refusing to answer repeated summonses to go home and account for the calamity.

He never intended to honor the accord. Ferdinand languished in a Moroccan cell, and Ceuta moldered on in Portuguese hands. King Edward died the next year, aged forty-six, probably of the plague and not, as was widely believed, from a broken heart. After five years during which he had been increasingly maltreated and had beseeched his brothers in heartrending letters to negotiate his release, Ferdinand mercifully succumbed to a fatal illness. However tormented Henry may have been in private, in public he insisted that his younger brother—who was posthumously rewarded by being dubbed the Constant Prince—had been more than ready to die a martyr to the cause.

Henry, the younger son who would have been king, had exacted a terrible price for his unbridled ambition. Yet in an age of religious fanaticism, his relentless appetite for glory against the Infidel, however dark and devious the places it led him into, was seen by many as the mark of a true chivalric hero and worthy of nothing but praise.

HENRY TURNED BACK to the sea. Each year his raiding missions reached a little farther down the Atlantic coast of Morocco, and gradually he formed a bold new plan.

Like many educated Europeans, he was well aware of the insistent rumors that a fabulously rich gold mine was located somewhere in the depths of sub-Saharan Africa, a vast region that the Portuguese called, after its Berber name, Guinea. One widely influential map, the Catalan Atlas of 1375, pictured a Muslim trader on a camel approaching the fabled emperor Mansa Musa at his capital, Timbuktu. The heavily crowned Mansa Musa holds out a huge nugget of gold and squats on his throne over the heart of the continent. “So abundant is the gold which is found in his country,” reads the legend on the map, “that he is the richest and most noble king in the land.”

The fascination was understandable. Europe had almost exhausted its own gold mines, and it was desperately short of the bullion it needed to keep its economy liquid. Two-thirds of its gold imports arrived in bags slung over camels that had trekked across the Sahara Desert, yet Christians were almost entirely excluded from the African interior. Tapping the gold at the source, Henry envisioned, would bring a double boon: it would enrich his nation, and it would impoverish the Muslim merchants who benefited most from the trade.

The location of the mines, though, remained a closely guarded secret, and mounting frustration inevitably gave rise to a flurry of wild speculation.

From the fourteenth century, Europe’s mapmakers began to draw an enormously long river that virtually bisected Africa from east to west. The river was named the Río del Oro, or the Gold River, and halfway across the continent, the maps showed it dividing around a large island that resembled the navel of Africa’s torso. It was there that Henry was convinced the gold was to be found, and as his ships reached farther south, he began to dream of sailing up the Gold River and helping himself to the treasure.

There was one glaring obstacle. On nearly every world map the Atlantic was a small puddle of blue to the left, and beneath it the African landmass ran off the edge of the page. The last feature shown on the coast was usually a modest bulge, some five hundred miles south of Tangier, named Cape Bojador.

The very name struck fear into generations of sailors, and macabre legends wreathed around it. Boundless shallows made it impossible to approach the coast without getting marooned. Violent offshore currents swept ships into the unknown. Fiery streams ran into the sea and made the water boil. Sea serpents were waiting to devour intruders. Giants would rise up from the ocean and lift a ship in the span of their hand. White men would be turned black by the searing heat. No one, it was widely believed, could pass the cape and live to tell the tale.

Henry refused to be deterred. When, in 1433, his squire Gil Eanes sailed home and admitted his crew had been too afraid to approach the dreaded cape, the prince sent him back with strict orders not to return until the job was done.

Eanes’s little ship crept up to the fearsome headland. The waves and currents were strong, the shallows reached a good way out from the coast, fogs and mists obscured the way, and the prevailing winds undoubtedly made it tricky to head for home. Yet past the sandy red dunes of the headland, the coast wore monotonously on. The perils were a myth, perhaps spread by Muslims to keep Europeans away from their caravan routes. Eanes returned in triumph and was knighted, and Henry loudly trumpeted his besting of generations of sages and sailors.

Nine years later, in 1443, Henry convinced his brother Peter, then regent of Portugal after Edward’s death, to grant him a personal monopoly over all shipping to the south of Cape Bojador.

To claim the ocean as his personal possession was a bold move even for the enterprising prince, and it needed backing up with action. There were only so many Portuguese sailors with oceangoing experience and an enthusiasm for out-of-this-world experiences, and Henry was forced to look abroad for new recruits. Conveniently, his personal estates in the Algarve—the name came from the Arabic al-Gharb, or “the west”—were close to Sagres Point, a flat-topped promontory at Europe’s extreme southwestern corner. In bad weather, ships heading from the Mediterranean to northern Europe took shelter behind its sheer cliffs, and Henry sent out his men to meet every vessel. They showed off samples of the wares his explorers had collected, they talked up the prince’s discovery of new lands and the fortunes to be made there, and they coaxed the sailors into enlisting in his fleets.

In reality, Henry’s ships had come home with little more than the pelts and oil from what had become a mass annual cull of seals, though in 1441 one captain had returned with “ten blacks, male and female . . . a little gold dust and a shield of ox-hide, and a number of ostrich eggs, so that one day there were served up at the Prince’s table three dishes of the same, as fresh and good as though they had been the eggs of any other domestic fowls. And we may well presume,” our informant added, “that there was no other Christian prince in this part of Christendom, who had dishes like these upon his table.” Even so, plenty of daredevil sailors found Henry’s blandishments impossible to resist. Alvise Cadamosto, a gentleman adventurer from Venice, was on his way to Flanders when his galley was blown onto the Algarve coast. He was immediately approached by Henry’s recruiters and was regaled with the wonders of Africa. “They related so much in this strain,” he recorded, “that I, with the others, marveled greatly. They thus aroused in me a growing desire to go thither. I asked if the said lord permitted any who wished to sail, and was told that he did.” Like many others from as far away as Germany and Scandinavia, Cadamosto jumped ship and signed up on the spot.

Money, as much as manpower, was always in short supply in Portugal, and even with the key to the Templars’ treasury, Henry could not fund the expensive business of exploration indefinitely. Wealthy Italian financiers set up shop in Lisbon, and Henry licensed Genoese, Florentine, and Venetian merchants to fit out ships and sponsor voyages, always reserving a share of the profits for himself. The new policy paid off: in 1445, fully twenty-six ships headed out for Africa flying the red Templar crosses of Henry’s Order of Christ.

By now the prince’s shipwrights and crews had hit on the ideal vessel for exploring the coasts and, equally important, making it back home. The caravel was a slim, shallow-draft craft that could skirt the shore and enter rivers. It was equipped with lateen, or triangular, sails—borrowed via the Arabs from the Indian Ocean—that responded to the lightest breeze and made it possible to sail closer to the wind than the traditional square rig allowed. With a solitary cabin in the stern it was also horribly uncomfortable, andprogress was painfully slow. As the fleets picked their way down the Saharan coast, a constant watch had to be kept for breakers that warned of shoals and sandbanks ahead. The coastline had to be charted, and offshore islands had to be explored. The lead and line had to be dropped to sound the depths, and at night all work had to be suspended. Farther south, strong currents dragged the caravels toward the shore, and they were forced to sail out of sight of land. To return home, they had to head far out into the Atlantic, tacking—sailing in a zigzag pattern—against the northeasterly trade winds until they were far enough north to catch the westerlies that blew them back to Lisbon.

Yet there were many rewards. The ancient puzzle of where the birds went was solved: in the Saharan winter the sailors found swallows, storks, turtledoves, and thrushes, while in summer they saw the falcons, herons, and wood pigeons that wintered in Europe. Strange swordfish and suckerfish flapped in their nets, and the meat and eggs of showy pelicans and genteel flamingos made an exotic change of diet. As they put into shore, they marveled at the endless vistas of sand and rock and the variety of creatures that lived amid them. There were rats bigger than rabbits and snakes that could swallow a goat, desert oryx and ostriches, vast numbers of gazelles, hinds, hedgehogs, wild dogs, and jackals, and other beasts completely unknown. Swarms of red and yellow locusts filled the air for miles around, obscured the sun for days, and wherever they settled destroyed everything aboveground. Tornadoes made the barren land bloom in a single day, and sandstorms roared up like monstrous fires and hurtled turtles and birds around like leaves.

As they planted wooden crosses to announce that the land had been taken for Christ and set out to make contact with the local people, the explorers puzzled over the intricate African patchwork of kingdoms and tribes with their bewildering variety of languages. Since they introduced themselves by clambering onto beaches dressed in suits of armor, marching up to desert herders supping on camel milk or peaceable fishermen roasting fish and turtles over kelp fires, crying “Portugal and St. George!” and seizing a couple of prisoners to serve as informants and translators, the incomprehension was mutual.

When the Europeans grew bolder and struck inland, they came across remote mountains where the finest dates in the world were grown but the people were reportedly cannibals, and desert towns whose houses and mosques were built entirely of blocks of salt. Every so often, they encountered one of the famous camel caravans. The camels served both as transport and sustenance: the unluckier beasts were kept thirsty for months, then made to gorge on water so they could be killed on the march and tapped for a drink. The traders were brown-complexioned, wore turbans that partially covered their faces and white cloaks edged with a red stripe, and went barefoot. They were Muslims who traded silver and silks from Granada and Tunis for slaves and gold, and they were determined to keep the interlopers at bay.

Eventually the desert petered out, and the fleets sailed past the mouth of the Senegal River into the more densely populated tropics. Suddenly everything seemed larger and more vivid. “It appears to me a very marvelous thing,” the Venetian adventurer Cadamosto expectantly wrote while still passing the Sahara, “that beyond the river all men are very black, tall, and big, their bodies well formed; and the whole country green, full of trees, and fertile: while on this side, the men are brownish, small, lean, ill-nourished, and small in stature: the country sterile and arid.”

The Europeans’ eyes had been opened to an unimagined new world. Here the men branded themselves with hot irons, and the women tattooed themselves with hot needles. Both sexes wore gold rings in their pierced ears, noses, and lips, and the females sported more gold rings dangling between their legs. The visitors marveled at the soaring trees, the sprawling mangrove forests, and the brightly colored talking birds. They bought apes and baboons to take home; they stared at hippopotami, witnessed elephant hunts, and sampled the huge animals’ flesh, which turned out to be tough and tasteless. On their homecoming they presented exotic gifts to Prince Henry, including the foot, trunk, hair, and salted flesh of a baby elephant; Henry bestowed the tusk and foot of a fully grown specimen on his sister.

At first the Africans were equally fascinated by the newcomers. They rubbed spittle into their hands and limbs to see whether their whiteness was a dye. They seemed convinced that their bagpipes were some kind of musical animal. They paddled out to the caravels in dugouts, wondering, or so the Portuguese thought, whether they were great fish or birds, until they saw the sailors and fled.

To the Europeans’ dismay it turned out that even here the people were Muslims. Even so, their faith was far from rigid, they were mostly poor, and at least some were happy to do business with Christians. On one sortie up the Senegal, Cadamosto was invited to a nearby royal capital, where, typically of his fellow pioneers, he fully expected to find a European-style monarchy and court. As he approached the throne he saw petitioners throw themselves on their knees, bow their heads to the ground, and scatter sand over their naked shoulders. Groveling in this way, they shuffled forward, stated their business, and were brusquely dismissed. Since it turned out that their wives and children were liable to be seized and sold as punishment for minor misdeeds, Cadamosto decided their trepidation was appropriate. The king and his lords, he approvingly noted, were obeyed much more readily than their counterparts in Europe—though, he added, they were still “great liars and cheats.”

If many African customs seemed primitive, others made it hard to pass easy judgments. Cadamosto soon found himself debating the finer points of religion with the court’s Muslim priests. As usual, the Europeans opened the discussion by informing the king that he had taken up a false faith. If the Christian God was a just lord, the ruler laughingly replied, he and his men had a much better chance of reaching Paradise than they did, since Europe had been so much more favored with riches and knowledge in this world. “In this,” remarked Cadamosto, “he showed good powers of reasoning and deep understanding of men.” The king showed a different type of understanding when he presented the Venetian sailor, as a mark of goodwill, with “a handsome young negress, twelve years of age, saying that he gave her to me for the service of my chamber. I accepted her,” Cadamosto recorded, “and sent her to the ship.”

Not every African ruler was so benevolent, and the explorers soon found themselves under relentless attack. Warriors emerged from the forests wielding circular shields covered with gazelle skins, spears with barbed iron tips poisoned with snake venom and sap, javelin-like lances, and Arab-style scimitars. Some launched into warlike dances and chants; others stealthily paddled out in canoes. All were fearless and much preferred to be killed than to flee. The caravels were equipped with small cannon that fired stone balls, but large numbers of knights, squires, soldiers, and sailors fell beneath the onslaughts, while the captives they tried to land as translators were invariably beaten to death on the beaches.

As more half-crewed caravels limped home, Henry began to grow alarmed at the escalating hostilities. He ordered his soldiers to fire only in self-defense, but by then their reputation for violence had already spread. When the next party of explorers arrived at the vast mouth of the Gambia River—more than fifteen hundred miles from Lisbon—they found they had been preceded by rumors that they were cannibals with a taste for black flesh. As they sailed upriver, massed ranks of Africans emerged from the cover of the forest, hurling lances and unleashing poisoned arrows. Fleets of war canoes paddled furiously at the intruders, the strongly built warriors dressed in white cotton shirts and white-feathered caps and, noted Cadamosto, “exceedingly black.” In the parley that followed, the Europeans demanded to know why they, peaceful traders who had come bearing gifts, had been attacked. The Africans, reported Cadamosto, replied that they “did not want our friendship on any terms, but sought to slaughter us all, and to make a gift of our possessions to their lord.” Even the shock of gunfire failed to make them back off for long, and once again the unwanted visitors beat a hasty retreat.

As the Portuguese trading network crept along the coast a few bags of gold dust began to make their way back to Lisbon; soon Portugal’s first gold coinage in nearly a century, aptly named the cruzado, or “Crusader,” would be proudly hammered out in Lisbon’s mint. Yet the Gold River had turned out to be a mirage, and even less progress had been made with Henry’s second great quest—the search for a powerful ally against Islam.

Somewhere far overseas, age-old stories told, was a lost Christian empire of fabulous wealth and power. Its ruler was known as Prester John.

THE WORD Prester comes from the Old French prestre, or priest, but John was no ordinary ecclesiastic. Europeans firmly believed him to be a mighty Christian king, and most likely a descendant of one of the three Magi who brought offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus. Centuries of speculation had endowed the Prester’s kingdom with any number of marvels, including a fountain of youth that kept him alive through the centuries, a mirror in which the world was reflected, and an emerald table, illuminated by precious balsam burning in countless lamps, at which he entertained thirty thousand guests. In an age when Noah’s life span was an accepted fact, Prester John’s superannuated existence seemed perfectly plausible; or at least it validated Western Christendom’s dreams of universality.

The story of Prester John was not just a popular fable. It had grown out of a string of rumors, frauds, and half-understood truths, but many powerful figures, including a succession of popes, took it at face value.

The known facts were these. In 1122 a man who announced himself as John, Bishop of India, had presented himself to the pope and had described his land as a wealthy Christian realm. Two decades later a German bishop reported the news that an EasternChristian king was at war with Iran; according to his informant, he added, the king was called Prester John and carried a scepter fashioned from solid emerald. Not much was made of either piece of information until 1165, when copies of a letter signed by the Prester began to appear across Europe. It was written in the supercilious tone befitting a man who claimed to rule over seventy-two kings and who styled himself “Emperor of the Three Indias.” At his table, he informed his readers, he was served by “seven kings, each in his turn, by sixty-two dukes, and by three hundred and sixty-five counts. . . . In our hall there dine daily, on our right hand, twelve archbishops, on our left, twenty bishops.” Count the stars of the sky and the sands of the sea, he helpfully proposed, and you might get a sense of the vastness of his realm and his powers.

Since medieval Europeans were sustained by a steady flow of marvels and miracles, these wild and wonderful claims made the letter all the more believable. The Prester further explained that his kingdom boasted “horned men, one-eyed ones, men with eyes back and front, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, giants, cyclops, the phoenix and almost all sorts of animals which dwell on earth.” Among those were bird-lions called griffins that could lift an ox to their nests, more birds called tigers that could seize and kill a knight and his horse, and a pair of royal birds with feathers the color of fire and wings as sharp as razors that ruled for sixty years over all the fowl in the world until they abdicated by plunging suicidally into the sea. A race of pygmies fought an annual and seemingly one-sided war against the birds, while a race of archers had the advantage of being horses from the waist down. Elsewhere, forty thousand men were kept busy stoking the fires that kept alive the worms that spun silk threads.

After mulling over this extraordinary communication for twelve years, the pope decided to send a reply. He entrusted it to his personal physician, who set out in search of the fabled king and was never heard from again. Nevertheless, the letter had gripped Europe’s imagination; it was translated into numerous languages, and it was avidly read for centuries. Whenever Europe was under threat from overseas, Prester John was half expected to ride to the rescue and crush the infidels. During the Crusades he was rumored to be planning an attack on Jerusalem. As the Mongols invaded Europe he was relocated to Central Asia, where for a time he was believed to be Genghis Khan’s estranged foster father. He was briefly killed off when reports arrived that he had enraged Genghis Khan by refusing him the hand of his daughter in marriage and had lost the war that broke out between them, but as Europe began to dream of converting the Mongols he was resurrected as a new Mongol ruler.

The Prester’s population, it was said, was three times larger than that of the whole of Western Christendom. His standing army numbered a hundred thousand, and his warriors wielded solid gold weapons. If need be he could put a million men in the field; the rumor that many fought naked made them sound all the more fearsome. He was the most powerful man in the world, with unlimited supplies of precious metals and gems at his disposal. Allied with his invincible armies, Europe could surely wipe Islam off the face of the earth.

If only he could be found.

By the time Henry sent his crews to seek after Prester John, the great king had been relocated to East Africa. This was not such a leap from the old belief that he ruled over India, since Europeans had come to believe that India and Africa were joined together. East Africa was also known as Middle India, and to confuse matters further, Middle India had also been identified with the kingdom of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was known to have been an ancient Christian land, but with Islam blocking the way Europe had long lost all contact with its people. Some said it was separated from Egypt by a desert that took fifty days to cross and was plagued by naked Arab robbers; others claimed that the Ethiopians were immune to disease and lived for two hundred years. In 1306, after centuries of silence, Ethiopian ambassadors had suddenly turned up at the papal court in France, and no doubt from an eagerness to please on both sides, Prester John came out of the encounter invested as the patriarch of the Ethiopian Church. Since that was something of a letdown, he was soon elevated from patriarch to autocrat and was identified as the all-powerful emperor of the vast and mighty state of Ethiopia. By 1400 the supposition was sufficiently well established for King Henry IV of England to write to the Prester in his new capacity, on the back of rumors that the great ruler was once again planning to march on Jerusalem. The Europeans’ insistence on calling their monarch Prester John caused no end of confusion to the occasional Ethiopian envoys who continued to reach Europe in the fifteenth century—in 1452 one caused a great stir by appearing in Lisbon—though no doubt they were flattered to be received as far more important personages than they had previously suspected.

Once again Europe’s hopes soared that the priest-king would prove a decisive ally against Islam. Yet even if he had settled down, the problem was still how to reach him. The dilemma was seemingly solved when maps began to appear showing a colossal crescent-shaped gulf slicing into Africa from its west coast. Named the Sinus Aethiopicus, or Ethiopian Gulf, it seemed to lead straight to the heart of the Prester’s realm.

For years, as Henry’s ships sailed to the place where the gaping mouth of the gulf should have been, he instructed his crews to ask for news of the Indies and their priest-emperor Prester John. When, in 1454, the prince successfully petitioned the pope to confirm his Atlantic monopoly, he promised that his missions would soon reach “as far as the Indians who, it is said, worship the name of Christ, so that we can communicate with them and persuade them to come to the aid of the Christians against the Saracens.” The Christian India for which the Portuguese would continue to search for decades was not India at all, but Ethiopia.

Henry never did find his Sinus Aethiopicus, his direct route to the Prester’s lands. The search for the great king would go on, and Western Christendom would continue to reach for miracles in its quest to dominate the globe.

GUINEA HAD TURNED out to be very different from the resplendent land of Europe’s imagination. Its trading posts were scattered across vast wildernesses, and the seasonal caravans were almost impossible to track down. Apart from a little gold, the goods the explorers brought home—antelope skin, amber, civet musk and live civet cats, gum arabic, sweet resin, turtle fat, seal oil, dates, and ostrich eggs—were colorful but hardly world-changing. Even worse, the Africans were so dismissive of the bales of rough cloth the Portuguese offered to trade that Henry was forced to buy fine garments from Morocco for resale in Guinea. When his crews had run into concerted resistance and had been forced to adopt a more complaisant stance, he had explained that trade was just another way of advancing the struggle against Islam. Now even that claim was beginning to wear dangerously thin.

In Portugal, the rumblings of rebellion became impossible to ignore. Henry’s colossal outlay of money and men seemed to be leading nowhere.

The dissent was stilled by the arrival of a commodity nearly as valuable as gold: human beings.

Henry’s first full-fledged slaving mission sailed out in 1444 and brutally attacked the peaceful fishing villages of Arguin Island, just off the midpoint of Africa’s western bulge. Setting out under cover of night in small boats, the soldiers sprang on the islanders at dawn with lusty cries of “Portugal, St. James, and St. George!” The chronicles recorded the ghastly spectacle:

There you might see mothers abandoning their children and husbands abandoning their wives, each thinking only to flee as speedily as might be. And some drowned themselves in the sea, others sought refuge in their huts, others hid their children under the mud, thinking that thus they might conceal them from the eyes of the enemy, and that they could come to seek them later. And at length Our Lord God, Who rewardeth all that is well done, ordained that in return for the work of this day done by our men in His service they should have the victory over their enemies and the reward of their fatigues and disbursements, in the taking of one hundred and sixty-five captives, men, women, and children, without reckoning those that died or that killed themselves.

The captors said their prayers and moved on to a nearby island. Finding one village deserted, they waylaid nine men and women who were tiptoeing away leading asses piled with turtles. One of the nine escaped and warned the next village, which had emptied by the time the Portuguese arrived. They soon spotted its inhabitants on a sandbank where they had fled by raft. Since the water was too shallow to reach them by boat, they went back to scour the village and dragged off eight cowering women. The next morning they returned for another dawn raid. The village was still deserted, and they rowed along the coast, landing men here and there to scout for new victims. Eventually they found a large party on the run and seized seventeen or eighteen women and children, “for these could not run so fast.” Soon after, they saw many more islanders escaping on a score of rafts. Their joy quickly turned to grief, the chronicles rued, when they realized such a fine opportunity to win honor and profit would be lost because they could not fit them all in the boats. Nevertheless they rowed at them, “and moved by pity, albeit these rafts were filled with Infidels, they killed only a very few. However, it must be believed that many Moors who, seized with fear, abandoned the rafts, perished in the sea. And the Christians thus passing amidst the rafts chose above all the children, in order to carry off more of them in their boat; of them they took fourteen.”

After giving thanks to God for their victory over the enemies of the faith, “and more than ever desirous of laboring well to serve God,” the Portuguese set out the following day to renew the attack. While they were still about their business a crowd ran at them and they fled. Far from making the aggressors look foolish, the chronicles claimed, the irate islanders had been sent by God to ward off the Christians before three hundred armed warriors arrived on the scene. Even so, before they had time to jump into their boats “the Moors were already upon them, and all were fighting in a great mellay.” The Portuguese managed to get away and take more prisoners, including a young girl who had been left behind in her abandoned village. Altogether they carted off 240 men, women, and children to be bound and packed into the waiting ships, where the already crowded holds and decks, swarming with rats and cockroaches and stinking of bilgewater and rotting fish, now reeked with the filth of shivering and panicked slaves.

When the human cargo arrived in Portugal the news spread fast. Excited spectators crowded the docks, and Henry rode down to supervise the distribution of the spoils. Mounted on horseback and barking out orders, he turned the sordid spectacle into a crowd-pleasing stunt.

After the grueling journey the slaves were a sorry sight, and as they were paraded naked and made to show off their strength, even some of the Portuguese were horrified. “What heart could be so hard as not to be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company?” wrote Gomes Eanes de Zurara, an eyewitness who confessed he was moved to tears.

For some kept their heads low and their faces bathed in tears, looking one upon another; others stood groaning very dolorously, looking up to the height of heaven, fixing their eyes upon it, crying out loudly, as if asking help of the Father of Nature; others struck their faces with the palms of their hands, throwing themselves at full length upon the ground; others made their lamentations in the manner of a dirge, after the custom of their country. And though we could not understand the words of their language, the sound of it right well accorded with the measure of their sadness. But to increase their sufferings still more, there now arrived those who had charge of the division of the captives, and who began to separate one from another . . . and then it was needful to part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers. No respect was shewn either to friends or relations, but each fell where his lot took him . . . who could finish that partition without very great toil? for as often as they had placed them in one part the sons, seeing their fathers in another, rose with great energy and rushed over to them; the mothers clasped their other children in their arms, and threw themselves flat on the ground with them; receiving blows with little pity for their own flesh, if only they might not be torn from them.

Henry looked on contentedly. He had answered his critics: if he had not found fields of gold, he had earned Portugal a place among the major slave-trading powers of the world. When another bumper haul of slaves arrived in Lisbon the following year, the doubters were finally silenced. “Now,” recorded Zurara as throngs of rubbernecks swarmed on board the ships, nearly capsizing them in the process, “there was no one around willing to admit to ever having been one of the critics. When they watched the prisoners bound with rope being marched through the streets, the tumult of the people was so great as they praised aloud the great virtues of the Prince that if anyone had dared to voice a contrary opinion to theirs he would very quickly have been obliged to withdraw it.”

In their shackled servitude, the slaves had rescued Portugal’s quest to explore the oceans.

Slavery was rife in the medieval world. Entire Muslim societies had been built on slavery; the numbers were so vast that in the ninth century half a million slaves had rebelled in Iraq. Many were sold by the mercantile republics of Italy; Genoa was particularly unfussy about where its human cargo came from, and large numbers of Orthodox Christians regularly appeared on its blocks. More were transported across the Caucasus and the Sahara, or were seized by the pirates of the Barbary Coast from Europe’s shores; by one count the pirates carried away more than a million men, women, and children for sale in the markets of North Africa. Few nations were unblemished by the traffic, and few saw anything wrong with the trade. Most dismissed the victims as a lower form of humanity; many—including African warlords who sold their enemies for wheat, clothes, horses, and wine—thought anyone they captured was fair game. Tenderhearted Christians consoled themselves by imagining that the slaves had been rescued from an irreligious condition no better than that of beasts, and no one saw anything strange about taking away a man’s liberty in order to save his soul. The tearful Zurara reminded himself that slavery originated with the curse Noah laid upon his son Ham after the Flood; the blacks, he explained, were descended from Ham and were subjected to all other races for all time. Any inconveniences they suffered, he reassured his readers, paled into insignificance next to the “wonderful new things that await them.” Eternal salvation, as usual, was the payback for worldly suffering, and plenty more were to receive the same comfort. During Henry’s lifetime, perhaps 20,000 Africans were captured or bought and transported to Portugal; by the turn of the century the number had risen to as many as 150,000.

Prince Henry’s new identity as slave trader general never gave his admirers cause to question his Crusading convictions. Quite the reverse: they saw it as the clearest affirmation that the Atlantic explorations were an expansion of his lifelong Crusade. Since Henry was engaged in a permanent war against the Infidel, and since by most accounts a war against the Infidel was by definition a just war, anyone he captured was a legitimate prisoner of war and so, by the conventions of the age, liable to be enslaved. In contrast to the common run of slavers, Henry earned high praise for his incessant reminders that he had only got into the trade to bring the Gospel to unfortunate heathens. To his countrymen, his slaving raids were grand acts of knightly chivalry, no less worthy of praise than seizing captives on the field of battle. Henry himself undoubtedly believed that his new business was not just lucrative but eminently pleasing to God.

The Church not only agreed, it took pains to make its approval clear. In 1452, the pope issued a bull that authorized the Portuguese to attack, conquer, and subdue any “Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers” they encountered, to seize their goods and lands, and to reduce them to hereditary slavery—even if they converted to Christianity. Rome had already granted full indulgences to any Christians who went Crusading under the cross of the Order of Christ, and in 1454 it subcontracted to Henry’s order sole spiritual jurisdiction over all the newly discovered lands.

The astonishing notion that Africans who had somehow failed to find the true faith were “outside the law of Christ, and at the disposition, so far as their bodies were concerned, of any Christian nation” was the attitude that the first European colonialists carried with them around the world. They were not just traveling for the pleasures of discovery or the profits of trade: they were sailing to convert and conquer in the name of Christ. Religious passion joined to the opportunity for epic plunder was a lethally galvanizing combination, and it would draw the Portuguese inexorably on to India and beyond.

At the heavy cost of inaugurating the Atlantic slave trade, Henry had radically extended Europe’s horizon. The endeavor he had begun still had a long way to go, but it took on a whole new urgency when devastating news arrived from the East.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!