Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reputations - Henry "The Navigator"

The series of extramural lectures on Reputations II: The World's Greatest given by the School of History and Humanities in Trinity, continued last evening with an excellent lecture by Dr David Ditchburn on "Henry the Navigator".

Discoveries Monument in Lisbon.
Image link to GoLisbon.com.
The lecture was as much about Portugal's expansion between 1415 and 1460, as about Henry himself. The most surprising thing for me to discover was that Henry never sailed on any of the expeditions during this period. If fact it is suspected that Henry never even left Portugal! The title "Navigator" was only assigned to him in the 1800s - over 400 years after his death. He certainly supported and benefited enormously from the expeditions.

Dr Ditchburn explored the many reasons why Portugal expanded first in Morocco, and then on to other parts of  Africa. There was a strong Crusader influence to the expansion - the Moors had only been kicked out of Portugal not long before the expansion began. Rivalry with Spain was a key influence. There was also a "something to do" motive for Henry's father Joao I's sons to be involved in. Curiosity about what lay beyond the current limits of exploration also played a part, as did overcoming the de-population of Portugal during the Black Death in the previous century. Undoubtedly the lure of gold and booty also attracted adventurers.

Henry certainly did not deserve the title "The Navigator", but as Dr Ditchburn pointed out - it also has a modern context in that Portugal's dictators (Caetano and Salazar) in the 20th century looked to historical characters like Henry to promote him as a global Portuguese hero.

Finally, I found that this lecture was most interesting and it held my attention throughout. This is a tribute to Dr Ditchburn's ability to keep us interested and focused on a fascinating character from history.

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