O Infante D Henrique and the Canary Expeditions

Peter Kingdon Booker


As a boy I was surprised that the Atlantic Islands were shared out in such a haphazard way between the Iberian nations. Perhaps O Infante D Henrique (known to us anglophones as Henry the Navigator), seeing that all of the discovered North Atlantic islands were Portuguese except for the Canary Islands, had the same sense of a job not completed. The word Canary of course has nothing to do with sweet singing small yellow birds. The arms of the Autonomous Community tell that the name is derived from the Latin canis meaning dog; and the dogs seen by the Roman discoverers were in all probability not dogs at all but monk seals, which may have been rendered in Latin as canes maris.


For over thirty years in the fifteenth century, D Henrique had tried hard to complete a clean Portuguese sweep and in 1479, nineteen years after his death, the Infante D João, future D João II, had agreed with Castile at the Treaty of Alcáçovas finally to give up all Portuguese claims to the islands. The count of Arraiolos, writing in 1432 about D Henrique´s ambition to become the first Christian ruler of Granada, had suggested that if he took advantage of the Castilian civil wars to become ruler of part of Spain, the Canaries would also pass automatically under D Henrique´s lordship. Henrique devoted 30 years to the aim of conquering the seven main islands of an area of 7 200 km2. It was evidently quite beyond his resources and it took even the well- equipped Castilians much time and fighting to subjugate the islands at the end of the fifteenth century.


Gomes Eanes de Zurara, the chronicler who wrote The Chronicle of Guinea as the eulogy of his patron D Henrique, mentioned Henrique´s part in the capture of Ceuta and went on to insert this strange sentence, “ He also sent a very large expedition against the Canary Islands for the purpose of showing [the people] there the road to our Holy Faith.” That is all that he says. It cannot have been a success or Zurara would have credited his hero; it must therefore have been a failure. Whilst the occasional defeat by Castile or by the Moors was an example of “the mysterious ways of God” as Russell puts it, defeat by stone age islanders was not something to boast about.


Henrique wanted to be remembered for his devotion to God, as a crusader and for his conquest of the coast of Africa. Perhaps an original aim was for the conquest of the Canaries, because during Henrique´s lifetime his effort to take the Canaries was not a sideshow. These islands had been known at least since Roman times (possibly discovered earlier by the Phoenicians) and became a productive hunting ground for slaves for both the Iberian nations and for various Italian states.


The islands were rediscovered by French and Castilian explorers at the very beginning of the fifteenth century, and by 1406, Enrique III of Castile had accepted the homage of Jean de Béthencourt for the islands, much to the disgust of his colleague Gadifer de la Salle. There was even a chronicle of the attempt by these two to conquer and colonise the archipelago. This chronicle is known as Le canarien and it is highly likely that Henrique knew of it. The chronicle also mentions a landing on the African coast to the south of the notorious cape Bojador. It was on the rock of prior discovery and prior claim that all of Henrique´s efforts were to founder.


As the aboriginal inhabitants were barbarians, it was Henrique´s duty as a Christian prince to bring them to the worship of God. It has been held that there was a strategic consideration in the protection of his southbound explorers from Canary based Castilian interference, but this is anachronistic – there is no indication that this strategy was in his mind at an early stage. It is far more likely that he was interested in the forcible conversion and enslavement of the barbarian inhabitants


The expedition of 1424 under the command of Fernão de Castro, governor of Henrique´s household, comprised 2 500 infantrymen and 120 horsemen. João de Barros in his Décadas shows that the Crown made a major financial contribution to this expedition but it must have been financed in great part by the Order of Christ, of which Henrique was the Administrator (not the Governor, since Henrique never took the vows of the Order). D João I never publicly acknowledged the Crown´s support of this affair so that he would not bear any responsibility for this attack on a neighbour´s territory. That the Pope had acknowledged the islands as a papal principality and that Henry III of Castile had proclaimed his lordship of the islands, D Henrique very well knew. The expedition of 1424 and its failure opened up long-lasting difficulties for D Henrique personally, for relations between Portugal and Castile, and for relations between Portugal, Castile and the papal curia.


In 1434, immediately after the death of D João I, there was intense excitement at the passage of Cape Bojador and pressure at court in favour of the Tangier expedition. Henrique was also getting together another squadron to attack the islands and it is probable that the main target was Tenerife. In a letter to the Pope in 1436 Henrique describes the Canarians as untamed savages living in a state of paganism without religion, law or civility “as if they were beasts”. Henrique shows that they knew nothing of navigation, of letters, metals or coinage, did not live in proper [ie European style] houses, went practically naked, wore no shoes and were unacceptably athletic. This was in fact a stylized description of savages. Henrique showed that 400 converts had been made (he meant they had captured 400 slaves – Russell calls this Henry-speak). The document goes on to show that the expedition had failed to subdue the island in question. Instead of standing up to a pitched battle as civilized soldiers should do, these savages had withdrawn to inaccessible crags and defended themselves ferociously. The expedition had run out of supplies and so had been obliged to withdraw. To prevent starvation, the retreating Portuguese had been “forced” to invade Christian islands, probably Lanzarote and Furteventura, to capture wild goats.


In 1434, Pope Eugenius IV had issued a bull prohibiting the enslavement of any Canarian, demanding the release of those captured, and excommunicating “certain Christians” (ie Portuguese) who had attacked Lanzarote and other islands. Henrique determined to accede to this Bull whilst at the same time petitioning for papal permission to subjugate the rest of the archipelago for the Portuguese crown. It was normal at this time to look to the Pope for as the spiritual and temporal arbiter of the world with specific authority to dispose of infidels and pagans as he chose. By supporting the traditionalist view of Papal authority in this way, D Duarte and D Henrique hoped to find favour with Eugenius. It worked well and the Pope granted all that the petition required, including the right to conquer all the Canary Islands not already inhabited by Christians.


The Castilians objected strongly and Pope Eugenius found himself obliged to retract everything that he had conceded to the Portuguese. In fact he decreed that the Portuguese could claim only those islands not claimed by anyone else. Since Castile claimed the whole archipelago, the whole of the Portuguese claim failed; and the Castilians went on to claim that the whole of Africa was also reserved to Castile. The Pope had no choice but to agree with the closer and more powerful Iberian nation. Castile pressed for a more definite view and in 1437 Eugenius showed that he totally supported Castile´s claims to the Canaries and to the whole of Africa. Simultaneously he supported Portugal´s expedition to Tangier. Consistency was clearly not a papal concept.


The disaster at Tangier in 1437 and D Duarte´s demise overtook everything else for some years but there is evidence that on their homebound journeys, those of Henriques expeditions which had failed to take enough black slaves on the African mainland stopped off in the Canaries to make up their numbers.


D Henrique made a serious error at about this time when he suggested to D Juan II of Castile that in return for permission to conquer the islands he would acknowledge D Juan´s ultimate overlordship of the Canaries. It may be that this approach was a disingenuous attempt to show that he had tried peacefully to resolve the problem that he himself had created.


In the 1440s Henrique tried to negotiate with tribal chiefs on La Gomera and established a permanent Portuguese presence on the island. They even recruited these people to help in slaving razzias on other islands. On occasion visiting Gomeran chiefs were accommodated and honoured at Henrique´s court.


In 1446, D Henrique obtained from Regent D Pedro control over the sailings of all Portuguese ships to the Canaries, referring to hostile interference in his Guinea fleets, by implication coming from the Canaries. If such interference happened at all, it would be by Castilians. The Regent also granted to Henrique the royal fifth on all trade between Portugal and the islands, and one of the taxable commodities specifically mentioned was Canarian slaves.


In a new turn, also by 1446, Henrique determined to try to gain control of those islands originally brought under Christian control by de la Salle and Béthencourt in 1402. Henrique offered to buy the rights of Béthencourt´s heir, Maciot Béthencourt and they signed an agreement dated 9 March 1448. Maciot was promised an annual pension of 20 000 reais brancos and hospitality on Madeira. The new Portuguese governor of Lanzarote, Antão Gonçalves, lasted for two years before he was driven out by the original Spanish and French settlers. D Juan II of Castile protested vigorously and sent an envoy to the Portuguese court and objected to attacks made by Henrique in 1450 and 1451 on Grand Canary and La Gomera and to his attempt to recapture Lanzarote. The Castilian ship carrying D Juan´s representative to Lanzarote in 1450 was intercepted by a Portuguese caravel (one of Henrique´s) and robbed of all its armament, money and victuals. The crew narrowly escaped being thrown overboard. Another Portuguese attempt on Lanzarote failed in 1451, and they moved on to sack Fuerteventura. There were other Portuguese attacks during these years on other Castilian Canarian islands.


D Juan II was driven to complain yet again in 1454 about Henrique´s attacks on the islands and about a particularly brutal act of piracy by one of Henrique´s ships on a Castilian ship off the coast of Cadiz. No doubt Henrique punished particularly severely any unlicensed foreign interlopers into his Guinea monopoly. It was one thing to act in this way on the high seas, but the attacked ship had been in Castilian territorial waters. In 1455, soon after the death of D Juan II, there were further insistent demands that the King of Castile grant sovereignty over the islands to Portugal.


Despite all his efforts and his repeated failures, it seems that Henrique´s instinctive response was always to gather his forces for a repeat performance. His military efforts always foundered; his attempt at purchase was insecure, since the vendor had no right of title; and his attempt to use feudal homage was fatally flawed. He must have been driven by the idea that he would be remembered for notable conquests – this is what his horoscope had foretold at his birth – and perhaps fixed in his own obsessive mind was the idea that the prophecy referred to the Canaries. It was well known that Henrique loathed the Castilians and his Canary campaigns might be seen as his own undeclared proxy war on Castile. He might have been trying to acquire the regal status that he clearly desired, or he may have been indulging the medieval magnate´s desire for the acquisition of land – particularly as “the sons of D João I and Queen Philippa ……… complained that Portugal was too small to supply them with territorial possessions commensurate with their princely status.”


The most obvious negative consequence of Henrique´s obsession was that for several decades he caused men, ships, armament and a great deal of money to be wasted on a particularly nasty, entirely unnecessary and in the end unsuccessful private colonial war. There was no corresponding fame or honour; no addition to his military reputation.


After the conquest of the islands by Castile late in the century, the Castilians ironically brought in large numbers of Portuguese settlers and colonizers, many from Madeira, to open and work the land, and to establish the Canary sugar industry. Castilian possession of the islands proved never to be a major threat to Portuguese shipping. And so it was that of the four island groups in the western North Atlantic, one belonged to Castile and three to Portugal. Castile had after all been first on the scene.


The material for this short article has been drawn from the book Prince Henry “the Navigator” A life by Sir Peter Russell (first published in 2001)