Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Bishops' Sea: Who Is This "Henry" Guy, Again?

The anonymous author of the Wikipedia life of Marinid Sultan Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman (1297--1351) seems to really like the way that this 1930 German textbook map contextualises the affairs of Ceuta and Gibraltar. Sultan Abu al-Hasan captured Gibraltar from Castile in 1319, and then tried to use it as the springboard for a more ambitious campaign against Tarifa, aiming to restore a Marinid Moroccan presence in Iberia, provoking an ambiguously enthusiastic response from the Nasrids of Granada and the last, successful defensive campaign of the Reconquista. 

My question for this week is whether it actually contextualises this:

I'm not trying to ask a profound question here. The Boas Esperanca is no Kon Tiki or Olympias. It's a pretty good reconstruction of a well-known and historically important ship type. We may not know exactly what a Fifteenth Century caravel looked like, but this is fine and it's surely close enough for counting. There's really no significant questions about the vessel itself. But this is, occasionally, a blog about the history of technology, and one of the more important current set-piece arguments about the role of technology in history is that it was invented by one Prince Henry the Navigator. 

"The caravel (Portuguese: caravela, IPA: [kɐɾɐˈvɛlɐ]) was a small, highly manoeuvrable sailing ship developed in the 15th century by the Portuguese to explore along the West African coast and into the Atlantic Ocean." Which is bullshit, in that it's just a big old fishing boat, but also pretty amazing considering that biographers of the Portuguese prince have been spending decades purging the public sphere of the idea of Prince Henry as a teacher and master of the arts of celestial navigation, teaching the sciences of the sea to a generation of young explorers at an ascetic academy on Point Sagres, opening up the world to European--- 

--So, yeah, anyway.  Point is, the moment that Nineteenth Century notion is thrown on the ash heap of history, it sneaks back in again through the back door, an obvious nod to a narrative of technological determinism in which you need the services of a great man to exogenously introduce the necessary technology to change all history. 

Why not? It's how it works in Sid Meier's Civilisation! Navigation takes a ton of Science points, but the moment you have it, you can dump 600 gold into a caravel and, if you're lucky, have enough luxury goods flowing back to your ports to bring your empire back to positive happiness in a turn or three. 

Some pushback, even if not dispositive, seems warranted. And you'll probably guess from my choice of two really, really bad reconstructions that I have an axe to grind, and that "pushback" is likely to turn out to be a hatchet job. Long time readers probably won't be surprised. Anyone else, I'm just being upfront. Though not so upfront that I can't do a driveby on the Trireme Trust!
Leopold von Ranke says that politics has pride of place. Political history may not trump history of technology, but it certainly rules the writing of history, and in the case of a Portuguese royal prince, as Henry was, politics have a better than usual claim to the spotlight. So it seems like a good idea to set the stage, even if one has the usual problem of finding a starting point. 

For lack of anything better, I am going to go with Abu al-Hasan 'Ali (1331-1348), the last of the great Marinids and patron of Ibn Khaldun, conqueror of Gibraltar in 1333, and the loser at the Battle of Rio Salado, where he faced Alfonso XI of Castile, penultimate king of the Ivrean dynasty, Afonso IV, last but two of the Portuguese House of Burgundy,  with at least the moral support of Peter IV of Aragon, penultimate king of the House of Barcelona. You can tell from this that the later fourteenth century is going to be spicy, as the kids say. 

But all that was for the future. Some sources suggest that Abu al-Hasan 'Ali's was concerned that he might be deposed by his son if he failed in his little adventure, but Morocco seems secure enough. It has been 33 years since Abu Yaqub Yusuf spent his reign firefighting around the periphery of a vast empire stretching from Algeria down to Mauritania and up into Spain. The sheer scope of Marinid strategic commitments might leave one wondering if Abu al-Hasan 'Ali might have been overreaching when he talked about being made "emperor" in Toledo, but it in the nature of conquest states to expand. And if, ultimately, he was able to maintain a large enough fleet in the Straits of Gibraltar to neutralise  the Portuguese, Aragonese and Castilians, and perhaps Boccanegran Genoa, perhaps the Marinid imperium was destined to implode as quickly as it expanded. 

Though, if so, it was in a general Fourteenth Century competition to see who could implode first. A victorious Afonso IV returned to Portugal and was promptly embroiled in his son and heir's doomed affair with Ines de Castro, setting the scene in which the legacy of his grandson, the last Burgundian King of Portugal, Ferdinand, was set aside by his illegitimate grandson, John, Master of Aviz later John I. Meanwhile, the death of Alfonso XI left the  throne of Castile disputed between an illegitimate son, Henry of Trastamara (fourth of ten by Eleanor de Guzman), and Peter the Cruel, legitimate heir, who with an obvious PR problem, and also something of a trend setter, since Castile's turbulent politics would fail to throw up another long-lived and successful monarch until Isabel the Catholic. 

Before that, though, there were "Fernandine Wars" to show that Portugal was going to have problems dealing with its more powerful neighbour, even when strong kings were pitted against weak. It was therefore something of a miracle for Portugal that John I, first king of the House of Braganza (1357--1433), was able to triumph over Castile in the civil war of 1383--5.

Or perhaps this appearance of strength had something to do with the long chain of minorities, regencies, and rule-by-favourites that overtook Castile through the long reign of John I of Portugal. Under other circumstances, the man's  impressive charisma and long stud book (six legitimate children, three natural) might have been destabilising in its own right, for rebellion and plotting might well follow from a failure to find households and useful outlets for the royal princelings. It was therefore something of a blessing that his third legitimate son, Prince Henry was willing to swear an oath of perpetual chastity, promise to father no children, and designate the second son of his brother, the later King Edward, as his heir. By keeping scarce royal endowments within the family, Henry showed that he was a good dynastic trooper who might be thought to deserve some special consideration.

I say this in part because much of this post is dependent on Peter Russell's 2000 Prince Henry 'The Navigator:' A Life. A fine study, it shows a partiality that overtakes many biographies: The author seems to have acquired a white-hot loathing for his subject, perhaps in a contrarian response to earlier hagiographies that similarly miss the essence of the man. 

That said, essence-missing is a real problem. In 1412, a Portuguese fleet appeared off the shores of Ceuta, the campaign was to be a chance for John's sons to win their spurs in battle. In its wake, Henry as put in charge of the Casa de Ceuta, which took care of Ceuta's affairs in the metropolis --of its logistics, to be all anachronistic. Prince Henry thought that this was the defining episode of his life, but his hagiographers missed the point until William Parry arrived to recentre it. Russell takes the point. The problem is that his lack of sympathy for his subject leads him to misunderstand the relationship between Ceuta and Portugal, presenting it as a wasteful and uneconomical adventure on an incomprehensible alien shore, whereas in reality Ceuta changed hands on a regular a basis and there was nothing unreasonable about a Portuguese control of Ceuta, at least before our generally laudable but perhaps misleading post-colonial "Africa for the Africans" moment arrived. Ceuta was always going to be part of some or another state actor on one or the other side of the Straits, and given its lack of an African hinterland apart from sparsely populated hill country, there is no particular reason that it couldn't be a state on the northern shore. And as for being an unprofitable drain on the occupying state, all one can do is look at an occupation going on five centuries now and conclude that if the critics haven't been able to prove their case, it is perhaps because it is not as good a one as they claim.

What mystifies me is that the Lisbon of 1412 conquered Ceuta while simply accepting that the Castilian crow had an exclusive claim to Moroccan conquests on the grounds that it uniquely succeeded to the old Visigothic monarchy, which had ruled the Diocese of Hispania --which is to say, Morocco. While dynastic claims were not allowed to get in the way of Portuguese adventures in Morocco, I am flummoxed that Lisbon gave up so much ground in advance. Indeed, in 1412 the Ceuta-bound flotilla sniffed around Gibraltar and Granada for a bit, giving the very strong impression that the army on board, nominally fully 19,000 strong, might settle for Castilian territory or Castilian clients, rather than settling for the Moroccan port. Tantalising hints that Prince Henry remained interested in carving out a bit of Castile for himself would persist through his career. 

Be that as it may, it would be the Casa de Ceuta that defined his life, and, perhaps, naval architecture.  
Highly efficient for sailing down wind with minimal crew; not 
nearly so good at sailing into the wind. Just what you'd want 
to sail from Wareham to Monemvasia. Source. 
Ceuta isn't so much a harbour as a pair of anchorages, each open to prevailing winds from alternating directions. When they shift direction, ships have to promptly shift anchorages, and to do that they have to sail out into the Straits. Perhaps, if you want to supply Ceuta reliably from all the way over in Lagos, you need a fleet of caravels.

At this point we're closing in on the Parry thesis. The "House of Ceuta" did use caravels to resupply Ceuta, at least in part. At the same time (by which we mean, more than a decade later), Madeira began to develop. Its most important early export was timber and the conditions of the Funchal anchorage in the early days were much the same as Ceuta, suggesting that caravels might have been the best ship type to export timber to Lisbon. Inevitably, Madeiran settlers branched into lumber ships, which tend to be badly-built, since the point of them was to ship good quality timber from remote lumber camps. Caravels made of the cheapest available timber might then be broken up (or burned for charcoal) in Lisbon, but they might also be sent south into tropical waters, where there was no great loss if they were rapidly eaten away by teredo worms. 

This view of Madeira's ambitious airport is also a good illustration of Funchal Roads.

All of this seems plausible enough, and the same goes for the Azores, in this model, more-or-less some spare Madeiras when the original was running out. We're presented with the first settlers as knights in Prince Henry's service, made patrimonial rulers of the islands for their good service to the "Lord of the Isles." Exactly how it all came to be is not exactly clear, and at one point  Prince Henry even claims to have conquered Madeira from Islamic overlords. While Russell sees this as Prince Henry blowing smoke (something that popes and anti-popes would have to get used to from the Prince), it's actually not implausible except from the perspective that Muslims aren't allowed in the Christian neighbourhood swimming pool. From other sources, we know that Henry made a major colonisation effort in the Canaries in 1424, a complete failure that was hastily buried. A flag-showing at Madeira along the way that involved ejecting (or converting) a few Moroccan beachcombers is just as plausible as anything else. 

Another interesting point concerns the early peopling of the islands. Traditionally, Madeira's sugar industry, which began to flourish under Henry's patronage, but much later in his life, was driven by imported African slave labour, which spared the early Madeirans of the taint of plantation labour, while obligingly all dying off to spare its family tree of impure blood. This does not seem to be, in fact, true, and with the Azores in our scope we find that the early would-be planters could not find settlers, and resorted to  importing convicts and indentured servants. As this pattern had already established in Ceuta, we might wonder if the Casa de Ceuta. Between slave trade and exported indentures,  Prince Henry begins to look like a real pioneer of the the plantation of the Atlantic! 

In motoring along after the career of Prince Henry, 1424 is one of those moments where our engine stalls out. We have patrimonial claims to the islands; but our next piece of evidence for his Atlantic affairs is his 1443 application for a monopoly license to trade "south of Cape Bojador" towards Guinea. Patents are granted because the patentee deserves them, so Prince Henry tells us that he has painstakingly sponsored a long series of exploring voyages attempting to find their way around the Cape, something that apparently only his caravels can do, and that's it for twenty-one years. Surely something else happened in all that time! 

Cycling back to our sources, we're left with the synthetic account of Gomes Eanes de Zurara, official librarian under Afonso V (r. 1438/49--81).  Zurara prepared accounts of the capture of Ceuta, of the "Discovery and Conquest" of Guinea, and a biography of the first Captain of Alcacer-Ceguer for his royal master. The latter was another small Moroccan town on the Strait coast, captured by the Portuguese in 1458. As this conquest was the extremely anticlimactic denouement to a papal crusade that was originally to involve the Portuguese leading the armies of all Christendom to recapture "Constantinople," there was clearly some need for apologetics, and Zurara's work is highly focussed. For example, it covers only 1434--38 sailings under the heading of the "Discovery and Conquest," in the midst of almost four decades of history. That he does tell us all about Ceuta shows us what matters in shaping Prince Henry's public image, and here we move on to the question of why the story that Zunara tells, ends in 1438. This is the year of Edward I's death, and the accession of the minor king, Afonso V, under the regency of his uncle, and Henry's older brother, Peter. (After the usual, vicious regency politics.) Edward's death was linked to a disastrous setback of the previous year, one that had to weigh heavily on Edward --and Henry. 

 Edward I succeeded to the throne already well into middle age, and overshadowed, it seemed for life, by his father. Given the chronic instability of contemporary monarchies, that was a dangerous position to be in, and a glorious foreign adventure seemed called for. Edward looked to his brother, Henry, to carry it out, and did so over the objections of two of his other brothers, who objected that Ceuta was already too much of a drain on the crown, and that another Ceuta, such as Henry's target of Tangier would end up being, would be a fatal embarrassment. One might think that Henry would pay a heavy political price if the adventure failed to even get so far as to capture Tangier in the first place. 
Army Map Service, map  at, reproduced from Wikipedia. 
As it happens, it failed, but Henry did not. Somehow, half of the ship charters secured for the expedition fell through, only a part of the army could be moved to Africa, the Marinids responded vigorously, and to save his army, Henry had to promise to cede Ceuta, turning his own younger brother, the Infante Ferdinand, over to Abu Zakariya Yahya al-Wattasi, as a surety. Exactly why those charters fell through is not clear, at least in the case of the ones negotiated in Castile, where our sources pointedly decline to explain.

What happened after that is bizarre. The critics of the original expedition were all for surrendering Ceuta. Prince Henry repudiated the agreement that he had himself negotiated, condemning his brother to rot in a Moroccan jail on grounds that Ferdinand would surely prefer martyrdom to the surrender of one jot of Christian land, were anyone to ask him, which no-one need bother doing. And when the pro-cession faction won out and dispatched a squadron of galleys to complete the exchange, it was ambushed by Genoese "pirates" who proceeded to board the lead vessel and kill the commander of the expedition and leading figure in the pro-cession faction. Even five centuries later, the sequence of events is stunning. 

When Edward died soon after, Henry would back Peter in the struggle for the regency, and it is in this context that his Guinea monopoly is interpreted. In none of this does Prince Henry come off very well, and it gets worse when Afonso reaches his majority and sets his uncle aside in 1448. Peter's head is still fresh on the pike when Henry emerges with a new monopoly, beginning several hundred miles north of Bojador, granting him an exclusive license to trade with the Moroccan ports serving Marrakesh. A 1452 legal proceeding against one of his captains, caught smuggling illegal cargoes into Safi on his own hook, gives us a bit more context, showing that Henry had been able to turn this license into something useful, with the cooperation of the southern Moroccan ports. Exactly they cooperated, we do not now know. 

By stopping when he does, Zunara misses the chance to tell us about the establishment of the factory at Arguin that was the first solid anchor to the Portuguese Guinea trade. We do know that barques (not caravels) belonging to the regent traded there during the next decade. We infer that the trade implicated the Sanhaja Berber communities of the Atrar, and perhaps explain the impressive ruins of Azougui. If so, the story is lost to  us thanks to the Marabout Wars. Or perhaps we should be looking more carefully at the early Saadians, looking for a bridge between Amohads and  an ancestor with a career that needed to be re-invented once they dynasty came to be known for their victories over the Portuguese in the next century. 

Whatever we make of it, it seems likely that Arguin was not a Henrician establishment. He passes it over in a spree of endowments to Atlantic chapels in his will. That's assuming that it had a chaplaincy, but surely it did. But perhaps some other ecclesiast is behind it, whether the shadowy Moroccan dioceses or the Majorcan mission on Lanzarotte or even the Castilians on Fuertaventura. It is likely, given Zunara's clever omission, that there's something more going on here and that it does not bear inspection. So perhaps it is ancient and romantic and Islamic, tied to the supposed origin of the Almohads in the Bay of Arguin and the rise of the Saadians. Or it might be boring and mundane and have to do with Henry's relationship with the Regent.  

After the establishment of Afonso V's personal rule, and in the last decade-and-a-half of Prince Henry's life, the Guinea monopoly really got going, with the final arrival of the Portuguese in Kantour in the Gambia, a Wolof state nominally subject to Mali. Here,  the Portuguese were finally able to source the long-sought pepper, cotton cloth and gold of Guinea. while there were better sources further south, here was proof of concept for a trade other than the admittedly profitable horses-for-slaves business that had already developed to the north.) Prince Henry would not live to see the kind of profits secured by his successor, Fernao Gomes, who would happily pay an annual rent of 200,000 real for the license; But, as I say, proof of concept. 

So, two, or even three Infante Henrys. One is a warrior prince, victor at Ceuta (1412) before suffering a dark night of the soul before Tangier (1437) emerging triumphant at Alcacer-Ceguer (1458); A second is a patron of knowledge and exploration, a sponsor of voyages to new worlds beyond the horizons; the third, obscure but with the greatest substantive accomplishments to his name in the very longest run, the "Lord of the Isles." Henry did his best to put the three personas together by conceptualising himself as a crusader, as was the fashion of the day. The hagiographers turned his science to good use, making his patronage of navigational feats the roots of an overseas empire. Moderns throw this old stuff on the ash-heap of history and substitute an exogenous history of technology. Someone invents the caravel, and suddenly everything is possible. 

Yes, but. . . The squires who round Cape Bogador seem to be looking for seal blubber and pelts. 

 We might also wonder how the House of Ceuta finances itself. The answer is that John I, as a sensible monarch. grants it some lucrative trading licenses. For most of his life, Prince Henry disposed of a monopoly on a good as important as it is quotidian and tedious. Soap. Fat plus wood ash. 

While I find it extremely hard to believe that anyone ever made much money selling cosmetic soap made of seal blubber and cod liver oil, the fact remains that the woollens industry and related trades such as paint manufacture rely on an ample source of oil, and in the hungry days of old, you took your fats where you could find them. The squires that Henry sent into the Bay of Arguin after "pelts and blubber" made him money. Charcoal burning would have been a vital part of Madeira's early profitability, and no wonder that its agriculture was so magnificently productive in its early days. 

Just as Prince Henry had a license to import these things into Portugal, and frequently had to resort to violence and politics to maintain that license, so foreign princes had a perfect right to sell licenses to trade into their dominions. Were that not the case, the Genoese would not have been able to operate a vast network of factories dedicated to turning the ordinary articles of trade into Genoese goods that could be imported into Genoa. Or was there more to it than that? Did the corrupting sea have a way of turning the goods of one nation into the goods of another, to elude licenses on the one hand, or exploit them on the other? 

Where better to perform this commercial alchemy than in a port of trade, an anchorage turned seawards by a hostile or simply infertile hinterland? Ceuta opens up to the Alboran Sea of the Mediterranean, which is all well and good. Tangier opens up to the Atlantic. It would have been the perfect counterpart to Ceuta, a place where Portuguese fish, oil and pelts could have been sold onto Genoese ships; and, conversely, where Castilian "interlopers" could have turned their goods into Portuguese products. That it didn't happen, shows, perhaps, that someone was alarmed by Prince Henry's little plan. On the other hand, Tangier might have been the perfect present with which to approach the burghers of Safi.

It hardly matters. There were a great many good fishing grounds not too far off the westernmost Canaries and Azores. Whatever the good and great might make of them, an entrepeneur who could fill a hold with labour and turn it into a cargo could make some money. As for the ship itself, outside the whig historiography of the glorious Reconnaissance, it is generally agreed that the caravel looks a great deal like any other fishing boat that is rigged to remain on the grounds until the holds are filled, rather than to sail long distances before the wind. The large crew required to handle a lateen is no problem for a working boat that requires hands to gib or fillet the catch. 

Prince Henry's construction of the caravel as the ideal exploring vessel is all very well; as long as fishing was the objective, caravels would have been the vessel of choice, anyway. Fishing seems like an awfully ignoble basis for something as grand as the Reconnaissance of the Atlantic, but the Atlantic empires have come and gone, while the plantations have gone on to become great nations, albeit ones still suffering from the original sin of the Atlantic slave trade(s).  

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