Sailing to the edge of the world

The names of important explorers are common to us: Columbus, Magellan, Hudson, Cartier, de Gama. We learn these names beginning in the early days of grade school. We learn the names of their ships, the lands they discovered, and the governments that funded them. But a man who helped usher in the golden age of explorers, and therefore should receive more acknowledgement than he does, is Portuguese explorer Gil Eanes.

In the 15th century, superstition and errant thinking regarding our world were rampant. The flat earth theory was dying, but circumnavigation had not yet been completed. There were numerous myths regarding sea monsters and the equatorial heat of the sun boiling water and burning ships. Galileo had yet to declare the Sun as the center of our solar system.

Also at this time, European countries were interested in Africa, but a small parcel of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean created more trouble than it would seem to warrant: The Cape of Bojador. Stories circulated of sailors losing their ships and their lives in the seas off the coast. Navigational tools would not work and ships were allegedly met by boiling seas and monsters. It was also thought that any Christian who attempted to pass would be turned black. God’s creation was the earth—firm, navigable. The sea was the devil’s work—shaky, unknown. The Cape of Bojador, which means “father of danger” in the Arabic, represented the furthest extent of Christian knowledge of the world.

Despite these suspicions, Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator was adamant that the western coast of Africa be opened up. He had sailed to the region himself in his earlier years and was fascinated by the culture, the possibility of a trade route for gold, stopping piracy, and converting Muslims. Fifteen attempts to safely pass Cape Bojador had failed in the 12 years prior to him sending Captain Gil Eanes to the region in 1433.

Eanes was born in 1395 in Lagos, Portugal, and grew up as a squire in Prince Henry’s household. He later attended a navigational school established by the prince.

In 1433, Eanes added to the list of failures. He reached the Canary Islands before returning due to strong winds. Prince Henry felt confident enough with the voyage’s prospects of success that he sent Eanes again the next year. There could be no failure. From Prince Henry:

“And if there were even any truth in these stories that they tell, I would not blame you, but you come to me with the tales of four seamen who perhaps know the voyage to the Low Countries or some other coasting route, but, except for this, don’t know how to use needle or sailing chart. Go out again and heed them not, for by God’s help, fame and profit must come from your voyage, if you will but persevere.”

Many sailors at the time had, when encountering the Cape’s northeast winds, began to sail closer to the shore. There they struggled with dense fog and shallow waters filled with sardines rising to the surface–which caused bubbles to form and gave credence to the boiling water myth. Combine those factors with nearby ferrous rocks interrupting navigational tools, and you see why so many sailors met their demise along this seemingly mild geographical landmark.

Eanes took a different approach however, staying further away from the shore, and navigated the Cape without incident.

Henry the Navigator wanted his sailors to bring back people from the new territories they explored so they could be examined (and converted). It was also to provide proof of their journeys, but Eanes and his crew found no one in the desolate Sahara. Instead, he returned with Santa Maria roses.

But the most important possession Eanes returned with was a shifted mindset on what lay beyond Cape Bojador. In the translated writing of Gomes Eanes de Zurara:

“From that trip disregarding all danger, doubled the cable beyond, where he (Eanes) found the things quite the opposite of what he and others hitherto assumed.”

The voyage served to propel Henry the Navigator’s maritime program, which would send explorers around the world in search of new lands, people, and resources.

It is true that these expeditions often led to bloody battles, pillages, and slavery. But what is also true is that the bravery to sail into the face of danger—the fear of sea monsters, boiling waters, abnormal winds—led to the eradication of assumptions.

  1. The Project Gutenberg eBook of Prince Henry the Navigator, the Hero of Portugal and of Modern Discovery, 1394-1460 A.D., by C. Raymond Beazley
  2. Gil Eanes Dobra O Cabo Bojador.” Gil Eanes Dobra O Cabo Bojador. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.




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