Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Navigating Portugal

A storm was brewing. The nights were getting drastically darker and the rain was getting icy. So me and Mum fled for our lives and braved the monster of Ryanair to escape to a better life in the sunny Algarve in south Portugal... well for 5 days anyway.


When I started an A level in history I was very surprised to find my first A2 topic would be The Portuguese Seaborne Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. I knew nothing about Portugal, let alone its history. I thought it was like the Wales of Spain, you know, might as well just be Spain? (no offence to Wales)...

Turns out I was wrong.

Because I missed the first few weeks of the course I found myself manically scribbling notes with words I didn't fully understand and I thought when my tutor was banging on about a Papal Bull she was talking about a bull cut out of paper.

Wrong again.

But then my imagination was captured in the form of an extraordinary mythical character with the very ordinary name of Prester John.

For centuries tales and rumour captured the imaginations of the minds of the dark ages that told of a Christian priest living within the dark, heathen lands of the unknown. The idea that somewhere among the hoards of 'evil' Moors there lived a Christian ruler of great riches and power slowly evolved into a dream for many men who longed for a Godly leader to help them in their mission to 'mirror heaven on Earth'. They were striving to 'mirror heaven on Earth', because they believed that only when this idyllic idea was achieved would the Second Coming happen, where Jesus would save all our souls. To achieve this, it became the Christian mission, or duty, to eradicate all the non-believers that plagued the far-off lands of Asia and Africa... and maybe pick up some gold, spices and slaves along the way.

It isn't surprising that Portugal became such dominant pioneers in this pursuit of piousness. The land of Portugal was granted as a gift to a Knight from the King of Spain as a reward for reconquering the land from those pesky, pesky Moors in the early 12th Century. The Kingdom of Portugal was born out of a battle of religion and crusaders fighting 'noble' battles of good over evil, and so for hundreds of years it was accepted that in order to become a nobleman or knight you must be conquering evil for the good of their Christian God.

Here we visited the Castle of Silves, once of Moorish occupation before it was conquered. The red bricks seem to glow from the top of the hill where this extraordinary building sits, where once it would watch over the civilians and incoming enemies, now it looks over acres and acres of waxy, green orange trees.







me with a crusader


This mindset alone began to fascinate me. The English Medieval mindset doesn't seem to have this notion of a religious battle, no we just took what we wanted and hung/beheaded/backstabbed anyone who got in our way!

Unfortunately for the Portuguese men seeking valour and nobility, there wasn't a load of demons invading their land. If they were going to fight for a just, religious and 'good' cause then they were going to have to go out and look for one. Cue Prince Henry the Navigator. Son of the King, but not the heir, Henry was never going to be as great as his father or brother by just sitting around court. So in a medieval time full of myth, tradition and fear of 'the unknown', Henry left court and set up on the south coast of Portugal where he started to use science, maths and logical thinking, ideas previously thought to be witchcraft and madness, to search for the legend of Prester John. This juxtaposition of science and faith is the start of his romantic endeavour to find a Christian patriarch who would help him to conquer the Moors, and ultimately become a Saint.

There were many churches in all the towns we visited. Though they couldn't hide all the evidence of a once Muslim society, they had certainly attempted to with lashings of Christianity dotted everywhere you went. One church in a small, otherwise empty, village had this amazing ossuary, constructed with such fine detail from the intricate bones of local parishioners. It's peculiar being in a room full of skulls. You think you will be desensitized from all the skeletons you see on the TV or in museums, then suddenly you enter this cool, breezy chapel, and you can feel the eyes that are no longer there boring into you. It feels almost intrusive, seeing their bare, naked skulls, lined so perfectly in neat little rows.








I think it's so heartfelt and even though this is a man who lived hundreds of years ago in a society so incredibly different it's still easy to feel sympathy and to support him. He would never become King like his brother, or a noble Knight like the ones in the tales he was told of as a young child, but in becoming a Saint in Heaven, he would be greater than all these men. And in a world desperately trying to imitate Heaven to incite the Second Coming, being a Saint would be the greatest honour of them all. No more being second best to his older brother, or a shadow of brave Crusaders of time gone by.

The legend is that on these desolate clifftops at the very edge of the land he started his 'School of Navigation'. An innovative place where sciences and maths were given a platform to show their worth and to gain respect. They used tools and astronomy as opposed to prayer and faith. Henry was a Medieval man with a Renaissance mind. He strove for knowledge of the unknown, for enlightenment and ability.

We visited the sight of this elusive 'School of Navigation' at the Fort of Sagres. For miles all you can see is bleak, dry clifftops. Then you look out to the stunning blue ocean that seems so vast, full of wonder and promise, and it's not surprising he worked so hard to explore somewhere new.










It is with this tenacity and determination he navigated the seas and founded colonies all along the African Western coastline. Each new land offered more new spices and materials, but much more than this, it offered new ideas and knowledge. It is in the land of Ceuta on the North African coastline where he saw in the horizon masses of sandy dunes and tropical palms and where his inquisitive mind led him to wonder what lay over then next mountain. From town to town he manically pursued the legend of Prester John, each new colony telling of a powerful, rich man who always lived just over the next mountain.

For decades Henry searched and even when he no longer could, men which had adopted his determined mindset continued searching for him.

Traces of Portuguese colonies are still evident all along the African coastline and thanks to Henry's innovative use of science, the Portuguese became the most powerful empire, with colonies even in India and South America.

Prince Henry the Navigator never found Prester John. No one did. But in his pursuit for a man who could be their Christian idol, a man with knowledge, power and esteem, Henry himself became one.

His actions and ideas opened up a world of new knowledge. His conquering of new lands didn't make Portugal incredibly wealthy, but it made Portugal respected. And even though it was perhaps through what out modern-day mindset would consider unchristian means (slavery, force, intimidation), they did spread their Christian faith.

This is the site of the first ever European slave market. The area named after Prince Henry himself. I think the hard thing to grasp is the fact that to capture and enslave the unchristian was the Pope's will, and in a society where the Pope is God's representative on Earth. 


Infante Dom Henrique is Prince Henry

An extract from the papal bull, Romanus Pontifex, which was authorised by Pope Nicholas V in 1455: 
"invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery"
All across the Algarve there were traces of Henry's greatness, from statues to storybooks... and I can't even remember what his brother was called. So I guess Henry won after all.



I think this man's history really captured me. It just goes to show that sometimes in life you will work really hard and try something new but not always get what you set out to achieve, but sometimes the process and the journey itself achieves even more than the outcome you were hoping for.

Here's some of my highlights of this surprisingly inspirational (and sunny) short break...

The first morning I woke up and saw the sun shining through the curtains...


Walking to the beach and see the rain water from the night's storm steam from the heat of the morning sun...


This beautiful and fairly secluded beach...


The sun setting over Albufeira, leaving one beach golden for ever so slightly longer...



Meeting a new cat on the first night...

 Insisting we drove to this tiny, inland village only to get there and find it completely desolate and ghostly...


Discovering the latest 'cool' joint for young snails to hang out...


This sea cave where the sea has undercut the mountains and some of the cave roof has collapsed in, meaning in the middle of the cliff top you have this deep hole where you can hear the sea crashing off the rocks below...

This lovely cat that I made friends with and who subsequently followed me all the way to the beach...





This wild rocky beach where the waves snatch you and beat the rocks into wicked shapes...




This storks nest on top of a chimney in Silves, it seemed almost comically huge...


 The peaceful sunset on the static river, with tranquil little boats and an old man searching for shellfish...





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