“Arrived at the Atlantic, he pauses on the shore of this unknown ocean, the bounds of which he knows not, and turns upon his footprints for an instant…. Then recommences his adventurous career westward as in the earliest ages.” – Henry David Thoreau quoting Arnold Henry Guyot, Walking
Infante D. Henrique, better known as Henry the Navigator, was born in 1394 and died in 1460. Henry, with political clout from his relationship with his brother the King of Portugal and monetary clout from The Order of Christ, inspired the Age of Discovery 500 years ago. The Portuguese would go on to discover Madeira 600 years ago this year, then the Azores, and further down the coast of Africa during his lifetime, and inspire like voyages by Christopher Columbus and others well after his death. I came across a statue of Henry the Navigator in Sagres, Portugal last year when I was exploring the area. The statue faces towards Madeira and the coast of Africa; Henry’s focus half a millennium ago.
No place in continental Europe makes you feel like you’re on the shore of an unknown ocean more than the western coast of Portugal. Of course, I’d flown over that ocean to get to Portugal, but this was a time when pirates were a common threat for coastal communities and the thought of sailing beyond the horizon was likely terrifying for most. It wasn’t until larger sailing vessels were built that the Portuguese and later other European explorers would take the leap into the unknown.
There was a dark side to exploration, as local populations were exploited, enslaved, murdered or exposed to lethal diseases for the first time. Progress for some is regression or annihilation for others. The spirit of exploration and discovery is on the face admirable, and I like to think I carry some of that spirit within me, just as Thoreau did. Standing on the edge of a hundred foot cliff with breaking waves reaching up halfway to welcome me, one catches the spirit of those words; Arrived at the Atlantic, he pauses on the shore of this unknown ocean. This would give any sane person pause. But the courage to move on anyway opened up an entire world for these Portuguese explorers.
I have Scottish and English blood in my veins, but I also have Portuguese blood. I like to think that exploration and adventure are a part of my DNA. And while my relative low risk exploration of the coast of Portugal pales in comparison to the sailors of centuries past, the serve to expand my perspective on the original European explorers who first set sight on America. As visiting Portugal opened up my perspective on where these souls came from, visiting the Santa Maria replica gave me a greater appreciation for just how small those Nau’s were. On a vast, unknown ocean, with no previous knowledge of currents and at the whim of the weather, courage was only part of what these explorers needed. They also needed luck.
Henry David Thoreau quoted Guyot even as he disagreed with many of his theories. Thoreau was an explorer whose vehicle of choice were his feet. I think he would have been fascinated with the fisherman’s trails, the stunning Rota Vicentina, that wind along the coast from Sagres north. Hiking this trail was a highlight for me, and I wish I’d had more time to fully explore the region.
Thoreau writes of the magic of exploration, and his tendency to head southwest in his journeys away from home. There is no point further Southwest in Portugal than Cape of St. Vincent and it’s distinctive lighthouse. Had Thoreau stood on the cliffs, as I imagine Henry the Navigator once did and I had the opportunity to do in my own humble way, I think he might have looked westward and recalled his own words, appropriate for this extraordinary place: “We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure. The Atlantic is a Lethean stream, in our passage over which we have had an opportunity to forget the Old World and its institutions.” That spirit seems as true today as it was in 1860 or in 1460.