Author: Fred Perry

The End of the World – Cape St Vincent/Sagres, Portugal

Cliff-fishing off the end of the world, at Henry the Navigator’s former school.

The casual tourist would never suspect that desolate, forbidding Cape St Vincent was the site of two of the most significant events in maritime history. Even for us, after two hours of maddeningly slow driving, weaving our way around pothole after pothole, my wife and I were beginning to wonder if the “short” trip from Lagos was worth all the effort. Then our destination hove into view and we knew that our “pilgrimage” had not been in vain. Here’s why.

What happened here six centuries ago led to the discovery of the world as we know it today. Before then only the bravest of Mediterranean sailors dared to venture beyond the “Pillars of Hercules” (Strait of Gibraltar), and none was foolhardy enough to sail past the rugged cliffs which marked the end of the known world. All that changed in the 1400s: the world was opened up to discovery, exploration and settlement; and Portugal and other countries went on to acquire overseas empires and great wealth. All this was due mainly to the foresight and determination of one man – Portugal’s scholarly Prince Henry (1377-1440).

European spice and silk merchants had long been amassing great wealth, but the caravan routes from the Orient were controlled by the Moors and their allies, and were subject to arbitrary whims, tolls, bandits, etc. There were rumours of a fabulously wealthy Christian king named “Prester John” in central Africa, who supposedly controlled a better and safer route. Henry vowed to find him and the new route, but couldn’t succeed without sailors to brave the unknown seas and treacherous winds around western Africa. Since none was forthcoming he decided he’d have to train some himself, so he established a navigation and seamanship school near what is now Sagres, just to the east of Cape St Vincent. It was probably the world’s first great research and training institute, and it earned him a place in history as “Henry the Navigator”.

The school and accompanying buildings occupied a scarcely-fortified area of perhaps a dozen hectares (30 acres) on top of a high granite cliff. It attracted astronomers, marine scientists and scholars from all over Europe, and soon the hoped-for students began to arrive too. They were the “iron men in wooden ships” who would study and later go on to become household names, like Magellan, Columbus, da Gama, Diaz, and Cabral. There they learned to use the compass and to sail effectively against headwinds, and Henry’s naval architects developed a more seaworthy vessel for them, the “caravel”.

Prince Henry the Navigator.

Henry was a tireless innovator and motivator whose foresight eventually brought tremendous dividends, but unfortunately he died before the most important discoveries occurred. His school carried on and discoveries continued to be made, until disaster struck. From 1580-1640, Portugal came under Spanish occupation, which meant that it became an enemy of England, instead of its traditional ally. Henry’s institute was almost obliterated in 1587 by Sir Francis Drake, who was having great fun marauding up and down the coast “singeing the Spanish king’s beard”. The great earthquake of 1755 wreaked further havoc. Only the chapel, a couple of small buildings, and the huge “compass rose” which Henry had laid out on the ground remained. And thus it stayed until recent times, when a modest reconstruction effort began.

Since there are no existing diagrams of the other buildings, architects have had to guess at how they might have looked. The fortress walls have been partially rebuilt, and there is a new building which shows a film about Henry and his school, but other work is progressing slowly, as funds become available. This is a fascinating piece of Western history, and I hope to live to see the day when its restoration is complete. We certainly got a better understanding of “saudade” (painful nostalgia) as we walked around the melancholy grounds. We weren’t alone there, for besides a few tourists we saw lots of weather-beaten men with long poles and lines perched on ledges high above the turbulent Atlantic, fishing.

Stormy Cape St Vincent.

Prince Henry’s school wasn’t the only reason we’ve visited this rugged area three times. As war after war ravaged Europe, Cape St Vincent saw important sea battles, including one involving, arguably, the greatest naval hero of all time. It was there in 1797 that Horatio Nelson in a small 74-gun ship took on the world’s largest warship, the 136-gun Santissima Trinidad and two other behemoths, with a total of 330 guns. He broke their line, led boarding parties, and captured all three. He then went on to harry Napoleon’s fleet throughout the Mediterranean, and defeated it decisively at Trafalgar eight years later, thus changing the course of history.

Today this is a wild and windswept place, where only a powerful but solitary lighthouse bears witness to modern ways. During our second visit, by which time the highway had been rebuilt, our car was even surrounded and escorted for a kilometer or so by a family of gray wolves, who seemed to want us to know whose territory we were invading.

The Cape is of interest to naturalists, since several hardy plant species are only found there, it’s on a major flight path for birds migrating to and from Africa, and rare eagles often soar overhead. There is also some tourist activity in the vicinity, since those seeking an undisturbed holiday can relax and rejuvenate at the luxurious new government pousada in nearby Sagres (while enjoying the great beer of the same name).

Too often we walk on historic ground without realizing its significance. If you go to the Algarve, I hope you will take the time to visit this wild but hallowed place. Go reverently and give thanks, for our world is a much better place because of what Prince Henry, Nelson, and many other “iron men” accomplished there long ago.