Oporto and The Conquest of Ceuta 1415

The Age of Discoveries begins with the conquest of Ceuta of 1415.

He have seen how the kingdom of Portugal itself was almost an offspring of the Crusades.

They had left behind them a thirst for wealth and for a wider life on one side, and a broken Moslem power on the other, which opened the way and stirred the enterprise of every maritime state. We know that Lisbon had long been an active centre of trade with the Hanse Towns, Flanders, and England. And now the projected conquest of Ceuta and the appeal of the conqueror of Aljubarrota for a great national effort found the people prepared. A royal prince could do what a private man could not; and Portugal, more fully developed than any other of the Christian kingdoms, was ready to expand abroad without fear at home.

Even before the conquest of Ceuta, in 1410 or 1412, Henry had begun to send out his caravels past Cape Non, which had so long been with C. Bojador the Finisterre of Africa. The first object of these ships was to reach the Guinea coast by outflanking the great western shoulder of the continent. Once there, the gold and ivory and slave trade would pass away from the desert caravans to the European coasters. Then the eastern bend of Africa, along the bights of Benin and Biafra, might be followed to the Indies, if this were possible, as some had thought; if not, the first stage of the work would have to be taken up again till men had found and had rounded the Southern Cape. The outflanking of Guinea proved to be only a part of the outflanking of Africa, but it was far more than half the battle; just as India was the final prize of full success, so the Gold Coast was the reward of the first chapter in that success.

But of these earlier expeditions nothing is known in detail; the history of the African voyages begins with the war of 1415, and the new knowledge it brought to Henry of the Sahara and the Guinea Coast and of the tribes of tawny Moors and negroes on the Niger and the Gambia.

In 1414, when Edward was twenty-three, Pedro twenty-two, and Henry twenty, King John planned an attack on Ceuta, the great Moorish port on the African side of the Straits of Gibraltar. The three princes had all asked for knighthood; their father at first proposed to celebrate a year of tournaments, but at the suggestion of the Treasurer of Portugal, John Affonso de Alemquer, he decided on this African crusade instead. For the same strength and money might as well be spent in conquests from the Moslem as in sham-fights between Christians. So after reconnoitring the place, and lulling the suspicionsof Aragon and Granada by a pretence of declaring war against the Count of Holland, King John gained the formal consent of his nobles at Torres Vedras, and set sail from Lisbon on St. James’ Day, July 25, 1415, as foretold by the dying Queen Philippa, twelve days before.

That splendid woman, who had shared the throne for eight and twenty years, and who had trained her sons to be fit successors of her husband as the leaders of Portugal and the “Examples of all Christians,” was now cut off by death from a sight of their first victories. Her last thought was for their success. She spoke to Edward of a king’s true vocation, to Pedro of his knightly duties in the help of widows and orphans, to Henry of a general’s care for his men. On the 13th, the last day of her illness, she roused herself to ask “What wind was blowing so strong against the house?” and hearing it was the north, sank back and died, exclaiming, “It is the wind for your voyage, that must be about St. James’ Day.” It would have been false respect to delay. The spirit of the Queen, the crusaders felt, was with them, urging them on.

By the night of the 25th of July the fleet had left the Tagus; on the 27th the crusaders anchored in the bay of Lagos and mustered all their forces: “33 galleys, 27 triremes, 32 biremes, and 120 pinnaces and transports,” carrying 50,000 soldiers and 30,000 mariners. Some nobles and merchant adventurers from England, France, and Germany took part. It was something like the conquest of Lisbon over again; a greater Armada for a much smaller prey.

On the 10th of August they were off Algeziras, still in Moorish hands, as part of the kingdom of Granada, and on the 12th the lighter craft were over on the African coast; a strong wind nearly carried the heavier into Malaga.

Ceuta, the ancient Septa, once repaired by Justinian, was the chief port of Morocco and a centre of commerce for the trade routes of the South and East, as well as a centre of piracy for the Barbary corsairs. It had long been an outpost of Moslem attack on Christendom; now that Europe was taking the offensive, it would be an outpost of the Spanish crusade against Islam.

The city was built on the ordinary model, in two parts: a citadel and a port-town, which together covered the neck of a long peninsula running out some three miles eastward from the African mainland, and broadening again beyond the eastern wall of Ceuta into a hilly square of country.

It was here, just where the land began to spread and form a natural harbour, that the Portuguese had planned their landing, and to this point Prince Henry, with great trouble, brought up the heavier craft. The strong currents that turned them off to the Spanish coast, proved good allies of the Europeans after all. For the Moors, who had been greatly startled at the first signs of attack, and had hurried to get all the help they could from Fez and the upland, now fancied the Christian fleet to be scattered once for all, and dismissed all but their own garrison; while the Portuguese had been roused afresh to action by the fiery energy of King John, Prince Henry, and his brothers. On the night of the 15th of August, the Feast of the Assumption, the whole armada was at last brought up to the roads of Ceuta; Henry anchored off the lower town with his ships from Oporto, and his father, though badly wounded in the leg, rowed through the fleet in a shallop, preparing all his men for the assault that was to be given at daybreak. Henry himself was to have the right of first setting foot on shore, where it was hoped the quays would be almost bared of defenders. For the main force was brought up against the castle, and every Moor would rush to the fight where the King of Portugal was leading.

While these movements were being settled in the armada, all through that night Ceuta was brilliantly lighted up, as if en fête. The Governor in his terror could think of nothing better than to frighten the enemy with the show of an immensely populous city, and he had ordered a light to be kept burning in every window of every house. As the morning cleared and the Christian host saw the beach and harbour lined with Moors, shouting defiance, the attack was begun by some volunteers who forgot the Prince’s claim. One Ruy Gonsalvez was the first to land and clear a passage for the rest. The Infantes, Henry and Edward, were not far behind, and after a fierce struggle the Moslems were driven through the gate of the landing-place back to the wall of the city. Here they rallied, under a “negro giant, who fought naked, but with the strength of many men, hurling the Christians to the earth with stones.” At last he was brought down by a lance-thrust, and the crusaders forced their way into Ceuta. But Henry, as chief captain on this side, would not allow his men to rush on plundering into the heart of the town, but kept them by the gates, and sent back to the ships for fresh troops, who soon came up under Fernandez d’Ataide, who cheered on the Princes. “This is the sort of tournament for you; here you are getting a worthier knighthood than you could win at Lisbon.”

Meantime the King, with Don Pedro, had heard of Henry’s first success while still on shipboard, and ordered an instant advance on his side. After a still closer struggle than that on the lower ground, the Moors were routed, and Pedro pressed on through the narrow streets, just escaping death from the showers of heavy stones off the house tops, till he met his brothers in a mosque, or square adjoining, in the centre of Ceuta.

Then the conquerors scattered for plunder, and came very near losing the city altogether. But for the dogged courage of Henry, who twice broke up the Moslem rally with a handful of men, at last holding a gate on the inner wall between the lower town and the citadel, “with seventeen, himself the eighteenth,” Ceuta would have been lost after it had been gained. Both Henry and Pedro were reported dead. “Such is the end a soldier must not fear,” was all their father said, as he stayed by the ships under the lee of the fortress, waiting, like Edward III. at Creçy, for what his sons would do. But towards evening it was known throughout the army that the Princes were safe, that the port-town had been gained, and that the Moors were slipping away from the citadel.

Henry, Edward, and Pedro held a council, and settled to storm the castle next morning; but after sunset a few scouts, sent out to reconnoitre, reported that all the garrison had fled.

It was true. The Governor, who had despaired all along of holding out, was no sooner beaten out of the lower city than he set the example of a strategic movement up the country, and when the Portuguese appeared at the fortress gate with axes and began to hew it down, only two Moors were left inside. They shouted out that the Christians might save themselves that trouble, for they would open it themselves, and the standard of St. Vincent, Patron of Lisbon, was planted, before dark came, upon the highest tower of Ceuta.

King John offered Henry, for his gallant leadership, the honours of the day and the right to be knighted before his brothers, but the Prince, who had offered at the beginning of the storm to resign his command to Edward, as the eldest, begged that “those who were before him in age might have their right, to be first in dignity as well,” and the three Infantes received their knighthood in order of birth, each holding in his hands the bare sword that the Queen had given him on her deathbed.

It was the first Christian rite held in the great Mosque of Ceuta, now purified as the Cathedral, and after it the town was thoroughly and carefully sacked from end to end. The plunder, of gold and silver and gems, stuffs and drugs, was great enough to make the common soldiers reckless of other things. The “great jars of oil and honey and spices and all provisions” were flung out into the streets, and a heavy rain swept away what would have kept a large garrison in plenty.

The great nobles and the royal Princes took back to Portugal some princely spoils. Henry’s half-brother, now Count of Barcellos, afterwards more famous and more troublesome as Duke of Braganza, chose for his share some six hundred columns of marble and alabaster from the Governor’s palace. Henry himself gained in Ceuta a knowledge of inland Africa, of its trade routes and of the Gold Coast, that encouraged him to begin from this time the habit of coasting voyages. His earlier essays in exploration had been attempts, like the unconnected and occasional efforts of Spanish and Italian daredevils. It is from this year that continuous ocean sailing begins; from the time of his stay in Ceuta, Henry works steadily and with foresight towards a nearer goal well foreseen, a first stage in his wider scheme which had been traversed by men he had known and talked with. They had come into Ceuta from Guinea over the sea of the desert; he would send his sailors to their starting-point by the longer way, over the desert of the sea.

Thus the victory at Ceuta is not without a very direct influence on our subject; and for the same reason, it was important that the conquerors, instead of razing the place, decided to hold it. When most of the council of war were for a safe and quick return to Portugal, one noble, Pedro de Menezes, a trusted friend of Henry’s, struck upon the ground impatiently a stick of orange-wood he had in his hands. “By my faith, with this stick I would defend Ceuta from every Morisco of them all.” He was left in command, and thus kept open, as it were, to Europe and to the Prince’s view, one end of a great avenue of commerce and intercourse, which Henry aimed at winning for his country. When his ships could once reach Guinea, the other end of that same line was in his hands as well.

The King and the Princes left Ceuta in September of the same year (Sept. 2, 1415), but Henry’s connection with his first battle-field was not yet over. Menezes found after three years’ sole command, that the Moors were pressing him very hard. The King of Granada had sent seventy-four ships to blockade the city from the sea, and the troops of Fez were forcing their way into the lower town. Henry was hurriedly sent from Lisbon to its relief, while Edward and Pedro got themselves ready to follow him, if needed, from Lagos and the Algarve coast. But Ceuta had already saved itself. As the first succours were sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar, Menezes contrived to send them word of his danger; the Berbers on the land side had mastered Almina, or the eastern part of the merchant town, while the Granada galleys had closed in upon the port itself. At this news Henry made the best speed he could, but he was only in time to see the rout of the Moors. Menezes and the garrison made a desperate sally directly they sighted the relief coming through the straits; the same appearance struck a panic into the enemy’s fleet, and only one galley stayed on the African coast to help their landsmen, who were thus left alone and without hope of succour on the eastern hills of the Ceuta peninsula, cut off by the city from their Berber allies. When Henry landed, Almina had been won back and the last of the Granada Moslems cut to pieces. From that day Ceuta was safe in Christian hands.

But the Prince, after spending two months in the hope that he might find some more work to do in Africa, planned a daring stroke in Europe. Islam still owned in Spain the kingdom of Granada, too weak to reconquer the old Western Caliphate, but too strong, as the last refuge of a conquered and once imperial race, to be an easy prey of the Spanish kingdoms. And in that kingdom, Gibraltar, the rock of Tarik, was the most troublesome of Moorish strongholds. The Mediterranean itself was not fully secured for Christian trade and intercourse while the European Pillar of the Western straits was a Saracen fort. If Portugal was to conquer or explore in northern Africa, Gibraltar was as much to be aimed at as Ceuta. Both sides of the straits, Calpe and Abyla, must be in her hands before Christendom could expand safely along the Atlantic coasts.

So Henry, in the face of all his council, determined to make the trial on his voyage back to Lisbon. But a storm broke up the fleet, and when it could be refitted and re-formed, the time had gone by, and the Prince obeyed his father’s repeated orders and returned at once to Court. For his gallantry and skill in the storm of Ceuta, he had been made Duke of Viseu and Lord of Covilham, when King John first touched his own kingdom—after the African campaign—at Tavira, on the Algarve coast. With his brother Pedro, who shared his honours as Duke of Coimbra and Lord of the lands henceforward known as the Infantado or Principality, Henry thus begins the line of Dukes in Portugal, and among the other details of the war, his name is specially joined with that of an English fleet which he had enrolled as a contingent of his armada while recruiting for ships and men in the spring of 1415. In the same way as English crusaders had passed Lisbon just in time to aid in its conquest by Affonso Henriquez, the “great first King” of Portugal in 1147, so now twenty-seven English ships on their way to Syria were just in time to help the Portuguese make their first conquest abroad.

Lastly, the results of the Ceuta campaign in giving positive knowledge of western and inland Africa to a mind like Henry’s already set on the finding of a sea-route to India, have been noticed by all contemporaries and followers, who took any interest in his plans, but it was not merely caravan news that he gained in these two visits of 1415 and 1418. Both Azurara, the chronicler of his voyages and Diego Gomez, his lieutenant, the explorer of the Cape Verde Islands and of the Upper Gambia, are quite clear about the new knowledge of the coast now gained from Moorish prisoners.

Not only did the Prince get “news of the passage of merchants from the coasts of Tunis to Timbuctoo and to Cantor on the Gambia, which inspired him to seek the lands by the way of the sea,” but also “the Tawny Moors (or Azanegues) his prisoners told him of certain tall palms growing at the mouth of the Senegal or western Nile, by which he was able to guide the caravels he sent out to find that river.” By the time Henry was ready to return from Ceuta to Portugal for good and all, in 1418, there were clearly before his mind the five reasons for exploring Guinea given by his faithful Azurara:

First of all was his desire to know the country beyond Cape Bojador, which till that time was quite unknown either by books or by the talk of sailors.

Second was his wish that if any Christian people or good ports should be discovered beyond that cape, he might begin a trade with them that would profit both the natives and the Portuguese, for he knew of no other nation in Europe who trafficked in those parts.

Thirdly, he believed the Moors were more powerful on that side of Africa than had been thought, and he feared there were no Christians there at all. So he was fain to find out how many and how strong his enemies really were.

Fourthly, in all his fighting with the Moors he had never found a Christian prince to help him from that side (of further Africa) for the love of Christ, therefore he wished, if he could, to meet with such.

Last was his great desire for the spread of the Christian Faith and for the redemption of the vast tribes of men lying under the wrath of God.

Behind all these reasons Azurara also believed in a sixth and deeper one, which he proceeds to state with all gravity, as the ultimate and celestial cause of the Prince’s work.

“For as his ascendant was Aries, that is in the House of Mars and the Exaltation of the Sun, and as the said Mars is in Aquarius, which is the House of Saturn, it was clear that my lord should be a great conqueror, and a searcher out of things hidden from other men, according to the craft of Saturn, in whose House he was.”

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