Prince Henry ""The Navigator"": A Life

Peter Russell, Author Yale University Press $42 (448p) ISBN 978-0-300-08233-3
Prince Henry of Portugal (1394-1460), called ""the Navigator,"" is widely known as a precursor of Columbus, a man who helped set the European world on its great global adventure, and a paragon of learning who established the first school devoted to the art and science of navigating the open seas. None of this, Russell reveals, is true. Nor is Henry a progenitor of modernity, as he is sometimes described. Russell shows him to have been a thoroughly Renaissance prince, who embodied a mix of faith, science and mystical irrationality--a far cry from modernism. It has been close to a century since a biography of Henry has been written, and Russell, now retired after a long and distinguished career at Oxford, has written a fitting capstone to his work on the history of early modern Iberia. Beginning his biography of Henry with the astrological portents attendant on his birth (which seems to have strongly influenced his unshakable image of himself as a great crusader and a great discoverer of secrets), the author does a masterful job of placing the events of Henry's life in the context not only of his own time but of ours as well. Russell's treatment of the Prester John myth (the belief that there was a Christian king of Ethiopia with whom Henry wanted to ally himself against the Turks) and his analysis of Henry's place in the development of the Atlantic slave trade are especially fine, and by themselves they could recommend this excellent work. The volume is graced with beautifully produced color plates; the map and family tree provided are helpful; the notes are copious and useful; and the bibliography is extensive. This book, like Henry, is a font of virtues but, thankfully unlike the prince, it has no glaring faults. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 07/31/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
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