Joaquim Bensaúde, born in a never precisely specified nineteenth-century year in the Azores and trained as an engineer in Germany, was for many years engaged in controversies regarding Portuguese discoveries. Evidently losing interest in engineering at an early age, he plunged into studies regarding maritime techniques in the great discovery era, in which his mathematical background must have helped, and also regarding the plans and hopes of Prince Henry. The present study, first published in 1942 but containing some material written long before, represents a summation of his Prince Henry conclusions.
The thesis is that Henry, alone and without much collaboration from others of the Avis family, conceived a plan for rescuing western Christendom from the plight it was in during his lifetime caused by the frightening Ottoman advance in eastern Europe after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Henry, of course, had sponsored discoveries for years, but now he sought to circumnavigate Africa and carry the war into the Indian Ocean, strengthened in his purpose by a bull from Pope Nicholas V in 1454. Bensaude rejects the economic motive as any basic part of the prince’s plan, which explains the inclusion in this volume of a long letter by himself to Duarte Leite, historian and Portuguese Ambassador to Brazil, who in his own writings had placed the economic factor foremost. The brief work concludes with a study of the financial difficulties encountered by Prince Henry in his task.
Bensaude stresses the sublimity of Henry’s motives and castigates modern historians, Portuguese and foreign, for their failure to appreciate this quality in great men. He may have felt sublime in writing of the prince, but some soulless Americans might be tempted to use “bellyaching” as more descriptive of his mood. Also, if he wished to put the dry-as-dust scholars in their place, he should not have allowed them the openings he does. It is strange, for instance, that a Portuguese historian with all his country’s Islamic background should not have been able to do better than use René de Segonzac’s Légende de Florinda la Byzantine as the sole source for the Arab conquest of north Africa. In writing to Leite in 1930, Bensaúde announces his recent “discovery” of Beazley’s Dawn of Modern Geography (1897-1906) and an article by Beazley on Prince Henry in the American Historical Review for 1910, stating that these both support his conclusions. Bensaúde would have turned up other “discoveries” of this nature if he had persisted in his researches in foreign bibliography.