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The Age of Exploration marked the apogee of Portuguese imperial power and wealth. At the beginning of the fifteenth century Portugal had a population of one and a quarter million and an economy dependent on maritime trade with Northern Europe. Although Portugal lacked the wealth and population of its contemporaries, it would lead the European community in the exploration of sea routes to the African continent, the Atlantic Islands, and to Asia and South America over the course of the sixteenth century. Several factors contributed to Portugal becoming the pre-eminent European pioneer in maritime exploration. The first was its geographical position along the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula, which allowed for the natural development of a seafaring tradition. The second was the evolution of a complex maritime economy in which the port cities of Lisbon and Oporto became the commercial centres of the country. The merchant community used these port cities as their base of operations from which they financed the majority of the various exploration and trading ventures.
The third critical factor that made Portugal a forerunner in exploration was its monarchy. Portugal benefited from a relatively stable monarchy whose kings encouraged maritime trade and shipping ventures. The Crown gave every possible incentive by implementing tax privileges and insurance funds to protect the investments of ship owners and builders. Often, members of the aristocracy were also investors such as Prince Henry the Navigator. The aristocracy used their political position to facilitate the Crown's granting of royal sanctions that regulated the voyages of exploration made by the merchant community. Portugal was fortunate to have kings who recognised the kingdom's dependency on overseas trade and assisted in its expansion in every possible way. The stability of the monarchy was essential to the establishment of sustainable economic growth, thus the stability of the Portuguese monarchy gave the kingdom a seventy-year head start over the Spanish who were distracted by a civil war and the Reconquista of Granada. It was not until Columbus' voyage in 1492 that the Spanish were finally in a position to challenge Portugal's predominance in exploration.
Clearly, there are many issues that must be dealt with before an adequate explanation can be found of why Prince Henry did not join the explorations. Perhaps it was the risk of being captured by North African pirates that prevented Prince Henry from taking a more active role, even though Portuguese ships were armed and no ship of Prince Henry's fell victim to pirates. Others, choosing to emphasise the positive aspect of Henry's preference to remain in Portugal conclude that the Prince's self-sacrifice was extraordinary. It was Henry's task to plan the expeditions and to assess and analyse the reports brought home. According to this perspective, it was only by remaining objective that Henry would be able to accurately sift through information gathered by the explorers, to separate truth from fiction, and to plan subsequent voyages. Perhaps the most plausible explanation regarding Henry's decision to remain at Sagres is that fifteenth century custom deemed activities, like living with a number of sailors in close quarters for months on end, to be beneath a prince. Granted, while others of noble descent did take part in the voyages, and given the fact that Prince Henry camped with his troops during military campaigns, squeamishness about close contact with sailors seems difficult to accept.
As word spread throughout Europe of the Portuguese expeditions, sailors, astronomers, cartographers, and geographers began to arrive at Sagres to offer their services to Prince Henry. There were Christians, Jews, and Arabs - Prince Henry had discovered the Arabs' superior navigational skills while at Ceuta years before - and what emerged at Sagres was not so much a school of navigation as much as it was a community of scholars, under the direction of Prince Henry, who joined together to conquer the unknown.