Prince Henry the Navigator during the conquest of Ceuta, glazed tile of Jorge Colaço
Portuguese expansion into North Africa began in 1415 with a massive military expedition against the Moroccan port-town of Ceuta, a short sea-voyage from Portugal across the narrow Straits of Gibraltar. Various explanations have been offered as to why the Portuguese leadership decided to launch this expedition, the most important of which have been conveniently summarised by Isabel and Paulo Drumond Braga.
Firstly, there were alleged strategic objectives such as gaining a degree of control over the Straits, obtaining a port from which to combat Muslim piracy and outmanoeuvring Castile; but there is little to suggest any of these aims was of decisive importance in 1415. A second type of explanation stresses the economic incentive. Ceuta was known to receive exotic trade goods from trans-Saharan and trans-Middle Eastern caravans for which reason it had already attracted attention from the Venetians and Genoese. Perhaps Ceuta was also seen as a potential supplier of wheat – a commodity Morocco produced in some abundance but Portugal needed to import. In any event, merchant interests, particularly in Lisbon, were supposed to have strongly favoured the expedition. Such explanations received wide credence especially in the midto- late twentieth century, when the magisterial writings of Vitorino Magalhães Godinho were at their most influential.
A third kind of explanation sees the Ceuta expedition, which was strongly supported by the service nobility, as primarily an extension of the Iberian peninsula’s long tradition of Reconquest. Recent historiography has tended to lean towards this view – and with good reason. The goal of Reconquest had been integral to Iberian Christian life since well before the emergence of the Portuguese kingdom in the time of Afonso Henriques. Moreover, although Portugal had freed itself of occupation by the mid-thirteenth century, other parts of the peninsula still remained in Muslim hands. Nor had the threat of further invasions from North Africa disappeared. As recently as 1340 just such an invasion had occurred, led by the Marinid sultan of Fez in person. In response, the king of Portugal and much of the Portuguese nobility had combined with their Castilian counterparts to impose a crushing defeat on the invaders at the battle of Rio Salado, fought near Seville. This encounter took place only seventy-five years before the Ceuta expedition, and in 1415 it certainly still remained a vivid memory. Meanwhile, the Muslim kingdom of Granada persisted – a beleaguered remnant of al-Andalus on peninsular soil, and in Christian eyes a standing provocation.
The notion of Reconquest was not confined to the Iberian peninsula only. The kings of Portugal, Castile and Aragon all claimed to be the rightful heirs to an ancient Visigothic North Africa wrongfully taken from their forefathers by Muslim conquerors in the early eighth century. Against this background, a tacit understanding among the three allowed each to claim the region of North Africa nearest to his own kingdom. In the case of Portugal, this meant northwestern Morocco. So it is unsurprising that, in the decades following Rio Salado, prosecuting the war against Islam remained firmly on Portugal’s agenda. In fact, as Luís Filipe Thomaz points out, five successive papal bulls were secured by Portuguese kings between 1341 and 1377 formally authorising crusades against Muslims in either Granada orNorth Africa. Only the ravages of the Black Death and repeated wars with Castile prevented these bulls from being acted upon.
However, by the second decade of the fifteenth century, the impact on Portugal of ‘plague’ had subsided and João I had established himself securely on the Portuguese throne. In 1411, peace had been made with Castile, and Portugal entered upon a period of economic recovery and political renewal. Expeditions against Muslim targets consequently became more practicable – and, from the crown and nobility’s viewpoints, had much to recommend them. Launching a major attack against Muslims offered a restless, under-resourced nobility the possibility of gaining honour and booty. The most obvious target was Granada, and the Portuguese leadership at first seriously considered moving against that kingdom. But Granada lay within the king of Castile’s zone of conquest and could not be targeted without Castilian co-operation. Therefore, an alternative was needed – which could be found only in nearby Morocco.
One possibility was Ceuta, an ancient city located on the southeastern fringe of the Straits of Gibraltar. Ceuta had been briefly occupied by the Visigoths, first in the mid-sixth century and probably again in the early eighth century. In 711, it had served as the springboard for Tariq’s expedition against Visigothic Hispania, as it did for subsequent Islamic invasions up to and including that of the Almohads. Ceuta was also one of just three places on the Moroccan side of the Straits that possessed fairly secure anchorages, the other two being Tangier and Al-Ksar as-Saghir. Since 1309 it had been nominally within the sultanate of the Marinids of Fez; but Marinid authority was by this time weak and was exercised only loosely. Ceuta was therefore a semi-autonomous city run largely by its own merchant elite.
After long and careful preparation, João I’s expedition against Ceuta was launched in the summer of 1415. The Cronica da tomada de Ceuta by Gomes Eanes de Zurara, which was written a generation later in 1449–50 at the request of King Afonso V, is the only literary source that describes the expedition and its background in substantial detail. Zurara was Fernão Lopes’s successor as royal archivist, and his account of the taking of Ceuta was intended as a continuation of Lopes’s chronicle of the reign of João I. It is couched in terms of a panegyric of the military nobility who took part and of Prince Henrique in particular. But Zurara’s work nevertheless used contemporary documents and was well informed. All modern accounts of the campaign are based primarily on Zurara, although Peter Russell has recently shown that a number of letters written to King Fernando I of Aragon in 1415 by a secret agent in Lisbon are also relevant. The Ceuta expedition was enthusiastically supported by the three older sons of João I and most of the court nobility. Among its most articulate advocates was João Afonso de Alenquer, the king’s vedor da fazenda. He allegedly stressed the wealth Ceuta derived from the desert caravans – gold and slaves from sub-Saharan Africa, silks and spices from the East via Egypt – as well as cattle, grain and cloth from its own hinterland. Magalhães Godinho follows António Sérgio in arguing that the Ceuta enterprise was adopted largely on the advice of João Afonso, acting as a spokesman for Lisbon merchant interests. However, both Thomaz and Russell doubt that Afonso ever played such a role, seeing him instead as a nobleman promoting nobles’ interests.
The expedition assembled in late July 1415 at the port of Lagos in the southwestern Algarve. It consisted of perhaps about 20,000 men and was formally led by João I himself – although operational command was entrusted to his three oldest sons, Princes Duarte, Pedro and Henrique. That so many male members of the royal family participated personally in such a dangerous enterprise was quite exceptional. The expeditionaries themselves were overwhelmingly Portuguese, but also included contingents of English, French, German and other foreign mercenaries. In August the fleet of over 200 disparate transports crossed to North Africa. However, on arrival off Ceuta it found that the town’s governor had already prepared his defences. The expedition therefore temporarily drew off – and the governor, believing the threat had passed, then dismissed many of his men.
A few days later the fleet returned to Ceuta, catching the defenders by surprise. Many fled, there was little resistance and on 22 August the expeditionaries broke into the largely abandoned city and duly sacked it. According to Zurara, the looters destroyed much of value in the warehouses. They sliced open bags of spices, spilling pepper and cinnamon into the street, where they were trodden underfoot and filled the air with their pungent odours. When order had been restored the victors celebrated a triumphant Te Deum in the principal mosque that had been swiftly converted into a makeshift church. The three royal princes duly received their knighthoods, and, for all the Portuguese present, it was an occasion resonant with symbolism. Later a story gained credence that on the night Ceuta fell a ghostly Afonso Henriques appeared, dressed in armour, to the canons of Santa Cruz in Coimbra – and declared he and his son Sancho had led the Portuguese forces to victory.
After Ceuta had been captured and thoroughly looted King João I convened a council to decide what to do with it. Should the Portuguese occupy the city permanently and use it as a springboard for further North African conquests – or should they merely dismantle its defences and then withdraw? Fatefully, the decision was made that Ceuta be retained. Indeed, this had almost certainly been João’s intention from the start. Why otherwise would he have mounted so large and expensive an enterprise? Dom Pedro de Meneses was selected as captain and governor, beginning a long association between Morocco and the Meneses family – one of the earliest instances of a noble family achieving advancement and profit from overseas service. The king, the princes and most of the expedition then returned to Portugal, leaving behind a garrison of about 2,500 soldiers. The whole operation was over within less than two weeks; but it started a Portuguese commitment in Morocco that would last in one form or another for 350 years.