22nd August: Conquest of Ceuta

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.

[…] 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.

[Another possible] 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. […]

[…] Ceuta, an ancient city located on the southeastern fringe of the Straits of Gibraltar, [was] 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.

[…] 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.

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Picture: glazed blue tile from São Bento train station in Porto depicting Henry the Navigator arriving in Ceuta. Work by Jorge Colaço.

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