Mar 5, 2006

Review: Crónica da tomada de Ceuta (The Chronicle of the Capture of Ceuta)


Gomes Eanes de Zurara (Azurara). Publicações Europa-América, 1992

Zurara was a fifteenth-century court chronicler and keeper of the national archives for the Portuguese Avis dynasty who recounted the life and actions of Infante Dom Henrique, known to the English-speaking world as Prince Henry the Navigator. While providing valuable details of a number of historical events, the works of Zurara must be recognized for their inherent biases. Zurara, after all, derived his income from the royal court; there could be serious repercussions for producing text that was unflattering to the Infante.

In addition to his role as court chronicler, Zurara was a comendador (commander) in the Order of Christ, and he stood to lose an important, well-paid benefice if he portrayed Henry in anything other than the most devout and heroic fashion. Finally, the work was not written until 1449-50; Zurara relied upon the memories of Dom Henrique to provide the narrative of the expedition.

The capture of the Moorish city of Ceuta, on the north coast of Africa, occurred on August 21, 1415. Under the command of Portuguese King Dom João I, 242 armed ships left Lisbon toward North Africa, taking within him infantes Dom Henrique, Dom Pedro and Dom Duarte. Zurara recounted the logistics of outfitting the expedition, the actual battle, and the subsequent rise of the Portuguese sea-borne empire.

The text is transcribed in its original archaic Portuguese; the modern form of Portuguese officially dates to 1516. Thus, scholars attempting to work through this text face the additional challenge of the evolution of the Portuguese language. For example, the Portuguese word causa (motive, cause) is spelled cousa in the Zurara text, while the verb ter (to have) is spelled teer. For the faint of heart, an English translation exists; published by the Hakluyt Society, this 1896 edition by Charles Raymond Beazeley and Edgar Prestage is available through Ohiolink.

One of the most important contributions of the Zurara text is the chronicler’s delineation of Prince Henry’s motivations for his sponsorship of voyages of exploration. The prince, according to Zurara, had five reasons for his exploratory zeal. The first was "a wish to know the land that lay beyond the Canaries and Cape Bojador, and to this he was stirred by his zeal for the service of God and of the King Edward his lord and brother who then reigned." Tied in with this point was the cultural need of the sons of Portuguese nobility to earn their proverbial spurs in a glorious battle against the Muslims ("fazer seus filhos caualeiros o mais honrradamente que se bem podesse fazer").

Zurara next declared that Dom Henrique wished to develop trade with distant lands "which traffic would bring great profit to our countrymen;" specifically, the Portuguese hoped to tap into the trans-Saharan gold trade. The third reason, explained Zurara, was to learn the extent of Muslim influence in Africa. The fourth motivation was the desire to find a Christian monarch who would provide the Portuguese with an eastern ally in its struggle with the forces of Islam: the fabled Prester John. Finally, Henry wanted to send out missionaries "to bring to him all the souls that should be saved…”

An additional implied motivation might also be argued in the form of Henry’s purported astrological destiny. While Zurara does not directly state that Henry believed the stars foretold his fabled future, he makes numerous references to Henry’s birth; in addition, Zurara makes numerous references in other documents to his own role as court astrologer.

While Ceuta never proved to be the foothold into North Africa that allowed the Portuguese to exploit Guinea gold, the 1415 capture of the Moorish city is a convenient point with which to demark the era of European expansion. From his court at Sagres, Dom Henrique planned and financed expeditions that expanded European knowledge of the Atlantic coast of Africa, ultimately providing focus and drive to nascent European expansion desires.


Hooda Thunkit said...


As usual, reviews cut the heart of the human motivations and the author's biases in their work.

The reason for the author’s biases always end up being both human an understandable.

You have a knack for making history interesting to the common man ;-)

Earl Jackson said...

Is there evidence to support the notion of a connection between the Fifteenth-century Avis dynasty and the present day car-hire company of the same name?
I'm currently a guest of Her Majesty's Prisons and you can see my own blog at:

historymike said...

Thanks, Hooda. History should be accessible to everyone, in my humble opinion.

Never heard of a connection between the two, Earl, but I will look into it.

Good luck to you, and I will check out your website.