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Battle of Ceuta

The Battle of Ceuta and the subsequent conquest of the North African city of Ceuta by the Portuguese had its roots in the earliest years of the Aviz dynasty. Both the Battle of Ceuta and, in a larger sense, the era of European expansion were influenced by the Infant Dom Henrique of Portugal; he is better known to history as Prince Henry the Navigator.

Born in 1394, Henry was the fourth son of Joćo I and Queen Philippa, who were monarchs from the house of Aviz. Henry and his brothers lived in an era where honor was as much earned as inherited; the medieval concept of chivalry still held sway in European courts. Given this worldview, it is not surprising that Joćo I led his sons and assembled forces in an attack on the Muslim stronghold of Ceuta in 1415; this baptism of blood was a traditional manner by which nobles proved their relative valor. In addition, this expedition fed the crusading spirit of these warriors, as there was no greater glory than that attained through the defeat of the Saracen hordes.

The Portuguese conquest of Ceuta served larger purposes than simply to win knightly spurs for the sons of Joćo I; this victory of the forces of Allah rekindled dreams of a unified Christendom that could subdue Islam in a multi-pronged conflict. The prospect of a triumphant military and religious unification with distant Christian empires thus increased in its attraction to European leaders.

The battle itself was almost anticlimactic, because the 45,000 men who traveled on 200 Portuguese ships caught the defenders of Ceuta off guard. An attack that commenced on the morning of August 14, 1415 ended with the capture of the town by nightfall; the Infant Henrique distinguished himself in battle, being wounded during the conquest of the city that was known as the “Key to the Mediterranean.”

Thus, one of the major northern trade centers of the Islamic world was now in the possession of Portugal. This African conquest was the first significant ripple of a wave of European expansion that would reach every continent on the globe.