The Conquest of Ceuta (22 August, 1415) by the Portuguese had its roots in the earliest years of the House of Aviz dynasty of Portugal. Both the Battle of Ceuta and, in a larger sense, the era of European expansion were influenced by Henry the Navigator.
Born in 1394, Henry was the third son of King John I, a monarch from the House of Aviz, and his queen Philippa. He and his brothers lived in an era where honour was as much earned as inherited; the medieval concept ofchivalry still held sway in European courts. Given this worldview, it is not surprising that John I led his sons and their assembled forces in an attack on the Moroccan stronghold of Ceuta in 1415. This “baptism of blood” was a traditional manner by which nobles proved their valor. In addition, the expedition fed the crusading spirit of the warriors, as there was no greater glory for Iberian Christians of the Reconquista than that attained through the defeat of Moorish forces.
The Portuguese conquest of Ceuta served larger purposes than simply winningknightly spurs for the sons of John I; their victory over the forces of Islamrekindled 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 anti-climactic, 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. Henry distinguished himself in the 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.
In contrast to the victor’s aspirations, the colony at Ceuta rapidly became a drain on the Portuguese treasury. They soon realised that without the city of Tangier, possession of Ceuta was worthless. After Ceuta was captured by the Portuguese, the camel caravans that formed the overland trade routes began to use Tangier as their new destination. This deprived Ceuta of the materials and goods that made it an attractive market and a vibrant trading locale, and it became an isolated community.