The Portuguese Adventurers

The two explorers went first to Barcelona from where they obtained passage to Naples. They had discussed their plans in great detail before starting and were careful to let no other travellers suspect their real mission. Thus at Naples they gave out that they were going to Rhodes, and did in fact take ship for that lovely island. There they were able to evade the attentions of their travelling companions and joined a merchant vessel bound for Alexandria. They did not stay long in that city but made their way to Cairo, a centre of Mohammedan trading interests, and here they struck up a friendship with some Moorish traders from Fez who were about to start south along the Red Sea.

The Moors were experienced merchant adventurers, men of intrepid temperament and high commercial principles. The party travelled easily and in harmony and at length De Covilham and his companion came to Aden, where the Indian Ocean lay before them. Here there was some little discussion as to what course they should take, and at length it was decided that they should separate. The chief aim of their journey was to collect information and this end could best be served by their investigating commercial possibilities in different directions.

Alfonso de Payva went first to Sofala where he had heard there were excellent gold mines and then turned northward into the unknown regions of Abyssinia; while De Covilham explored the Indian seas in search of trade.

De Covilham made a very successful voyage and gathered a great many valuable facts concerning the markets of the Indies, noting down carefully the various spices which were to be had and stressing the superiority of certain types of product over others. Calicut he especially commended as a port where good business might be done in cloves and cinnamon and pepper, and he observed the various methods by which merchants of different nationalities endeavoured to pack these commodities so as to conserve their virtues.

But he not only interested himself in merchandise. Trade routes were always in his mind. By listening carefully to the tales of various navigators he obtained conclusive evidence that it was possible to sail to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and he actually constructed a map to show how this might be done.

“First you shall set your course for the Island of the Moon,” he wrote—he was referring to Sofala, the modern Madagascar—“from where it is possible to strike a good course for Calicut.”

Having satisfied himself that his work was well done De Covilham turned back towards the Red Sea and at last reached Cairo, where it had been arranged that either of the travellers who arrived first should await the other. It was not long before there came news of De Payva’s death. He had been killed somewhere in the deserts of southern Abyssinia, but details were lacking. De Covilham was in a quandary. He felt bound to go in search of his friend, but it was also his duty to send the information he had gathered back to his king.

Fortunately at this juncture he met two envoys of John of Portugal who had been sent to look for him. They were two Jewish travellers of humble birth, a Rabbi and a shoemaker, Joseph of Lamego. The shoemaker was sent back with the results of De Covilham’s voyages and the two other men set off once more for Aden and Ormuz.

But now that his work in the direction of the Indies was done, De Covilham felt drawn towards the mysterious Land of Prester John or ‘Ogani’ where his friend had perished, and at length he set out alone to settle once and for all the question of what lay beyond the deserts of the Red Sea’s western shore. Having first reached Mecca, the holy city of Arabia, he crossed the Red Sea to the port of Zeila, and from there made his way inland.

But the king who ruled the Land of Prester John, though he treated him with the utmost courtesy, found him of such assistance by reason of his western knowledge that he refused to let him leave, so that for thirty years he was in a position of honourable detention at the Ethiopian capital.

He reached the heart of Ethiopia about the year 1490 and it was not till 1520 that he was to see a fellow European. In that year a Portuguese embassy arrived, the Negus having sent a young Armenian by the name of Matthew to solicit aid against the Mohammedans. Since he left in 1507 and returned only in 1520 it can well be imagined that De Covilham had given up all hope. He was overjoyed to see his fellow-countrymen again and wept as he embraced them. He had much to tell, and all who heard him marvelled at the grace and vividness of his narrative, but he left no written record and it is on the account prepared by Father Alvarez, one of the envoys, that our information of Abyssinia at this period depends. This priest returned to Portugal after a seven years’ residence in Ethiopia, and his book “True Facts concerning the Land of Prester John” contains much of interest, though it reveals a constant state of war against Islam which had prevented any real progress in knowledge and civilisation.

Of absorbing interest is the holy Father’s account of the huge monoliths of Aksum and of the rock-hewn churches. His account of the greatest of the monoliths is as follows:

“Above the town there are many stones standing erect, though some others have fallen on the ground.... The greatest raised stone is 64 ells in length and six wide and the sides measure three ells. It is worked like an altar stone, very straight and skilfully made with arcades below and a summit like a half-moon, and the side which has this half-moon is towards the south.... And that it may not be said how can a stone so high be measured I have already said that it was all in arcades as far as the foot of the half moon and these are all of a size. We measured those we could reach and by this means calculated the others and we found sixty ells and we allowed four more for the half moon...”

Father Alvarez was a methodical observer but he could unearth no information as to the origin of these great monuments, of which there were more than thirty, though only one of any size was still in position. Of their inscriptions he could make nothing.

Later research has established that they were sacrificial stones, and indeed the channels to draw off the blood of the victims to the sacred bowls are still in evidence. It is also clear that they indicate sun-worship—an interesting fact when we remember that the legend of the Queen of Sheba speaks of the worship of the sun. It is possible that these are relics of the splendours of her kingdom. Some writers have suggested that ‘Queen of the South’ may have meant ‘Queen of the Sun.’

Shortly after the return of Alvarez came the invasion of Mahommed Gran of which mention has already been made. Gran, the Left-handed, made terrible inroads upon Ethiopia, and the Emperor appealed to the Portuguese who very generously sent a fleet to Massawa to render assistance. In 1542 Stephen de Gama sent his young brother Christopher with troops into the interior. After a bitter struggle the combined Christian forces routed Mahommed Gran, but not before the courageous young commander had been killed in battle.

The reputation which the Portuguese now enjoyed in Ethiopia was at once made the occasion by the Jesuits to send numerous missions to the country. The story of their efforts need not be told in detail. They were brave but for the most part tactless and narrow-sighted men who were unable to perceive any good in native doctrines and sought only by every means in their power to make converts. To do this they frequently aided rebel emperors in return for a promise that the rebel if successful would set up a Catholic Church. This led to much unnecessary bloodshed and in the end the indignant Ethiopians forced the Jesuits to leave. To be just it must be admitted that these missionaries were single-minded men who had no thought but for their faith and never schemed to obtain power for personal ends. Nor did they aim at the destruction of Ethiopian independence. But like so many good men acting in misguided fashion from sincere principles they did great and enduring harm. One of the Fathers, Pedro Paez, who reached Abyssinia early in the seventeenth century, made very great progress through his skill as an adviser on all civil matters and his ability to avoid undue wounding of the feelings of those with whom he disagreed. Traces of his work still remain in Abyssinia, for he aided in the construction of roads and bridges. Had he lived the conversion of Ethiopia to Christianity in its western form might have proved possible, but the intolerance of his successors destroyed the foundations which he had laid so well.

By 1623 the Jesuits had been for the most part expelled and in the succeeding two hundred years life in Ethiopia was little affected by any western influence. Travellers were slowly exploring the sources of the Nile and diplomats were manoeuvring for position, but of these matters the people of Ethiopia knew little. Two rival kingdoms existed and there were constant struggles between them. Usurpers were frequent. But one point is of great interest—the people always swung back to the ruler who could show true descent from Solomon, whose name remained a word to conjure with. At length a chief of humble origin seized the throne of Amhara and during a long and exciting reign eventually established himself sole ruler of Ethiopia. He was King Theodore, whose death, which resulted from a British expedition, was a tragedy of madness and misunderstanding almost Greek in its intensity of horror.

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