Published: 3 April 2023 - Mathilde Alain
Francisco Álvares, a Portuguese chaplain, accompanied a Portuguese embassy to the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia between 1520 and 1526. The embassy, sent by the Portuguese King Manuel I, reached coastal Massawa in April 1520. From there, it travelled south to reach the itinerant court of the Ethiopian king, or negus, Ləbnä Dəngəl, in Šäwa. In total, the embassy stayed there for six years, enabling Álvares to gather information about Ethiopian Christian religious practices and the geography of the region, as well as about the organization of the royal court.
Álvares’ account also documents the Ethiopian-Portuguese relations and, more broadly, Ethiopian-European relations. His account, published in Portugal in 1540 under the title Ho Preste Joam das Indias, describes the embassy’s journey, its initial diplomatic setbacks and the eventual improved diplomatic relations. The title of the account itself, which translates as ‘Prester John of the Indies’, refers to the European myth of Prester John: he was supposed to be a powerful sovereign ruling over a Christian kingdom, vaguely located in Asia but, from the fourteenth century onwards, associated with Africa. The Portuguese were very interested in finding this Christian kingdom, hoping to establish a military alliance with it to defeat the Muslims in the Red Sea and to get their hands on the spice trade.
Figure 1. Front page of the Portuguese travel account, printed in 1540 by Luís Rodrigues. Public Domain.
Álvares’ travel account therefore opens a window on the history of Ethiopian-European interactions in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, showing that between these two spaces they were transfers of people, objects, and practices. At first, the Portuguese searched for Prester John in West Africa. They had a vague idea that this mythical kingdom was to be found near the Nile, but their perception of the African hydrographic system misled them as they believed that the Nile rose in West Africa. In the meantime, Ethiopian envoys had reached Portugal. In fact, Ethiopian embassies had been sent to Europe since the beginning of the fifteenth century, at first to Italy. Successive Ethiopian rulers were interested in acquiring ecclesiastic relics and the services of European craftsmen, to enhance their prestige in Ethiopia and fuel their political agenda of building churches.
The 1520 Portuguese embassy therefore must be understood in the history of Ethiopian-Portuguese relations. Indeed, this embassy followed the arrival at the Portuguese court of the Ethiopian ambassador Mateus, sent by the Queen regent Ǝleni to deliver diplomatic letters. This Ethiopian embassy was itself responding to the envoy of Portuguese emissaries in 1508 with letters to ask for supplies and soldiers. Before that, Afonso de Paiva and Pêro de Covilhã had been sent to the Indian Ocean in 1487 to obtain information on India and on Prester John.
Despite these previous relations, when the Portuguese arrived at Ləbnä Dəngəl’s court in 1520, they were not given much attention. Álvares vividly recounts how, for instance, the Portuguese had to wait for a long time outside the gates: ‘On reaching the door or entrance of the first hedge enclosure we found there doorkeepers who made us wait more than an hour in great cold, and a sharp wind that was blowing’. The lack of Portuguese gifts severely impeded the initial relations, as Álvares’ description of an audience with Ləbnä Dəngəl shows: ‘They came with another addition, saying that it was the custom of all those who had sent ambassadors to these countries to send much clothing, and so they had always done to his predecessors, and that we had come and had brought nothing’. However, this did not prevent the embassy achieving its mission, as eventually the diplomatic letters were delivered and the Portuguese were given diplomatic letters to deliver to the Captain Major of the Indies, the Portuguese king, and the Pope.
Álvares’ account further provides an insight into the pre-existing European-Ethiopian relations. At court, he describes the existence of a group of Europeans living there, designated as ‘Franks’ by Ethiopians. They were Europeans from Italy, Portugal, Germany, and Spain, who had been detained at court, not having been authorised by the Ethiopian king to go back to their countries. These included Niccolo Branceleon, a Venitian painter, and Pêro de Covilhã, the Portuguese emissary of João II. These Europeans had learnt Ethiopian languages and some of them had a high status in Ethiopian society. Álvares also met Ethiopians mastering European languages, including for instance Ṣägga Zä’ab who had been to Italy and knew some Latin. In 1527, the Portuguese embassy left for Lisbon with diplomatic letters and Ṣägga Zä’ab as Ləbnä Dəngəl’s ambassador.
An Italian version of Álvares’ account rearranged by the scholar Ludovico Beccadelli in 1542 includes Ethiopian additions on religious and royal matters. These were made by Ethiopians who lived in Rome at the time, including the scholar Täsfa Ṣeyon. This is evidence of the Ethiopian presence in Rome in the sixteenth century, where a small community had settled in the church of Santo Stefano degli Abissini.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to get an idea of Ethiopia’s perception and imagination of these interactions and relations and of the Portuguese. Whilst an Ethiopian written source of the time briefly mentions Álvares, there are insufficient source materials from the Ethiopian perspective for comparison – even if Álvares’ account hints at the Ethiopian point of view. To truly study the embassy from a global perspective would require an equal treatment of both the Portuguese and Ethiopian perspectives. Álvares’ account therefore documents contacts between Europe and Ethiopia in the early sixteenth century, showing that these relations involved cultural transfers and exchanges of people, objects and practices between Ethiopia and Europe.