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PÊRO DA COVILHÃ

(Traveller, Spy:  1450 (?) - 1530 (?))

by Fernando Correia da Silva

Translated by Valerie Blencowe

 

Picture presumed to be that of King John II - from "The Book of Glasses" - Torre do Tombo

IN SEARCH OF INDIA, BUT BY LAND.

WHEN IT ALL HAPPENED... 

1450 (?):  Pêro da Covilhã is born in Covilhã.  - 1468 (?):  18 yeas old, Pêro da Covilhã leaves for Seville and enters the service of Don Juan de Gusman, the Duke of Medina-Sidonio’s brother.  - 1474:  Accompanying Don Juan de Gusman, Pêro returns to Portugal. He serves King Afonso V, first as valet and then as squire with rights to arms and a horse. -  1476:  He accompanies King Afonso V to Castile and takes part in the Battle of Toro. He then goes to France, still accompanying the King who, in vain, begs Louis XI to attack Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs of Spain.  - 1477:  King Afonso V hands over the Crown to his son, John. - 1481:  King Afonso V dies. - 1483:  King John II uncovers a plot by the nobility to overthrow him; public execution of the Duke of Braganza.  Commissioned by King John II, Pêro da Covilhã spies on the movements of Portuguese noblemen who have taken refuge in Castile. - 1484:  King John II stabs and kills his brother-in-law, the Duke of Viseu; later he orders the poisoning of another conspirator, Dom Garcia de Meneses, the Bishop of Évora. - 1485:  King John II sends Pêro da Covilhã to the Maghreb (North Africa) to sign treaties of peace and friendship with the sovereignties of Fez and Tlemcen.  King John II sends Antonio de Lisboa and Pedro Montarroio in search of Prester John by land, but as they do not understand Arabic they do not manage to travel further than the Holy Land. - 1487:  Afonso de Paiva and Pêro da Covilhã leave for Egypt, Ethiopia and India by land.  Bartolomeu Dias rounds the Cape of Good Hope. - 1488:  The two travellers reach Aden and split up; Afonso de Paiva goes in search of Prester John and Pêro da Covilhã sets off for India.  - 1489:  Pêro da Covilhã is in Sofala, on the east coast of Africa.  - 1491:  In Cairo, Pêro da Covilhã re-encounters the Rabbi of Beja.  - 1494:  Pêro da Covilhã in the Kingdom of Prester. - 1508:  Pêro da Covilhã becomes adviser to Queen Helena, who rules the Kingdom of Prester. - 1520:  Pêro da Covilhã recounts his experiences in the Kingdom of Prester and Padre Francisco Álvares takes notes. - 1530 (?):  Pêro da Covilhã dies.

 

SPICES

Ternate Island, one of the islands in the Moluccas

 

We have already mentioned them (see CHRISTOPHER  COLUMBUS / CRISTÓVÃO  COLOMBO) but let’s do so  again:  the disease-ridden cities of medieval Europe.  Sewers do not exist; waste matter is emptied straight into the streets.  The consequences:  time and again, plagues decimate the population.

Food?  Vegetables are rare, beetroot is unknown, coffee and cocoa are unheard of.  Dried fish or salted meat the whole year round is dull on the palate.  Only a few of the more fortunate can allow themselves the luxury of a pitcher of wine or a pot of honey on their table.

This is when spices from the Orient begin to reach Europe.  Pepper and cloves to improve the taste of meat; cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and garlic to enrich the flavour of the limited canapés; benzoin, sandalwood and aromatic resins to ward off the pestilence in the streets.  Ships begin trading at Mediterranean ports, making return journeys from Venice and Genoa to Constantinople and Alexandria.  The spice trade flows from east to west.

In the meantime, Ghengis Khan’s hordes are driving the Turkic tribes towards Persia. These tribes spread throughout the whole of the Near East, conquering and settling on the land.  They see the merchant caravans crossing their domains. They invoke the Prophet Mohammed who died six centuries earlier and declare holy war against the Christians, the infidels. The consequences:  the tribes block the way between the East and the West and spices become a rarity in Europe.

In the 16th Century, the following evaluation will be made:  a hundredweight of cloves costs 2 ducats in the Moluccas, 14 ducats in Malacca, 50 ducats in Calicut and 213 ducats in London. With this progressive price increase as the merchandise travels from east to west, what better than to find an alternative route for the spice trade? 

It all begins at the far west of Europe, in the little rectangle known as Portugal, where Prince Henry the Navigator and later, his great-nephew, King John II, aspire to cross Africa in search of Prester John. Or, alternatively, to go south to find the end of the continent, then up the coast on the far side to discover the sea route to India and the Kingdom of Prester. Together, they could attack the anti-Christian Turks from behind and, at the same time, take the opportunity to steal the spice trade from Genoa and Venice. 

The crusade wars, greed’s claws...

 

PRESTER JOHN

 

Title page of the Italian poem "The Magnificence of  Prester John, Lord of Greater Índia and Ethiopia", by Giuliano Dali (1445-1524)

 

 

Not only spices come to Europe from Asia, but also ivory, silks and precious stones.  According to medieval geography, Asia begins to the east of the Nile and not to the east of the Red Sea, which is as yet unheard of. On such a distorted map, Abyssinia and Ethiopia are part of Asia - or “the Indies”, another name for Asia.

Somewhere in the Indies reigns Prester John, a rich and powerful Christian emperor, an oriental magnate. Prester is derived from the French Prêtre, which means he is therefore both priest and king. Many of the stories and legends which circulate around Europe are based on him: the Monophysite kingdom of Abyssinia, the Nestorians of Central Asia, the Mongol chiefs who give no peace to the Muslims. It is claimed that he is a descendent of Balthazar, one of the Three Kings, and Emperor of the Indies (Major, Minor and Tertiary) and Ethiopia.  It is from his kingdom that precious oriental merchandise is exported to Europe, via Cairo and Venice. But just as palpable proofs about this Christian empire in the Orient are few, so the fantasies are exaggerated: various monsters (such as men with dogs’ heads) populate some corners of the territory, which is also likened to the landscape of Eden, where God placed Adam and Eve. It just goes to show that, if his imagination is allowed to run wild, man is always predisposed to link Heaven with Hell.

From the mouths of ambassadors, wanderers and merchants legends like these arrive in Portugal.  They are later confirmed by such illustrious people as Prince Peter, who had travelled to “the four corners of the earth”, and his enemy Dom Afonso, the Count of Barcelos, who had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  During the minority of Afonso V, the former will defend the popular party, the latter the aristocrats. This does not prevent either of them from believing in the existence of Prester John and singing his praises.

Such tales are very popular in Portugal. The reason can easily be understood:  in order to attack the Turks from behind, Prester John would be the definitive political/military ally for the Portuguese who, at the same time, could venture into the quest for oriental riches.

Conciliate and consolidate war and claw…

 

THE INDIES PLAN

 

In the early days of the Discoveries, Prince Henry the Navigator, a crusader spirit, sees the conquest of Muslim Africa as a means of winning back the Holy Land.  By threatening them from Africa and, obviously, with the help of the distant Prester John, the infidels would be pressurised from both sides.

A few Abyssinian ambassadors begin to appear in Europe and in 1452, the Ethiopian ambassador arrives in Lisbon from Rome. The Prince of Sagres (Henry the Navigator) becomes more convinced that, after all, the Kingdom of Prester John does not reach beyond Ethiopia and that the territory is therefore within Africa, not Asia. Believing that the longitude of the African continent is much shorter than it really is, Prince Henry commands his sailors to continue navigating up African rivers, which he thinks flow from the east and out into the Atlantic.  It is an attempt to reach the Kingdom of Prester John by land - a frustrated attempt, although it does result in contact being made with African potentates who might become allied to the Portuguese expansion.

King John II, the great-nephew of Prince Henry, has more realistic ideas about the Indies Plan. He continues to send his men up the African rivers and establishes contact with the King of the Congo. He dispatches two of his emissaries, António de Lisboa and Pedro Montarroio, by land via North Africa to find the Kingdom of Prester John. However, unable to speak Arabic, the emissaries can go no further than the Holy Land.  Later, in 1487, King John II sends his navigator, Bartolomeu Dias, to attempt to round the southern tip of Africa. Also by land, he sends Afonso de Paiva and Pêro da Covilhã to try to reach the Indies and the Kingdom of Prester John.  He hopes that these two will manage to complete the task where António de Lisboa and Pedro Montarroio failed.

 

FROM COVILHÃ TO SEVILLE

 

 

Pêro da Covilhã emigrates to Seville.

 

João Pêro was born, presumably in 1450, in Covilhã, a small town perched on a spur of the Serra da Estrela, facing east or, in other words, facing Spain.  December 1468 is windy, snowing and bitterly cold. A Spaniard who has recently arrived in Beira Baixa asks João Pêro the name of his family.  18 year old Pêro  brags in Spanish:

“Covilhã is the name of my family, who founded this town.”

The boys around him burst out laughing at the jest.  Only because of the merriment does the Spaniard notice the fib. João Pêro goes through life as if he were on stage and likes nothing more than to play a part.  His family is certainly very humble and perhaps it is for this reason that the youth wears his arrogance like a shield.

The Spaniard had come to Covilhã to buy thick, woollen cloths for his master, Don Juan de Gusman, brother of the Duke of Medina-Sidonio, one of the most respected noblemen in Seville.  The boy’s impudence amuses him.

“So, your name is . . .”

“My name is Pêro da Covilhã.”

The Andalucian laughs out loud and slaps the lad on the back. Don Juan de Gusman is looking for quick-witted attendants and the young man is invited to serve in Seville. He can expect a gloomy future in Covilhã - endless days of spinning and weaving with only a few coins to show for a finished piece of cloth.  João Pêro accepts the proposal and a borrowed horse and ventures forth to try his luck.

In Seville he is allocated the role of swordsman, which he performs well.  In Don Juan de Gusman’s armoury he learns the skill of thrusting and parrying fatal rapier strikes. Just as well, because the next six years of his life will be a continuous succession of ambushes on tortuous highways, bloody fights and nocturnal brawls against the clan of Ponce de Leon, a noblemen and rival of the Gusmans.

Impressed by Pêro da Covilhã’s agility, Don Juan de Gusman suggests that he join the fleet of Don Henry, his brother, the Duke of Medina-Sidonio. The Portuguese call the Duke the Spanish Pirate because, while the Pope turns a blind eye, he devotes himself to plundering places which have just been discovered or recently conquered by the Portuguese. Pêro da Covilhã turns down the invitation as, in spite of being well trained, fraternal combat does not appeal to him…

 

WITH KING AFONSO V

Isabella, the Catholic 

 

 

Commissioned by his brother, Don Juan de Gusman goes to Lisbon in 1474 to try to come to an agreement with King Afonso V of Portugal.  Pêro da Covilhã, who is part of the convoy, lets a tear fall when he treads on his native soil. The King takes a liking to the young Portuguese man who speaks Castilian like an Andalucian, Catalan like someone from Barcelona and Arabic like a Moor from the Maghreb.  Pêro has a true gift for languages and uses them elegantly. As a friendly gesture, Don Juan cedes the services of the Portuguese to the King.  So it is in this way that, at 24 years old, Pêro da Covilhã is accepted as a valet to King Afonso V who, after a short time, will promote him to squire with rights to arms and a horse.

In 1474, King Henry IV of Castile, Afonso V’s brother-in-law, dies.  The Portuguese sovereign attempts to win the crown of Castile by marrying his niece, Princess Juana, daughter of the deceased king. However, Juana is not recognised - she has been given the pejorative nickname of la Beltraneja because her birth is believed to be the result of an adulterous relationship between the queen and a certain Beltran. The nobility, the Church and the population favour the deceased king’s sister, Isabella the Catholic.  King Afonso decides to take the Castilian crown by force and, in 1476, the Portuguese and the Castilians confront each other at the Battle of Toro. Many die and are wounded, with no sign of a victor. King Afonso V’s hopes for quickly appropriating the crown of Castile are dashed.  He goes to France to beg Louis XI to help him attack Isabella the Catholic’s forces but the French monarch declines. Disillusioned and humiliated, King Afonso V returns to Portugal in 1478 where he renounces the Portuguese crown in favour of his son, King John II, and retires into religious life.

Pêro da Covilhã fought side by side with King Afonso V in the Battle of Toro and accompanied him to France. Guarding the tormented monarch on his way back to Lisbon, he reflected:

“They defame each other but they are all related and will eventually get on with each other. One of these days, when we wake up, Iberia will have one Crown and one King. On marrying Ferdinand of Aragon, Isabella of Castile has already taken the first step.  Tomorrow the daughter (or son) of the Catholic monarchs will marry the son (or daughter) of King John II and Iberia will be united. I hope I will be here to see it happen…”

He won’t, but Pêro da Covilhã cannot foresee that.

 

WITH KING JOHN II

King John II sends Pêro da Covilhã in search of India, but by land.

 

King John II’s main preoccupation is to continue with the Discoveries which had practically come to a standstill during the reign of Afonso V. In 1479, the new king and the Spanish monarchs sign the Treaty of Alcáçovas which reserves for Portugal the exclusive rights to sail beyond the Canary Islands.

However, a conspiracy delays his advance to the sea. In 1478, whilst assuming the regency, he will find the royal coffers empty, as a result of the many privileges King Afonso V had squandered on the nobility. In 1481, at the Royal Court at Évora, King John II attacks the nobility and takes away their privileges, “Do you want me to be King of only the roads in my Kingdom? The noblemen retaliate by conspiring against the King.  In 1483, King John II anticipates the threat to the monarchy and orders the powerful Duke of Braganza, the leader of the plot, to be seized and executed in public.

As a consequence of the execution, several Portuguese noblemen take refuge in Castile.  King John II wants to know who visits them.  He commissions Pêro da Covilhã, who he trusts will be as loyal to the son as he had been to the father, to act as his agent… Pêro da Covilhã assumes his new role very happily, since he cannot bear the arrogance of the Portuguese nobility. Among the visitors he is able to identify the King’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Viseu, and Dom Garcia de Meneses, the Bishop of Évora. He informs the King.

In 1484, it is King John II himself who, in the Royal Palace, stabs the Duke of Viseu to death.

“We have a man!” - shouts Pêro da Covilhã when he hears the news. He cannot help but compare the indecisiveness of the father with the determination of the son.

The King then orders that the Bishop of Évora be seized and executed. Having defeated the conspiracy, King John II can now return to devoting himself to the great task of the Discoveries, begun by his great-uncle, Prince Henry the Navigator. In 1486, he sends António de Lisboa and Pedro Montarroio, by land, in search of Prester John, but as they do not understand Arabic, they are unable to venture beyond the Holy Land.

Regardless of the Treaty of Alcáçovas, the Spanish pirates continue to navigate the Portuguese seas. In order to go after them, King John II must not be distracted by other skirmishes. It would be better to seal the peace with the Berbers of the Maghreb. But who can be sent as ambassador? It has to be a man of courage, someone who is quick-witted, courteous and can speak Arabic.  King John looks at his courtesans, fixes his gaze on Pêro da Covilhã and points, “he’s the one!” All-imposing, with the gestures and mannerisms of a viceroy, a new role to interpret, there goes the boy from the Beiras to the north of Africa. He is received by the sovereign of Fez who finds it most unusual that a Christian can be so charming and speak such fluent Arabic. He confidently signs the treaty of peace and friendship with the Portuguese. The same will take place with the sovereign of Tlemcen. Mission accomplished!

Pêro da Covilhã is now a squire in the royal guard and therefore much sought after by maidens of a marriageable age. Amongst the candidates, he choses Catarina, who has a shapely figure and a large dowry. They marry and a few months later she is expecting a child.

In 1487, King John II sends Bartolomeu Dias to try and reach the extreme south of Africa, to open up the sea route to India. The mariner will manage to round the Cape of Storms, which will afterwards be renamed the Cape of Good Hope.

At the beginning of the same year, the King orders Afonso de Paiva and Pêro da Covilhã to reach India and the Kingdom of Prester John by land, notifying Lisbon of what they see, the contacts they make and the conditions for sailing up the eastern coast of Africa. Pêro da Covilhã agrees but observes:

“Your Majesty, if we go disguised as Moorish merchants, we will have to have means to buy merchandise to sell. Otherwise, nobody will believe in us and we will be easily unmasked.”

The King nods his head and smiles, “the man from Beirão has a good point…”  He tells his treasurer to purchase the travellers a Letter of Credit from Bartolommeo Marchioni, a Florentine banker.

Before they set off, Afonso de Paiva and Pêro da Covilhã are trained by royal cosmographers who hand them some sea charts. Then they meet the Jew, Abraham, the Rabbi of Beja, who points out the entrance to the citadel, in Cairo, as a meeting place for Portuguese spies each evening during January, February and March, 1491.

On 7 May 1487, the two travellers leave from Santarém (where the Court is situated) on their way to Valencia.

 

AFONSO DE PAIVA
Afonso de Paiva accompanies Pêro da Covilhã.

 

Afonso de Paiva is a companion of Pêro da Covilhã. He also comes from the Beiras, hence his nickname, Beirão. He was born in the town of Castelo Branco and is more or less the same age as Pêro. He is the son of a respectable family and is by birth a squire of the Royal Household.  He inherited the duty of clerk to the courts in his home town, as well as that of royal scribe for the Hebraic community, an activity which put him in contact with many people in the Levant and enabled him to learn Hebrew and Arabic. He took part in the Battle of Toro.  Recognising his merits as a worthy squire, King John II granted him an annual income of 1,500 reals. Since he trusts him, he chooses him to accompany Pêro da Covilhã in the overland quest to find India and establish contact with Prester John.

 

RHODES, THE LAST CHRISTIAN LAND
 

They cross the south of the Iberian Peninsular on horseback, until they reach Valencia.  There, they embark for Barcelona and arrive on 14 June 1487. At the port, they board a sailing vessel which takes 10 days to reach Naples.  From there to the Greek Archipelago takes another 10 days. They land on the island of Rhodes which belongs to the religious order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. They rest in a Portuguese monastery. This is the last Christian land they will set foot in, since their next stop is Alexandria and Egypt is the land of the infidels.  In the market at Rhodes they buy 100 barrels of honey, which is greatly appreciated in North Africa. They also purchase tunics so that they can disguise themselves as Moorish merchants. With their faces weathered by the sun and the sea breeze, the artifice will be convincing.

 

CAIRO, THE RED SEA AND THE SEPARATION

Minarets of Cairo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corals of the Red Sea

 

As soon as they arrive in Alexandria, they catch the so-called “Nile fever” and nearly die. Nahib, the Sultan’s deputy, is quick to steal the 100 barrels of honey and gives them up for dead and without descendants. However, they recover and confront Nahib who is made to pay the value of the stolen, already sold, merchandise in gold coins.

They decide to trace the route of the oriental spices but in the opposite direction, from the mouth of the Nile to its source. They buy two horses for riding and two donkeys to carry their load, and head for Rosetta, a beautiful settlement on the banks of the Nile. There they sell the four animals and contract the services of a ferryman who sails them to Cairo.

They are astounded by the size and affluence of the bustling  city, where travellers meet from all over the Islamic world, from North Africa to India. It is the spice trade, in transit from east to west, which brings about such luxury.  Afonso de Paiva observes:

“People from the four corners of the world who all understand each other.  Although it is expressed in thousands of dialects, Arabic is the common language used by all of them.”

Pêro da Covilhã agrees:

“Arabic is for Islam what Latin once was for Christianity.”

And as he knows King John II’s plan well, he adds:

“One day Lisbon will be like this, only the merchants and travellers will be from all over the Christian world…”

The two travellers search out the entrance to the citadel where the Sultan of Egypt’s palace is situated. They stay in a lodging house and four days later they buy three camels, two to ride and one to carry their wares. In order to avoid being attacked by robbers they join a long caravan which, via the desert on the eastern side of the Red Sea, is going to cross Arabia to Aden, a city on the coast of the Indian Ocean. They reach Suez and, a week later, the oasis and town of El Tûr in the Sinai Desert, on the shores of the Red Sea; so-called because of the mass of red coral at the bottom of its transparent waters. In El Tûr they quench their thirst and refill their water provisions. From here, as from Suez, they could embark for Aden but, in order to get to know the lay of the land, habits and customs, they decide to continue by caravan. They visit Medina, the city where Mohammed had lived and then Mecca, the sacred city of Islam. Here, careful not to give away their identity, they pay penance and pray, or pretend to pray, to the Prophet Mohammed, like all good Muslims. Pêro da Covilhã wants to laugh at the part they have just played, but rehearses an act of contrition and murmurs:

“May God Our Lord Jesus Christ forgive us!”

“Amen!” replies Afonso de Paiva.

Pêro just manages to stop himself before making the sign of the cross over his face and chest.  They are, perhaps, the first Westerners to visit Mecca.

They are well into 1488 when they reach Aden. From this port in the Gulf of Arabia and one day’s sailing from the Indian Ocean, Afonso de Paiva will embark for Ethiopia in search of Prester John. Pêro da Covilhã reserves a place in a fleet of dhows and sambuks which will take advantage of the favourable winds and shortly set sail for India. The first will head south, the other east.  The two companions, by now good friends, give each other a long, emotional hug.  They arrange to meet up again in Cairo, at the entrance to the citadel, on one of the first 90 evenings of 1491.

 

INDIA

Calicut - print on paper by Georgius Braun  in  "Civitates Orbis Terrarum" (1572)

 

Pêro da Covilhã arrives at Calicut in November 1488. India is split up into numerous kingdoms and this is the first one he visits. To begin with he is shocked and then impressed by the enormous, gentle elephants carrying burdens through the streets of the city. He makes friends with an Indian merchant, telling him that he is an emissary from the sovereignty of Fez in the Maghreb, on a journey to India to investigate the possibilities of entering the spice trade. The merchant shows him the city, not only its opulent palaces, temples, gardens and artificial lakes but also an immense settlement of thatched huts, a disease-ridden pocket of the city where the pariahs, the lowest of the low, are dying from sickness and starvation. The Zamorin (ruler) still practises the Hindu religion but is already surrounded by many Muslim advisers.  The merchant guarantees that the majority of spices produced in India, plus those that come from the East, pass through Calicut, which is what causes the city to be so busy. Pêro is surprised, as he thought that all the spices were produced in India.

“No, that’s not true,” says the merchant.  “For example, cinnamon comes from Ceylon, an island to the south of India, while nutmeg and cloves come from Malacca.”

“Malacca?”

“The capital of the Kingdom of Malaysia.”

“Where is that?”

“It is in the east, 40 days’ journey from here, if the wind is in the right direction.”

“So Malaysia produces nutmegs and cloves?”

“No, no, they are produced in Ternate and the other Spice Islands, which are even further to the east. They are produced there but concentrated in Malacca, which exports them to India, mainly to Calicut.”

The Spice Islands will later be called the Moluccas, a corruption of the Portuguese word for malucas (crazy). They will be given this name because, owing to local alterations in the earth’s magnetism, it will be difficult to fix their co-ordinates; they appear to be here, they appear to be there, hence the crazy islands. But this will only happen later. For now, Pêro da Covilhã is just learning about the existence and produce of the Spice Islands, the locality of Ceylon and Malacca, the supremacy of Calicut in the Indian spice trade. He is surprised by such supremacy:

“I don’t know how it is possible - a navigator told me and ascertained that this is a dangerous port, with many sandbanks.”

“That’s true,” replies the merchant, “but in spite of them, that’s how it is - you’ll see.”

And see he does. He visits Cannanore, Goa and Ormuz, magnificent cities on the Malabar Coast, but there the commercial activity is much less than in Calicut.

Pêro da Covilhã notes, “The majority of the spices leave Calicut for Cairo, crossing the Red Sea. From Cairo they go on to Venice. If one day we want to take on this trade for ourselves, we simply have to block the Moorish ships’ access to the Red Sea.”

 

THE EAST COAST OF AFRICA
Pêro da Covilhã in Sofala.  

At the end of December 1489, the north-east wind blows and Pêro da Covilhã, in Ormuz, embarks in a sambuk for the east coast of Africa. The Moors also have trading posts over there, where they exchange cloth and glass beads for amber and gold collected by the naked and innocent Kaffirs. He visits Malindi, Kilwa, Mozambique and, at last, Sofala. To the south there are many strong currents and the Moorish navigators are afraid to approach them with their fragile boats. One of them confirms that the tip of Africa is not far away.  Pêro da Covilhã notes that if the extreme south were rounded by Portuguese mariners they could easily reach Calicut from Sofala or Malindi and take possession of the spice trade.

In ten years’ time, this observation by Pêro da Covilhã will convince Vasco da Gama to sail from the east coast of Africa directly to Calicut.

 

THE SPIES'REUNION
Pêro da Covilhã learns of the death of Afonso de Paiva.  

At the end of December 1489, the north-east wind blows and Pêro da Covilhã, in Ormuz, embarks in a sambuk for the east coast of Africa. The Moors also have trading posts over there, where they exchange cloth and glass beads for amber and gold collected by the naked and innocent Kaffirs. He visits Malindi, Kilwa, Mozambique and, at last, Sofala. To the south there are many strong currents and the Moorish navigators are afraid to approach them with their fragile boats. One of them confirms that the tip of Africa is not far away.  Pêro da Covilhã notes that if the extreme south were rounded by Portuguese mariners they could easily reach Calicut from Sofala or Malindi and take possession of the spice trade.

In ten years’ time, this observation by Pêro da Covilhã will convince Vasco da Gama to sail from the east coast of Africa directly to Calicut.

 

IN THE KINGDOM OF PRESTES JOHN

Abyssinians from the land of Prester John, in Itinerário, by Jan Huygen Van Linschoten, 1595

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Father Francisco Álvares:  "True Information about the Lands of Prester John of the Indies"

 

The Rabbi stays in Ormuz and Pêro da Covilhã goes back to Aden. Here, he boards a sambuk which takes him to Zeila, further south, on the Ethiopian coast.

He joins a caravan, which ascends and descends the mountain ranges.  At the end of three weeks, he meets the first of Prester John’s people. He identifies himself as a Christian and is warmly welcomed. But he quickly realises that the legendary and powerful kingdom of Prester John is after all that of a poor people trying to avoid being crushed by their Muslim neighbours. With borders that fluctuate due to external pressure, the Christian Ethiopians cannot give any help.  It is they who need to be helped in their fight against the infidels. This indeed is what Alexander, the sovereign descended from Prester John, says.  Pêro da Covilhã tells him that he will communicate his request for help to all the Christian nations of Europe.

In May 1494, when Pêro da Covilhã is preparing to begin his return to Portugal, Prester Alexander suddenly dies.  Naod, his brother, takes over the throne.  He immediately prevents Pêro’s departure, alleging that it is their custom that any foreigners who come to the kingdom are not allowed to leave. Pêro sees that the new Prester needs an adviser to guide him through the maze of politics. All the more so, as Naod not only keeps Pêro prisoner but at the same time bestows on him vast lands and many slaves and vassals. Thus, the poor man from the Beiras is promoted to feudal landlord in Ethiopia.  It is the last role he will play in his life. Under the circumstances, he is forced to forget Catarina and the son he has never seen and takes a heathen for his wife who will bear him numerous descendants. 

In 1508, Naod dies and his queen, Helena, succeeds him.  Pêro da Covilhã is kept on as Royal Counsellor. Acting on his advice, the Queen sends the ambassador Mateus to Lisbon, accompanied by two Portuguese monks who had found their way there. These monks had told them the news about the death of King John II, King Manuel I’s ascension to the throne and the achievements of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral in Calicut. Pêro is very pleased by these last events - at least his report to King John II had served some purpose …

In 1520, the Portuguese Ambassador, Dom Rodrigo de Lima, arrives in the Kingdom of Prester. With him comes Father Francisco Álvares who spends his time talking to Pêro da Covilhã. He takes detailed notes about the peculiar habits of those strange Ethiopian Christians who are extremely crude in their penitence. These notes will later enable him to write the “True Information about the Lands of Prester John of the Indies”.

In about 1530, Pêro da Covilhã dies. During his last breath, he sees a luminous angel which he confuses with Afonso, his Portuguese son.

 

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