Saturday, June 18, 2016

In which country he passed the rest of his days constrained by the native prince from returning to Portugal

I love learning new things.

A visit to Feldman's Books in Menlo Park, California always results in an armful of books brought home. Among the obscure, or more specialized, books I found this time was Shipwreck & Empire: Portuguese maritime disasters in a century of decline by James Duffy. I am a sucker for history, maritime history, and shipwrecks and adventure. How could I not buy this? There is always the danger of academic pedanticism in such a specialized topic, but this looks like it will be a good read.

Page 6 and I have already encountered information new to me. I knew of Bartolomeu Dias as the first known European to round Cape Horn and enter the Indian Ocean in February, 1488, part of the great wakening and reintegrating of humanity after the out-of-Africa diaspora 60,000 years before. Dias was a herald of the slow obliteration of distance.

Dias's journey wasn't the only one that the Portuguese crown launched in 1487.
Inflamed with the success of Diogo Cão's explorations, João persisted wholeheartedly in his efforts to reach the southern tip of the continent. In 1487, he sent out two expeditions, one by land and the other by sea. The overland journey of Alfonso de Paiva and Pero de Covilhã had a double purpose: the two men were to reach India and they were to establish contact with the semi-mythical kingdom of Prester John. The sea voyage undertaken by Bartolomeu Dias was more restricted in its goals: the captain was to push south along the West African coast until - if this was possible - he reached land's end. Both journeys were successful. Covilhã, after separating from Paiva in Aden, made his way to India and visited there the magic city of Calicut. On his return he found out in Cairo that his companion Paiva had died while attempting to reach the lands of Ethiopia and the kingdom of Prester John. Following royal instructions, the loyal Covilhã sent a detailed report of his Indian journey to João and then made his way to Ethiopia, in which country he passed the rest of his days constrained by the native prince from returning to Portugal. The navigator Bartolomeu Dias was even more fortunate than Covilhã. In 1488 the caravelas under his command were blown around the Cape of Good Hope by a great storm, and Dias survived to tell his king that the golden door to India at last stood open.
I knew of Dias but not of Covilhã. What journeys in 1488. Simply amazing when you consider the dangers and logistical barriers. I was saddened that such a persevering and brave hearted adventurer might have ended his days a prisoner in a distant and forbidding land.

But that wasn't quite the complete story. Wikipedia indicates that he at least was not a jailed prisoner.
Finally, by Mount Sinai, El-Tor and the Red Sea, he reached Zeila, whence he struck inland to the court of Prester John (Ethiopia).

Here he was honorably received by the Emperor Eskender; lands and lordships were bestowed upon him, but Eskander refused to grant him permission to leave, and his successors evaded granting Covilhã permission. According to James Bruce, Covilhã maintained a correspondence with the king in Portugal, describing Ethiopia as "very populous, full of cities both powerful and rich".

In 1507, he was joined by João Gomes, a priest sent by Tristão da Cunha, who had reached Ethiopia by way of Socotra. When the Portuguese embassy under Rodrigo de Lima, which included Ethiopian ambassador Mateus and missionary Francisco Álvares, entered Ethiopia in 1520, Covilhã wept with joy at the sight of his fellow-countrymen. It was then forty years since he had left Portugal, and over thirty since he had been a prisoner of state in Ethiopia. Álvares, who professed to know him well, and to have heard the story of his life, both in confession and out of it, praises his power of vivid description as if things were present before him, and his extraordinary knowledge of all the spoken languages of Christians, Muslims and Gentiles. His services as an interpreter were valuable to Rodrigo de Lima's embassy. Covilhã was well treated, but was not allowed to leave the country until his death.
State prisoner he might have been but for the last six years of his life, he had the company of fellow countryman in the kingdom of Prester John.

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