Yves-Marie Stranger’s next book, Pêro da Covilhã’s Hornbook, is a retelling of the life of the Portuguese ambassador to Prester John in the 16th century – and the discoverer of the route to the Indies.
500 years ago the first Ethiopian envoy reached Portugal – and five years later (in 1521) the first Portuguese official embassy made it to Ethiopia. These diplomatic voyages – and the search for the Prester John of the Indies – were to set in motion a train of events that would lead to the first circumnavigation of the globe – in that sense, the Portuguese are the first ‘tour-ists.’
Pêro da Covilhã
When Francisco Alvarez, the chaplain of the 1521 Portuguese embassy to Ethiopia, rode his mule into emperor Lebna Dengal’s royal camp just above the Monastery of the Mountain of Lebanon, much was his surprise to be greeted in his native tongue.
Pêro da Covilhã was a ‘secret agent’ and gentlemen, a sort of James Bond of the 16th century, when the world was being made round for the first time and the maps being drawn anew – indeed, his importance is paramount as it is thought that the letters he sent back home before disappearing into the interior of Africa provided Vasco da Gama with the precious instructions on how to pass the Cape of Good Hope and stake out the spice trade.
But mixed with the Portuguese’s bottomless appetite for riches, were loftier visions and dreams as well – and as they pressed up the east coast of Africa the first question they always asked of the port pilots again and again was ‘Do you know of the great Prester and of his lands?’
Little did they know that their countryman Pêro da Covilhã had been at the Prester’s court some thirty years and had become the emperor’s right hand man. For after Pêro vanished into the interior, after disembarking near Cape Gardafui and walking across the deserts and the highlands to the Mountain of Lebanon, nothing was ever heard of him again, until that day of joy in 1521 when Francisco Alvarez recounts having met the old man. Pêro had not only accomplished his mission and been the linchpin in securing a safe passage of the Cape of Good Hope, he had also become something of a vice-roy in Ethiopia, administrating vast lands and had become hugely wealthy in the process.
Was Ethiopia a gilded cage to the Portuguese spy? For Pêro da Covilhã was never allowed to leave the emperor’s side and return home. After Francisco Alvarez exits the country – taking with him Pêro’s twenty year old son, who is to die, alas, en route to India – nothing is ever heard of him again, and for all of Alvarez’ glowing words in A True Relation of the Lands of Prester John of the Indies, the first Portuguese to reach the Prester’s kingdom and to have opened the direct route to the Indies and to the circumnavigation of the globe – is today mostly forgotten.
Pêro da Covilhã’s Ethiopian Hornbook contains the long lost mémoirs of the Portuguese traveller, an account preserved for five centuries in an Ethiopian hornbook*, by Pero’s descendants in Ethiopia.
*Hornbook: a primer for study made of horn affixed to a hard surface. Often used for learning to read. Pêro da Covilhã’s hornbook was firt used by Pêro’s to learn the abudida, or Ethiopian syllabary, and to transcribe the events of his life during his forty years in Ethiopia.
It is a precious account of the great historical events of those times, and later centuries, as the Portuguese explorer’s descendants continued to use the hornbook to collect events and strories henceforth. As such it constitutes a chronicle of five hundred years of Ethiopian history.