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HISTORY CORNER: The Portuguese conquistadors

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| January 16, 2022 1:00 AM

Is it possible that the Age of Discovery that led to Columbus discovering America started with a myth that included a Christian priest-king of a land in the “Far East beyond Persia and Armenia” that was crime-free, vice-free and peaceful “where honey flows…and milk everywhere abounds;” a story that includes the Crusades, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo?

Maybe.

“The development of the legend makes a fascinating study,” says History Today, “not only for the sake of its wealth of fabulous detail, but also because the belief in the existence of Prester John had a profound effect on the history of European exploration and discovery in Asia and Africa.”

This happened during the time of the Crusades (1095-1291) and the European Christians were looking for an ally to help battle the Muslims. The Turks had taken over Jerusalem, and the Crusaders wanted to drive them out.

When they heard about this wealthy and powerful Christian king, Crusaders tried to find him and enlist his help battling the Muslims.

In 1165 A.D., Prester John sent a letter to European leaders that included Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, telling them about his kingdom.

In the centuries since then, more than 100 versions of that letter have surfaced, filled with enough detailed information that makes his story plausible, but also with enough fanciful narrative that it challenges the authenticity of both writer and letter.

True or not, the Prester John legend was a popular one and caused a major turning point in world history by igniting European exploration and discovery in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

One of the medieval world's great historians, Bishop Otto of Freising (c. 1111-1158) wrote in “History of the Two Cities” that Prester John was a descendant of one of the Three Magi (kings from the East) who visited the Child Jesus; that he defeated the Muslims in Persia, and intended to go to Jerusalem to help the Crusaders but couldn’t because his army was unable to cross the Tigris River.

In 1177, Pope Alexander III sent Philip his physician to find Prester John — but he failed and there is no further historical record of Philip.

The story continues: 80 years after the battle with the Muslims in Persia, a report credited the victory to a certain King David of India, said to be John’s son or grandson.

Britannica says, “This King David was probably none other than Genghis Khan.”

There’s some credibility to that story, because Khan’s Mogul Empire had swept across all of Asia and deep into Europe, and he fathered many children with all his wives and concubines. DNA studies have concluded that today 16 million males are descended from Genghis Khan.

Another part of the legend is that in the late 1200s, Marco Polo who spent 25 years in Asia — 17 in China — also searched for Prester John’s fabled kingdom with “rivers filled with gold, and home of the Fountain of Youth.”

Many others have also searched since then.

By the 14th century however, Asia was rejected as the location, and because of another edition of the Prester John letter that appeared in 1340, interest shifted to Abyssinia — today’s Ethiopia.

Portugal sent expeditions to find the illusive Prester John, and cartographers kept including his kingdom on maps until the 17th century — 200 years into the Age of Discovery.

The Age of Discovery — or Age of Exploration — dawned at a time when little was known about world geography, and learned scholars and the Catholic Church still believed the Earth was flat and rectangular.

There were also unproven stories tantalizingly telling of great riches in faraway lands — real and legendary.

Prester John’s mythical kingdom was one of them.

Middle Age maps were more symbolic documents than geographic in the modern sense.

They reflected Europe’s Christian worldview based on biblical and classical sources, using words and pictures to convey knowledge about what was then known about history, geography, philosophy, theology, zoology and other subjects.

Marco Polo’s reports about what he saw and learned during his amazing adventures in Asia helped open the door to exploration and the age of the conquistadors — as also did the many actual searches for Prester John.

While well-known Spanish explorers like Columbus — who was really Italian — Cortez, Pizzaro and Balboa are most prominent in the history books, it was Portuguese conquistadors who led the charge before them.

History records certain main common denominators linking virtually all of the conquistadors — adventure, glory, lust for wealth and power, danger and cruelty, and financial support and authority by monarchs and investors.

Here are six of the main Portuguese conquistadors:

Christopher Columbus who was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451 made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, opening the New World.

He asked the kings of Portugal, England, France and Spain for financial help for his planned voyages. All said no. Then Spain changed its mind, and Ferdinand and Isabel put up the funds and granted Columbus three ships, titles and 10 percent of any treasure acquired.

The rest is history.

But in recent times, his historic stature has been tainted with accusations of mistreatment of indigenous peoples in the New World.

Most of the conquistadors would have been guilty of that charge. That’s how the world was in those times.

Twenty years after Columbus’ historic first voyage, Portuguese explorer and conquistador Ferdinand Magellan sailed away with a small fleet of ships. His mission was to find a western sea route to the Spice Islands — today’s Indonesia.

It was a dangerous three-year journey that ended in Magellan being killed in the Philippines in a battle with Lapu-Lapu, a local chieftain.

Only one of Magellan’s ships, carrying valuable spices and just 18 survivors of the expedition’s 270 original crewmembers made it back to Spain — becoming the first to circle the globe.

The ship’s captain, Juan Sabastian Elcano is credited as being the first man to circumnavigate the world.

Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal, in 1468 or ‘69, and died in Cochin, India, in 1524. He was distinguished as commander of the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India, and for a short time near the end of his life served as Viceroy of Portuguese India.

Pedro Álvares Cabral was the first European to discover Brazil. He was born in Belmonte, Portugal, and commissioned by King Manuel I to take a fleet of 13 armed ships and 1,200 men to India in 1,500 to promote trade and Christianity.

On the way, he sailed too far west in the Atlantic, accidentally discovering Brazil — which the Portuguese soon colonized.

In India, Cabral’s trading mission succeeded at first, but then they were attacked by Muslims and Hindus, fearing competition, causing heavy casualties. Cabral retaliated by looting and burning the Arab fleet and bombarding the city.

Conquistador Diogo Cão’s exact birthplace and date in Portugal is uncertain. He made two exploration trips along the southwest coast of Africa between 1482 and 1486, claiming what are now Zaire and Namibia for the Crown.

He is remembered for having introduced the use of stone monuments, instead of wooden crosses, to mark the Portuguese claim to newly discovered lands. Diogo Cão was the first European to discover the mouth of Zaire River (now Congo River) — Africa second longest, after the Nile.

Portugal had been active in slave trading for 40 years before Cão’s discoveries but those new lands would greatly boost that trading.

Diogo de Silves was born in Silves, Portugal, but little is known about him. However, he’s important in the pantheon of Portuguese explorers because he discovered the Azores Islands in 1427, now a Portuguese autonomous region.

He may have been one of Henry the Navigator’s captains and discovered the islands by accident after being blown off course.

Most conquistadors were Spanish or Portuguese, but there were also some from other nationalities, with many of them sharing the reputation for cruelty.

Creditably, beginning in the early 1400s, Portuguese explorers also discovered Greenland, Newfoundland, Australia, the Maldives and Vanuatu.

We may never know whether there was an actual Prester John or his famous letter, but because so many believed it was real for so long, the legend will no doubt continue to live in that grey twilight between fact and fiction.

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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Not all conquistadors were cruel…

Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, which translates as “cow head,” was very different from other explorers. He actually became a faith healer for many Native American tribes as he traveled across the southwestern U.S.

— Factinate

The long-lasting legend…

In “The Realm of Prester John,” historian Robert Silverberg wrote that the quest for Prester John's land would last for half a millennium, and become "one of the great romantic enterprises of the Middle Ages.” He was right.

Scholars skeptical about Prester John letter…

Scholars have long recognized the letter as a forgery, probably written by an imaginative monk. There are a number of reasons for this conclusion, not least the fact that the author followed none of the established conventions for diplomatic correspondence in the Middle Ages: for example, the letter includes no date or reference to its place of origin, and more important, its tone is hardly that of one who hopes to maintain the goodwill of his recipient.

— Encyclopedia.com

Magellan’s body…

Nothing of Ferdinand Magellan’s body has survived after being killed in the Philippines by Mactan chieftain, Lapu-Lapu. The local rajah-king who was friends with the explorer offered the victorious chief a handsome ransom of copper and iron for the body but Lapu-Lapu refused — intending to keep it as a trophy.

Shared conquistador cruelty…

Ambrosius Ehinger was a German conquistador in South America who served under Spaniard Pizzaro who destroyed the Inca Empire. Cruelly, he’d tie enslaved native porters together in a line with a rope around their necks. Should anyone try to escape or couldn’t keep up, they’d be decapitated without untying the rope in order not to slow the march down.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Prester John "Preste" as the Emperor of Ethiopia on a map of East Africa created by Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem for Queen Mary (c.1566-1559) from an atlas now in the British Library.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Dutch map from 1603 showing supposed kingdom of Nestorian Christian Prester John covering today’s Ethiopia and neighbors.

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PUBLIC DOMAIN

Painting by John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) of Christopher Columbus landing in America (not the mainland) in 1492.

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FREEBIBLEIMAGES

Prester John is said to have been a lineal descendent of one of the three wise men (kings) from the east who visited the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

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ARTSTATION@THAHN TUAN

Mogul leader Genghis Khan may have been Prester John’s son or grandson.

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DUCKDUCKGO IMAGES

Marco Polo (c.1254-1324) who traveled Asia for 25 years searched for Prester John but couldn’t find him.

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ILLUSTRATION COURTESY SEVERINO BARALDI

A storm at sea near Madeira and Cape Verde Islands in the South Atlantic in 1502 scattered Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s fleet on the way to India, where da Gama (shown here) later served as Portuguese viceroy in India.

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FINEARTAMERICA.COM

Ferdinand Magellan is perhaps the best-known Portuguese explorer and conquistador after Columbus, being credited for being first to sail around the world, but he wasn’t the first — having been killed in the Philippines in a battle with a local chieftain during the voyage.

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DUCKDUCKGO IMAGES

Christopher Columbus has been claimed as being Italian, Spanish or Portuguese, with less-credible claims of being Scottish or a Spanish Sephardic Jew.

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GOOD FREE PHOTOS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Painting by Oscar Pereira da Silva (1867-1939) of Portuguese conquistador Pedro Alvares Cabral landing in Porto Seguro, Brazil, in 1500 (painting 1900).

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Painting titled "Padrão, erected by the Portuguese on the Mouth of the Zaire River" by Roque Gameiro, depicting a stone cross monument erected by Portuguese conquistador Diego Cao in 1482 in today’s Zaire, one of many erected in new lands claimed by Portugal (painting 1917).

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ARRE CABALLO

Monument to Portuguese conquistadors in Lisbon, with Henry the Navigator at top, who organized expeditions.

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