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Pedro de Covilham

Pedro de Covilham was a Portuguese explorer and diplomatist (fi. 14871525). He was a native of Covilh in Beira. In his early life he had gone to Castile and entered the service of Alphonso, Duke of Seville ; later, when war broke out between Castile and Portugal, he returned to his own country, and attached himself, first as a groom, then as a squire, to Alphonso V of Portugal and his successor John II of Portugal.

Mission to the East

On the May 7 1487, he was despatched, in company with Alphonso de Payva , on a mission of exploration in the Near East and adjoining regions of Asia and Africa, with the special object of learning where cinnamon and other spices could be found, as well as of discovering the land of Prester John, by overland routes. Bartholomeu Diaz, at this very time, went out to find the Prester's country, as well as the termination of the African continent and the ocean route to India, by sea.

Covilham and Payva were provided with a letter of credence for all the countries of the world and with a map for navigating, taken from the map of the world and compiled by Bishop Calcadilha, and doctors Rodrigo and Moyses. The first two of these were prominent members of the commission which advised the Portuguese government to reject the proposals of Christopher Columbus. The explorers started from Santarem and travelled by Barcelona to Naples, where their bills of exchange were paid by the sons of Cosimo de' Medici; from there they went to Rhodes, where they stayed with two other Portuguese, and so to Alexandria and Cairo, where they posed as merchants.

In company with Arabs from Fez and Tlemcen, they now went by way of Tor to Suakin and Aden, where, as it was now the monsoon, they parted, Covilham proceeding to India and Payva to Ethiopia the two companions agreeing to meet again in Cairo. Covilham thus arrived at Cannanore and Calicut, from where he retraced his steps to Goa and Hormuz, the Red Sea and Cairo, making an excursion on his way down the East African coast to Sofala, which he was probably the first European to visit.

At Cairo he heard of Payva's death, and met with two Portuguese Jews: Rabbi Abraham of Bej, and Joseph, a shoe-maker of Lamego who had been sent by King John with letters for Covilham and Payva. By Joseph of Lamego Covilham replied with an account of his Indian and African journeys, and of his observations on the cinnamon, pepper and clove trade at Calicut, together with advice as to the ocean way to India. This he truly represented as quite practicable: to this they (the Portuguese) could navigate by their coast and the seas of Guinea. The first objective in the eastern ocean, he added, was Sofala or the Island of the Moon, our Madagascar - from each of these lands one can reach the coast of Calicut.


With this information Joseph returned to Portugal, while Covilham, with Abraham of Beja, again visited Aden and Hormuz. At the latter he left the rabbi; and himself came back to Jedda, the port of the Arabian holy land, and penetrated (as he told Alvarez many years later) even to Mecca and Medina. Finally, by Mount Sinai, Tor and the Red Sea, he reached Zeila , whence he struck inland to the court of Prester John (i.e. Abyssinia).

Here he was honorably received; lands and lordships were bestowed upon him; but he was not allowed to leave. When the Portuguese embassy under Rodrigo de Lima , including Father Francisco Alvarez, entered Abyssinia in 1520, Covilham 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. Alvarez, 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, Moors and Gentiles. His services as an interpreter were valuable to Rodrigo de Lima's embassy; but he never succeeded in escaping from Abyssinia.

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This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45