Pedro de Covilhão

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Pedro de Covilhão

The Portuguese adventurer Pedro de Covilhão (ca. 1455-ca. 1530) was an explorer and diplomat, notably in eastern Africa.

In 1487 King John II commissioned Pedro de Covilhão to undertake an exploratory-diplomatic venture as part of Portugal's effort to break the Venetian hold on commerce with the East. Covilhão specific assignment was to gather information about trade routes and friendly ports throughout the Arabic world. He was also instructed to find out more about the mysterious kingdom of Prester John, the legendary priest-king, which was reputed to be somewhere in Africa, India, or China. Contact with a Christian king in the Moslem world would have been extremely valuable to Portugal.

Covilhão's background made him a likely candidate for the dual mission. Not only had he served John II as a spy, but he was one of the few Portuguese diplomats fluent in Arabic. He traveled to Alexandria and Cairo successfully disguised as a Moslem. Joining a caravan, he worked his way down the eastern coast of Africa, gathering information about the size and condition of facilities along the way. In 1490 Covilhão returned along the coast to Cairo. There he met messengers from King John and sent back with them a detailed report of his reconnaissance trip. His firsthand account of trade routes and ports, previously known only to Moorish traders, now made it possible for Portuguese expeditions to begin trading incursions along the eastern coast of Africa. His reports coincided with the discovery of a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope, thus further facilitating direct Portuguese contact with the Eastern world.

In order to pursue the legend of Prester John, Covilhão unilaterally decided to journey further east. He left Cairo in 1491 headed first for Mecca, this time disguising himself as a Moslem pilgrim. By so doing, he placed himself in grave danger, because discovery as an infidel meant certain death. He traced the legend of Prester John to Abyssinia (Ethiopia). While he did not find Prester John—who purportedly died years before his arrival in 1493—he did receive a warm welcome from the Abyssinian king. The king apparently recognized the value of this imaginative and bold foreigner, for he did not allow Covilhão to return to Portugal. Covilhão proved to be a valuable and useful servant; he was rewarded with titles and a substantial settlement of land, and he even married an Abyssinian.

Covilhão died sometime between 1527 and 1530. Before his death, however, he was able to be of further service to Portugal. When that government sent a diplomatic mission to Abyssinia in 1520, Covilhão served as interpreter and also informed the Portuguese envoys about the customs and traditions of his host's nation.

Further Reading

Three useful works for the study of Covilhão are Arthur Percival Newton, Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages (1926); Edgar Prestage, The Portuguese Pioneers (1933); and J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (1963). □