Priest and missionary; d. c. 1540. As chaplain of the first official Portuguese royal embassy to Ethiopia (1520–26), he wrote a monumental description of the Eastern Christian nation, Verdadera [sic] informaçam das terras do Preste Joam, published in reduced form in Portuguese in 1540. Translated into several European languages, it provided 16th-century Europe with frank, honest, accurate information that supplemented what Damião de gÓis had made available at second hand. It is highly esteemed in Ethiopia today.
Ethiopia's ambassador to Portugal reached Lisbon early in 1514. The following year King Manuel I sent his mission in reply, and the Ethiopian ambassador was in the company as the group proceeded to Goa. In 1517 they tried to land in the Massaua area on the west side of the Red Sea, but bad weather and worse leadership nearly wrecked the whole expedition, and the Portuguese ambassador, Duarte Galvão, died. The survivors returned to India, and only in April 1520 did the embassy, now headed by Dom Rodrigo de Lima, finally land at Massaua.
Álvares's narrative, published in Lisbon long after his return, begins at this point. Its lengthy first book, the major part of the entire volume, concerns the six years the embassy spent in Ethiopia. It ends in April 1526, when the Portuguese, returning home, were picked up by a Portuguese fleet from India. The second book describes the subsequent journey to Goa and the passage to Lisbon, where the travelers arrived in July of 1527.
The Ethiopian emperor, Lebna Dengel (David II), had sent Zagazabo on this same journey as his ambassador to King João III, who had succeeded Manuel in 1521. Perhaps more important, he named Álvares his ambassador to the pope and instructed him to render Ethiopian obedience to the Holy See. For reasons of his own João III forced Álvares to wait in Portugal for five years before permitting him to proceed to Rome in the company of João's ambassador to the pope, Dom Martinho de Portugal.
Finally on Jan. 29, 1533, at a consistory in Bologna, in the presence of Emperor Charles V, Álvares rendered David II's obedience to Pope Clement VII. News of this event electrified Europe, where it circulated in a little Latin book published in Bologna within a month and reprinted many times in several languages. The Latin volume, at least partly written by Paolo Giovio, contains information on Ethiopia unquestionably taken from Álvares's larger treatise.
Nothing came of the Ethiopian submission, for the pope (Giulio de' Medici) had other matters on his mind, as did the Portuguese. Álvares remained in Italy, apparently in Rome, where he is said to have died. His great treatise remained unpublished and is lost. The version printed in 1540, probably without his authorization, is only a portion of the larger study. Published at the king's order, it reveals the workings of a great mind, tolerant and critical, Portuguese and ecumenical.
Bibliography: f. Álvares, The Prester John of the Indies, tr. h. e. j. stanley, ed. c. f. beckingham and g. w. b. huntingford, 2 v. (Cambridge, Eng. 1961). f. m. rogers, The Quest For Eastern Christians: Travels and Rumor in the Age of Discovery (Minneapolis 1962).
[f. m. rogers]