What do the hunt for a mythical Christian King of the East, a fabled river of African gold and fears of the impending Apocalypse have to do with Christopher Columbus? Turns out, quite a bit. The Age of Exploration has a weird speculative side.
The era in the late 15th century now dubbed the Age of Exploration, saw the launching of unprecedented naval expeditions from Iberia. Equipped with new (and borrowed) nautical skills, from the lateen sail to tacking, Portuguese sailors, followed by the Spanish, began venturing into the open Atlantic. They were driven by more than an abstract “need to know.” Trade played a key role, as sailors found investors willing to indulge their fancies of finding an alternate water route to the fabled wealth of the East. But there were other factors as well. Portuguese and Spanish explorers were driven by religious zeal, believing the Biblical Apocalypse was nigh, and that they desperately needed to reach a Christian king in the East who would lead all Christendom to victory against the infidel Muslims. Along the way they expected to find a river of gold, the riches of the court of Kublai Khan, and achieve glory both on Earth and in Heaven. Giddy times eh?
Hunting Prester John
In 1453 the old Byzantine city of Constantinople fell to Muslim Ottoman Turks, removing the last stronghold of Christendom in the East. The news sent shock waves through Europe. The Byzantines were no friends of the western Papacy; in fact, the Eastern Christian city had been brutally sacked by reckless Norman Christian Crusaders nearly two and half centuries earlier, an act from which they never fully recovered. Still, the loss of Constantinople was a staggering blow.
For one, it placed the Sultan Mehmet II and his vastly superior Muslim armies at Christendom’s doorsteps. Fears of the “dreaded Turk” and his giant siege cannons would haunt the imaginations of Europeans for generations, as the Ottomans rolled through the Balkans and reached the gates of Vienna. For the devout, this was yet another sign of the impending Apocalypse that would pit the defenders of Christ against unbelievers. For European sailors and merchants, the fall of Constantinople had more immediate earthly concerns. It meant the valuable flow of Eastern spices, silk and other goods once controlled in great part through Constantinople, was now blocked by a hostile Muslim force. For investors in the profitable sugar plantations in the Mediterranean, it meant the drying up of much-needed supplies (from nearby timber and Slavic slaves from Black Sea ports) to feed the sugar industry, and an increasingly dangerous waterway. A brief Muslim-Christian détente was about to give way to religious rivalry, as two emerging fiscal-military states–the Ottomans and the Habsburgs–prepared to battle over spheres of power for the next three centuries.
By the early 15th century, soon-to-be Spain (Aragon and Castille) and Portugal had completed most of the Reconquista, taking back the Iberian peninsula from Muslims who had ruled there since 711AD. They had even pushed further south, capturing key North African ports and islands from Muslim hands as well. For the Christian faithful this was providence, part of the impending Apocalypse that drove the victories of the defenders of Christ; the Reconquista and the revived Crusader impulse were seen as one in the same. Only, there was one snag. The crusader kingdom of Palestine had fallen to Muslim Mamluks in 1291, and since then western Christians, too busy bickering among themselves, had tried and failed to organize expeditions to take it back. In Iberia, religious military orders and Franciscans, who acted as confessors, preachers and educators to the royal court, began voicing demands that Jerusalem had be re-taken–a new crusade to make way for Christ’s return. The very fate of Christendom, mankind and their immortal souls depended on it. What was more, these religious orders claimed the defenders of Christ had a powerful ally.
19th century painting of St. James the Moor-Slayer (Santiago Matamoros) by Spanish painter José María Casado del Alisal. During the Reconquista, St. James became popular to military orders of crusading knights, as his miraculous appearance was believed to have helped Christians defeat a larger Muslim force in 844AD.
According to long-held European legends, there existed in the East a Christian King named Prester John. The origins of the myth are hard to trace but seem to have become popular in the 12th century, spread possibly by Germanic chroniclers. It held that a fabled Christian kingdom that bordered on paradise, and may have held such marvels as the Fountain of Youth along with all manner of fantastic beasts, existed in the East. Surrounded by Muslim and pagan enemies, it was led by a seemingly immortal king named Prester John who built massive walls to hold back Muslim invaders from his wealthy, prosperous lands. Prester John was rumored to have a vast Christian army, waiting to be joined by fellow Christians from the west who would sweep through the Muslim forces and reconquer the Holy Lands.
Only, no one was exactly certain where it was.
The precise location of Prester John’s kingdom shifted over the years, as western Europe’s understanding of the East was vague at best. At one point it was thought to exist somewhere in the vast Mongol Empire, with Prester John even fantastically being conflated with Genghis Khan. It then shifted to India, as Prestor John was said to rule over the “three Indias” of the European imagination. Then came Marco Polo, who spoke of a Christian kingdom in Ethiopia. And indeed, there was a long-standing Christian Ethiopian kingdom, which had been Christian since the 2nd century A.D. The story didn’t stick initially, but when some 30 Ethiopian diplomats arrived in Western Europe as part of an expedition in 1305, local writers hailed them as ambassadors from Prester John. From there, the notion of Ethiopia (deemed the “third India”) being the home of the fabled Christian kingdom and its king took off. The 1573 map below, displayed later European understandings (and hopes) of where Prester John’s magnificent kingdom would be found.
By the 15th century, the idea of the impending Apocalypse and Prester John’s role in these affairs was commonplace in Iberia, exacerbated by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and spread by the crusading ideologies of local religious orders. The famed explorer Prince Henry the Navigator, brother of the Portuguese king, was a staunch adherent of these Apocalyptic tales, and saw his work as part of a mission involving the impending end times. In the name of Christendom and Portugal, Prince Henry engaged in “just war” with nearby Muslims in North Africa and Morocco, capturing ports and making slaves of non believers–part of his crusading duty, and carrying on in the footsteps of heroes like Gerald the Fearless, the famed Portuguese warrior of Reconquista tales. Believing himself guided by providence, Prince Henry urged fellow explorers to seek a route to the East where they might find Prester John and his Christian kingdom. As they set out into the Atlantic, Portuguese explorers sailed along the African coast, certain that in the middle of the continent there existed a vast sea across which they would be able to sail their ships and reach the fabled lands of Prester John. Of course, there were more than simply spiritual matters at stake.
Seeking the Rio de Oro
In 1324, Mansa Musa I, King of Kings of Mali, set out on a hajj to Mecca. The West African king was a devout Muslim, and ruled what was the richest and most powerful Sudanic kingdom of the time. His pilgrimage became the stuff of legends–a procession reported to include scores of horses and camels, a retinue of 60,000 retainers and 12,000 slaves, all carrying gold bars, with heralds adorned in fanciful silks and bearing gold staffs. Though it is hard to distinguish truth from legend, the entourage caused quite a stir as it made its way across the Sahara and into the cosmopolitan heart of the greater Muslim world. Musa was said to dispense gold dust and whole gold bars to the poor as alms wherever he went, causing quite a stir in bustling cities like Cairo, Medina and Mecca. So much gold was dispensed, that it was claimed the gold market in Egypt was ruined for some time thereafter. Musa’s pilgrimmage became immortalized in local memory and writings. So it was not surprising that fifty years later in 1375, when Charles V of France ordered the making of the Catalan Atlas, Mansa Musa was featured as the so-called “King of Mali and Lord of Guinea,” featured as a powerful Muslim ruler holding aloft a giant nugget of gold.
When the Portuguese set out to find Prester John and a route to the East as part of spiritual salvation, this gold was close in mind. The Portuguese had long plowed the sea trade from the Mediterranean to western Europe, in alliance with Genoese merchants. Gold however, was siphoned to them in meager amounts through their Italian partners. After Prince Henry captured a large stash of West African gold from Arab-Berber Muslims in North Africa, the Portuguese became convinced that the source was a river of gold, the Rio de Oro, which flowed somewhere in West Africa. Mansa Musa I on the Catalan Atlas, holding aloft his immense gold nugget, was evidence enough to make them certain.
Under the direction of Prince Henry, they set out to find this West African “river of gold” along with the African sea that would also allow them to link up with Prester John. In this way the Portuguese sought to at once cut out Genoese competitors and Arab-Berber enemies from the gold trade, provide Portgual with a direct access to gold, establish a trade route to the riches and spices of the East through Africa, and fulfill their spiritual duty to Christendom by making contact with Prester John. Because as any good Ferengi would tell you, why let a little thing like the Apocalypse stop you from making a profit?
Turns out though, there was no river of gold. After initially being rebuffed by Muslim Malian rulers, who wanted nothing to do with the Christians, the Portuguese however did make contact with other African kingdoms. These existed mostly in parts of modern-day Ghana, who were mining gold, not part of this Christian-Muslim struggle and quite willing to trade. The gold the Portuguese bought from these West African kingdoms was enough to fund several more voyages to find the fabled sea route through the continent. Between 1434 and 1472, royally chartered, merchant-financed and state sponsored expeditions, sent Portuguese explorers further along the African coast, where they continued to make contact with varied African kingdoms. Unable to conquer them however (as the Africans had steel and could field large defensive armies), the Portuguese settled into trade, for gold, cotton, pepper, steel and, in small amounts, slaves.
Prince Henry “the Navigator”
Some of the slaves were traded to the so-called Gold Coast, to help local African kingdoms clear land mine for the precious metal. The Portuguese would even work out a treaty to build a fort to help in gold extraction, named appropriately enough, Elmina–The Mine. Most slaves however were used for a new crop that had arrived in the Atlantic since the fall of Constantinople made its production in the Mediterranean difficult–sugar. Along the African coast, on small islands, sugar plantations were established in treaties with African kingdoms. And slowly, the face of labor on these sugar estates (which had been Slavic and European in the Mediterranean and Berber-Arab in the North African Atlantic), increasingly came to resemble the West African and Central African mainland. Still, no great sea in Africa had been located. Between 1483 through 1486, intent on finding their way to the riches of the East and Prester John, the Portuguese sponsored new expeditions deeper into Africa. None of the local inhabitants however had ever heard of Prester John, or any sea. But the Portuguese would come across a powerful kingdom in the midst of turmoil by the name of Kongo, setting up the beginning of a long tormented relationship.
An Alternate Route
Meanwhile, the newly joined kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, equally immersed in Apocalyptic religious fervor, fresh from the Reconquista, and feeling left behind by their Portuguese neighbors, began casting about for some way to catch up. With the fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman presence in the Mediterranean cutting off the valuable wealth-generating trade from the East, this became even more important. Around this time, the son of a Genoese wool weaver, Christopher Columbus, approached the Portuguese court. Columbus was a seasoned mariner, and had studied geography, cartography and nautical sciences. He was also well versed in the Crusades and the Apocalypse, and, like Prince Henry the Navigator, believed it was all-important to reach the East and take back Jerusalem for Christendom. In fact, like Henry, he believed God had chosen him directly to do so. And of course, there was nothing wrong with getting in some conquering and trade as well. The two in fact, where intrinsically linked.
The Portuguese, while sharing Columbus’s religious fervor, didn’t care for his calculations. His radical plan claimed he could reach the East (India to be exact) not by sailing around Africa, but westward across the Atlantic. For the Portuguese, who had experience in sailing, Columbus’s math was off–the world was a big place; it would take much longer to sail across the Atlantic. (Contrary to popular modern folklore, no one at this time truly believed the earth to be “flat’.) After several years of attempts, Columbus gave up on the Portuguese and approached the Castille-Aragon court. It took a long period of convincing, but finally they agreed. And, as the diddy goes, with three ships and promises to make his benefactors richer in both the heavenly and mortal worlds, “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue….”
Columbus, of course, didn’t find the Indies or Prester John, though when he came upon what would later be called Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he was convinced he had reached the East–perhaps somewhere near the fabled riches of Kublai Khan. And bringing with him the same Apocalyptic crusading ideology that had in part driven the Age of Explorations, he set about conquering these lands and enslaving its inhabitants in service to the crown and Christendom. These were, after all, the end times. Every bit of land had to be made ready for Christ’s imminent return. And as faithful Christians, they also had the right (even duty) to exploit and its pagan inhabitants for every scrap of resource.
Reaching the East
And Portugal? After Columbus’s “discovery,” the Portuguese court redoubled their efforts to find a route by way of Africa to the East. It had become clear that there was no sea in the middle of Africa. But if they continued sailing along Africa’s coast, they became determined that if they couldn’t go through the continent, they could perhaps find a way around it. In 1498 an experienced mariner named Vasco da Gama, a member of the crusading Order of Santiago and fervent believer in the Apocalypse and Prester John, was appointed by the Portuguese king to find the way to India and Ethiopia by circumventing Africa. After a 6 month journey, he managed to finally reach the East, arriving in the spice rich trade port of Calicut in India.
There, Vasco de Gama first ran into two Iberian Muslims, expelled during the Reconquista, who regarded the presence of the Portuguese in surprise and scorn. When asked what they were doing there, the Portuguese answered they had come seeking Prester John and spices. And da Gama was certain he had been successful. Ignorant about the East, he mistook Hinduism for some form of Christianity and continued to inquire where he might find the fabled Christian king. The local populace however were unimpressed by these interlopers, who offered trade goods in which no one was interested. da Gama was forced to beat a hasty retreat, when rumors came that both the Muslims and Hindus were plotting to attack them.
The Portuguese would make other voyages, and finally reach Ethiopia. They found it was indeed a Coptic Christian kingdom. But it was a far cry from the power and wealth of the fabled lands of Prester John. While Ethiopia (Axum and Abyssinia) had once been wealthy, and powerful enough to conquer nearby Southern Yemen, by the 15th century the kingdom was in decline, and surrounded by stronger aggressive Muslim states on every side. After an unwise Ethiopian incursion against the Sultanate of Adal (located in modern-day Somalia), resulted in a disastrous attack by the stronger Muslim state, the Portuguese found themselves coming to Ethiopia’s aid rather than the other way around. The two kingdoms would enter into an eventual uneasy Christian alliance, as Portugal sent military weaponry (and more troubling, Jesuits) to aid Ethiopia against local African proxy states of the Ottoman Empire.
17th c. castle in Gondar Ethiopia, showing influence of the “allied” Portuguese
With the eventual realization by the Spanish that the “New World” was somewhere different, and not the East, and the new trade contacts Portugal was making in Africa and the East, the hunt for Prester John and the impending Apocalypse receded to the background–with the hunt for wealth and gold to fuel their fiscal-military states taking precedence. Still, the hopes of locating this fabled king and the crusading ideology he inspired, would continue on through other Spanish and Portuguese expeditions in Africa, Asia and the Americas, not truly dying until the 1700s.
Daniel Arbino and Michael Arnold, in their study of late medieval Iberian literature, call these bits of myth and history, “conquests of the imagination,” and point out that “Prester John remained in the imaginary of Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, and Francisco Pizarro.” All three men would transplant the myth of Prester John onto indigenous legends, to justify their conquests and plundering. What began in part as a hunt for a fabled Christian king of the Apocalypse, a sea route to the East and a fantastic river of gold, would end up reshaping the world in ways no one of the time could have predicted.
In the final installment– how the legacy of decimation, exploitation and conquests through Christopher Columbus remains in our fears of encounters and difference- Christopher Columbus: Invader from Mars.
References (updated from time to time):
Daniel Arbino and Michael Arnold, “Conquests of the Imagination: The Manipulation of Myth in Iberian Conquest Literatures” Nomenclatura: aproximaciones a los estudios hispánicos 2.1 (2012)
Cates Baldridge, Prisoners of Prester John: The Portuguese Mission to Ethiopia in Search of the Mythical King, 1520-1526 (McFarland: McFarland Press, 2012)
Keagan Brewer, Prester John: The Legend and its Sources (London: Routledge, 2015)
Michael E. Brooks, “Prester John: A Reexamination and Compendium of the Mythical Figure Who Helped Spark European Expansion” PhD diss., University of Toledo, 2009.
Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev, trans. R. E. F. Smith, Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom: The Legend of the Kingdom of Prester John (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Paul H.D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985)
Peter Edward Russell, Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001)
Matteo Salvaodre, “The Ethiopian Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306-1458,” Journal of World History 21 (no.4) 2011: 599-608.
_______________ The African Prester John and the Birth of Ethiopian-European Relations, 1402-1555 (London: Routledge, 2017)
Christopher Taylor, “Global Circulation as Christian Enclosure: Legend, Empire, and the Nomadic Prester John,” Literature Compass 11 (no. 7) 2014: 445-459.
Michael Uebel, “Imperial Fetishism: Prester John Among the Natives,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000)
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Great writing and really informative!
Would be great if you referenced the work however.
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I’d like to know more about your expertise in this field, because while your facts appear to be well researched, I cannot have my students use it as a source without knowing where you got all of the information. Please consider the inclusion of sources so that others might be able to cite your work. I congratulate you on a well-researched and informative article.
Thanks for writing Matt. My expertise in this field is negligible. My focus is more so the Atlantic World that arises after Columbian contact. But this precursor is often included when I teach. I honestly never thought of it being used by students, as this blog is (believe it or not) intended to be casual rather than academic. For this reason I tend not to use citations. But, I usually try to include a Reference list at the end–for the more complex, historical posts. Not sure why I neglected one here, but I’ve added a list from my own bibliography–with some updated material. Will be sure to continue doing so in the future.
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