It is well known that the Portuguese played a significant role in saving the sixteenth-century Ethiopian King Gälawdewos from decisive defeat during the military confrontation with the Muslim conquest led by Aḥmad b. Ibrāhīm al-Ġāzī in 1543. The Portuguese sent 400 soldiers to assist the king – after the repeated request of King Gälawdewos and his father King Lǝbnä Dǝngǝl (1508–1540) before him, as is evident from their diplomatic correspondence with Portuguese kings. Eyewitness accounts were written by the Portuguese about their sixteenth-century expedition into Ethiopia, especially that of Castanhoso and a few early works of the Jesuits, also document the role of the Portuguese in defeating the Muslim forces. Therefore, it is curious that Gälawdewos’s Royal Chronicle provides little detail about and even unfairly represents the role of the Portuguese. By contrast, the chronicler treats the Muslims army, the actual adversaries of the king, more fairly than the Portuguese. These contrasting representations raise a number of questions in readers. Thus, this paper analyzes representations of the Portuguese in the Chronicle and compares them to representations in pertinent Portuguese and Gǝʿǝz historical sources. It then considers the possible reasons why the chronicler marginalized the Portuguese even though they had greatly assisted the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia in the turbulent period of a sixteenth century.
- Background to the Portuguese expedition
At the time of the Ethiopian King Lǝbnä Dǝngǝl (1508–1540), the relationship between the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia and the Portuguese kingdom in the sixteenth century consisted mainly of diplomatic exchanges of embassies. This relationship lasted for about two decades until the Muslim leader of ʿAdal Aḥmad b. Ibrāhīm al-Ġāzī, declared war against the Ethiopian king in 1527. This war caused huge causalities and basically destroyed the Christian state. Large numbers of Christians were forcefully converted and churches and monasteries were burnt down. The Ethiopian king sent a letter to the Portuguese King Dom Manoel to ask him for military support against the Imām Aḥmad. Portuguese soldiers, however, arrived only after Lǝbnä Dǝngǝl’s death in 1540 in the monastery of Däbrä Dammo where he had sought refuge. It was under his son and successor, Gälawdewos that 400 Portuguese armies arrived, eventually playing an important role in defeating the Muslim army. These soldiers were led by Cristovão da Gama who died fighting against the Ahmad forces in the first confrontation in the province of Tǝgray where over 200 Portuguese armies were also killed. The remaining 130 forces joining the Christian King Gälawdewos fought courageously to revenge the death of their leader Cristovão da Gama and defeated Imam Aḥmad at the battle of Wäyna Däga in February 1543. This was a turning point in the history of medieval Christian kingdom which revived from the total collapse.
The history of Portuguese military expedition and later the coming of the Portuguese religious fathers recounted in the contemporary Portuguese accounts, Jesuits documents, Gǝʿǝz sources and letters that have been exchanged between the Kings of the two kingdoms (Christian kingdom of Ethiopia and Portugal). In this regard, the two of the main accounts are the account of Castanhoso which recounted the history of the expedition only until 1544 the date Castanhoso returned to Gao. The accounts of Bermudez which recounted the group from 1541 until the year he left of the Christian kingdom. The official chronicle of King Gälawdewos, which is the main concern of this paper, has intermittently described the story of the Portuguese. In this regard, first, I present general feature of the Chronicle and the Protagonist King Gälawdewos. Secondly, I focus on the main themes how these Portuguese are presented in the text. Finally, I present why the chronicler neglected most of the facts about Portuguese and drawn a conclusion.
 Franz-Christoph Muth, “Aḥmad b. Ibrāhīm al-Ġāzī”, in Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, ed. Siegbert Uhlig (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003), vol. I, 155–158.
This is the first of four blog-posts going back to a paper at the International Congress at Leeds in 2017:
II. Representations of Portuguese in the chronicle and a commentary
III. Conclusion & Bibliography