Representations of the Portuguese in the Royal Chronicle of King Gälawdewos (1540–1559): A Historical Commentary II: Representations of Portuguese in the chronicle and a commentary

This is the second of three blog-posts going back to a paper at the International Congress at Leeds in 2017: I. Introduction & Background to the Portuguese expedition – II. Representations of the Portuguese in the chronicle and a commentary – III. Conclusion & Bibliography

King Gälawdewos was considered as the restorer of the Christian kingdom from the decisive military defeat of the Muslim state of Adal, Aḥmad b. Ibrāhīm al-Ġāzī traditionally called Ahmad ‘Grañ. He was the second son of King Lǝbnä Dǝngǝl whom he succeeded in 1540. He fought Ahmad and defeated him with considerable support of the Portuguese. Then he maintained relative peace and security of the Christian kingdom for short time. He faced several challenges in the kingdom including the revival of the Muslim state of Adal, the expansion of the Oromo people from South to North and the occupation of Massawa by the Turkish forces. Finally, he confronted the Muslim forces, indeed with the joining of him a few Portuguese military armies, and was killed by Nur forces in 1559 and the Muslims cut his head took it as a war trophy.

His 19 years of reign is recounted in his official chronicle which was written two years after his death in 1561 most probably by the famous medieval church scholar ʿƎnbaqom. It was edited and translated into French by William Conzelman in 1895 whose edition and translation contributed for the reconstruction of the medieval history of Ethiopia in last 100 years. A new updated edition of this chronicle with annotated English translation is available that I have carried out for the fulfilment of my Ph.D. study.

Though the chronicle of King Gälawdewos is, next to the chronicles of Särṣä Dǝngǝl and Susǝnyos, the most voluminous of the chronicles of Ethiopian kings, only two-thirds of its content is valuable for the historical reconstruction. The remaining one-third, of clear literary value, is composed of praises, prophecies, panegyrics and biblical quotations which cannot be treated as historical data.

Evaluated from the historical point of view, the part of the Chronicle valuable for the historical reconstruction has many shortcomings. It lacks objectivity and reliability, particularly in unfolding the role of the Portuguese who, in fact, saved Gälawdewos’s force from a decisive defeat during the military confrontation with Aḥmad b. Ibrāhīm al-Ġāzī. Indeed, if one would consider what the Portuguese armies have done in those turbulent years, it would be justifiable if the chronicler dedicates at least a few chapters about them. But a very little information even in some cases inaccurate has been recorded in the chronicle. In general, the Chronicle provides intermittently very little information about the coming of the Portuguese army, why they were defeated in the first confrontation between the Muslims, the unnecessary act of the Portuguese army who killed a Muslim without the good will of the king, the coming of the Portuguese envoys. In all these narratives, the readers would clearly understand that the chronicler deliberately undermines the role of the Portuguese whose history is indeed well documented in the work of Castanhoso, chronicler of the Portuguese expedition. Let us examine such facts in the chronicle point by the point.

Even though the two sources are concerned about their own subject of discussion, the chronicler of Gälawdewos denies many basic facts concerning the Portuguese. The chronicler tends to glorify the protagonist, King Gälawdewos, and in some cases in the battles when the Portuguese were confronted with Aḥmad in the absence of Gälawdewos, he ascribes the final victory to the king. This is clear in Chapter 12[1] where the chronicler narrates the king’s bravery stating that the Portuguese involved in the struggle with unfaithful people, but the final victory was given to Gälawdewos. This chapter basically deals with the first military confrontation between the Portuguese soldiers and the forces of Aḥmad at the time when Gälawdewos was in Šäwa. From then, the king moved to Tǝgray to meet them after their victory. In this passage, the chronicler obviously makes a statement incompatible with the fact. The whole text reads like this

“In the second year of the reign of Mar Gälawdewos the church of Tǝgray won again a partial victory over the Muslim tribes from around Aräfta because the final victory was not given but to Mar Gälawdewos, peace upon him. At that time, he was not in Tǝgray; rather he was in the land we just mentioned. For this reason, the Church could not obtain a complete victory as we said at the beginning of this chapter, because Jesus Christ placed him, under himself, head of the Church: a head, thanks to which all his members are strong. [29] The reason for such a victory of the Church at that time (was) that in this year children of Tubal (Tobel), son of Japheth (Yafet), strong and brave men, who were thirsty for combat like wolves and hungry for killing like a lion, came up from the sea. These helped the aforementioned church in the war (against) the Muslims and they began defeating them. But even if they thought to come to the complete victory, that was not accorded to them, Imām Aḥmäd fought them and killed most of them and casted down their elite troops. [30] He killed their leader whose heart was brave and strong, like brass and iron, by a killing unworthy of him, having he captured and chained him, which is a treatment for the weak and powerless. All this happened to them since in that time they did not fight by the order of Mar Gälawdewos for whom victory and power was given and who had the right to open the sealed book of the future and to unmake its seal to be called victorious” [2]

Similarly, the chronicler misrepresented the story in Chapter 15 where he represented the Portuguese armies that they need the support of King Gälawdewos who is contrary to the Portuguese sources and to the King’s letter. When the Portuguese arrived, King Gälawdewos was in the south of the Kingdom in Šäwa fighting the governors of Ahmad and sent their envoy Marqos to tell him of their arrival to the King and join them as soon as possible to fight the forces of Ahmad. On the contrary, however, the Chronicle wrote that they sent Marqos in need of the king’s support and save them from Muslim annihilation. It reads “King Mar Gälawdewos set off on his way towards Tǝgray where Imām Aḥmäd and his entire army stationed. And he was accompanied by Marqos the Frank who brought a letter from the Franks who wrote to him urging him to put their camp under his protection so that they would be saved by his protection from the wrath of the unbelievers.”[3] The author always needs to help his protagonist king, in the historiography. He represented the king savior of the Portuguese armies from the hand of the Muslims, which indeed the king himself reported some years after the victory of Wäyna Däga in 1550 in the long letter, to the Portuguese king why he failed to join them as fast as possible, the death of the valiant leader of the Portuguese army.

The most puzzling part of the story is that the Chronicle missed the Portuguese role in one of the decisive battles took place in 1543 against the Muslims that culminated Ahmad rule. [4] The Chronicle does not pay attention to the military success of the Portuguese armies in the final confrontation with Aḥmad. He did not give the size of Portuguese armies who involved in the battle on the side of the Christian monarch. He refrains even from mentioning directly their presence but rather he referred only at one point that one of the Portuguese soldiers killed a Muslim captive without the good wish of the king which clearly provides a clue as of the chronicler still needed to present the mercy of his king and the hostility of the Portuguese army. The text reads “But one of them, whose wickedness had been lifted up to clouds,[5] was killed deceitfully by one of the soldiers of Portugal without the permission for this, the permission of our King Mar Gälawdewos, peace be upon him”. [6]Apart from this, nothing said what the Portuguese deeds in such decisive battlefield in this chronicle. However, the story of the tremendous Portuguese deeds in this battle is well narrated in both Ethiopia and Portuguese contemporary sources.

On the Portuguese side, the account of Castanhoso and Bermudez pointed out that there were about 120 Portuguese armies who engaged in the final confrontation with Aḥmad and who remained of those who died in the first confrontation against Aḥmad. On the Ethiopian side, the main protagonist of the Chronicle, King Gälawdewos, reported the situation even better and very precisely in the letter he sent to the Portuguese king Dom João III, dated at the beginning of 1550, seven years after the victory of the decisive battle against the forces of Ahmad. It stated that “…Through your prayers God worked us great good; with the help of your men we Conquered the Moors, have always been victories over them.” [7]The king message about the role of the Portuguese seems very significant and they became victories together with the king even in the later battles he conducted after the death of the Muslim leader Aḥmad. In the same letter the King also continued to narrate how the Portugal army became victorious against his Muslim contenders without even mentioning the role of his local armies “Cristovão da Gama with four hundred Franks could not destroy the moors; the fortunate Ayres Dias, his servant with one hundred and thirty Franks defeated and destroyed them entirely although Cristovão da Gama fought very valiantly”.[8] The letter of the king is beyond doubt is more reliable than any of the sources that reveals the role they played have been so considerable even compared to the local armies. In the same way, the eye-witness account of Castanhoso further confirmed the fact stating that “in that country, fifty Portuguese are a greater reinforcement than one thousand natives”.[9] Indeed, the Portuguese soldiers with the gun machine were more effective than the local armies of King Gälawdewos thus the considerable role they played was beyond doubt. On the contrary, however, in the same Chapter 19 the chronicler does not give much attention to the role of the Portuguese in the final confrontation together with the king against Aḥmad’s forces since he claims that Aḥmad was killed by one of Gälawdewos’s closer soldiers in early 1543. It reads ወሞተ፡ ኢማም፡ አሕመድ፡ በእደ፡ አሐዱ፡ እምአግብርቲሁ። (‘Imām Aḥmad was killed by the hand of one of his servants’).[10] Thus, the chronicler ascribes the full victory to his own people, undermining the role of the Portuguese. However, both contemporary sources of the Portuguese, Castanhoso[11], and Bermudez[12], confirm that he was killed by one of the Portuguese soldiers. I think that during that time, Gälawdewos’s soldiers were not familiar with the use of a gun and it was possible only in the hand of the Portuguese.

Similarly, the chronicler also commits some errors concerning periodization.[13] He relates the arrival of the first Jesuit missionary to the time of the king’s return from the expedition against the people of Gämbo in 1552: ‘he found in court the Portuguese envoys that were waiting for him.’[14] But the chronicler silenced deliberately the purpose of the coming of the missionaries.

Historically, it is known that the arrival of the Portuguese soldiers was realized after lengthy and repeated ask for military support by both King Lǝbnä Dǝngǝl and his son King Gälawdewos.[15] Neglecting this fact, the chronicler claims that they came from across the sea since they were hungry of warfare. His statement reads በይእቲ፡ ዓመት፡ ዐርጉ፡ እምባሕር፡ ደቂቀ፡ ቶቤል፡ ወልደ፡ ያፌት፡ ዕደው፡ ኃያላን፡ ወጽኑዓን፡ እለ፡ ጽሙኣን፡ ለፀብእ፡ ከመ፡ ተኵላ፡ ወርኁባን፡ ለቀትል፡ ከመ፡ አንበሳ። (‘In this year children of Tubal, son of Japheth, strong and brave men, who were thirsty for combat like wolves and hungry for killing like a lion, landed from the sea’).[16] In addition, the chronicler deliberately passes over the names of all the most important personalities of the Portuguese forces who came to support the king and those Jesuit missionaries who came in the half of the sixteenth century. However, the letter of King Gälawdewos indicates that he appreciated them for their support.[17] It appears that the chronicler treats more fairly the Muslims than the Portuguese. He mentions most of the names of the military commanders of Aḥmad since the chronicler was well acquainted in Arabic language. He does not deny the defeat of the king by the Muslim army. This fact is only provided by the Portuguese sources.[18] In this regard, what is written in the chronicle coincides with the oral information. In addition, the chronicle in most cases corresponds with the reading of Castanhoso and the work of Castanhoso is more devoted to recount the history from the Portuguese perspective, particularly before they contacted King Gälawdewos. However, the chronicle does not tell us what happened to the Portuguese after the war. Many Portuguese sources confirm that they were well treated in the court and they were donated some land. The letter of the king indicates that he had good heart for the Portuguese until his death.[19] Many Jesuit missionaries, with the exception of Bermudez, state that Gälawdewos was kind to them. In addition, the chronicler mentions the kind treatment of the people who had been driven by Oromo in the war of 1557.[20]

Finally, the Chronicle dedicates a very small chapter for the religious disputes between the King and the Portuguese missionaries whereby he overemphasizes the victory of the church people from Ethiopian side undermining the Portuguese missionaries which were led by the Oviedo. [21]However, the chronicler does not have the arguments of the missionary side that still looked at the Chronicle is one-sided.

This article is not only limited to commenting on the failure of the Chronicle on the points raised in the Chronicle, but I suppose, however, abundant stories of Portuguese soldiers neglected in the Chronicle. Although Gälawdewos has succeeded in restoring the peace and stability of the kingdom, he has always faced challenges: fighting against the rapid expansion of Oromo, the revival of Muslim states, the strengthening of the kingdom with various people (Gämbo, Gumär), in all these campaigns the Portuguese engaged with the king and keeping him until his death, which emerges from the Portuguese sources and from the letter of the King. According to data gathered from the text, the king participated in more than eight battles after the arrival of Portuguese until his death 1559, in most of these battles Portuguese soldiers joined the king. None of these facts described in the Chronicle – his campaign for the Gambo, Oromo, Hadiyya, Adal and others. Thus, the history of these Portuguese in the span of 15 years has not been reported at all in the Chronicle which recounted in the Portuguese contemporary sources the last year more convincingly to Castanhoso and Bermudez.

As it is seen above the main protagonist of the text, King Gälawdewos was very friendly and grateful to the Portuguese in various of his correspondences why so the chronicles failed to recount the role they played in the military confrontation? This should be ascribed to the fact that the chronicle was composed in the time when the Jesuits were in major conflict with the court of Minas, who finally expelled them.

[1] Solomon Gebreyes 2016, 105 (text) = 190 (tr.)

[2] Solomon Gebreyes 2016, 105 (text) = 190 (tr.)

[3] Solomon Gebreyes 2016, 108 (text) = 192(tr.)

[4] Solomon Gebreyes 2016, 111–114 (text) = 194–195(tr.)

[5] I have translated it word by word, it means that whose wickedness had been boundless.

[6] Solomon Gebreyes 2016, 114 (text) =195 (tr.)

[7] Whiteway 1967, 116.

[8] Whiteway 1967, 117.

[9] Whiteway 1967, 77.

[10] Solomon Gebreyes 2016, 113 (text) = 195 (tr.)

[11] Whiteway 1967, 80

[12] Whiteway 1967, 192.

[13] As it is dealt with in the narrative structure, the best thing of the chronicle is that his narration of the events is arranged according to chronology. This can be taken as an important feature of the text.

[14] Solomon Gebreyes 2016, 135 (text) = 210 (tr.)

[15] See the letters of the two kings, Raineri 2003, 47, 57.

[16] Solomon Gebreyes 2016, 105 (text) = 190 (tr.). In contrast, Pereira in the introduction to his edition of the chronicle of Minas, who took this point as the appreciation of the chronicler for the Portuguese soldiers. Cp. Pereira 1888, 10.

[17] Whiteway 1967, 115, 119.

[18] For the history of Aḥmad and his forces after 1535, the year at which Futūḥ al-Ḥabaša stops, we do not have sources: definitely, if Futūḥ al-Ḥabaša were continued, it would have been an important gift for the Ethiopian historiography. It is only this chronicle that accounts the whole episode of the Muslims after 1535.

[19] Whiteway 1967, 120.

[20] Solomon Gebreyes 2016, 195 (text) = 228 (tr.)

[21] Solomon Gebreyes 2016, 141 (text) = 215 (tr.).

Cite this article as: solomonbeyene, "Representations of the Portuguese in the Royal Chronicle of King Gälawdewos (1540–1559): A Historical Commentary II: Representations of Portuguese in the chronicle and a commentary," in Africana, 17/11/2017,


Research Fellow in Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian Studies, Universität Hamburg.

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