Anthroponyms seta COVILHÃ, Pêro da (1450/55-?)

Conde de Ficalho?s biographical work of this Portuguese explorer at the service of King João II is still insurmountable. Pêro da Covilhã must have been born between 1450 and 1455. At a very young age he must have migrated to Castile, where in 1467 or 1468 he was employed by the house of Medina Sidónia, in Seville. He returned to Portugal in 1474 and entered the service of King Afonso V as the groom in charge of the spurs. After the Battle of Toro he went with the King to France, where the Portuguese sovereign asked for the help of Louis XI. In this last trip Pêro da Covilhã was already a squire, a position he still held when King João II rose to power. At the service of the new monarch, he left for Castile to observe, with discretion, the King?s enemies who had sought refuge in the neighbouring realm of Castile. According to what Pêro da Covilhã told father Francisco Álvares, he went twice to the north of Africa on commercial assignments. During his stay in Seville he must have learnt some Arab, which was later improved during the mentioned voyages. When he returned from Magreb, King João II must have started to plan sending emissaries to India, certain that he was that it was possible to cross from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans by sea. This mission was given to Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso Paiva (a squire as well, born in Castelo Branco, and also knowledgeable of the Arab language). According to a report by Pêro da Covilhã, to better guide themselves they were given a world map which was irremediably lost during the voyage. In case they existed, the official instructions of King João II were very concrete: collect information on the commerce in India, find out if the Atlantic and the Indian oceans were indeed connected, and contact Prester John to determine the real military power of this Christian king. The latter assignment was given to Afonso de Paiva. In May 1487 the two explorers left, taking with them a bill of exchange and four hundred ?cruzados? in currency. According to Pêro da Covilhã, they crossed the Iberian Peninsula until they reached Valencia and Barcelona, and then sailed to Naples, Rhodes and Alexandria. In order to travel across Muslim territories, they had to pose as merchants, the only Christians accepted in such territories. From Alexandria they went to Cairo, where they joined a caravan of Maghreb people destined to Aden, travelling by land until El-Tor and stopping at Suez, then sailing from there to their final destination. It was in Aden that the two envoys went their separate ways, arranging to meet in Cairo after their assignments were over, and then return to Portugal. Afonso de Paiva was going to Ethiopia while Pêro da Covilhã was going to India. From Aden, Pêro da Covilhã left for Cannanore and then to Calicut, and from there to Goa. Later, he went to Hormuz. He continued his tour of the east African coast until he reached Sofala. Pêro da Covilhã?s mission was accomplished and in the beginning of 1491 he returned to Cairo where he received news of Afonso de Paiva?s death and his failed attempt to reach Abyssinia. Mestre José and rabbi Abraão gave him new royal orders. Pêro da Covilhã should join the rabbi in an unknown mission to Aden, as well as, before returning to Portugal, collect information on Prester John. Again, Pêro da Covilhã obeyed the orders of King João II. According to Conde de Ficalho, he must have entered Ethiopia in 1492 or 1493, reaching the court of Eskender (who was then the king or negus of Abyssinia) to whom he handed the letters sent by the Portuguese monarch, which were written in Arab. His assignment over, Pêro da Covilhã was caught in the middle of a succession crisis due to the death of Eskender. When Narod became king, Pêro da Covilhã asked for the required credence to return to Portugal, but the new monarch didn?t consent to his departure. Pêro da Covilhã must have adapted well to life in Abyssinia: the negus bestowed him lands, he held administrative offices and started a family. He was about seventy years old when the embassy of Dom Rodrigo de Lima arrived. It was then that he gave an account of his voyage to priest Francisco Álvares, who wrote it down in A Verdadeira Informação da Terra do Preste João das Índias [A True Relation of the Lands of Prester John of the Indies]. The report he had sent King João II probably never reached its destination, as referred by Gaspar Correia. Indeed, the armadas of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral were prepared bearing in mind that India was largely of the Christian persuasion; the armada of Vasco da Gama left Lisbon with insufficient information, for it was not duly prepared for sailing in the Indian Ocean and, namely, facing monsoon winds.

ALBUQUERQUE, Luís de, Navegadores, Viajantes e Aventureiros Portugueses, Lisboa, Caminho, 1992. FICALHO, Conde de, Viagens de Pêro da Covilhã, Lisboa, 1989. PEREIRA, António dos Santos, ?Pero da Covilhã e Afonso de Paiva, de Castelo Branco: Agentes Secretos de D. João II?, in Anais Universitários. Série Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Covilhã, Universidade da Beira Interior, n.º 1, 1990, pp. 147-155.

Author: Teresa Lacerda
Translated by: Maria das Mercês Pacheco

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