A bittersweet Ethiopian tale
In the 16th century, a Portuguese embassy reaches the court of King Lebna Dengel in Ethiopia—a king the Portuguese insist on calling The Prester, to the Ethiopian king’s great bafflement.
Who is this Prester these insistent Birtukan keep going on about? (this is how the Ethiopians themselves call the Portuguese, as they stumble on the letter -P-).
(Prester Who? The… Birtukan?! Ressources, links, books and more @ bottom of page)
The Search for Prester John
The Portuguese have entered their era of great discoveries, and they wish to secure the spice route to India, and lock the Red Sea to their competitors, the Turks. For this reason, they seek an alliance with the fabled Prester John—a great and fair King who is said to rule over a fantastically rich and powerful kingdom in Africa.
This cultural encounter, ofter overlooked today, was of great significance at the time, both for the Ethiopians and for the Portuguese, and has left behind in Ethiopia many ruined castles, palaces as well as bridges spanning the Blue Nile—but there also lingers on the memory of the community of Ethiopian-Portuguese born from the marriage of Portuguese soldiers and Ethiopian women.
The orange blossom of Ethiopia
These Ethiopian-Portuguese also come to be known as Birtukan (from the word Portugal, as seen above).
Later, this name is also given to the fruit these same Portuguese have brought to the country: the orange.
This story of these Portuguese in Ethiopia starts auspiciously.
The Portuguese musqueteers gallantly save the day for the Ethiopian kingdom, by defeating their foes, and then proceed to put down roots in the Ethiopian highlands, with the blessings of the grateful Ethiopian king (far from securing the Red Sea, the musqueteers have been blockaded in the country and cannot leave).
The story soon takes a turn for the worse, when missionary Jesuits sent from Goa attempt to forcefully convert the Orthodox Ethiopians to Catholisism.
Civil war and strife ensue, before the Jesuits are finally expelled—but not the Birtukan themselves, who come to form a class of professional soldiers and builders who are much appreciated for their talents.
But a legacy of mistrust, and a fear that this group could one day be allied to the powerful Jesuits, lingers on, and, in 1667, an edict calling for their conversion is issued by the Ethiopian monarch.
The Birtukan’s final chapter ends with the exile of those of the Portuguese descendants who refuse to forgo their identity, too Sennar in Sudan, where they will never be heard of again.
In today’s Ethiopia, the name Birtukan continues to describe both the tangy fruit, and the colour orange itself. Birtukan is also a common girl’s name—perhaps in memory of the the Ethiopian-Portuguese community which put down roots in the Ethiopian higlands, where they lived on for over a century, before being uprooted and leaving for exile.
The Oranges of Prester John recounts the bittersweet tale of the forgotten community that once thrived in the Ethiopian Highlands.
A Story in Stone
Forgotten by many, the castles and bridges built by the Ethiopian-Portuguese, or Birtukan, and Indian craftsmen from Goa, can be found throughout the central Ethiopian highlands, where they form—in the words of J. Hespeler-Boultbee—a story in stone.
This rich episode, forming part of the first wave of globalisation, was to have deep repercussions on Ethiopia’s history—both good and bad. The clumsy attempts of the Jesuits to convert Ethiopia to Catholisism resulted in civil war, after which the country closed down to most foreigners for two centuries. This is not without parallels with the story of the Jesuit incursion into Japan, unfolding at the same time, and likewise mandaded from Goa, in India, as seen in the Martin Scorsese film, Silence:
Memories of the Burtukan
The Oranges of Prester John seeks to shine a light on this rich history, and explore some of its ramifications by travelling to the less seldom visited Ethio-Portuguese sites, and talking to local people about their oral histories of these events – what is left today of the mixed culture of the Birtukan in Ethiopia ?
The Orange falls far from the Tree
Today, there are many Birtukan in Ethiopia… at least in name: a quick google search for the term yields 199 000 pages, and there are 16 000 results for people named ‘Birtukan’ on Facebook alone.
But what of the areas the Birtukan once lived in Bahar Dar, around Lake Tana, Debre Tabor and Ankober?
This is question a the heart of The Oranges of Prester John.
As the Portuguese fought and built their way to Asia and back, they left in their wake a trail of Portuguese communities, or Luso-Asians.
Some of these communities are still vibrant today, and still speak Portuguese (or creols), in places such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, Macao and Ceylon. Many more disappeared (many Luso-Asians played a vital role in Portugal’s commercial ventures in Africa, a number of them settled in Ethiopia, thus becoming Luso-Asian-Ethiopians…)
But of those still recognisable today, perhaps the closest parallel with the story of the Birtukan in Ethiopia is that of the Bayingyi people of upper Myanmar:
But still, consider the Bayingyi – they descend from Portuguese soldiers who arrive in the late 16th century (and so in Ethiopia) – for a while, these Portuguese wield much power as an autonomous force (similar), but are then defeated and used as mercenaries before being relegated to a few villages (likewise in Ethiopia), where their descendents live today, forgetfull of the Portuguese language, but not of their Catholicism (but not so in Ethiopia, where those Birtukan who did not leave, blended into the local communities).
It is probably this last element which provides the clue of the bannishment of the Birtukan: they were unfortunate in living in a Christian country: whereas the majority Budhist land of Myanmar had nothing to fear from a tiny minority, the Birtukan were a constant threat to the integrity of Ethiopian Orthodoxy.
Other more modern points of comparaison in Ethiopia itself, could be the constitution of Italian-Ethiopian (and Armenian and Greek-Ethiopian) communities, or, closer in time still, the Ethio-Cubans.
But, paradoxically, the most enduring ‘foreign’ community in Ethiopia are… the Yemeni.
Why paradoxal? Because the Yemeni have been largely forgotten in Ethiopia’s history, and also because they (or their Turkish/Yemeni/Arab brethren) were of course the party against which the Portuguese and the Birtukan were originally mustered… But the truth (as so often in Ethiopia) is much more complex and the Yemeni have been the one of the most successful communities to live among (to become a part of?) the Ethiopians.
Very interesting reseach piece here by Samson A. Bezabeh: Yemeni Families in the Early History of Addis Ababa and its pole opposite, a story about Yemen’s ‘Muwaladeen’ (people of Ethiopian – but also Somali…etc. – descent, living in Yemen). Here is another article giving some background info.
A Portuguese Envoy to Prester John
The film will bear a particular focus on the life of Pero da Covilhã—the first envoy of Portugal to reach the kingdom of Ethiopia, at the tail-end end of the 15th century, who went on to spend his whole life in the country, became the Ethiopian king’s right-hand man and who himself, had several children in the country.
The Portuguese Embassy in Ethiopia
Filming schedule: Ethiopia, February 1018/Portugal May 2018—Release: Autumn 2018
Church and State in Ethiopia by Taddesse Tamrat
Prisonners of Prester John by Cates Baldridge
Prester John, a podcast from BBC4 & Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time
Cannon Soldiers of Burma by James Myint Swe
A Story in Stones, by J. J Hespeler-Boultbee
Deana Borroqueiro’s O Espião de D. João II (A novel on Pero da Covilhã, in Portuguese)
Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Abyssinia during the years 1520–1527, by Francisco Alvarez (free ebook)
Viagens de Pêro da Covilhã, by Conde de Ficalho
The Indigenous and the Foreign in Christian Ethiopian Art, by Isabel Boavida and Manuel João Ramos
Histórias Etíopes by Manuel João Ramos
Envoys of a Human God: The Jesuit Mission to Christian Ethiopia, 1557–1632, by Andreu Martínez d’Alós-Moner
Des Jésuites au royaume du Prêtre Jean by Hervé Pennec
Ethiopia through Writers’ eyes anthologizes several of the Portuguese writers in Ethiopia: Alvarez, Lobo, de Castanhoso, and also Gibbon, Sihab ab-Din Ahmad bin ‘Abd al-Qader and Emperor Gelawdewos, all writing on the events of this period (the book can be found @Eland Books, Amazon, and in Ethiopia @ Mega and @BookWorld).
Ethiopia, Table Mountain or Tabula Rasa? (Uthiopia.com article on Ethiopian history)