A letter buried in the vaults of the British Library reveals fascinating details of just how extensive Ethiopia’s links were with other nations in the early 17th century.

In 1788 the English historian, Edward Gibbon remarked: “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten.”

This view has long been discredited, but surprisingly little detail of Ethiopia’s international connections prior to the 18th century has received close consideration. The only area that has been really investigated are the Portuguese Jesuit missions, first in the 1520s, and then in the first quarter of the 17th century when the Jesuits tried to convert Ethiopia to Catholicism. It was an effort that tore the state apart in a viciously religious civil war during the reign of the Emperor Sesenyos (Susenyos) (1606-1632), and forced his abdication.

Buried treasure

A letter buried in the vaults of the British Library reveals fascinating details of just how extensive Ethiopia’s links were with other nations in the early 17th century. It was written by an Armenian merchant on 20th May 1612, saying that he had come from “the court of the Prester John some 12 days since.” The letter, reproduced in full at the end of this article, was sent to the English East India Company which had established a foothold for itself in India. Although transcribed from the East India Company’s records and published in 1888, the letter has received little attention from Ethiopian and Indian scholars.

The merchant visited Emperor Sesenyos at Dombia on the northern shores of Lake Tana. He describes it as “a very great city” though this was certainly misleading. Dombia was the name of a region to the north and north west of Lake Tana and it was often the site of the Emperor’s winter residence but it was not a formal, built city. The Emperor spent most of his time on the move, with an enormous retinue and army, on campaign or on circuit to collect revenue and feed his troops. The royal chronicle of one his predecessors quoted an emperor in 1579 as saying if he prolonged his stay in a region “the country will be ruined, because our army is numerous, indeed innumerable. It is better that I leave for Dembeya and that I lead them to the lands of the pagans, so that they can eat and pillage their goods.”

The letter portrays the Emperor as powerful: receiving up to 2,000 subjects a day, attended by 30 to 40 nobles (or “great men”) who heard complaints or requests. The Emperor was said to have 300,000 warriors armed with lances and swords, as well as cavalry, whom he could command in the case of war. The figures appear high. Other sources suggest the Emperor could put 30,000 to 40,000 of his own troops into the field of whom 3-4,000 would be cavalry and 400-500 musketeers, though the forces of the great nobles could swell this considerably.

Portrait of an Emperor

Sesenyos’s private life is described: with the Emperor drinking with a cloth held before him, since it is “a great shame…for any man to be seen drunk.” He is reported to have four wives and that “his religion is nearer the Greeks than any other, their mass, in a manner one, and likewise they keep their style and times of their feasts and Lents.” The merchant, more surprisingly, notes that the court was abstemious both in drink and meat consumption. This is at odds with other observers and the dating of the letter suggests he would have been in Ethiopia during the period of the Lenten fast of 55 days when there would have been no consumption of either alcohol or meat at the imperial table.

One might mention that the one-horned beasts our merchant notes  were presumably rhinoceroses, not for the first time confused with unicorns. A thousand years earlier, the traveller Cosmas Indicopleustes, from Egypt, in his Topographia Christiana (Christian Topography), written around 540 CE, noted there were statues of unicorns on the corners of the Emperor’s palace at Axum; a few hundred years later the medieval stories of Prester John consistently added unicorns to the myth of the Christian Priest King who was going to come to the rescue of the Crusader states of Palestine and Syria. The most recent references to a unicorn in Ethiopia of which we are aware were claims by local people on the western side of Lake Abiya in the Rift Valley of a single-horned horse-like animal in the 1960s!

Early trade links

The other area in which our Armenian merchant provides an insight is the commercial links between Ethiopia of the early seventeen century and the wider world.

He was received by Sesenyos sitting on a “gilt bedstead like those of China,” underlining the extent of trade links. The Jesuit Almeida a few years later reported that the Portuguese Jesuits had brought a bed, possibly this very one, from China for Sesenyos: “gilded and very handsome…he has it decorated with rich hangings and with very beautiful screens around it, given him by the Patriarch.”

In addition, cushions and carpets, rich fabrics and blankets reached the Ethiopian court from India, Bengala, and China – making up the commodities carried on the ten caravans a year that our merchant says made the 25-day journey from the port of Zeila on the Gulf of Aden coast. These caravans were said to carry “all kinds of Indian clothing, and likewise of our English commodities, to say, broad cloth, kersies, lead, tin, likewise velvets, damasks, satins, taffaties, and all other sorts of silk stuffs.” Goods originating in England, would be traded by Indian merchants, reaching Ethiopia by caravans passing through the Sultanate of Adal and Oromo-controlled areas before reaching the Christian lands probably around what is now Addis Ababa.

Similar commodities, velvets, silks, satins came on the great caravans, twice a year, bringing goods from Italy and the Ottoman Empire, passing via Cairo, through the Ottoman territories of Egypt and down the Red Sea coast.  The merchant noted one ‘grand caravan’ is reported to come from Cairo (or ‘Gran Cayro’) in August and another in November. Our merchant gives the prices of the goods, as well as the colours favoured by Ethiopians, reds, greens and violets, and other light colours, presumably including yellow, but not black.

Imperial crises

Sesenyos came to power somewhat unexpectedly in 1606 bringing an end to a series of succession crises after 1597. A cousin of the Emperor Sars’a Dengel (1563-97) he was captured by Oromos in about 1585 and ransomed two or three years later. He remained in touch with his captors and after he failed to get his father’s land returned, turned to banditry, leading groups of Oromo warriors. He acquired a reputation as a successful warrior and was able to seize the throne in 1606.

Once in power, he faced the repercussions of earlier internal conflicts, and the need to stem the Oromo expansion which in the previous fifty years had overrun most of the southern areas of the medieval state and penetrated deep into the highland regions. The frontier defences of both the Sultanate of Adal and of Ethiopia, which had exhausted themselves in a long earlier conflict, were overrun by the advances of the Oromo gada in the second half of the century. Sesenyos was the first emperor to try and make some efforts to bring the Oromo effectively into mainstream imperial state politics, a role some took up with enthusiasm and continued subsequently during the Era of the Princes, the Zemene Mesafint (1760s to 1850s).

Another major thread to Sesenyos’ policy was to try for cooperation with Portugal, using the Jesuit mission to try and get a military alliance. It was an approach that had achieved some success sixty years earlier, when the Portuguese had supplied some help against the Emir of Adal who in turn acquired Ottoman military support. In 1540, Adal received 900 Ottoman musketeers and artillery; Ethiopia got 400 Portuguese musketeers. The Ottoman force was sent away after defeating and decimating the Portuguese, but in February 1543 at the Battle of Woina Dega near Lake Tana, the Emperor Galawdewos (1540 -1559) led Ethiopian forces and the few remaining Portuguese troops to victory over the Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi who died in the battle.

Civil war

Sesenyos, who later formally convert to Catholicism, underlined the military and political aspect of his interest in relations with the Jesuits in 1612 when he sent letters to the Pope and King Philip 11 of Portugal to say that he was prepared “to render obedience to Your Holiness as to the head of the universal Church, and henceforth to govern ourselves by your Patriarch,” and asking King Phillip for a thousand Portuguese troops without which, he said, “we cannot render [this obedience publically.” They never came.

Sesenyos’ abdication in 1632, bringing an end to the civil war caused by his efforts to convert Ethiopia to Catholicism, and the subsequent expulsion of the Portuguese Jesuits, also brought an end to any direct Ethiopian interest in a Portuguese alliance, or indeed any direct contact. It did not, however, limit Ethiopia’s interest in the Red Sea or in wider trading links. The successors of Sesenyos made efforts to seek relations with the Mogul Empire in India. Fasilidas (1632-1667) and his successors, Yohannes (1667-1682) and Iyassu 1 (1682-1706), used another Armenian, Murad, as their ambassador to the Mughal court in Delhi as well as to Gudjerat and Goa. Murad also visited Mokha in Yemen and Ceylon as well as the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia, in Java, on at least three occasions, in 1675, 1691 and 1694.

Fasilidas also wrote to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople and sent a mission to the Imam of Yemen. Armenians are likely to have been the carriers of his letters. The relationship with Ethiopia goes back a long way. Richard Pankhurst traces the origins of the relationship between Ethiopia and Armenia back hundreds of years. “One of Ethiopia’s leading religious leaders, Saint Ewostatéwos (c. 1273-1352), had travelled to Armenia, where he had died, after which disciples had returned home, bringing at least one Armenian with them.”

Ethiopian pilgrims and Armenians met regularly on pilgrimages to Jerusalem and a number of Armenian traders went on to serve the Ethiopian court. Pankhurst gives details of the role of one, known as Matthew, who was entrusted by Empress Eleni, regent for the under-age Lebna Dengel (1508 – 1540) with the task of making links with the Portuguese. Her aim was to warn the Portuguese King, Dom Manuel 1, of the threat the Ottoman advances in the Red Sea posed to the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, as well as to Ethiopia itself.   After an immensely complex and dangerous journey Matthew succeeded, bringing Portuguese diplomats with him, only to die before he could reach the Ethiopian imperial court.

Letter in full

An Armenian his report of the Prester John or the Ethiopian Emperor.

Laus Deo in the port of Agumo the 20th of May 1612.

Source: British Library, Letters received by the East India Company, ed. Danvers & Foster i,192-94 

Report to the Secretary of State for India in Council on the records of the India Office: records relating to agencies, factories, and settlements not now under the administration of the Government of India / by Frederick Charles Danvers.

  1. C Danvers, (Frederick Charles)

London: Printed for H.M.S.O. by Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1888. IOR/E/3/1 ff 141-42

The report of an Armenian which came from the court of the Prester John some 12 days since.

First from Dialeque (Diarbekir) to the King’s court called Dombia (Dembia),[efn_note] See also: Pankhurst, The Ethiopians: A History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 107. Also James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1805 edition), vol. 3, 344–350. For location of Dembia see here [/efn_note] a very great city, is 25 days journey by caravan, there goeth from thence yearly 10 caravans, whereof 8 are great, the commodities they carry, are all kinds of Indian clothing, and likewise of our English commodities, to say, broad cloth, kersies, lead, tin, likewise velvets, damasks, satins, taffaties, and all other sorts of silk stuffs. Their measure is about 1/2 yard, cloth that which is worth in Mocha 4 rials of 8 is there worth 8 rials, the price of kersies worth the half of broadcloth. The colours there most desired are reds, greens, violets, murries, and other light colours, yellows in no esteem nor blacks.  

Velvets of China of all sorts is worth 10 rials of 8 per 1/2 yard. Velvets of Italy much more worth, but not so profitable to the merchants because they are much dearer. Satins of Florence are worth 10 rials, damasks of the better sort worth 8 and 10 rials, taffetas 3 rials all colours well sold excepting yellows and blacks. 

Here follows the commodities which his country yieldeth with their prices. 

Civet great quantities is to be had, the price is 3 wakyas (which is near upon 4 oz. English) for 5 rials of 8, Elephant’s teeth the bahar worth 30 rials, the bahar is 360 rottolas of Moha. Wax 100 rottolas worth one rial of 8. Gold the rottola worth 60 rials of 8, the rottola is near upon 161/2 oz., lead and tin in great request, tin worth the rottola one rial, lead much more worth because the Turks will not suffer any to be carried into his country. Bezoar stones many are to be had and little worth. There are many beasts with one horn in their forehead like unto an unicorn, which horn they say is good against poison, there are of them which weigh 8 lb., some 7, 6, 4, and 3 lb., the greatest and fairest worth some 4 rials per piece, and those of a lessor sort worth less. Amongst the Turks and Moors in Arabia every lb. is worth one rial of 8. From Gran Cayro there goeth in August a great caravan and likewise another in November. The commodities they carry from thence are cloths, kersies, velvets, satins, damasks and all sorts of silks; from Cayro to Dombia is 50 days travel by caravan. 

The King’s State

First he sits on a gilt bedstead like those of China and there Cometh great troops of men daily to salute him, some days 2000, some days more, some days less, but Friday, being their day of fast, there cometh a far greater quantity than at other days. There are 30 or 40 great men that sit near the King, and at their houses hear all men’s complaints and suits, and what daily passeth in this business at their coming to the Court, they acquaint the King withal, and accordingly he doeth justice.  

It is a great shame amongst them for any man to be drunk. When the King drinks there is a cloth held before him, the drink which he drinks is made of honey: for wine they have not any in their country. When he eats, all people depart, only his council which attends him» who after he hath eaten, they eat, but not with any great state, and the quantity of meat is little, some 15 or 20 dishes to the King’s table. The women sit and converse with the men, the Turks cometh not near them to converse, eat or drink with them, only in merchandising they confer together. The King hath 4 wives for succession, but the commonalty hath but one; his religion is nearer the Greeks than any other, their mass, in a manner one, and likewise they keep their style and times of their feasts and Lents.  

His strength is as followeth  

When he goeth in person to the wars, he hath not less than 300,000 men armed with lances and swords, amongst which he hath 150 small shot and of horse not passing 2000. Their arms, both for foot and horse, are like the Turks, shirts of mail and quilted jacks. He hath some 40,000 mules which is the only beast they war with, for their long riding and passing the mountains; their ordinary warring is upon savage people that hath not the knowledge of God. There are great quantities of elephants in this country, but are not used to the wars but are killed for their teeth.

The King that reigneth at present is called Susinnus,[efn_note] Susenyos I, 1572 – 17 September 1632, (aged 60)  1606    17 September 1632 [/efn_note] his age 42 years, having sons and daughters, his brother’s name is Emana Christus. Dombia is situated upon the great river Nilus which at that place is at least 8 leagues over, and hath many small boats belonging to it. In this river are at least 80 islands small and great, 4 or 5 days journey off Dombia to the south west there is a mountain called Phillassa, which is inhabited by Jews, so steep that they are wound up in baskets, and is also very high, the compass of this mountain is ten days journey, being very fruitful and inhabited with many people, it is at some time of the year very cold and often snows; the inhabitants are tributaries to the Prester John but often rebel in regard of the strength of the hill. Zeila 2 days journey without the Babmandill is 25 days journey to Dombia. After you pass 8 days travel from Zeila you come among Christians his subjects. Finis.

Further reading 

Almeida.  “Some records of Ethiopia 1593-1646”, extracts translated by C. F. Beckingham and G. W. B. Huntingford (Hakluyt Society, ser. 2, 107) 1954

Mohammed Hassen. The Oromo of Ethiopia, a History  1570-1860. Red Seas Press, 1994

Richard Pankhurst, “Armenian Involvement in Ethiopian-Asian Trade in the 16th and 18th Centuries”, in Les Arméniens dans le commerce asiatique au début de l’ère moderne, Sushil Chaudhury, Kéram Kévonian (Eds.) Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 24 April 2008.

Pankhurst, R. “Indian Trade with Ethiopia, the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries”. Cahiers d’Études africaines, 1974, No 55, pp. 453-497 Ruquia Kazim Hussain. Armenian Merchants in India 1550-1800, PhD Dissertation, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh 1989

Tadesse Tamrat. Cburch and State in Ethiopia 1270-1527. Oxford Clarendon Press. 1972

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Main photo: A photo of the original letter received by the East India Company from the British Library.

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About the author

Martin Plaut

Martin Plaut is an author and journalist who specialises in the Horn of Africa and South Africa. He was the BBC Africa editor and is currently Senior Research Fellow at the University of London. His books include “Understanding Eritrea.”

About the author

Patrick Gilkes

Patrick, an adviser to the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 15 years, is a consultant/journalist/historian specializing in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. His books include ”The Dying Lion”.

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