Francisco Alvarez

From Academic Kids

Francisco Alvarez (c.1465 - c.1540) was a Portuguese missionary and explorer.

Born in Coimbra, Portugal, as an adult he was a chaplain-priest and almoner to King Manuel I of Portugal. He was sent in 1515 as part of an embassy to the negus negust of Ethiopia, accompanied by the Ethiopian ambassador Mattheus. Their first attempt to reach the port of Massawa failed due to the actions of Soares de Albergaria, governor of Portuguese India, which got no closer than the Dahlak Archipelago and led to the death of the Portuguese ambassador Duarte Galvão at Kamaran. Alvarez and Mattheus were forced to wait until the arrival of Soares' replacement, Diogo Lopes de Sequeira, who successfully sent the embassy on, with Dom Rodrigo de Lima replacing Duarte Galvão. The party at last reached Massawa on April 9, 1520, and reached the court of Lebna Dengel where he befriended several Europeans who had gained the favor of the Emperor, which included Pero da Covilhã and Nicolao Branceleon. Alvarez remained six years in Ethiopia, returning to Lisbon in either 1526 or 1527.

In 1533 he was allowed to accompany Dom Martinho de Portugal to Rome on an embassy to Pope Clement VII, to whom Alvarez delivered the letter Lebna Dengel had written the Pope. The precise date of Alvarez's death, like that of his birth, is unknown, but the writer of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article concludes it was later than 1540, in which year an account of his travels were published at Lisbon. In the introduction of their translation of Alvarez's work, C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford furnish evidence that points to Alvarez's death in Rome, and admit that he may have died before his work was published.

Alvarez's writings

In 1540, Luis Rodriguez published a version of Alvarez's account in a one volume folio, entitled Verdadeira informação das terras do preste João das Indias ("A True Relation of the Lands of Prester John of the Indies"). C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford cite evidence, based in part on the earlier work of Professor Roberto Almagia, showing that Rodriguez's publication is only a part of Alvarez's entire account. Another version of what Alvarez wrote was included in an anthology of travel narratives, Navigationi et Viaggi assembled and published by Giovanni Battista Ramusio, published in 1550. Almagia also identified three manuscripts in the Vatican Library which contain versions of excerpts from the original manuscript.

Alvarez's work has been translated into English at least twice. The first time was the work of the ninth Baron Stanley of Alderley for the Hakluyt Society in 1881. This translation was revised and augmented with notes by C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford, The Prester John of the Indies (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1961).

The author of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article was critical of the information it contained, believing it should "be received with caution, as the author is prone to exaggerate, and does not confine himself to what came within his own observation." However, Beckingham and Huntingford have a much higher opinion of Alvarez's testimony, stating that not only is it "incomparably more detailed than any earlier account of Ethiopia that has survived; it is also a very important source for Ethiopian history, for it was written just before the country was devastated by the Moslem Somali and pagan Galla invasions of the second quarter of the sixteenth century." He provides the first recorded and detailed descriptions of Axum and Lalibela. They continue:

He is sometimes wrong, but very rarely silly or incredible. He made a few mistakes; he may well have made others that we cannot detect because he is our sole authority; when he tried to describe buildings his command of language was usually inadequate; he is often confused and obscure, though this may be as much his printer's fault as his own; his prose is frequently difficult to read and painful to translate; but he seems to us to be free from the dishonesty of the traveller who tries to exaggerate his own knowledge, importance, or courage.1


  1. C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford, Prester John, p.13

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