Letters from the Ethiopian Emperor to The Kings of Portugal & the Pope - The Extremely Rare First Edition

AFRICA. AGE OF DISCOVERY. Lebna Dengel (Dawit II), Negus of Ethiopia (1497-1540); Álvares, Francisco (1465-1540)

Legatio David Aethiopiae Regis, ad Sanctissimum D. N. Clementem Papam VII. una cum obedientia, eidem sanctissimi D. N. praestita. Eiusdem David Aethiopiae regis legatio, ad Emanuelem Portugalliae regem. Item alia legatio eiusdem David Aethiopiae regis, ad Ioannem Portugalliae regem. De regno Aethiopiae, ac populo, deque moribus eiusdem populi, nonnulla.

Bologna: apud Iacobum Remolen Alostensem, 1533


Quarto: 20.4 x 14.3 cm. [23] lvs., lacking final blank.


Bound in 19th c. polished treed calf, boards framed with gold-tooled meander pattern. Mild staining in the inner margin of the first leaf, the rest of the text is in very fine condition. Printed in 1533 in Bologna by Jakob Remolen (a native of Aalst, Belgium) the work was translated into Italian and German. All editions are extremely rare.

An invaluable record of the Ethiopian embassy to Europe in 1527. Printed here for the first time are four letters from the Ethiopian Negus (Emperor) Lebna Dengal, who reigned as Dawit II (reg. 1508-1540). Two of the letters are addressed to the Portuguese kings Manuel I (reg. 1495-1521) and João III (reg. 1521-1557). The other two are addressed to Pope Clement VII (1478-1534). There is an additional letter, from King João to the pope. The letters are preceded by a brief account of the country and people of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. 

The letters had been brought to Europe in 1527 by the Negus’ ambassador, Sag za-Ab (also called Zaga Zabo), who journeyed to the Portuguese court in the company of returning members of an earlier Portuguese embassy, including Francisco Álvarez, who had spent six years in Ethiopia as part of the Portuguese embassy, and who, fluent in Ethiopian, had himself translated the letters from Ge'ez into Portuguese.

By the time Sag za-Ab and Álvarez arrived in Portugal, the religious and political climate had shifted. The Ethiopians’ Monophysite form of Christianity and their avowed Semitic heritage were now regarded with suspicion and -in some quarters- with hostility. The Sack of Rome in 1527 added to the ambassadorial party’s difficulties, and the letters to Pope Clement were not delivered until early 1533.

Dawit II’s letters to the Pope and his two letters to the Portuguese kings were presented by Álvarez in consistory at Bologna before the Pope, the Emperor, and the Roman Curia. After Álvarez read the letters aloud in Portuguese, his secretary read a Latin translation (printed here) by the humanist Paolo Giovio “so that they could be understood by all”.

In this volume, the letters are followed by a transcript of the exchange between the Negus’ representative, who presented the Pope with a small gold cross on Dawit II’s behalf, and the Pope, who extended his thanks to the Ethiopian emperor and promised an alliance and fraternity in Christ. The volume concludes with another short tract on the Ethiopian kingdom and its history.

The story of the Ethiopian embassies to Europe, the Portuguese counter-embassies to Ethiopia, and the transmission of these letters is a complex one. It is the story of a powerful African kingdom leveraging its power, Christian heritage, and mystique to forge military and economic alliances with Europe, and the story of Europe coming to terms with a civilization that defied expectations and shattered long-held myths about the fabled kingdom of “Prester John.”

The Kingdom of Ethiopia was founded, according to tradition, by Menelik I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, (and grandson of the biblical King David), and was therefore the oldest, continuously independent state in Africa. From the tenth century, the Monophysite Christian Ethiopians had contended with Muslim incursions along the shores of the Red Sea, in the Gulf of Aden, and the Horn of Africa. 

In the early 16th century, a powerful alliance was forged between the Turks and the African Muslim states. With Ethiopia threatened and Portugal anxious to regain control of the trade routes to India, Ethiopia’s and Portugal’s politico-religious interests were well-aligned.

King Manuel had already sent his own embassy to Ethiopia, in 1508, seeking an alliance against Egypt and other hostile powers in the region. The Ethiopian kingdom, through the agency of Empress Eléni (d. 1522), had in turn sent an embassy to Lisbon, promising Ethiopia’s help with soldiers and provisions. (A valuable account of those first embassies is included in Dawit II’s letter to Dom Manuel in this volume.)

The Letters to The Kings of Portugal:

On the eve of a jihad that would transform Ethiopia, Dawit II sent his own embassy to entreat the Portuguese for assistance to stop the Muslim advance. He proposed joint operations in the Red Sea Basin, noting that just such an alliance (between a “Great Christian King” and an Ethiopian king) had been prophesied long ago in the Life of Saint Victor. Dawit explains that he is beset by Muslims and pagans (some who worship fire, others who worship snakes) who have resisted every effort to convert them to the true faith. He boasts of the prowess of his own military (the Ethiopians are always able to defeat his enemies in battle) and promises thousands of soldiers, timber, iron and bronze to build a fleet; and vast sums of money to wage a joint war against the infidels. It is God’s will, Dawit declares, that Portugal should join with Ethiopia, and wage a crusade that will ultimately free the Holy Land.

The first letter was addressed to Manuel I, with whom Empress Eléni had begun negotiations and who had sent ambassadors back to Ethiopia in 1520 with his offer of a Portuguese alliance. When Dawit learned of Manuel’s passing in 1522, he composed the second letter, to Manuel’s son and successor João III. In the second letter, Dawit makes an appeal for European technology to modernize his kingdom:

“I want you to send me men, artificers, to make images and printed books, and swords and arms for all sorts for fighting; and also masons and carpenters, and men who make medicines, and physicians, and surgeons to cure illness; also artificers to beat out gold and set it, and goldsmiths and silversmiths, and men who know how to extract gold and silver and also copper from the veins, and men who can make sheet lead and earthenware; and craftsmen of any trades that are necessary in kingdoms, also gunsmiths. Assist me in this which I beg of you, as a brother does to a brother.”

The Letters to Pope Clement:

“The two letters from Dawit II to Clement VII are very revealing. Dawit states that he is sending ambassadors to Rome to 'kiss the foot of the pope' 'as the other Christian princes, to whom I am inferior neither in power’ nor in religion, are accustomed to do' . This phrase protesting equality is repeated later in the letter, and one wonders whether this sense of inferiority was genuinely Dawit's or whether it was a layer of concern inserted by Álvarez [the letter’s translator]. Dawit also referred to letters from Eugenius IV in his possession, and made clear his religious beliefs (almost his religious credentials) in order to convince the pope that he was a 'true' Christian. A fundamental part of Ethiopian and Congolese 'representation' of self concerned their Christianity, and Ethiopian and Congolese ambassadors and envoys were consistently charged with protesting this to suspicious kings and popes. The second letter, written by Dawit's own team of scholars, adopted a very different tone. 'Why', he asked the pope reproachfully, 'have you not sent any messenger to us so that you could ascertain with more certainty how we were living and how we were faring, as you are the shepherd and I am your sheep?'

“At another point Dawit bemoaned his exclusion from the circle of Christian kings, complaining that Portugal used to send legates and ambassadors, but no longer did so, nor did any other Christian king, and adverting once again to letters from Eugenius IV, and even to a 'book' of Eugenius which he owned. The final section of the letter is the most poignant: he told the pope that he was surrounded by Muslims, and asked why the Christian countries did not stick together, as the Muslims did, enjoying great fraternal peace, but instead indulged in injurious controversies and refused to help each other. This outsider's view of the Reformation from a sub-Saharan African Christian ruler is startling for its global perspective on what is usually considered a European problem, just as Dawit's criticisms of the pope's lack of proper consideration of him as a Christian prince force a reassessment of assumptions about the relationship between the two positions. Multiple translations (and transformations) cannot blunt the import of the message.”(Kate Lowe, Representing Africa: Ambassadors and Princes from Christian Africa to Renaissance Italy, in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. 17 (2007), p.101f.)

EDIT16 CNCE 64221; Gay 2603; Not in Göllner and Atabey; Paulitschke, Die Afrika-Literatur in der Zeit von 1500 bis 1750, 1022; Ofosu-Appiah 96. North American holdings: I. Latin Edition: Newberry, Minnesota, Cleveland Public, Harvard (2), NYPL; II. German language edition “Bot(t)schafft des großmechtigsten Konigs Dauid”: Brown; III. Italian language edition “L'Ambasciaria di David, re dell' Etiopia”: NYPL