It was early in the sixteenth century, during the build up of their vast maritime empire, that the Portuguese took an interest in the Somali coast and in the waters of the Gulf of Aden. Their military leaders and chroniclers often referred to the stretch of land running from the Cape Guardafui, along the Somaliland and Djibouti coasts up to Massawa, in Eritrea, with the generic term of “costa do Abexi” or “costa do Preste”, the “coast of the Abyssinian” or of “the Preste.” They believed, erroneously, that the Christian Ethiopian nigus (associated with the legendary figure of the Prester John) dominated the whole landmass of the Horn of Africa, when in fact his power was limited to a fraction of it, chiefly on the high plateaux of the Amhara and Tigray peoples.

The Portuguese armadas and vessels visited the “costa do Abexi” with some regularity and even attempted to establish some form of military control upon it. They obtained from their ports the valuable pilots (rubban) that had to guide their navies across the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb as well as provisions, water and a repair ground for their ships. In 1507 an expedition led by the fidalgo Tristão da Cunha stormed the fortress of Suq, on the island of Socotra. The fortress was renamed after São Miguel (Saint Michel) but the Portuguese were forced to abandon it soon thereafter. About the same time, the Portuguese leader Afonso de Albuquerque dispatched at Zayla two envoys with the intention of linking up with the Christian Ethiopian nigus Lebna Dengel, who by then resided in northern Shewa (north east Ethiopia). The envoys most probably took the standard route that across Harar connected the Indian Ocean with the Shewan high plateau. There ensued a decade when the Lusitanians wreaked havoc along the Somaliland coast: commanded by Albuquerque, Saldanha and Diogo Lopes de Silveira, their armadas sacked and burned two of its main ports, Zayla and Berbera, at least twice.

Portuguese written sources are rich in political and geographical descriptions of the coastal areas of the Horn of Africa. In the work known as “Commentarios” (i.e. Comments, actually Narratives) written by one of Portugal’s greatest naval commanders, Afonso de Albuquerque, the destruction and sack by the Portuguese of one of Somaliland’s most important ports, Berbera, occurred in 1507, is described in detail.

Besides their military and maritime exploits, the Portuguese also authored invaluable descriptions during the early stages of the so-called Era of the Discoveries. Drawing on information provided by locals and on their own first-hand observations, they recounted with exactitude the geopolitical situation on both shores of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, which correspond to the lands of today Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland. So the most renowned explorers and authors of the time, from João de Barros, to Diogo do Couto, João de Castro, and Afonso de Albuquerque, dedicated long passages to describing these territories, their inhabitants, their main ports and the commercial and military activities they observed therein. Their texts, together with more extensive material located in Portuguese archives, have not been yet properly scrutinized and they can shed important light on the geopolitical and cultural life of Somaliland, Djibouti and their adjoining territories at a crucial historical period.

It was also thanks to the direct geographical observations undertaken by the Portuguese seafarers and explorers that these areas could be mapped with some degree of accuracy for the first time. The renowned Cantino planisphere, authored in 1502 by an anonymous (probably Portuguese) scientist, depicted with a high level of exactitude the whole African continent, including its eastern part; furthermore, it indicated the location of some key ports along Somaliland and Somalia (described on the map as having been “discovered by the King of Portugall”). The Portuguese activities and explorations during this period somehow checked the expansion southwards of the Ottoman empire and they also paved the way for the arrival, in the seventeenth century, of two other European powers, the Dutch United East India Company and the British East India Company. These capitalist powers followed in the footsteps of the Portuguese and managed to, more successfully perhaps, combine military interventionism with commercial interests.

One of the first modern scientific depictions of the Somali coast and the Red Sea was the famous Cantino planisphere, drawn by an anonymous Portuguese cartographer towards 1502; detail of the Horn of Africa and the Somaliland coast. Source: Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena (Italy), Wikimedia Commons.

References

Martínez d’Alós Moner, A. (2012). “Conquistadores, Mercenaries, and Missionaries: The Failed Portuguese Dominion of the Red Sea.” Northeast African Studies 12 (1): 1–28.

Referencing this article

Martínez d’Alós Moner, A.(2022). ‘The Portuguese and the “costa do Abexi” (Puntland, Somaliland, Djibouti and Eritrea)’, StateHorn project, 03 June. Available at: https://statehorn.com/the-portuguese-and-the-costa-do-abexi-puntland-somaliland-djibouti-and-eritrea/ (Accessed: DD/MM/YYYY).
 

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