Hunting Prester John in the End Times: Columbus and the Apocalyptic Imaginary
The Disgruntled Haradrim
4 years ago
What do the hunt for a mythical Christian King of the East, a fabled river of African gold and fears of the impending Apocalypse have to do with Christopher Columbus? Turns out, quite a bit. The Age of Exploration has a weird speculative side.
The era in the late 15th century now dubbed the Age of Exploration, saw the launching of unprecedented naval expeditions from Iberia. Equipped with new (and borrowed) nautical skills, from the lateen sail to tacking, Portuguese sailors, followed by the Spanish, began venturing into the open Atlantic. They were driven by more than an abstract “need to know.” Trade played a key role, as sailors found investors willing to indulge their fancies of finding an alternate water route to the fabled wealth of the East. But there were other factors as well. Portuguese and Spanish explorers were driven by religious zeal, believing the Biblical Apocalypse was nigh, and that they desperately needed to reach a Christian king in the East who would lead all Christendom to victory against the infidel Muslims. Along the way they expected to find a river of gold, the riches of the court of Kublai Khan, and achieve glory both on Earth and in Heaven. Giddy times eh?
Hunting Prester John
In 1453 the old Byzantine city ofConstantinople fell to Muslim Ottoman Turks, removing the last stronghold of Christendom in the East. The news sent shock waves through Europe. The Byzantines were no friends of the western Papacy; in fact, the Eastern Christian city had been brutally sackedby reckless Norman Christian Crusaders nearly two and half centuries earlier, an act from which they never fully recovered. Still, the loss of Constantinople was a staggering blow.
For one, it placed the Sultan Mehmet IIand his vastly superior Muslim armies at Christendom’s doorsteps. Fears of the “dreaded Turk” and his giant siege cannons would haunt the imaginations of Europeans for generations, as the Ottomans rolled through the Balkans and reached the gates of Vienna. For the devout, this was yet another sign of the impending Apocalypse that would pit the defenders of Christ against unbelievers. For European sailors and merchants, the fall of Constantinople had more immediate earthly concerns. It meant the valuable flow of Eastern spices, silk and other goods once controlled in great part through Constantinople, was now blocked by a hostile Muslim force. For investors in the profitable sugar plantations in the Mediterranean, it meant the drying up of much-needed supplies (from nearby timber and Slavic slaves from Black Sea ports) to feed the sugar industry, and an increasingly dangerous waterway. A brief Muslim-Christian détente was about to give way to religious rivalry, as two emerging fiscal-military states–the Ottomans and the Habsburgs–prepared to battle over spheres of power for the next three centuries.
By the early 15th century, soon-to-be Spain (Aragon and Castille) and Portugal had completed most of the Reconquista,taking back the Iberian peninsula from Muslims who had ruled there since 711AD. They had even pushed further south, capturing key North African ports and islands from Muslim hands as well. For the Christian faithful this was providence, part of the impending Apocalypse that drove the victories of the defenders of Christ; the Reconquistaand the revived Crusader impulse were seen as one in the same. Only, there was one snag. The crusader kingdom of Palestine had fallen to Muslim Mamluks in 1291, and since then western Christians, too busy bickering among themselves, had tried and failed to organize expeditions to take it back. In Iberia, religious military orders andFranciscans, who acted as confessors, preachers and educators to the royal court, began voicing demands that Jerusalem had be re-taken–a new crusade to make way for Christ’s return. The very fate of Christendom, mankind and their immortal souls depended on it. What was more, these religious orders claimed the defenders of Christ had a powerful ally.
IMAGE OF ST JAMES THE *MOOR* SLAYER
(Moor slayer u know)
According to long-held European legends, there existed in the East a Christian King named Prester John. The origins of the myth are hard to trace but seem to have become popular in the 12th century, spread possibly by Germanic chroniclers. It held that a fabled Christian kingdom that bordered on paradise, and may have held such marvels as the Fountain of Youth along with all manner of fantastic beasts, existed in the East. Surrounded by Muslim and pagan enemies, it was led by a seemingly immortal king named Prester John who built massive walls to hold back Muslim invaders from his wealthy, prosperous lands. Prester John was rumored to have a vast Christian army, waiting to be joined by fellow Christians from the west who would sweep through the Muslim forces and reconquer the Holy Lands.
Then came Marco Polo, who spoke of a Christian kingdom in Ethiopia. And indeed, there was a long-standing Christian Ethiopian kingdom,which had been Christian since the 2nd century A.D. The story didn’t stick initially, but when some 30 Ethiopian diplomats arrived in Western Europe as part of an expedition in 1305, local writers hailed them as ambassadors from Prester John. From there, the notion of Ethiopia (deemed the “third India”) being the home of the fabled Christian kingdom and its king took off. The 1573 map below, displayed later European understandings (and hopes) of where Prester John’s magnificent kingdom would be found.
LOOKING FOR JOHN
By the 15th century, the idea of the impending Apocalypse and Prester John’s role in these affairs was commonplace in Iberia, exacerbated by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and spread by the crusading ideologies of local religious orders. The famed explorer Prince Henry the Navigator, brother of the Portuguese king, was a staunch adherent of these Apocalyptic tales, and saw his work as part of a mission involving the impending end times. In the name of Christendom and Portugal, Prince Henry engaged in “just war” with nearby Muslims in North Africa and Morocco, capturing ports and making slaves of non believers–part of his crusading duty, and carrying on in the footsteps of heroes like Gerald the Fearless, the famed Portuguese warrior of Reconquistatales. Believing himself guided by providence, Prince Henry urged fellow explorers to seek a route to the East where they might find Prester John and his Christian kingdom. As they set out into the Atlantic, Portuguese explorers sailed along the African coast, certain that in the middle of the continent there existed a vast sea across which they would be able to sail their ships and reach the fabled lands of Prester John. Of course, there were more than simply spiritual matters at stake.
Seeking the Rio de Oro
In 1324, Mansa Musa I, King of Kings of Mali, set out on a hajj to Mecca. The West African king was a devout Muslim, and ruled what was the richest and most powerful Sudanic kingdom of the time. His pilgrimage became the stuff of legends–a procession reported to include scores of horses and camels, a retinue of 60,000 retainers and 12,000 slaves, all carrying gold bars, with heralds adorned in fanciful silks and bearing gold staffs. Though it is hard to distinguish truth from legend, the entourage caused quite a stir as it made its way across the Sahara and into the cosmopolitan heart of the greater Muslim world. Musa was said to dispense gold dust and whole gold bars to the poor as alms wherever he went, causing quite a stir in bustling cities like Cairo, Medina and Mecca. So much gold was dispensed, that it was claimed the gold market in Egypt was ruined for some time thereafter. Musa’s pilgrimmage became immortalized in local memory and writings. So it was not surprising that fifty years later in 1375, when Charles V of France ordered the making of the Catalan Atlas, Mansa Musa was featured as the so-called “King of Mali and Lord of Guinea,” featured as a powerful Muslim ruler holding aloft a giant nugget of gold.
When the Portuguese set out to find Prester John and a route to the East as part of spiritual salvation, this gold was close in mind. The Portuguese had long plowed the sea trade from the Mediterranean to western Europe, in alliance with Genoese merchants. Gold however, was siphoned to them in meager amounts through their Italian partners. After Prince Henry captured a large stash of West African gold from Arab-Berber Muslims in North Africa, the Portuguese became convinced that the source was a river of gold, the Rio de Oro, which flowed somewhere in West Africa. Mansa Musa I on the Catalan Atlas, holding aloft his immense gold nugget, was evidence enough to make them certain.
Under the direction of Prince Henry, they set out to find this West African “river of gold” along with the African sea that would also allow them to link up with Prester John. In this way the Portuguese sought to at once cut out Genoese competitors and Arab-Berber enemies from the gold trade, provide Portgual with a direct access to gold, establish a trade route to the riches and spices of the East through Africa, and fulfill their spiritual duty to Christendom by making contact with Prester John. Because as any goodFerengi would tell you, why let a little thing like the Apocalypse stop you from making a profit?
Turns out though, there was no river of gold. After initially being rebuffed by Muslim Malian rulers, who wanted nothing to do with the Christians, the Portuguese however did make contact with other African kingdoms. These existed mostly in parts of modern-day Ghana, who were mining gold, not part of this Christian-Muslim struggle and quite willing to trade. The gold the Portuguese bought from these West African kingdoms was enough to fund several more voyages to find the fabled sea route through the continent. Between 1434 and 1472, royally chartered, merchant-financed and state sponsored expeditions, sent Portuguese explorers further along the African coast, where they continued to make contact with varied African kingdoms. Unable to conquer them however (as the Africans had steel and could field large defensive armies), the Portuguese settled into trade, for gold, cotton, pepper, steel and, in small amounts, slaves.
Some of the slaves were traded to the so-called Gold Coast, to help local African kingdoms clear land mine for the precious metal. The Portuguese would even work out a treaty to build a fort to help in gold extraction, named appropriately enough, Elmina–The Mine. Most slaves however were used for a new crop that had arrived in the Atlantic since the fall of Constantinople made its production in the Mediterranean difficult–sugar. Along the African coast, on small islands, sugar plantations were established in treaties with African kingdoms. And slowly, the face of labor on these sugar estates (which had been Slavic and European in the Mediterranean and Berber-Arab in the North African Atlantic), increasingly came to resemble the West African and Central African mainland. Still, no great sea in Africa had been located. Between 1483 through 1486, intent on finding their way to the riches of the East and Prester John, the Portuguese sponsored new expeditions deeper into Africa. None of the local inhabitants however had ever heard of Prester John, or any sea. But the Portuguese would come across a powerful kingdom in the midst of turmoil by the name of Kongo, setting up the beginning of a long tormented relationship.
With the eventual realization by the Spanish that the “New World” was somewhere different, and not the East, and the new trade contacts Portugal was making in Africa and the East, the hunt for Prester John and the impending Apocalypse receded to the background–with the hunt for wealth and gold to fuel their fiscal-military states taking precedence. Still, the hopes of locating this fabled king and the crusading ideology he inspired, would continue on through other Spanish and Portuguese expeditions in Africa, Asia and the Americas, not truly dying until the 1700s.