Overland Route East to Abyssinia

While King João II waited for Diogo Cão to return from his sea venture, he enacted a backup plan for redirecting trade from the Indies and the Spice Islands away from the Muslims. Following Marco Polo’s geographic information, João sent a party of emissaries to investigate whether or not a route could be found to the Spice Islands through Prester John’s Abyssinia [Ethiopia].

The emissaries were instructed to sail east through the Mediterranean to Jerusalem, then travel by land through Egypt to the Red Sea, then take a boat through the Red Sea to the port of Zerla in Abyssinia.

But the emissaries got no farther than Jerusalem. They could not enter Egypt because none of them spoke Arabic. When word got back to João II, he recruited a former-Muslim, Arabic-speaking Negro who had been converted to Christianity. That man’s name was Bemoim. Bemoim was famous for his oratory skills and powers of persuasion. He planned to serve as a guide and interpreter for the emissaries as they journeyed along the fertile valleys of the Niger River. There were rumors that a Christian king was giving out small Christian crosses to the people there. Bemoim promised to convert all Muslims along the way to his new faith. His departure from Lisbon caused a big celebration. But as he sailed to Africa on the Portuguese ship, he got in a brawl and was killed.

The emissaries in Jerusalem returned to Portugal. They had not reached Abyssinia or Prester John, but they did obtain some crucial information about Christians living in Ethiopia and the geography of East Africa. This information would suffice to cause King João II to send another expedition via the Mediterranean a few years later.

Meanwhile, a sea captain and cartographer from Genoa named Cristóal Colón [Christopher Columbus], who claimed he was Portuguese because he had married a Portuguese woman, wanted an audience with King João II.

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