The Disruption of Myth, the Connection of History: First Portuguese Recounts from the African Indian Ocean
Francesco Genovesi (University of Dar es Salaam )
Paper short abstract:
Arriving to the African Indian Ocean, the Portuguese reached a culturally awaited world, but were forced to abandon the myth in favour of the complexity of history. Travel literature helped them establish a first real cultural connection with the East African coast.
Paper long abstract:
This paper aims to investigate how the Portuguese navigation along the coasts of the African Indian Ocean constituted not only a nautical success but also the arrival to a culturally awaited land. The African littoral revealed the two most relevant characteristics that Europe was looking for: the presence of God and the presence of gold. The presence of God, in the shape of the legendary kingdom of Prester John, seemed tangible in the meeting with the Ethiopian Coptic communities, starting from the coast where the Portuguese renamed the Dhalak Islands as "the ports of Prester John". Equally, the abundance of gold exhibited by the inhabitants of the Swahili cities fascinated the first Western travelers as a premise of richness. However, those two elements revealed substantial differences from the Western expectations. The gold was coming from mines located around the mysterious inland kingdom of Great Zimbabwe and it was already involved in an international trade; the visit to the kingdom of Prester John revealed several prosaic experiences, such as small thefts or locust invasions. Hence, this paper will demonstrate how the travel literature was marked by the impulse of describing the appearance of a world that was completely new, but at the same time also intensely awaited by the readers of the old continent. Therefore, those witnesses helped Europe establish its first real cultural connection with the African Indian Ocean, abandoning the reassurance of the myth in favor of the complexity of history.