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Pedro or Pêro da Covilhã ( ; c. 1460 – after 1526) was a Portuguesemarker diplomat and explorer.

He was a native of Covilhã in Beira. In his early life he had gone to Castile and entered the service of Alphonso, Duke of Seville. Later, when war broke out between Castile and Portugal, he returned to his own country, and attached himself, first as a groom, then as a squire, to Afonso V of Portugal and his successor John II of Portugal.

Mission to the East

John II put him in charge of diverse private missions, and finally, to use his knowledge of different languages, ordered him and Afonso de Paiva to undertake a mission of exploration in the Near East and the adjoining regions of Asia and Africa, with the special assignment to learn where cinnamon and other spices could be found, as well as of discovering the land of legendary Prester John, by overland routes. Bartolomeu Dias, at the same time, went out to by sea find the Prester's country, as well as the termination of the African continent and the ocean route to Indiamarker.

The expedition started at Santarém, on 7 May 1487. De Covilhã and de Paiva were provided with a letter of credence for all the countries of the world and with a map for navigating, taken from the map of the world and compiled by Bishop Calcadilha, and doctors Rodrigo and Moyses. The first two of these were prominent members of the commission which advised the Portuguese government to reject the proposals of Christopher Columbus. The explorers started from Santarém and travelled by Barcelonamarker to Naplesmarker, where their bills of exchange were paid by the sons of Cosimo de' Medici; from there they went to Rhodesmarker, where they stayed with two other Portuguese, and so to Alexandriamarker and Cairomarker, where they posed as merchants.

In company with Arabs from Fezmarker and Tlemcenmarker, they now went by way of El-Tormarker to Suakinmarker and Adenmarker, where, as it was now the monsoon, they parted, Covilhã proceeding to India and Paiva to Ethiopiamarker the two companions agreeing to meet again in Cairo. Da Covilhã thus arrived at Cannanoremarker and Calicutmarker, from where he retraced his steps to Goamarker and Hormuz, the Red Seamarker and Cairo, making an excursion on his way down the East African coast to Sofalamarker or the Island of the Moon (now known as Madagascarmarker), which he was probably the first European to visit.

At Cairo he heard of de Paiva's death, and met with two Portuguese Jews: Rabbi Abraham of Beja, and Joseph, a shoe-maker of Lamegomarker who had been sent by King John with letters for da Covilhã and de Paiva. By Joseph of Lamego Covilhã replied with an account of his Indian and African journeys, and of his observations on the cinnamon, pepper and clove trade at Calicut, together with advice as to the ocean way to India. The Portuguese should navigate along their coast and the seas of Guinea. The first objective in the eastern ocean, he added, was Madagascar; from this island one can reach Calicut.


With this information Joseph returned to Portugal, while da Covilhã, with Abraham of Beja, again visited Adenmarker and Hormuz. At the latter he left the rabbi; and himself came back to Jeddahmarker, the port of the Arabian holy land, and penetrated (as he told Francisco Álvares many years later) even to Meccamarker and Medinamarker. Finally, by Mount Sinaimarker, Tor and the Red Seamarker, he reached Zeilamarker, whence he struck inland to the court of Prester John (Ethiopiamarker).

Here he was honorably received by the Emperor Eskender; lands and lordships were bestowed upon him, but Eskander refused to grant him permission to leave, and his successors evaded granting Covilhã permission. According to Bruce, da Covilhã maintained a correspondence with the king in Portugal, describing Ethiopia as "very populous, full of cities both powerful and rich".

In 1507, he was joined by João Gomes, a priest sent by Tristão da Cunha, who had reached Ethiopia by way of Socotramarker. When the Portuguese embassy under Rodrigo de Lima, which included Fr. Alvarez, entered Ethiopia in 1520, Covilhã wept with joy at the sight of his fellow-countrymen. It was then forty years since he had left Portugal, and over thirty since he had been a prisoner of state in Ethiopia. Alvarez, who professed to know him well, and to have heard the story of his life, both in confession and out of it, praises his power of vivid description as if things were present before him, and his extraordinary knowledge of all the spoken languages of Christians, Muslims and Gentiles. His services as an interpreter were valuable to Rodrigo de Lima's embassy.Covilhã was well treated, but was not allowed to leave the country until his death.


  1. James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1805 edition), vol. 3, p. 135
  2. Bruce, Travels, vol. 3, p. 135

External links

Further reading

  • Francisco Alvarez, "Chapter CIV: How Pero de Covilham, a Portuguese, is in the country of the Prester, and how came here, and why he was sent", The Prester John of the Indies (Cambridge, Hakluyt Society, 1961), pp. 369–376.

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