THE LAND OF PRESTER JOHN
 IF we would understand how South Africa came to be discovered, we must go back a very long time—to the days
before either England or Holland was a power on the sea. Every one has heard of Christopher Columbus, and most
people know the name of Vasco da Gama; but not so many, perhaps, realise the springs of action that led these
sailors to make their great voyages, and some may be surprised to hear that the search for the road to the
Indies was a move in the great struggle between the Cross and the Crescent, and Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da
Gama were just as much Crusaders as Richard Coeur de Lion.
In the middle of the fifteenth century Portugal was engaged in a truceless war with the Moors of North Africa.
In this, the little country was only taking a part in the general war between Christians and Mahomedans that
was waged all along the Mediterranean from east to west. Spain also took part in it, and so did Genoa and
Venice, and the Knights of St. John at Malta, and even little England away in the rear of Christendom, sent
her troops to defend the frontier. In those days Christendom was one nation, with one emperor and one pope,
and all the European peoples knew that the war concerned not the part but the whole. For the Crescent had
 Europe as far as France, and the Holy Sepulchre, which was then the shrine of all Christians, was in the hands
of the Infidels.
In their part of the battlefield the Portuguese carried on a desperate war. They sent army after army into the
north of Africa, they took the Moorish town of Ceuta, but they were beaten back from the walls of Tangier.
Scimitar against sword, both sides fought with desperate valour, and the deeds of the heroes are still
remembered in song and legend. On the Christian side, among the chief of these paladins was Prince Henry, one
of the Royal Infants of Portugal. We hear of him holding the gate of Ceuta against a thousand Infidels; but in
the end the power of the Crescent was too strong for him. He was gradually driven back, and was forced to
return to his country, leaving his brother, the brave Prince Ferdinand, a prisoner in the hands of the
Infidels. The Moors offered to set free their royal prisoner if Portugal would restore to them their town of
Ceuta, and the king, torn between his duty and his love, asked all the other princes of Christendom what he
should do. They replied that never must Christian town be surrendered to the Infidel for the poor body of one
man, and Prince Ferdinand was left to die in the Sultan's dungeons.
His brother, Prince Henry, known to history as the Navigator, was struck with an almost mortal grief at this
calamity. He withdrew himself from the sight of all men, and lived like a hermit on the barren Cape of St.
But great thoughts were forming in his mind as he looked over the unknown sea. When he sacked the town of
Ceuta his soldiers had rolled great jars of honey and wine and oil and spices into the streets, and had found
wonderful treasures of stuffs and drugs, gold and silver and gems. Then Prince Henry realised that it was the
 wealth of the Moslems that made them strong, and he knew this wealth came from India. For in those times the
whole trade of the East, its sugar and spices, its nutmegs and cloves and cinnamon, its silks and brocades,
its pearls, and porcelain, and myrrh, and frankincense, all came to Europe overland from the Persian Gulf and
the Red Sea to Constantinople and Cairo. The Mahomedans levied heavy toll upon this merchandise before they
allowed it to be carried to Europe in the ships of Venice and Genoa, and so they obtained the wealth which
made them a danger to all Christendom. Not only did they levy toll on the merchandise, but the whole trade of
Asia was in their hands. Arab ships alone sailed the Indian Ocean and took over the cargoes of Chinese junks
at Singapore, and Arab caravans crossed the desert with these same cargoes to the Moslem custom-houses of the
Mediterranean and the Golden Horn.
This Prince Henry knew, and he knew that so long as the Mahomedans held this trade the Crescent would be
strong. But he had heard of two things which gave him hope. He had heard that behind the Infidels in the
centre of Africa, in the land from which the Nile flowed, there was a Christian country governed by a
Christian king called Prester John. This Prester John was a monarch so great that all India paid him tribute,
and it was said that if he liked he could drain the Nile and ruin Cairo. He lived in a land of gold and fire;
the anthropophagi, with heads beneath their shoulders, were among his subjects; he received as tribute the
carbuncles which the poison-breathing Indian dragons wore in their heads; he was an all-powerful Christian
monarch, and if Portugal could make him her ally the strength of the Infidel would certainly be crushed as
between the two arms of a nutcracker.
Then Prince Henry had also heard that there was a seaway round the south of Africa to India. How this
 fact came to be known is a mystery to us. Perhaps the Carthaginians had found their way round in olden times,
and the tradition was handed down through the centuries. Perhaps European travellers had visited the Arab
settlements away far south on the east coast of Africa, or heard East African traditions of the shape of the
Continent. However it came about, we know that in the middle of the fourteenth century, a hundred and forty
years before the Cape of Good Hope was discovered, there existed a map (in the Medicean Atlas which is still
to be seen in the Laurentian Library in Florence) showing the general shape of Africa, including the Gulf of
Guinea and the way round the Cape to the Indian Ocean. Prince Henry, therefore, nursed the hope that he might
get into the Indian Ocean by way of the South Atlantic, and so win for Portugal the wealth which was now
providing the war funds of the Saracens. Prince Henry was, in fact, on the true scent where Christopher
Columbus was on the false.
The prince was a very wise and patient man. He built a college and observatory on his barren spit of sand, and
collected there the wisest scholars, the most learned books, and the latest scientific instruments of his
time. He read such works as the travels of Marco Polo, of Jordanus of Severac, and Macudi the Moor, and here
were gathered such men as Master Jacome of Majorca, deep in all the arts of navigation and the making of maps,
Abraham Zakut the Jew, who demonstrated the value of the astrolabe, and many other Christian, Jew, and Arab
scholars skilled in the mysteries of mathematics and astronomy.
It was a painful task to sift truth from fable in those times, and Prince Henry, very likely, believed that
the earthly paradise came between India and the land of Prester John, and many other fables which seem equally
absurd nowadays. But he held fast by
 every truth he discovered, and worked with untiring zeal. In his port of Lagos he built ships, and built them
so well that the great shipbuilder, Cadamosto the Italian, whom he employed, was able to say that the caravels
of Portugal were better than the best that Genoa could produce. In his college of Sagres he trained sailors in
the use of the astrolabe, which took the height of the sun, and the compass, which pointed to the Pole, and he
launched fleet after fleet on the Western Ocean to go south in search of the passage of which he dreamed.
Now the Atlantic was then an almost unknown ocean, and the Arabs—perhaps from guile, perhaps from
superstition—spread abroad all manner of dreadful stories about the Green Sea of Darkness, as they called it.
They said it was full of sea-monsters and serpent-rocks and water-unicorns, that in the tropics the sun poured
down sheets of liquid flame and kept the water boiling hot day and night, and that from the waves Satan
himself stretched a great black hand ready to seize the first sailor who should venture thither. But Prince
Henry was not to be deterred. He obtained a dispensation from the Pope to protect the souls of sailors from
these dangers and to ensure them Paradise if they should die upon the voyage; and his caravels, with the Cross
upon their sails, went every year farther and farther south. On they went, past the Grand Canary and past
Teneriffe, as far as Cape Bojador. For long they dared not venture farther, so dread-inspiring were the
stories the Moors spread abroad; but at last, urged by their Prince, they doubled the Cape and came back
gleefully with the news that the waters beyond were as easy to sail in as the sea at home, and that on the
shores they had so much dreaded they gathered the flowers called in Portugal St. Mary's Roses.
But then the sailors came upon the slaves and gold
 of Guinea, and greed made them deaf to all Prince Henry's prayers. I do not want gold, I want knowledge," he
would say, as they returned with rich cargoes. "Plant the Cross on a new headland, that is what I want." But
the work went on slowly, and the great prince died without seeing the fulfilment of his dreams.
To show how curiously superstition and religion are mixed up with this great discovery, let me tell a story of
Prester John. Ambassadors were brought in Portuguese ships from the kingdom of Benin to the court of King John
of Portugal, and they told him that beyond their country, far up on a mighty river, lived a great king called
Ogane, who was held in high veneration by the people of Benin. So much did they venerate him that their kings
could not reign without his consent, and when their ambassadors went to visit him they were only allowed to
see his foot, which was stretched out from behind a curtain. As a sign of his favour, they were given a helmet
of brass and a metal cross, which they took back to Benin in triumph. Now this mention of a cross led King
John to believe that Ogane was no other than the great Christian monarch Prester John, and the information
spurred him on to a tremendous effort.
One of his captains, Duarte Pacheco by name, was sent to seek Prester John by way of the dark fever-haunted
rivers which flow into the Gulf of Guinea; two envoys, Afonso de Paiva and Pedro Cavilhao, were to go
circumspectly in search of India and Prester John by an eastern route through Alexandria and Cairo; certain
ships were to sail north and endeavour to find a north-east passage to China; and last, and most important to
us in this great adventure, Bartholomew Diaz was commanded to sail south by the west coast of Africa until he
should come to the end of the land, and so by the south sea to India.
 Thus, in 1486, Diaz set forth on this mighty enterprise—fraught with consequences as great to the world as the
voyage of Christopher Columbus itself. He had only two small ships of but fifty tons burthen, with a tender to
carry such necessaries as might afterwards be required. With this meagre equipage he went boldly forward,
passing the crosses which had been set up like milestones along the coast. The Gulf of Guinea, with its torrid
languid air and oily water and shores of man-grove swamps, was left far behind. The coast became parched and
barren and desolate. But Diaz went on, halting only now and then to land negroes and negresses, who were
despatched like carrier-pigeons with messages for Prester John. At last even the cross that Diego Cam had
planted near St. Helena Bay, the farthest point hitherto reached, was left behind, and Diaz beat round the
Cape of Good Hope itself, then wrapt in storms, and so burst into a sea never before sailed by any man. Then
he coasted along the southern shores of Africa, on the great road the ships of so many nations have sailed
since. He had now—if he had only known it—the secret almost solved; but the storms never ceased, the food and
water were nearly at an end, and the tackle of the ships was much worn by wind and weather. The officers and
sailors came near to open mutiny; but the captain still persisted until he reached and passed the island of
Santa Cruz in Algoa Bay, near where Port Elizabeth now stands. Twenty-five leagues farther, and his officers
at last constrained him to turn back, after placing a cross on the island, to which, as the old chronicler
tells us, he bade farewell with as much grief as if he were leaving a son in exile for ever.
So Diaz went sorrowfully home, stopping at Cape Point to erect the Cross of San Filippe.
On his way north he found Duarte Pacheco sick almost unto death on the coast of Guinea. He had
 done his best to find a riverway to Prester John: but in the dark channels and swamps of mangrove trees, where
no sea comes through, and the roots are like black serpents writhing in the slime, the fever-demon seized him
and he narrowly escaped with his life.
And Diaz also found his tender where he had left it—though some of its crew were dead, and the rest so weak
that one of them died with joy at the sight of the ships.
So Diaz came back to Portugal with the news; and it is said that when he told the king of the great southern
promontory which he had called the Cape of Storms, the king commanded that the name should be changed to the
Cape of Good Hope, because, no doubt, he saw that it was the turning-point on the road to India.
All this time Cavilhao and de Paiva were exploring in the east and seeking news of Prester John. The two chose
different roads, and Cavilhao went from Egypt through Arabia towards India. He got to Aden with some Moors of
Tremicem and Fez, and thence he took ship for Calicut, the great port in those days of the Malabar coast. Here
he saw vast fleets of Arab ships, and learned the secrets of the Indian trade. Thence he sailed across the
Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa, and saw Mozambique and Sofala. And he passed north again and got to
Cairo, where he found that de Paiva was dead. But he met two Jews of Portugal, Rabbi Hebrao of Beja and Rabbi
Josephe, a shoemaker of Lamego, and by one of them he sent a letter to the king—one of the most important
letters ever written in the whole history of the world. He told his master of the riches of India and the
caravans of camels that passed from Ormuz and Aden to Cairo, and the golden cities of Aleppo and Damascus. And
then he wrote these portentous and prophetic words, which helped to shape the destinies of the world:—
 "Keep southward: if you persist Africa must come to an end. And when ships come to the Eastern Ocean, let them
ask for Sofala and the Island of the Moon (Madagascar), and they will find pilots to take them to Malabar."
So he wrote, but he himself never went home. Instead, he turned his steps south and went up the Nile till he
came to the kingdom of Prester John, who was no other than the Negus of Abyssinia, where he was made a great
noble and abode all his life.
Thus between Cavilhao on the east and Diaz on the west the riddle was as good as solved. There only wanted the
keystone to the arch, the last link to the chain, the passage from Algoa Bay to Sofala. This Vasco da Gama
supplied, and won riches and honour and fame; but Diaz, who was greater than he, has for monument the bubbling
waves of the South Atlantic, where he lies near the country of Brazil, of which he and Pedro Alvares Cabral
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