Ethiopia and the Sea
Somaliland and the future of Africa
2nd February 2024
Between India and Europe lies Ethiopia. It is the African keystone for the Tripolar world (China, India, and the United States). In the sixth century Ethiopia was a key commercial partner with India. History is repeating itself. Ships leaving Mumbai or other ports of India will sail West and reach the Horn of Africa and either to go North or South. North means being under attack of the Houthis in Yemen with the uncertain crossing of the Red Sea before reaching the Suez Canal. South means the Cape of Good Hope, a stopover in Cape Town, and then sailing through the Atlantic towards America or Europe. Another déjà vu.
Instead of anxiously going on X (formerly Twitter) or other social media or news sources, we should find an armchair, sit back, and open the nearest volume about the Portuguese Empire. Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva set off from Portugal in 1487 to meet the mythical Christian king of Ethiopia, Prester John. Vasco de Gama chose to reach Ethiopia and India by sea. He was the first European to reach the Cape of Good Hope (1488) [named Cabo da Boa Esperança]. His route explains why Angola and Mozambique speak Portuguese today. Luís de Camões rendered his travels into poetry in 1572. He tells the story of Ethiopia in Book Six of his Lusiads, the national epic poem of Portugal, and wrote it while imprisoned in Macau (South Coast of China). The city was a Portuguese protectorate and then colony from 1557 until 1999. The Portuguese reached Japan in 1542.
“Inda outra muita terra se te esconde
Até que venha o tempo de mostrar-se;
Mas não deixes no mar as Ilhas onde
A Natureza quis mais afamar-se:
Esta, meia escondida, que responde
De longe à China, donde vem buscar-se,
É Japão, onde nace a prata fina,
Que ilustrada será co a Lei divina”.
(Camões, Lusiadas, Canto 10.131)
“Parforce hide other vasty lands from thee
until what time no land remain unfound :
But leave thou not those Islands of the Sea,
where Nature rises to Fame’s highest round :
This Realm half-shadowed, China’s empery
afar reflecting, whither ships are bound,
is the Japan, whose virgin silver mine
shall shine still sheen’ier with the Law Divine”.
(Translated by Richard Burton)
The commercial route from Japan, China, and India towards Europe follows the old Portuguese route beautifully described by Camões in his Lusiads, which Montesquieu thought better than Virgil and Homer. The aim of the Portuguese was to reach Ethiopia and meet the mythic Christian king Prester John. Once they had reached Ethiopia the great discovery was the ancient maritime route between the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean from there to China and Japan. The Lusiads describe many areas which are important geopolitically. One may single out the Island of Sucotra (Lusiads 10.137) which was part of the Yemen. It was taken over by the United Arab Emirates in 2020. It is a key territory at the entrance of the Red Sea.
The Tripolar World, divided between China, India, and the US, requires a central role for Ethiopia and its access to the sea. By recognizing Somaliland and obtaining the use of the port of Berbera (Ancient Malao Μαλαώ), Ethiopia is now crucial for the East-West maritime commerce. It will have a role in fighting piracy and may be central for the control of the access to the red Sea by the aforementioned three powers.
Many Portuguese colonies were taken over by the Dutch. That is why Cape Town had Dutch (later Afrikaans) speakers. Many of the Dutch colonies were then taken over by the United Kingdom. Cape Town began to have English speakers. The Portuguese showed the Europeans that there was a world beyond their own continent. A Portuguese princess, Caterina de Bragança, brought Mumbai (Bombay) as a dowry to the English crown when she married Charles II in 1662, thus creating the connection between England and India. This connection was possible only by the maritime route at whose heart was and still is the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia.