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  • James Houser

August 28, 1542 - Battle of Wolfa & the Ethiopian Crusade

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

August 28, 1542. At the Battle of Wofla, deep in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, a small force of Portuguese musketeers is defeated by a combined Ottoman-Arab army. It is the low point – not the end – of one of the strangest military expeditions in history, a hybrid of exploration, crusade, imperialism, and genuine good faith: the Portuguese Crusade to save Ethiopia. This one is obscure, y’all – but it’s one of the greatest stories you’ve never heard before.

Today, Portugal is a small rectangle of a country perched on the western fringe of Europe, best known for…well, basically not much except being “that little country next to Spain.” In its heyday, though, Portugal founded the first global empire in history, and one of the longest-lived. Some of you will remember from your high school history classes that the Portuguese were the first wave of explorers. This started as far back as the 1300s, when Portuguese navigators discovered the Azores and Canaries in the Atlantic. Soon Portuguese ships were venturing south…then farther south…then farther south, their goal always being increased trade.

Portugal was infused with the spirit of Reconquista, the centuries-long struggle to retake Spain from the Muslims. Even though its main goals for expansion were commercial and economic, Portugal carried its religious, militant spirit into North Africa in the 1400s and down the coast of West Africa throughout the latter half of that century. The new discovery of the magnetic compass and better sailing ships meant that Portuguese navigators soon had the advantage, and they were not just looking for trade in West Africa – but hopefully for a way to get all the way around Africa to the riches of India.

Portugal soon had trade posts all along the African coast extending farther and farther south, carrying back ivory, sugar, spices, and yes, slaves. By 1473 they had crossed the Equator, and by 1488, Bartolomeu Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa – beyond which lay the Indian Ocean and the riches of the East. This was, of course, supremely exciting. This meant that Portugal could finally cut out the middlemen of the East-West trade, the scourge of Christendom – the Ottoman Empire. Due to its position in the Middle East, the Ottomans dominated the trade routes from Asia to Europe, and with the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, the Portuguese finally had an end run around this dominance. All of Asia lay before them.

Of course, what happened in 1492? That’s right, Columbus revealed to Europe that there was a whole other landmass out there to the west. The Portuguese, though, weren’t particularly interested: their sights were set east. They truly broke ground on this goal in 1497, when the squadron of Vasco da Gama left Portugal and rounded the Cape. In 1498, Vasco da Gama reached India – the first European to do so – and opened up the great trade route that would turn Europe into the powerhouse of the world. It would not be until 1532, however, that his young son – Cristovao da Gama – arrived in India himself. Why am I telling you all this? Because Cristovao da Gama would lead the crusade into Ethiopia.

Once Portugal gained a foothold in India, they spread out quickly, trying to achieve military and economic domination over the whole Indian Ocean. It was truly incredible – and ruthless – how quickly Portuguese adventurers and merchants, all following in Da Gama’s footsteps, seized critical point after critical point stretching from East Africa to Indonesia. By 1517, less than 20 years after Da Gama’s arrival in India, the entire rim of the Indian Ocean was dotted with Portuguese factories and forts. The Portuguese got them by what I estimate to be about 30% good-faith haggling, 30% honest conquest, and 40% dishonest conquest. Either way, the Portuguese had an iron lock on the Indian Ocean that would not be broken until the Dutch started messing around in the 1630s.

The Portuguese faced opposition, though – especially from the Ottomans, who were NOT happy that their trade monopoly had been upended and constantly sent fleets from the Red Sea to challenge Portuguese domination. The Portuguese needed allies, and some of them dreamed of the old Christian legend of Prester John, a legendary Christian monarch who was reputed to rule “somewhere” in the east. Prester John was said to be located in India, or Central Asia, or even China, dating back to medieval times; some legends had him as the descendant of the Magi, the Three Wise Men of Christmas tales. In reality, the rumors of Prester John probably originated from a small number of kings that still ruled as Nestorian Christians in Central Asia – none of whom were ever named Prester or John. The legend persisted, though, mainly because Christian rulers in Europe sought an ally against the threatening Muslims, and when the Portuguese began exploring the Indian Ocean, they began looking for Prester John – and found him. Or thought they had.

In 1520, a black ambassador popped up in Lisbon, having travelled via India on a Portuguese trading ship. He was a representative of the Empire of Ethiopia, a large state in East Africa that had been Christian for…literally longer than Portugal. Ethiopia followed the Oriental Orthodox rite, which makes their faith closer to the Coptic or Armenian churches than anything Westerners are usually familiar with. Ethiopia popped up every now and then on European radars, but no one was ever sure about its location or condition, and when an Ethiopian ambassador showed up in Lisbon many Christians believed that he was a servant of Prester John. While Ethiopia was not the origin of the Prester John legend, they fit the slot pretty well, and for the next two centuries the West would call the Ethiopian Emperor “Prester John” off and on – which was frankly bewildering to the rulers of this African Christian state.

Now it is time for us to meet Cristovao (English: Christopher) da Gama, because this story is really his story. The son of the great Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, he was born in Portugal in 1516. Cristovao barely knew his famous father, because Vasco was basically always in India and died there in 1524. The young Cristovao was largely raised by his older brother Estevao, and tagged along with his bro to India in 1532. From then on the younger da Gama, barely a man, forged a great reputation as a quick mind and a good leader. After multiple expeditions and adventures around India, he gained the esteem of his fellow Portuguese adventurers, until finally his brother tapped him for a special mission.

In 1541, Estevao da Gama was the Portuguese Viceroy of India – the post their father had once held. Estevao planned a naval venture against the Ottoman Empire in the Red Sea to try and destroy the fleet that had been ravaging the Portuguese trade routes. Placing enormous trust in his younger brother, Estevao gave Cristovao command of one of the ships on this venture. He and his fleet ventured up the Red Sea to the main Ottoman port of Suez in Egypt. There they learned to their surprise that the Ottomans knew they were coming, and after a brief fight they were repulsed. Estevao’s expedition limped home in defeat.

On his way home, though, Estevao put in at Massawa, a port on the East African coast in modern-day Eritrea. There he was greeted by a Portuguese diplomat and adventurer named Joao Bermudes, who had served at the Ethiopian court for several years. Bermudes brought terrible news: the Ethiopian Emperor was under attack by the Adal Sultanate, a Muslim state allied with the Ottomans that was making inroads into Africa. The Emperor Gelawdewos was on the ropes, and he needed help. Prester John had to be saved from the Arab invaders! What was needed was a Crusade – long after the actual Crusades were over.

After what must have been a fraught conversation with his subordinates, Estevao decided that the Christians of the world needed to save Prester John, and since they were the only ones around they would have to be the ones to do it. To lead the expedition, he tapped his brother – the 24-year old Cristovao da Gama. Out of the force intended to attack Suez, the Da Gama brothers cobbled together 400 Portuguese soldiers, handpicked men chosen for their skill in engineering or combat, along with about 100 slaves. They were armed to the teeth, with several cannon, a thousand arquebus muskets, and a thousand more pikes – and of course, they all had steel armor and swords. With them went a chronicler named Miguel de Castanhoso, who would record the whole adventure.

Cristovao and his tiny army began the long march south on July 9, 1541. On the march, they learned that Ethiopia was BADLY losing the war. All the territory they passed through was controlled by the Adal Sultanate and its ferocious general, the imam-turned-marauder Ahmed Ibrahim. Cristovao finally made contact with the Ethiopian governor in the north, who told him that the Queen Seble Wongel was isolated and cut off in the nearby fortress of Debre Damo, besieged by the Adal.

So Cristovao (get this) took 100 men, liberated Debre Damo, rescued the Queen of Ethiopia and brought them back to his camp where the Portuguese treated them with utmost respect. Queen Seble had been leading the war effort in the north, and her mother had been killed by the Adal. Due to the fortunes of war she had been cut off from her son, the Emperor Gelawdewos, and she knew that these Portuguese could turn the tide of the war if they linked up with her son’s forces. They were few, but they had advanced weapons and discipline that could not be matched anywhere in East Africa. To ensure that they had a fallback position, Cristovao left a large number of guns and ammo in Debre Damo as a weapons cache. This will be important later.

As 1541 turned into 1542, Cristovao and his crusaders ventured farther south into Ethiopia, hundreds of miles into hostile country, when they came across some of the Imam’s troops fortified on a hill. From this hill, they raided the countryside and inflicted great suffering on the local people. Queen Seble urged Cristovao to pass by the fortress, but Cristovao could not stand by while the people of Ethiopia suffered. Even though he had only 400 men to the enemy’s 1500, he launched a rapid attack, and at the Battle of Bacente utterly routed the Adal men, losing only eight soldiers.

Queen Seble’s instincts had been right, though, because the victory at Bacente alerted Ahmad to Cristovao’s presence. Soon the small Portuguese army was pursued by the great Adal host, even as the young man and his ruthless, powerful nemesis traded various insults and jabs by way of messenger. Ahmad sent Cristovao a monk’s habit, implying he was a virgin; Cristovao sent the Muslim ruler a mirror and tweezers, implying he was a woman.

Ahmad finally ran Cristovao and Queen Seble down at Jarte, where the Portuguese fortified their position. Ahmad led an army of almost 15,000 local troops with 1500 cavalry and 200 Ottoman mercenaries, against Cristovao’s 400 men and a handful of Seble’s troops. In a 13-day confrontation at Jarte, the Portuguese drove off multiple assaults in a stunning display of firepower and skill, but at the cost of nearly 60 of their own, including one of Cristovao’s captains. Cristovao was disappointed with the victory; with a little bit of cavalry, he could have destroyed Ahmad’s force. Either way, the Adal army was shattered, and he began to retreat south, pursued closely by his young foe, this white kid who was leading a bunch of older white men to save an African kingdom from the Arabs. What a story, right?

Queen Sable encouraged Cristovao to make a pit stop after Ahmad retreated too fast to be caught, and the Portuguese set up a camp on the hill of Wofla. At Wofla, a messenger finally arrived from Emperor Gelawdewos. This messenger delivered staggering news: the Emperor was barely hanging on, with only 60 or 70 men. The messenger, unusually enough, was a Jew from a local fortress at Amba Sel. This site was one of the Beta Israel communities of Ethiopian Jews that had survived for centuries – long story. The Beta Israelite told Cristovao that the Adal fortress at Amba Sel held a large number of horses, which Cristovao knew he needed. Best of all, Amba Sel was the last enemy position separating the Portuguese from the Ethiopian Emperor they had come to save. If it fell, their crusade could finally achieve victory.

Cristovao marched south with only a hundred men, and quickly seized “The Hill of the Jews” sometime in August 1542. He led his men back to Wofla, only to discover what had happened in his absence. Ahmad had returned – and with him came almost 3000 musketeers. The Ottoman Empire had learned of the Portuguese venture, and sent their own troops to reinforce their Adal allies. Now the European and Arab technologies were evenly matched, and on August 28, 1542, the Battle of Wofla began.

The Portuguese and their small coterie of Ethiopian allies did not stand a chance. With only about 300 Portuguese musketeers left, they faced a torrent of ten times their strength in Ottoman musketeers and 10,000 more Adal troops. Cristovao’s men stood, fought, and were finally broken. While the rest of his force got away, Cristovao led a fighting retreat, even as the Queen was able to escape the disaster and make it to safety on the Hill of the Jews with her retainers. Cristovao’s arm was broken by a bullet, and while desperately retreating from the field with only 14 men left, he was run down and captured.

Cristovao was taken as a captive to Imam Ahmad, who tortured him in an attempt to force his conversion to Islam. The stories of the “miracles” that resulted are wild, and obviously exaggerated for drama and typical Christian hagiography, but no one can deny Cristovao’s courage up until now. After failing to break his foe through torture, Ahmad beheaded his young nemesis the same night.

But the Portuguese crusade was not over. Queen Seble Wongel had managed to escape with the remaining Portuguse – only 120 of the original 400 – and made contact with her son Gelawdewos. The Portuguese were distraught at the death of their young, heroic leader, and determined to see the thing through. The Ethiopian Emperor, his mother, and the surviving Portuguese trekked back to Debra Damo – the place where Cristovao had left a stockpile of guns and ammunition. Now rearmed, they ventured forth for the final confrontation with Imam Ahmad Ibrahim.

Ahmad, having defeated the Portuguese and executed their leader, had figured the fight was over. He sent back his Ottoman mercenaries and returned to his camp, ready to finish the conquest of Ethiopia next year. He must have been badly shocked when on February 21, 1543, the Ethiopian army appeared out of nowhere with the fragment of surviving Portuguese beside them.

The Battle of Wayna Daga ended with the destruction of the Adal army and the death of Ahmad Ibrahim – allegedly, killed by a lone Portuguese musketeer who charged into the Arab lines to avenge the death of his captain. With Ahmad’s death, the Adal fled the battlefield. Ethiopia had survived, and the few remaining Portuguese began their long journey home. The Portuguese Crusade of Ethiopia had achieved its goal.

Such a small thing, really, this expedition forgotten by history. Yet it preserved a nation and a people from conquest that have survived to this day, and 36 million people follow the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that was almost destroyed in 1542. One of the strangest stories I have ever heard – it reads more like a novel than a historical event – its impact far outweighed the people involved.

And no one can deny the bravery, perseverance and ultimate sacrifice of Cristovao da Gama and his 400 – whatever you think of Crusades.

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