Did a Black Man Discover the Fountain of Youth?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Learn about the legend that predates Ponce de León’s legendary search.

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We think the arrival of Beyoncé’s latest album on ITunes this month was meteoric, but 800 years earlier, the mysterious arrival in European courts of the so-called “Letter of Prester John” ignited a search for an African king and his kingdom unrivaled in its geographic scope, one lasting centuries in endurance. Let’s just say that the quest to find this black king was no passing fad. Malcolm Letts, author of the distinguished 1947 article, “Prester John: A Fourteenth-Century Manuscript at Cambridge,” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, believed the story of Prester John had been transmitted orally well before his letter, so that when it arrived in Europe in the 12th century, witnesses were ready to receive—and believe—it.

Already, there had been word of a representative from Prester John visiting the Pope from “India” in 1122. (“India,” as we will see, often referred to the horn of Africa.) Then, in 1158, Otto, Bishop of Freising in Germany, published his famous Historia de duabus civitatibus. In it, he told of a visit he had observed a decade before between then-Pope Eugene III and a Bishop Hugh, of Jabala, Syria, who, in pressing for another crusade, referred to “Presbyter Iohannes” as the Christian king who had scored a decisive victory against his Persian, Median and Assyrian rivals on the other side of the Tigris River before his own horses had been stymied in crossing over it into the Holy Land. 

In describing the encounter, Otto traced Prester John’s ancestry to the Magi we know as the Three Wise Men or Kings who, from the East, brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus during the first Christmas season. And one of the Magi, Balthasar, was said to be black, making him the Ethiopian’s king's nth-great grandfather.

The Letter of Prester John

Nothing added to Prester John’s luster like the letter attributed to him that landed on an emperor’s desk in the year 1165 A.D., and then spread across Europe in reproductions in an astonishing multitude of translations and reproductions in the mid- to late-12th century. To be clear, no source I have read believes the “Letter of Prester John” was actually written by one of the kings of Ethiopia. In fact, the best current thinking is that it originated in Western Europe and was, as Letts writes, a Latin tapestry of borrowed sources well-known at the time, including Alexander, the Vulgate Bible and the writings of Pliny, Solinus, St. Augustine, Isidore of Seville, the tales of Sinbad the Sailor and even Jewish Rabbinical writings. Yet the myth of this African king was “irresistible,” Letts concedes, because of its “miraculous powers” to conjure a distant world, cut off from Christian Europe, so that it soon “filled the early maps with monsters and fables, gave a new impulse to geographical discovery, brought fresh hope to Christendom and provided story-tellers with material which lasted for centuries.”

The letter that would soon become fabulously famous was, as Umberto Eco reports, addressed without a date or return address to Manuel I Komnenos, the Byzantine emperor (1143-1180), but it also reached Pope Alexander III and Frederick I. Its sender’s full name was “Presbyter Johannes, rex potential et virtue dei et domini nostril Iesu Christi.” Among his many fantastical boasts about his kingdom was that it had peace without poverty, an abundance of wealth and precious stones, a sprawling palace, an invincible army, an array of ever-more intriguing creatures and a hierarchy in which 70 kings paid him tribute. “If indeed you can number the stars of heaven and sands of the sea,” its author wrote, “then you may calculate the extent of our dominion and power.”

The difficulty in tracking the original letter, Letts writes, is that it was copied and recopied so many times and in so many languages it eventually swelled to 100 paragraphs with “various interpolations.” And the more that it was reprinted, the more fanciful it became as “an early contribution to the literature of Utopias.” By Letts’ count, there were 100 different manuscripts of the letter, including 10 in the British Museum. John Mandeville was the first to introduce it in English in the 14th century, and, Letts notes, in the 13th-century German poem “Der Jungere Titurel” it was “woven directly into the story of the Holy Grail.”

Whether the letter was meant to be a piece of “anti-Byzantine propaganda” or “one of the rhetorical exercises so beloved of the learned of the period,” Eco writes, “the phantasm called up by some imaginative scribe served as a pretext for the expansion of the Christian world toward Africa and Asia, a friendly prop for the white man’s burden.” Adding to its seductive powers was its “description of a land inhabited by all kinds of monsters, rich in precious materials, splendid palaces and other marvels.”  Even if it was a “monstrous fable,” as Letts writes, a fable with monsters and miracles sells, especially during the Crusades, when Christian Europe desperately needed military allies.

The scramble to find Prester John was almost immediate—but where did he actually reign? In the letter, Prester John had identified himself vaguely as ruler “in the three Indias,” which, in the 12th century, included “Nearer and Lesser India (the northern subcontinent), Further or Greater India (the south), and Middle India (Ethiopia),” according to Charles F. Beckingham in Prester John, the Mongols, and the Ten Lost Tribes. At one time or another, all were in play. When Pope Alexander III learned of him from his physician, he sent him off with a letter addressed “to his dearest son in Christ, John, illustrious and magnificent King of the Indians” (in which he cautioned him against excessive immodesty). The year was 1177, and the doctor was most likely headed for Ethiopia, Beckingham writes. Unfortunately, he was never heard of again. 

For much of the 13th century, following the opening of the Mongol empire east of Europe, explorers searched for Prester John in Central Asia and the Far East, including Georgia, Mongolia, even China; then in India, home of the shrine to St. Thomas. But as men like Marco Polo struck out in finding their man, the target shifted to what they hadn’t yet seen: Ethiopia. In his letter, Prester John had described a mirror in which he could look out and see the world, but so far, the world (at least, in Europe) couldn’t see him.