Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Sixth Series)

Research Article

‘REPRESENTING’ AFRICA: AMBASSADORS AND PRINCES FROM CHRISTIAN AFRICA TO RENAISSANCE ITALY AND PORTUGAL, 1402–1608*

Kate Lowe

Abstract

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a number of sub-Saharan envoys and ambassadors from Christian countries, predominantly Ethiopia and the Congo, were sent to Portugal and Italy. This essay shows how cultural assumptions on both sides complicated their task of ‘representing’ Africa. These African ambassadors and princes represented the interests of their rulers or their countries in a variety of ways, from forging personal relationships with the king or pope, to providing knowledge of the African continent and African societies, to acquiring knowledge of European languages and behaviours, to negotiating about war, to petitioning for religious or technological help, to carrying out fact-finding missions. But Renaissance preconceptions of Africa and Africans, reinforced by the slave trade, and Renaissance and papal assumptions about diplomatic interaction, ensured that the encounters remained unsatisfactory, as this cultural history of diplomacy makes clear. The focus of the essay is on religious and cultural exchange and the ceremonial culture of embassies.

Footnotes

* Versions or portions of this essay have been presented at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, Oxford University and Stanford University. I am grateful to these audiences for their helpful comments.

READ 10 MARCH 2006