On Behalf of Prester John:O Preste
The Storming of Baçanete

Haramat, Ethiopia, 2 February, 1542

A scenario by Trevor Brabyn

for The Galleon and the Flame

        Forces and Deployments
            The Portuguese
            The Somali
        Special Rules
        Victory Conditions
        What Really Happened

(Image at right: The kingdom of Prester John, depicted on a map in the Queen Mary Atlas [1558] by Diego Homem, preserved in the British Library

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dom estevao Então - por que isto? His Majesty el-Rey Dom João III of Portugal has decided that Christovão da Gama, son of the illustrious Vasco who mistook the Shaiva temples of Malabar for Christian churches, is absolutely the most perfect man to lead a party of 267 Portuguese soldados and 130 black slaves, "good men to help their masters" (Correia IV:1: 347) , all armed at royal expense with more than 600 espingardas ,  6 half-colunas , and 2 colunas artillery (Castanhoso 11), into the unending desert and serra to the south of Massowa to procure o Preste, the faithful Christian brother on the other side of the vast Mohammedan Levant, famous to the learned among us now for five hundred years, and to assist him against the Moor, whom His Majesty Dom João calls our mutual enemy-in-Christ that presses his realms by land and by sea.
Now between us, had I known truly that this was what that mad fidalgo had in mind when we left Goa, I would surely not have come with the Carreia da Índia this year, but as it was I found myself dragooned into service when that fleet, with which I was sailing, flung me ashore after a particularly boozy watch (I will confess) at Massowa, into the waiting arms of himself and loucos acompanhando , and sailed off.

(Image at left: Dom Estevão da Gama, Viceroy of India AD 1539-1541, organizer of the Abyssinian expedition and brother to Dom Christovão, from Gaspar de Correia, Lendas da India , vol. IV t. 1)

Our first action, at Baçanete, we entered upon for no reason at all but that the first Moors we saw were on a hill. Only a few days before we met up with the Queen, the wife of o Preste , and her retinue of 200-odd bearers and servants, and Dom Christovão was eager to show her the might and true value of her new allies, of which she has in no way appeared convinced. From the road we were travelling to meet the Prester's supposedly mighty armies in the interior we espied a great mesa, about a league in circumference, rising above a wide plain, green and fertile amidst the dry surroundings, evidently watered by some spring at the top. It is guarded by rough walls of heaped stones at foot and crown and steep slopes on all sides, and can be approached by only three passes, each of them perilous narrow paths commanded by the heights and separated from the others.

The queen told the Dom that this was home to a Moorish garrison of the Imam Ahmad of some 1,500 men, who had taken it and the pastures and farms thereon from the Christian naturales some eight years ago, and had made a mosque of the church there and serfs of the terrified inhabitants on the campo about us.

Me, at the time I considered this did not import much, for what do I care whether a mob of starving peasant Copts in the middle of nowhere were subjects to a gang of Turkish brigands, or a fat mestiço self-styled Senhor with more African wives than subject villages to keep them in? But as for Dom Christovão, when he saw the hill, it was all over. He determined immediately to assault the stronghold,

  …saying that it did not appear to him right to advance, leaving these Moors behind, passing their very gate. That it would seem a cause for mockery, and that they refused to fight them through fear; that it would greatly hearten the Moors and greatly depress the Portuguese: seeing that, although they came to aid the Preste and to drive the Moors out of the kingdom, they still passed without attacking and capturing the hill (Correa IV:1:356).  

the area Nearly everyone tried to dissuade the mad Dom from this foolhardy proposition, and even the Queen did not want it, preferring he would not provoke the Moors too early and would instead proceed to the Preste com muyto pressa . And what is more, she said, were he to die now in battle, the whole effort would come to nothing, "and she would have to return and fly to the hill where she had been" (Correa IV:1:356).

(Image at right: Amba Saiat, where I think R. S. Whiteway placed Baçanete, from a 1908 Italian military survey, reprinted in Nazi Germany during the war. The road on the left conforms roughly at this point with the main route south in the 16th century. )

I had hoped for a little while that he might change his mind in the face of these very reasonable counsels, but none of them were of concern to the old cavalheiro, lost as he was in some imagined land of knights and Saracens, and he remains steadfast:

Dom Christovão weighed these reasons, and replied that in no way whatever could he forego attacking that hill, as the Moors were in his very road; that he had great hopes in the Passion of our Lord that He would give him victory over the unbelievers in His holy faith, as He always did; that everywhere, where Portuguese fought Moors, even though they were few, they defeated many Moors. This he hoped in His holy pity would now be the case (Correa IV:1:356).

After a brief feint the previous afternoon to determine the dispositions of the Moors, and finding them to be entirely without firearms, but with many nasty arrows and stones to throw at us instead, we camped for the night in preparation for the assault. In the morning this camp was pitched, and Dom Christovão allotted to each pass captains each with their companies of 50 men (Castanhoso 11):

…to Francisco Velho and Manuel da Cunha, with their people and three pieces of artillery, the first approach… to the second he appointed João da Fonesca  and Francisco de Abreu, with three other pieces of artillery… and as the last approach was the strongest and most dangerous, he selected it for himself with the remaining people. There remained on guard over the Queen sixty soldiers with matchlocks and pikes, who were angry and discontented that they were excluded from the attack (Castanhoso 33).

Old Castaño, the fidalgo who was there too and who wrote these good words above, has been right about many things, but here I think it would be truer to say, those fools of the last company were all angry and discontented but me, who was only too happy to slouch on my lança and watch the progress of the battle, which from afar looked to me like very hot work, muyto desagradavel , I would say.

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map for game In this game, only a part of the two-kilometer-long amba itself will be seen, that facing the plain from whence the Portuguese approached and where the main fighting took place. The landscape of this part of Ethiopia is characterized by arid, monumental erosional terrain, with huge tabletop mountains bound by precipitous cliffs to deep canyons below - see the Illustrated London News on the British expedition to Magdala in 1868 to understand the true meaning of this and what it ment for the movement of troops. Because of this, and because the Portuguese chroniclers insist there was no other way to get up to the summit of Baçanete but by the three narrow "passes" or paths, I am making the entire slope of the mountain impassable save for these trails. This means that a modeller can do as much or as little as he likes to represent the towering plateau - whether he wants to take on model railway-type heroics, or just drape a tablecloth over some books - no troops will ever be on the slopes save ones on the paths, so the usual temple-like stepped hills common to wargames tables everywhere are here unnecessary.

This said, if you do want to represent Amba Saiat "in living colour" the plateau should be a bit greener than I have represented it on the map, since Castanhoso says from the foot of the peak on which the mosque sat "there gushes a fountain of very excellent water, so copious that it irrigates the whole hill; thus they sow on it food grains in sufficiency, and maintain numbers of cows and all kinds of cattle" (31), rendering the plateau inhabitable for the Muslim garrison and the Christian villagers before them. There would be no furrowed fields, but plenty of pasture. The mosque on the peak, as said, was originally built as a church, and its style should reflect this. The village dwellings would be mostly round thatched mud huts as are still typical of the region today. Around the bottom of the hill and at the top are barriers with wooden gates, each variously described "a very strong stone wall with its gate" at bottom and "a gate in the living rock" at top (Castanhoso 30) - I am representing them as high defensible breastworks of heaped stones, for simplicity's sake. The slopes leading to the Plateau should also be rocky and become dramatically steeper towards the top - like an Arizona or New Mexico mesa - and the 3rd pass particularly precipitous, almost straight up (see below under "Passes").

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Portuguese Figures:

portuguese 2 Portuguese 3 Portuguese 3

(Images above: Portugese servants and a casado or householder in India, from whence the Abyssinian Embassy departed, from a set of paintings by Marcello Vivarelli dated ca. 1540 preserved in the Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome, Cod. 1889.)

For the Christians, nobody makes miniatures that are quite right in 25mm, arquebusiers in cotton or plate armor and wide-brimmed flat "Spanish" hats and beards, some with African faces, but probably any Spanish conquistador figures will do in the meantime, as those made by Wargames Foundry in the "El Dorado" range, and by Naismith/ Navwar, Ral Partha/ WizKids, Frontier (formerly), and Hinchliffe/ Ellerburn Armies. The Essex 80-Years War Spanish, the Vendel and old Foundry Elizabethan English ranges, and the Old Glory "Wars of Religion" line also include many usable figures.

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Somali Figures:

Men of Ogaden, 1888 Somáli di Bardéra, 1893 Trad, Somali Warrior

(Images above: 19th and 20th-century depictions of Somali / Muslim Ethiopian  men in traditional battle-dress. Left: Two men from Ogaden accomanying the British traveller Frank Linsly James [1851-90] from his book Unknown Horn [1888]. Centre: "Somáli di Bardéra," Somalis seen by Vittorio Bóttego's Italian Geographical Society party in 1893, from his Viaggi de scoperta nel cuore dell'Africa: Il Giuba Esplorato [1895]. Note that the man kneeling at left carries a bow. Right: An illustration of a Somali warrior in traditional dress from a February 1998 pamphlet by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the  Somali Red Crescent Society on historical Somali restraint from brutality in warfare. )

In 25mm, Copplestone Castings makes some fine Somalis with spears and bucklers in its "Return to Darkest Africa" range - one rather wishes Mr. Copplestone would complete the line with armored cavalry and command figures, but in the meantime probably any good Moorish, Arab, or Turkish mail-clad horse leaders with javelins would do all right. For the archers I find converting various 1880s Sudan Hadendowah spearmen with loincloths and frizzy hair, especially those made by the London War Room (and Ral Partha/Spirit Games if you want to do everything small - these are easier because they already have open hands, but will never mix well with Copplestone or Foundry El Dorado figures), work best. These lines include suitable poses if  you are not too worried about the hairstyle to which one could add bows of filed brass wire or else pre-made bow castings by QT/Amazon miniatures and others.

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Forces and Deployments:

 (scaled to a ratio of 1 figure to 5 men)

Portuguese under Dom Christovão da Gama:

(all on foot, and assumed to have heavy armor)

At foot of 1st Pass:
Francisco Velho and Manuel da Cunha:
20 Portuguese/Indo-Portuguese/African slave harquebusiers
2 light cannon with crews (manhandled)

At foot of 2nd Pass:
João de Fonesca and Francisco de Abreu:
20 Portuguese/Indo-Portuguese/African slave harquebusiers
2 light cannon with crews (manhandled)

At foot of 3rd Pass:
Dom Christovão da Gama and Miguel de Castanhoso:
28 Portuguese/Indo-Portuguese/African slave harquebusiers
1 heavy cannon with crew (manhandled)

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Somali garrison of Imam Ahmad Ibrahim al-Ghazi, Sultan of Adal:

In the middle of the Plateau:
The Governor of Haramat, mounted on horseback with sword and javelins

Above 1st Pass:
1 Captain mounted on horseback with sword and javelins.
2 20-man units of bowmen (not weak Indian bows)
3 20-man units with spears, swords, bucklers, and throwing stones.

Above 2nd Pass:
1 Captain mounted on horseback with sword and javelins.
2 20-man units of bowmen (not weak Indian bows)
3 20-man units with spears, swords, bucklers, and throwing stones.

Above 3rd Pass:
1 Captain mounted on horseback with sword and javelins.
2 20-man units with bowmen (not weak Indian bows)
3 20-man units with spears, swords, bucklers, and throwing stones.

In the village: various Muslim and captive Ethiopian Christian women and children hiding in the houses - these do not play a role in the battle. Nine fine riding horses penned in a corral (scaled down to two in this game - a victory objective for the Portuguese), and some cattle and mules. 

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Special Rules:

The Portuguese are all visible, but Somali figures on the top of the Plateau are not visible to anyone on the slopes, unless at the very edge or crown of the hill. And even then, they are not distinguishable from one another to the Portuguese as to whether they are bow- or sword-armed units. They count as Class IV targets up there to figures shooting from below.

Castanhoso reports that during the feint of 1 February, "it is difficult to believe how thick the stones and arrows fell when we got near; and they let fall rocks from the hill above, which caused us great fear and damage" (33-34). Correa says that on the final day (our battle) "The Moors accorded much resistance, giving as much by arrows and stones that covered the serra," and that even when the Portuguese covering fire forced them to hide from view, they continued their defence by "merely letting fall from the inside the stones by heaps, which was enough nevertheless to do much harm to our men" (Correa IV:1:358).

I am representing these "falling stones" as small boulders and largish stones that are heaped up in "traps" around the top edge of the plateau and some places below to be pushed off all at once, thus starting small rockslides on top of the advancing Portuguese.

The Somali player starts with 20 of these traps, to be placed wherever he likes on the map. Each is 4 inches wide and can be set off by two figures in contact with it during the firing phase. The stones will roll directly downhill on the same four-inch frontage, and any figures of whatever side caught in that zone within 6 inches of the trap need to roll a 6 on 1D6 to survive, and any further downhill a 3, 4, 5, or 6. If a figure fails to save, he is "wounded," i.e. incapacitated for the rest of the game. These are one-shot affairs, and cannot be "reloaded."

The Passes:
The Passes refer to the paths or trails by which the Portuguese could approach the summit of the hill. The Portuguese may not deviate to either side of these "passes," which are 1 figure-base wide.

Essentially this means that the Portuguese must queue-up and move single-file, the only planning until they reach the summit being to decide how many men to send forward at once and how closely packed they should be - a miscalculation might mean the interment of the entire company in falling boulders - and of course how many should stop to shoot at any given time.

The first, or northernmost pass and the center paths are steep and dominated by line of sight from the summit, but otherwise traversable. These count as rough terrain for movement, so take off the high die when moving up or down them.

The last or southernmost pass is much more difficult. Castanhoso says:

The third pass is the strongest of all, as from all outward appearance it is impregnable; for there is no path save over slippery rocks entirely exposed to the summit, so that any stone would do great damage. Men can only climb up with naked feet to a projection; from this up is four fathoms, and the rock is scarped with only a few holes chiselled out and some chinks, and over this one must proceed, or clamber up by help of spears (30).

This pass is also crossed as rough terrain, but for every move, the each unit of Portuguese must roll a six-sided die first. On a 1, 2, or 3, he has slipped and makes no progress that turn. And there is no overtaking.

Covering Fire:
The Portuguese made use of "covering" or "suppression" fire at this battle, firing their harquebuses at the rocks above to make the Somalis frightened to show their heads, which prevented their archers from being of much use, but did nothing to halt the shower of falling rocks.

During the shooting phase, a Portuguese unit or gun, if it has at least 5 shooting dice  (twenty-sided dice) to fire, can opt to make covering fire instead of shooting to kill. The entire unit or detachment must fire this way if there are more than 5 men. If the enemy unit at the top of the hill fired at is one of archers and has not fired yet that turn, its firing phase is negated that turn, though a card will still be drawn for it.

Forcing the Summit:
The stone breastworks around the rim of the summit are scalable on foot, and there is no need for special storming rules. Just fight a normal melee with the usual modifiers, the Somalis having a bonus for defending an obstacle. Ignore the 1-base-wide rule for the passes when the Portuguese make contact with the walls.

Portuguese Impetus:
The Moors were so hard pressed that the commander had not time to mount his horse; when he saw the Portuguese on the summit, he prepared, with his five hundred companions, to defend themselves, animating and urging them to advance; but with all they could not await the impetuosity of the Portuguese.

- Castanhoso, 35.

Once on the summit, if the Portuguese charge in close order they may add an additional +1 to their close combat dice until they lose their first die roll, then they drop to their regular melee dice. If the Portuguese win 6 out of their first 6 melee rolls the Somali unit is so shaken that it breaks off the melee and retires 1D6 shaken. The Portuguese may follow them or attack any other unit within 45 degrees to front and in range if their unused movement distance allows. They must pass their "to close" die roll, and their target must pass their "to stand" (no evasion allowed).


The Portuguese count as heavily armored European harquebusiers for movement, shooting, close to combat/stand and fight, melee, and morale, and the Somalis count as Indians with steel weapons and good (equivalent to English) bows. The Somalis do have to worry about major morale but only by command (of which there are three), not for the whole force. The Portuguese may disregard major morale.

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Victory Conditions:

The Portuguese are primarily concerned to make a dramatic show of strength to impress the Queen, restore hope to the Christians on the plain below, and overawe the Muslims. Their objective is to seize the mosque, though some horses would be helpful too. If they win they will also kill any "Moors" yet living on the plateau, from which there is no escape, but this need not be represented.

If the Portuguese take the mosque and suffer less than 25% casualties overall dead or wounded, everyone is impressed and it is a major Portuguese victory.

If the Portuguese take the mosque but suffer more than 25 % casualties overall dead or wounded, there is some difference of opinion and it is a minor Portuguese victory - a battle won but a foolish one.

If the Portuguese take only the horses and suffer more than 25% casualties overall dead or wounded, people are not much impressed, but at least the Portuguese will have an opportunity to brag about their horsemanship.

If the Portuguese can't even take the horses it is clear that these rowdy Franks are by no means as great as they boast, but really just a gang of roving beggars from the sea; no need to take them and their pretentious claims to true doctrine too seriously. This is a major Somali victory.

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What Really Happened:

Though at the time I - and, that the truth may be known, all others who were present - were doubtful as to the wisdom of this battle provoked for no reason at all save the pride and cavalheirismo of our noble Captain-General, por acaso, ours suffered valorously all the hazards of fortune and won this fearsome rock for Our Holy Faith.

The three columns advanced to their appointed positions, and at Dom Christovão's signal, began the difficult climb toward the flat above shooting their cannons and harquebuses as they went, such that no Moor dared show his face over the lip of the summit, wherefore ours lost very much fewer men than they would have otherwise. Yet still the Moors let fly great stones down upon our heads, killing two soldiers outright and wounding many others. Castanho my friend accompanied the Captain-General up the hardest pass, and says,

D. Christovão, seeing the evil treatment they gave us, attacked the ascent very briskly, and we all followed him with our lives in our hands; when we got under shelter of the hill the stone-throwing did us less harm, and then we began to ascend the pass. D. Christovão headed the climb by the help of his pike, and of fissures in the rocks; here many were wounded, and all twice beaten back, having nearly reached the top, but our matchlocks kept off the Moors from approaching the pass (Castanhoso 35).

Reaching the top, the bravados of our Captain-General were given full rein, as he madly exhorted his men and himself pressed onwards impetuously, always in the lead, like a cavalheiro of old. Which seeing, his men were bound to follow, much surprising their adversaries, who were taken off-guard when they appeared at the top, such that they would not obey the orders of their commanders to form up, but gave way withal.

At the same time, the column of Manuel da Cunha and Francisco Velho pressed to the top suffering two dead and many wounded from the slings and arrows of the Moors. When they reached the top, it was said, and God alone knows why,

The Moors would not close the last gate, thinking they could take better vengeance inside. When our men did get in they found them formed up in one body, with the commander and three others on horseback. Our men, seeing them collected together, attacked with the shout, "St. James!" falling on with lance-thrusts and sword-cuts, and the battle raged (Castanhoso 36).

Though in general the Moors could not oppose ours with equal valor, there were among them some who gave a very good account of themselves, a portent had we only known, of many difficulties and woeful things to come:

… the captain of the Moors like a valiant cavalleiro, the strongest of theirs, who rode on a fine horse with six other Moors, such that the Portuguese, wanting above all to gain honour, accordingly closed with the[se] Moors, whom the captain, like a man determined to die, dismissed, throwing by the hand his remaining javelin, with which he ran though a man in corslet, who fell dead, drew his sword; with which at a stroke that he gave to another on the crown of his helmet, cracked his skull, and thus killed him; but the Moor became touched with slow wits, by which he was defeated and killed (Correa IV:1:358).

Finally, the batalha of João de Fonesca forced its way to the top, losing two men in the attempt. All this was too much for the Moors of Baçanete, and since there was no other way to leave the hill but by the passes we had already taken, they fled into their houses and hiding places on the summit. Our men killed each one in turn, until none were left:

The burning of Magdala in 1868 …thus they all collected under our swords and pikes, and remained in a trap whence none escaped. Those who had fled early hid in the houses, and were all killed by the Abyssinians, who delighted in doing it. Some Moors preferred to throw themselves from the summit, hoping they might escape; but they were all dashed to pieces (Castanhoso 36).

(Image at left: The ruin of Magdala, another great northern Abyssinian amba-top fortress, by the British punitive expedition of Sir Robert Napier on 11 April 1868, from Roger Acton, The Abyssinian Expedition )

By the end of it we found ourselves the sole masters of this amba, with the loss of eight men dead and nearly fifty wounded, and had acquired nine fine riding horses and eighty or ninety mules. There were besides a large number of Moorish women in the village, wives and daughters to the slain warriors, whom our noble Dom presented to the Preste's wife as a sign of his loyalty to her; the merciful Christian Queen immediately ordered them all slaughtered like so much meat. We freed also some Christian women held captive there, who were returned with much celebration to their families on the plain below. Aside from these pleasantries,

D. Christovão went straight to the mosque after the victory, and directed the patriarch and the padres who had followed to consecrate it, in order that Mass might be said the next day. They gave it the name of Our Lady of Victory, and we buried there eight Portuguese (Castanhoso 37).

The Queen was most impressed at the facility and ease with which our Portuguese had taken this hill and killed every last Moor dwelling thereon, and but deigned not to ascend the hill herself to survey her new conquest, "as the road was so full of dead bodies that it would pain her" (Castanhoso 37). 

Aside from this great morro dos mortos, the most glorious and unhoped-for victory for the Holy Faith at Baçanete by the valor of Dom Christovão and the Grace of God had gained us the curiosity of Imam Ahmad himself, who not long after came in person to look a little more closely with four thousand or more of his men, homens formidaveis including matchlockmen from the Turkish Red Sea garrisons. Of the rest of the disasters which befell our sorry company thereafter, of the death of D. Christovão, and of the ten years I spent in the country without any means of escape whatever I am too weary now to relate, and must leave to Castanho and to the padres.

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Acton, Roger. The Abyssinian Expedition and the Life and Reign of King Theodore (engravings from the Illustrated London News). London: 1868

Bòttego, Vittorio. Viaggi di scoperta nel cuore dell'Africa: Il Giuba Esplorato: Sotto gli Auspici della Società Geografica Italiana . Illust. G. Boggiani. Roma: Ermanno Loescher & C.o, 1895.

Castanhoso, Miguel de. Historia Das causas que o muy esforça do capitão Dom Christovão da Gama fez nos Reynos do Preste Ioão, com quatroc~etos Portugueses que consigo leuou. Lisboa: Impresa por Ioã da Barreyra E por elle dirigida ao muyto magnifico & illustre señor Dõ Francisco de Portugal, 1564. Rep. and trans. in R. S. Whiteway, The Portuguese Expedition to Abyssinia in 1541-1543, as Narrated by Castanhoso, with some Contemporary Letters, the Short Account of Bermudez, and Certain Extracts from Correa. Hakluyt Society, Second Series, No. X. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1902.

Correa, Gaspar. A Quarta Parte da Cronica dos Feytos que se Passarão na India do Ano de 1538 até o Ano de 1550, em que Residirão seis Gouernadores. (D. Gracia de Noronha, D. Esteuão da Gama, Martim Alfonso de Sousa, Dom João de Crasto, Gracia de Sá, e Jorge Cabral.). [ca. 1583?]. Tomo IV, vol. 1 of Lendas da India . 9 vols. Lisboa: Academia Real das Sciencias, 1864.

Deutschland, Heer Generalstab. Italienisch-Ostafrika 1:400,000 / Im Auftrage Gen St. d H Abt F Kr Kart u Verm Wes (II) herausgegeben von der Heresplankammer . Sheet 6 of 14. Map. Berlin: 1941.

James, Frank Linsly. The Unknown Horn of Africa: An Exploration from Berbera to the Leopard River. London: 1883

Humble, Richard. The Explorers. The Seafarers series. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1979.

Hussein, Musa Yusuf, Mohammed Abdilaahi Riraash, and Ibrahim Haji M. Wa'ais, eds. Spared from the Spear: Traditional Somali Behavior in Warfare . Nairobi: Somalia Delegation, International Committee of the Red Cross, 1998.

Whiteway, R. S, trans. and ed. The Portuguese Expedition to Abyssinia in 1541-1543, as Narrated by Castanhoso, with some Contemporary Letters, the Short Account of Bermudez, and Certain Extracts from Correa. Hakluyt Society, Second Series, No. X. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1902.

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