Modern history

Book One


“Green Sea of Darkness” was the Medieval Arab description for the Atlantic Ocean, used to indicate the terrors of the waters beyond Cape Bojador, which the Portuguese rounded in 1434


What Heart Could Be So Hard?

“What heart could be so hard as not to be pierced by piteous feeling to see that company?”

Zurara, Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea

“VERY EARLY in the morning, because of the heat,” a few Portuguese seamen on the decks of half a dozen hundred-ton caravels, the new sailing ships, were preparing, on August 8, 1444, to land their African cargo near Lagos, on the southwest point of the Algarve, in Portugal.

This cargo consisted of 235 slaves. On arriving on the mainland, these people were placed in a field. They seemed, as a contemporary put it, “a marvellous sight, for, amongst them, were some white enough, fair enough, and well-proportioned; others were less white, like mulattoes; others again were as black as Ethiops, and so ugly, both in features and in body, as almost to appear . . . the images of a lower hemisphere.

“What heart could be so hard,” this contemporary chronicler, Gomes Eannes de Zurara, a courtier attached to the brother of the king of Portugal, the inventive Prince Henry, asked himself, “as not to be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company? For some kept their heads low, and their faces bathed in tears, looking one upon another. Others stood groaning very dolorously, looking up to the height of heaven, fixing their eyes upon it, crying out loudly, as if asking help from the Father of nature; others struck their faces with the palms of their hands, throwing themselves at full length upon the ground; while others made lamentations in the manner of a dirge, after the custom of their country. . . .

“But to increase their sufferings still more,” the writer continued, “there now arrived those who had charge of the division of the captives, and . . . then was it needful to part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers. No respect was shown to either friends or relations, but each fell where his lot took him.”

Zurara then permitted himself a prayer to the fashionable goddess Fortune: “O mighty Fortune, who, with thy wheel doest and undoest, compassing the matters of the world as it pleaseth thee, do thou at least put before the eyes of that miserable race some understanding of matters to come, that the captives may receive some consolation in the midst of their great sorrow . . . .”1

The arrival of this collection of Africans was a novelty which many came to observe, among them Prince Henry, the chronicler Zurara’s hero. He watched, impassive, from his horse, and himself received forty-six of those slaves present, the “royal fifth.” He gave thanks that he was saving so many new souls for God.

Most of the captives who were on this day the cynosure of all eyes were Azanaghi (now usually known by their Berber name of Sanhajah or Idzagen), from what is today the southern part of the modern state of Sahara, or the northern part of Mauritania. These people later seemed to a Venetian adventurer, Alvise Ca’da Mosto, who would visit them in their own land, “tawny, squat and miserable”: in comparison with the blacks from farther south, who for him were “well-built, noble-looking men.”2 Yet the Azanaghi were one of the most important families of the veiled Tuaregs, a tribe who had, for generations, been traditional raiders of cities such as Timbuktu and other settled places on the Middle Niger. Arab geographers placed them as living near “the Gleaming Mountain” and “the City of Brass,” separated from the unknown land of the blacks to the south by a “Sea of Sand . . . very soft to tread, in which man and camel may sink.”3 They had adopted Islam in the eleventh century, but had known remarkably little about that faith till an inflammatory teacher, Ibn Yasin, a Muslim Berber from the University of Qayrawan (Tunisia), preached to them and captured their imaginations with an austere “fundamentalist” message, which promised, through barbarity and sectarianism, an eventual end to all fighting and disunion. So began the ruthless Almoravid movement—which, in the beginning, caused widespread destruction.

For, in the service of unimpeachable ideals, the ancestors, or at least collateral ancestors, of the humble captives in Portugal in 1444 had—zealots all, dressed in skins and riding camels—swept through first Morocco and then the Iberian peninsula and, for a time, ruled an empire which stretched from the rivers Niger and Sénégal in Africa to the Ebro in Spain. Ibn Yasin’s hermitage, or ribat (the Almoravids were “people of the ribat”), in his years of struggle, was not far from that same Arguin whence the slaves of 1444 were stolen. It is thus possible that some of the Portuguese concerned to guard the new arrivals were, as a result of rape or seduction three hundred years before, their distant relations.

Zurara described how, even in the fifteenth century, the Azanaghi often made “war on the blacks, using more ruse than force, because they are not as vigorous as their captives.” The remark shows why the slaves brought to the Algarve were of so many colors: those captured by the Portuguese raiders even included men and women who had already been enslaved by the Azanaghi. If the chronicler’s comment about white and black slaves is accurate, the captives would have also included some who were bought in markets from the ubiquitous Muslim salesmen.

Most of the captives of 1444 had been taken by the Portuguese in a village: where “ . . . they [the Portuguese], shouting out ‘St James, St George, and Portugal,’ at once attacked them, killing and taking all they could. Then might you see mothers forsaking their children, and husbands their wives, each striving to escape as best they could. Some drowned themselves in the water, others thought to escape by hiding under their huts, others stowed their children among the sea-weed, where our men found them afterwards. . . .”4

The leader of the Portuguese in this expedition was Lançarote de Freitas, a successful young official previously engaged in collecting taxes, but now captain of a newly formed company for trade to Africa, established at Lagos (the town where de Freitas had been an official), for “the service of God and the Infante Henry.”5 De Freitas was known as a “man of great good sense,” who had been brought up in the large and interesting household of Prince Henry.

The seizure of slaves, rather than their purchase, was then a frequent practice in both Europe and Africa. These “razzias,” as the odious practice of man-stealing was known, were carried out throughout the Middle Ages in Spain and Africa by Muslim merchants, and their Christian equivalents had done the same. Muslims were justified by the Koran in seizing Christians and enslaving them; the Christians, in their long-drawn-out reconquest of Muslim Spain, had conducted themselves similarly.

This voyage of de Freitas’s was the first serious commercial venture to West Africa by the Portuguese whose business leaders, as a result, became as convinced of the benefits of such expeditions as they had previously been skeptical. The merchants of Lisbon had been hoping for gold from West Africa. They had found some, but slaves were in more ample supply. Prince Henry was not displeased: the money which he obtained by selling his share of the slaves could be used to finance further endeavors, including journeys of pure discovery.

The chronicler Zurara probably thought that the captives owed their fate to the sins of their supposed ancestor Ham, cursed by his father, Noah, after seeing him naked and drunk. It was both a Christian and a Muslim tradition to suppose that the descendants of Ham had been turned black. Zurara may also have been influenced by the work two centuries before of Egidio Colonna, who had written that if people did not have laws, and if they did not live peacefully under a government, they were more beasts than human, and therefore could legally be enslaved.6 No doubt Zurara would have considered that the Africans brought back to Portugal in 1444, whatever their origins, were just such people.

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