Modern history


The Portuguese Served for Setting Dogs to Spring the Game

“The Portuguese served for setting dogs to spring the game, which as soon as they had done was seized by others.”

Willem Bosman, 1704

THE EVENTS of that early summer morning in 1444 in the Algarve when over two hundred slaves were first offered to the Portuguese had their beginnings centuries before, during the earliest attempts of European peoples to explore Africa.

In the sixth century B.C., the Pharaoh Necho sent down the Red Sea an expedition which returned, two years later, through the Strait of Gibraltar. Herodotus tells the story. But there is little other evidence of such an early circumnavigation.

The Carthaginians attempted a similar expedition a hundred years later, but down the west coast. They sent out a large party under Hanno, one of the two magistrates of the state. He may have founded some colonies and, passing the river Sénégal, perhaps reached Sierra Leone, where he discovered an island full of apes, mostly females. He returned to say that he had founded a port and named it Cerne. The story was recorded in the Temple of Moloch in Carthage, but the exploit was soon forgotten.

Later the Persian Sataspes sailed down the coast of West Africa and found, he reported, small black people with clothes made of palm leaves.

No further such adventure seems to have been mounted until the fifteenth century A.D. For these incurious generations, the assumption was that Africa was impossible to circumnavigate, since the Indian Ocean was believed to be landlocked. Some Arab journeys undoubtedly were made, but it is quite unclear where they went.

It was for many generations supposed that Cape Bojador, to the south of Cape Juby, in what is now the Rio de Oro, was the ne plus ultra of wise seamen. Beyond it, white sailors were supposed to turn black, and a Green Sea of Darkness was believed to open up. One might expect to meet sea monsters, and rocks which could turn into serpents. The sun would send down sheets of liquid flame, the mist would be impenetrable, and the currents and reefs unnavigable. But, then, no one quite knew the whereabouts of Cape Bojador; it was often confused with Cape Juby.


A new era of discoveries was begun by Italians, in the late Middle Ages the most enlightened of European peoples. In 1291, Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldi and probably Teodosio Doria, from Genoa, set out with a flotilla of galleys to reach India by way of West Africa. Their declared aim was to outmaneuver the Venetians, who had secured control over trade through Egypt from the east. They thus established the agenda, so to say, of nautical ambition for the next two hundred years. Their ships were lost, but the memory of their attempt remained—though it has been suggested that in truth they set out west for the New World, rather than south for the Old. Then, about 1320, another Genoese, Lanzarotto Malocello, an adventurous captain who had had dealings with Cherbourg, in the remote English Channel, and the Low Countries, as also with the closer Ceuta, in Morocco, went to look for the Vivaldis and planted a Spanish flag in the Canary Isles (known to antiquity as the Fortunate Isles, or the Garden of the Hesperides, and never quite forgotten). Malocello gave his Christian name to one island of that archipelago, which it retains to this day. Other Mediterranean cities were soon interested. The Florentine Boccaccio tells how a journey was made about 1340 to West Africa by a group of adventurers which included Portuguese, Spaniards, Genoese, and Florentines (the commander was Angiolino del Teggia, of Florence), who communicated as they sailed by whistling. They brought back four inhabitants of Tenerife—guanches, who presumably ended their days as slaves—as well as redwood, sheepskins, and tallow.

In those days, Jewish merchants in Majorca had many dealings with their coreligionary trading partners in the ports of North Africa. Those Jews, it will be remembered, had more freedom to move about in the Arab world than their Christian counterparts. They were goldsmiths in Fez, and some Jewish colonies were established still farther south, even in the oases of the Sahara, their members sometimes marrying local Berbers or blacks, such as the Fulani in Senegambia. There were, too, some Catalan merchants in the sultanate of Tlemcen, forty miles inland from the Mediterranean near Oran.

Much information, therefore, became available in Spain, and the famous cartographers of Majorca put it to good use. So Angelino Dulcert, probably of Palma, was in 1339 able to design a sea chart which gave accurate pride of place to an African monarch, Mansa Musa of Mali, known for his wealth and for that extravagant hadj of 1324, of which mention has been made. Dulcert also depicted a “road to the land of the blacks,” as well as a “Saracen King” beyond the Atlas Mountains who owned mines “abounding in gold.”1 The idea was intoxicating! So it was scarcely surprising that Jaume Ferrer, also from Majorca, should set off in 1346 to look for a much-talked-of River of Gold (the territory now known as Rio de Oro); but he, too, vanished, as the Vivaldis and Doria had done.

Across the Mediterranean, in Aragon, an anonymous Franciscan wrote a book which described an imaginary voyage down the West African coast to that River of Gold, which seemed to lead to the presumed land of Prester John, a legendary Christian emperor cut off from Europe by infidel Muslims: that land was Ethiopia, whose monarchs had indeed joined the Christian Church in its early days (Saint Augustine had written, “Aethiopia credit Deo”). The author, like many others, confused Ethiopia, for long a synonym for Africa, with Mali, but much in his book was correct. Not long after, about 1400, Abraham Cresques, also a Majorcan, in a remarkably accurate map (the “Catalan Map,” as it has become known) drew attention to a gap in the Atlas Mountains and wrote, “Through here pass the merchants who come from the lands of the blacks of Guinea.”2

These expeditions were not concerned exclusively with gold. Thus, in the fourteenth century, occasional cargoes of Canary Islanders were carried as slaves to both Portuguese and Andalusian ports. In 1402, Jean de Béthencourt and some French friends, also on their way to the River of Gold, brought back to Seville some indigenous slaves after their conquest of the larger Canary Islands in the name of Castile. They were sold in Cádiz and seem to have been taken to Aragon.

The turning point for European journeys to West Africa came when, in 1415, the Portuguese mounted a military expedition and took Ceuta, then one of the greatest commercial entrepôts on the south coast of the Mediterranean, and the northern terminus of several caravan routes in Africa. The Genoese had recorded commerce with Ceuta for 250 years, and the conquest may have been suggested by them, though there were many motives behind the decision to attack—the political ambitions of the Portuguese princes, and a highly developed sense of destiny inspired by chivalrous literature among them. These half-English infantes, the future King Duarte and his brother Henry the Navigator who, with their father, King João I, had earned their spurs as knights in this enterprise, are said to have heard from some Moorish prisoners of the details of the passage of trains of merchants and camels, carrying beads made in Ceuta, among other things, for exchange with gold and slaves, to Timbuktu on the Niger and to Cantor on the Gambia, news that inspired Henry “to seek the lands by the way of the sea.”3

If he did not know of them before, Henry also learned at Ceuta of the black slaves available from Guinea, for he observed in the battle, as many Portuguese did, the special prowess in the fighting of a tall African, one of the innumerable slave soldiers in whom Muslim monarchs placed so much faith.

Henry the Navigator is an important pioneer in the history of the transatlantic slave trade. He might be said to be a representative European of his day, since he had both English ancestors—through his maternal grandfather, John of Gaunt—and much Spanish and French blood. He is, though, a curiously elusive hero, a gregarious bachelor who liked neither wine nor women, a patriot, yet more a businessman than a typical prince. But he was persistent and energetic, as well as charming and open-minded. He had both curiosity and religious zeal. He was austere, but combined the pride and cold heart of a nobleman with the economic imagination of an entrepreneur. Henry, despite his swarthy complexion, probably never shook off the lowering influence of his dominating English mother who, it was said, found the Court in Lisbon a sewer, and left it a nunnery.

As the Portuguese should have anticipated, the principal center of trade in North Africa was moved by the Muslims from Ceuta, after its fall to the Christians, to other places, so the routes across the Sahara did not pass under Portuguese control. But Prince Henry decided for himself that the source of African gold, the coast of Guinea, might be reached by sea (he may have been influenced, as Columbus was later, by Florentine cosmographers). There might be other commercial benefits which, in the long run, would make an effort at exploration worthwhile: the hope of obtaining slaves may have loomed in his calculations, and the peppers—“grains of paradise,” or malaguetta—from the future Grain Coast (approximately the modern Liberia) were already known in European markets, because of the trans-Saharan trade.

The “gold of Guinea” was in truth produced in remote zones: near the upper waters of the Sénégal; at Bambuk, between the rivers Sénégal and Falémé; and two hundred miles away, at Bure, near the junction of the Niger and its tributary the Tinkisso. Other gold fields were in the forests of what later became known as Ashanti, and Lobi, on the higher waters of the Black Volta. But the Portuguese assumed that they could reach those magic sites by sea.

The idea of a land campaign to find the sources of the gold of Guinea did not occur to Prince Henry—fortunately, since no doubt it would have been doomed to failure, just as Arab and Moorish expeditions south from Sijilmasa along the ancient caravan road had been, when mounted in, respectively, the eighth and the eleventh centuries.

Prince Henry eventually established his headquarters on Cape Saint Vincent in the extreme southwest of Portugal, at Sagres, and built a palace, a chapel, an observatory, and a village for workers. The notion that he gathered around him a school of cosmographers and astronomers is a legend, but he did have the services of experts such as Jacome or Jaime Ribas, a Catalan cartographer of distinction. He also ordered the expansion of the port of Lagos, twenty miles away to the east of Sagres, and there were built “the best sailing ships afloat,” as the Venetian Ca’da Mosto would put it later.4

Prince Henry’s doings were partly financed by his own clever investments in, for instance, the monopoly of fishing for tuna along the coast of the Algarve, and in a fishery on the Tagus; and partly from subsidies from the Order of Christ, a knightly association founded in Portugal concerned to carry on the war against Islam in their own territory with money obtained from the Templars, when that undertaking had been dissolved a century before. Prince Henry was grand master of this Order, a post which carried the added benefit that he would gain the profits from its fairs, held at Tomar, as well as from leasing houses and shops round the fairground.

The first ventures of the prince were the seizure of the deserted islands of Madeira and the Azores. Madeira may have been occupied partly to prevent the Spaniards from doing the same: a motive for imperial expansion which would be repeated in the history of Europe. Prince Henry became the governor (in absentia), and managed the place thereafter. Both Madeira and the Azores were lightly colonized by Portuguese from the Algarve, along with some Flemings: the Azores were even known as the Flemish Islands for a time, when Jacome de Bruges was the first governor there. Both yielded dye material: “dragon’s blood,” a resin, and orchil, obtained from lichen. Madeira (so called, from the Portuguese for “wood,” because of its timber-bearing forest) could also offer wax and honey, as well as wood. Like the Azores (“the Hawks”), it had no men to seize, for it had been uninhabited before. The settlers there were conscious of the innovation; the first children to be born on the main island were duly named Adam and Eve.

Prince Henry was always as interested in these Atlantic islands as he was in Africa: they were certain money-makers, and the African adventures were more speculative. All the same, he continued to finance probing voyages along the African coast, as far as Cape Juby, where Béthencourt had anchored for a few days after his conquest of the Canaries (Cape Juby is visible from the Canary island of Fuerteventura). In 1434, Gil Eannes, a native of the Algarve and one of the best sailors in Portugal, was charged to go and look for gold from beyond Cape Bojador: in “seas none had sailed before,” in the phrase of Camoëns, though possibly some Genoese had done so, as of course had Hanno and his sailors. Gil Eannes probably sailed in a simple square-rigged single-mastedbarca, partly decked if decked at all, only about thirty tons, flat-bottomed, with a shallow draft, and with a crew of about fifteen, who would have expected to row much of the time—the same kind of ship as had been used often before in unsuccessful attempts to round the cape (wherever indeed it was).

Eannes rounded what he took to be the evil cape, to find that his white sailors did not turn black, the Green Sea of Darkness was on that day “as easy to sail in as the waters at home,” the sun did not set down sheets of liquid flame, and even the currents and reefs seemed navigable, provided that one did not sail too close to the shore. Eannes brought back to Portugal a sprig of rosemary gathered on the shore south of the landmark.5

Rosemary promised little in the way of trade. Nevertheless, a year later, Eannes set off again, this time accompanied by Afonso Gonçalves Baldaia, the royal cupbearer, and reached a spot about 150 miles south of the cape. Here they saw with satisfaction the footprints of both men and camels, at a point which they named Angra dos Ruivos (Creek of Red-Haired Men, now Garnet Bay). In 1436, Gonçalves Baldaia sailed again and, after two of his men engaged in a pointless fight with some inhabitants, at last reached the long-sought-after Rio do Ouro, which turned out to be a bay and not a river, nor to be the center of any trade in gold. Gonçalves Baldaia went farther on, halting only at a rock which he called Galha Point, Point of the Galley (now Piedra de Gala), a little short of a promontory soon to be known as Cabo Branco (Blanco).

For several years after 1436, Prince Henry was occupied with matters nearer to home, such as the disastrous siege of Tangier. But in 1441, two new Portuguese captains, Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão, set out, separately, to Cabo Branco, a designation which they gave the place because of the white of the sand before it. (It is on the extreme north of the modern state of Mauritania.) Here some hills began to rise for the first time out of the desert but, at first sight, there was still nothing but sand to be seen. Yet, on the south side of the cape, they found a market run by Muslim traders, and a halt for the camels and caravans of the interior. The people were black but, being Muslim, were dressed in Moorish style, in white robes and turbans. Here the Portuguese received a small quantity of gold dust, as well as some ostrich eggs; and, as Gonçalves had always desired, his men also seized some black Africans, twelve in number, to take back to Portugal (“What a beautiful thing it would be,” this commander told his men, “if we could capture some of the natives to lay before the face of our Prince”).6

These people were nearly all Azanaghi, as had been most of those sold in Lagos in 1444. They seem not to have been carried off to serve as slaves—though one of them, a woman, was a black slave, presumably from somewhere in the region of Guinea. They were taken as exhibits to show Prince Henry, much as Columbus would bring back some Indians, fifty years later, from his first journey to the Caribbean.I

The Portuguese at home showed no special interest. Black slaves were known, as has been shown; already in 1425, a Portuguese vessel had seized a Moroccan slave ship off Larache, with fifty-three black men and three black women, all from Guinea, who had been profitably disposed of in Portugal. But Prince Henry, according to the sycophantic chronicler Zurara, was very pleased: “How great his joy must have been . . . not for the number of those captives, but for the hope, O sainted Prince, you had for others in the future.”7

These new captives included a local chief, Adahu, who spoke Arabic. He negotiated his own release, and that of a boy from his own family, on the understanding that, if he were taken back to where he had been found, he would deliver some black slaves in exchange.

So, the next year, 1442, Antão Gonçalves sailed back to Cabo Branco and from there, or from just below it, to the south, in the Bay of Arguin, brought not only some gold dust from West Africa, some fine salt, and a few ostrich eggs, but about ten black Africans, “from various countries” (that is, presumably, some from a long way away), who were presented to him, apparently, by an Arab mounted on a white camel. It became evident to the Europeans that Cabo Branco and the Bay of Arguin to the south of it, were with their islands, important trading places.

This news fired the interest of Prince Henry, for whom any slave, black or white, obtained from an African was a slave saved from a fate worse than death; and so, the next year, 1443, Nuno Tristão returned to anchor off an island in the Bay of Arguin. Here he found an “infinite number of herons, of which he and his crew made good cheer,” presumably in a stewpot; and they captured fourteen men, off canoes which they were rowing using their feet as oars. Tristão and his men made these men into slaves without feeling any need to negotiate their purchase. They later gathered another fifteen captives, the crew regretting that “their boat was so small that they were not able to take such a cargo as they desired.”8

Then, a year later, in 1444, Lançarote de Freitas’s company for trade to Africa was formed at Lagos. Trade with Africa remained a royal monopoly; so de Freitas, like hundreds of others after him, had first to seek a license to travel. He was accompanied by Gil Eannes, the first captain to have passed Cape Bojador.

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There are several reasons why the Portuguese should have been the first Europeans to embark on these interesting journeys. Theirs, in a sense, were the seas in which the first discoveries were made, even if they shared them with Castile; and Castile, in the fifteenth century, was a country turned in on itself, always on the brink of civil war. The same was true of England, busy fighting in the early fifteenth century to preserve her possessions in France and, in the second half, divided by a fratricidal conflict between Prince Henry’s cousins. Portugal was generally maritime; her coasts were dotted with little fishing villages; her Jewish and Genoese visitors had endowed Portuguese merchants and captains with a respect for maps, as for magnetic compasses, an Italian invention of the twelfth century.

Meantime, since 1317, the Portuguese fleet had been managed by the Pessagno family from Genoa, whose contract with the king in Lisbon specified that he should always have available twenty experienced Genoese captains (one of them, indeed, was for a time that Lanzarotto Malocello who rediscovered the Canaries).

The Portuguese were also good shipbuilders. The lateen-rigged caravel was their modification of the Moorish vessel that had long been sailing off Northwest Africa; it could sail closer to the wind than any others, though it was less useful in a following wind than a ship with square sails. Portuguese fishermen, too, had been busy off Moroccan coasts for generations. The country had a confident middle class, whose influence had increased at the end of the fourteenth century, when the old nobility had been destroyed in civil wars. The monarchs of the Aviz family, with their bastard blood, had favored merchants, by a series of fiscal concessions, and the curious royal capitalism which developed meant that Portuguese merchants abroad were really royal consuls. Portugal was far from isolated: there were so many merchants trading in Seville in the early fourteenth century that there was a street named “Calle de los Portugueses.” The whole country seemed a “wharf between two seas,” for it was in Lisbon or Oporto that Northern Europe could obtain Mediterranean produce such as dried cod, olive oil, salt, wine, and almonds. There were, too, English, Flemish, and Florentine merchants in Lisbon as well as Genoese ones: and as early as 1338, the Bardi of Florence had special privileges as corsairs—to seize captives at sea for ransoms from North Africa.

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From 1444 onwards, Zurara’s history mentions, in every chapter, kidnappings of more and more Africans by Portuguese captains in evermore-southern latitudes. “How they returned to the shore and of the Moors that they took” and “How they took ten Moors” are typical chapter headings in the work. Zurara describes the events as if the Portuguese thought that they were carrying out a great feat: winning new souls for God. Ca’da Mosto, the Venetian adventurer who traveled with the Portuguese, wrote, a little later: “The Portuguese caravels, sometimes four, sometimes more, used to come to the Gulf of Arguin, well armed and, landing by night, surprised some fishermen’s villages. . . .”9

The technique of these captures was inherited from attacks on Moors in Portugal or in Spain: there was little innovative about it. For this side of the African adventure had not been foreseen by those who began it. After all, it had been assumed that, to the south of the desert, there was a great Christian monarchy. Yet the early history of the Western discoveries on the African coast went hand in hand with that of a new Atlantic slave trade. This brought money to Prince Henry and other promoters of the expeditions. Sometimes the captures were easy but, sometimes, Zurara said, “our men had very great toil in the capture of those who were swimming, for they dived like cormorants, so that they could not get hold of them; and the capture of the second man caused them to lose all the others. For he was so valiant that two men, strong as they were, could not drag him into the boat until they took a boathook and caught him above one eye, and the pain of this made him abate his courage, and allow himself to be put inside the boat. . . .”10

These ventures continued to be private ones, for which the merchant had to obtain a license from the Crown—that is, from Prince Henry. Most of the new entrepreneurs were businessmen from Lisbon, though in 1446 the bishop of the Algarve fitted out a caravel for the slave trade (it sailed as one ship among nine). Always these vessels were accompanied by a notary sent by Prince Henry to ensure that he received his fifth of the booty.

The seizure of these desirable African slaves did not delay scientific discovery, for it made exploration financially worthwhile. Thus, in 1444, Dinis Dias, a new captain with imagination, discovered the Sénégal, the first great tropical river to be found by Europeans as yet, and by far the biggest which the Portuguese had encountered since leaving the Mediterranean. It was a waterway leading to (for it flowed directly from) the richest of the West African gold fields, whence the “silent trade in gold” was carried. With the impetuous currents which it caused at sea, the Portuguese supposed the Sénégal somehow to be a branch of the Nile, as did most others at that time, because of its alluvial behavior in summer. It had been on an island in the lower reaches of the river Sénégal that, five centuries before, the Tuareg Ibn Yacin conceived the popular austerity of the Almoravid movement, from which had derived their formidable conquests in Spain and Portugal during the early twelfth century.

The north bank of the river was a territory of Azanaghi; and the south bank, at least near the mouth, was in the 1440s inhabited by two peoples, the Wolofs and the Serers, both with reasonably large populations. The Portuguese thereafter saw the Sénégal, identified by two palm trees on the southern bank, as the dividing line in West Africa, separating the Moors from the “fertile land of the blacks,” in Ca’da Mosto’s words. “It appears to me,” that Venetian went on, “a very marvelous thing that, beyond the river, all men are very black, tall and big, their bodies well formed; and the whole country green, full of trees, and fertile; while, on this side, the men are brownish, small, lean, ill-nourished, and small in stature.”11

The whole territory was a surprise to the Portuguese, who found there something of the promised land which they had been expecting: cultivated fields, and a tropical savanna, natives very different from those whom they knew in the Mediterranean, offering the travelers the flesh of elephants to eat and ivory to take home. Ca’da Mosto said that the king of the Wolofs was poor, a youth of about his own age, who supported himself largely by raiding neighbors and selling the captives to Moorish or even Azanaghi merchants.

Farther on, Dias came upon a green and beautiful headland covered with trees, running far out into the ocean; there, the desert came to an end, and the lusher tropics began. He named it Cabo Verde. That is where the equinox also begins, for here the days and nights always have equal length. When, a few miles to the south, Dias reached the island of Gorée (he called it Ilha da Palma), off what is now Dakar, he realized that thereafter the coast of Africa began to turn east.

By this time, the Africans were beginning to learn how to defend themselves against the Europeans, using their wooden longboats, made from tree trunks, with considerable intelligence. Being powered by paddles, they did not depend on the winds. One of Prince Henry’s protégés, Gonçalo de Sintra, “who had been his stirrup boy,” lost his life looking for slaves on one of these expeditions, as did one of the pioneers of earlier days, Nuno Tristão. A Danish nobleman, Vallarte, the first Northern European to sail to West Africa, who had joined Prince Henry’s Court, was captured and then killed, off Gorée, in 1448. Thus the promised land was shown to have many snares. Nor was every expedition a financial success: one armada of twenty-seven ships, which had been assembled from several Portuguese ports—Madeira and Lisbon, as well as Lagos—and was captained again by Lançarote de Freitas, spent a long time off the coast in 1445, and brought back only about sixty slaves.

The Portuguese soon began to buy rather than kidnap slaves. A captain named João Fernandes apparently initiated this change, on the explicit orders of Prince Henry. He offered to stay behind on the coast of the Bay of Arguin in 1445 in order to gather information, in temporary exchange for an old leader of the region. Fernandes did remain in Africa for a year, won over the local people, and learned of markets where both slaves and gold might be exchanged for quite modest European goods. A year later, he told Antão Gonçalves, who relieved him, that he had met Ahude Meymam, a Muslim merchant, who owned some black slaves whom he wished to sell. Gonçalves bought nine of these blacks, as well as some gold dust, in return for “some things which pleased the chief . . . (though they were small and of little value).” Arguin was the center of this transaction, the first of hundreds of thousands of such carried out by Europeans over the next four hundred years.12

These events on the West African coast introduced the Portuguese to that interesting phenomenon, the Muslim merchant who was also a holy man. Free, austere in style of life, and as a rule the only literate persons in the region, these merchants were endogamous, self-sufficient, and well informed. Although they were described as Moorish by the Portuguese, many of them were black. They usually lived as a state within the state (whatever state it was!), practicing strict Islam, and trading pagans as slaves, rarely Muslims. Belief in Islam meant a useful communion with the other long-range operators. Nothing shows better the cosmopolitan nature of Islam than the discovery by the fourteenth-century traveler (or romancer) Ibn Battuta—in Sijilmasa, in southern Morocco—that his host was the brother of a man whom he had met a few years before in China.

The slaves whom these merchants had to offer the Portuguese were no doubt usually—as most slaves were, in that region as elsewhere, as they had been in antiquity and in medieval Spain—captives in war, or in raids. The Tuaregs had been used for so long to raid the black principalities to their south for slaves that, at first sight (even in the nineteenth century), freemen seemed to be “white,” or Berber, and slaves black. But there were always a few “white” slaves, some of whom would have lost their liberty as a result of punishment for crimes, or who had been sold by their parents into slavery. Had the Portuguese not bought the captives offered by the mullahs, these might have been sold to merchants operating the Sahara trade; and one or two of them just could have ended up in Spain or Portugal by that route, as a few slaves from Africa had already done.

The attitude of the Africans to transactions of this kind with the Europeans can only be guessed. The sale by any ruler of a person of his own people would have been looked on as a severe punishment; when African kings or others sold prisoners of war, they looked on the persons concerned as aliens, about whose destiny they did not care, and whom they might hate. For there was no sense of kinship between different African peoples. Such prisoners, however obtained, were the lowest people in society and, even in Africa, would have been used to do heavy work, including in gold mines.

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By 1448, about a thousand slaves had been carried back by sea to Portugal or to the Portuguese islands (the Azores, Madeira). Most had been procured by privately financed expeditions, one or two by Genoese, such as Luca Cassano—the earliest example of a non-Portuguese in the Atlantic slave trade, who set himself up on the island of Terceira, in the Azores. To serve the traffic, a castle as well as a trading post was being built on the biggest island in the Bay of Arguin (it was finished in 1461). It was a dour place, lying between the limitless ocean (as it then seemed) and the sands of the Sahara, but it had good water and, for a century, it was the most important European gateway into the western Sahara. Arguin was both a revival of the Phoenician model of a fortified trading post, and the forerunner of a whole chain of similar establishments along the African coast. Its construction enabled the Portuguese, in a regular fashion, to lay their hands on at least some of the gold of Bambuk, on the river Falémé, which had in the past been carried across the Sahara to the North African coast. Elsewhere, the trade in slaves, as in gold and other things, was carried on, as it would be in many places off Africa for many centuries, from ship to shore.

The indigenous people of these territories, to the south of the Sénégal, the Wolofs and the Serers, were no doubt astonished at some manifestations of Portuguese enterprise: at the boats, for example, some thinking them at first to be fish, others birds, or perhaps just phantoms. But, in the end, the Portuguese wanted to trade—slaves, gold dust, or whatever else might be of interest—and these demands represented continuity rather than innovation. Had not the Arabs been accustomed to exchange Berber horses for slaves? The Portuguese did the same. In the 1450s, the Venetian Ca’da Mosto reported, in the first realistic account of West Africa by an explorer, how he received ten or fifteen slaves from Guinea in return for one horse: a price that may have seemed good to anyone who recalled a Salic Law that had laid down that a single male slave had the equivalent value of a stallion, a female one a mare. (But slaves were exchanged in the Oyo empire for Arab horses at an even better price.) No wonder Ca’da Mosto later wrote that he went to trade in “Guinea” because of the profit that could be made “among these new people, turning one soldo into seven or ten” (his family had ruined itself in Venice).

These exchanges naturally led to an increase in the number of horses in the region so that, by the end of the century, the king of the Wolofs, in his capital two hundred miles inland (he was overlord of five coastal peoples), would be able to mount a substantial force of cavalry, even though by then prices had fallen and the Portuguese had often to accept an exchange of six or seven slaves for a horse.

By the mid-1450s, other arrangements for this extension of the African trade had been settled satisfactorily, with European goods from numerous countries (woolen and linen cloth, silver, tapestries, and grain) being regularly bartered for slaves. Ca’da Mosto thought that, in this decade, one thousand slaves were exported annually to Europe from the African coast.

Ca’da Mosto spent a day or two with a Wolof king, the Damel Budomel of Cayor, on the Sénégal, who treated his subjects with arrogance, they being obliged to approach him naked, prostrate themselves, and throw dirt over their shoulders. This monarch always had with him about two hundred followers and appeared to have “good powers of reasoning and deep understanding of men.” In his realm, slavery was often a punishment for even moderate offenses.13

In a local market, men and women crowded round the Venetian, rubbing him with spit to see if the white of his skin “was dye or flesh.” Budomel asked Ca’da Mosto whether he knew “the means whereby he could satisfy many women, for which information he offered me a great reward.”

Later, the Venetian reached the mouth of the river Gambia. This second great navigable waterway of Africa discovered by Europeans allowed traders to penetrate the interior of the continent, for a ship drawing fifteen feet of water can sail over 150 miles inland. In most ways, it is more manageable than the Sénégal, its sister river to the north. The tidal reaches on the estuary were known for their salt, so desired in the interior; while the river flows a long time through a flat land with pasture for both wild and domestic animals. Near its source, also, there were the mountains at Bure, on the headwaters of the Niger, which really did produce gold. The metal could be obtained at the market town of Cantor on the Gambia.

The following year, 1456, Ca’da Mosto returned, and on that occasion sailed up the Gambia sixty miles, his intention being to reach the land of the Songhai. He reached a town ruled by one of the vassals of that empire, a certain Battimaussa, where the river was still a mile in breadth, and where its lively commercial atmosphere and trading recalled to the Venetian “the Rhone near Lyons.” He did a good deal of trading, including for slaves, and also accompanied a leader of the Nomi on a hunt for elephants near the mouth of the river. He observed horses in use, even if there were “very few” of them.

Returning to the open sea, Ca’da Mosto again turned south, and saw further rivers. He did not turn back till he reached one he called the Rio Grande, now known as the Jeba; from there he could see the Bissagos Islands, a major source of slaves for Europeans for many generations.

This intelligent traveler requested permission from Sonni Ali, the ruthless emperor of the Songhai, to send a mission to Timbuktu, but nothing came of the idea. What interest had that “master-tyrant, libertine and scoundrel,” as he was described by Es-Sadi, the historian of the western Sudan, in trading with white Europeans? His main trading partners were the Arabs in the Maghreb, with whom he could exchange more beneficially his eunuchs and other slaves in much greater numbers than he could sell to the Portuguese in their pretty boats.14

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At that time, south of the river Gambia, and south too of the Wolof kingdoms, the coastal polities of Africa were small, often only about one to two thousand square miles, rarely consisting of more than one entity, though perhaps with several semidependent autonomous settlements. That was especially so in the territory between the rivers Gambia and Sierra Leone, where the towns of small ethnic groups such as the Baga, the Pepel, the Diola, and the Balante were really overgrown villages, kraals, of about forty houses. There were some towns where Portuguese could without embarrassment talk of the leader as the king. The most usual form of government seems, however, to have been what Ca’da Mosto called a despotism of the richest and most powerful caste.

In the far interior, there were, and had been for many generations, much more formidable states: above all, the empire of the Songhai, who, on the ruins of the swiftly vanishing Mali, with her ten thousand horsemen, had by now established an empire that dominated most of the western Sudan. This was one of the most sumptuous political enterprises ever to be established by black people. The capital at Gao, on the Middle Niger, was a vast unwalled city with rich markets where slaves, obtained by razzias from neighboring peoples, as well as horses, scarlet Venetian cloth, spurs, saddles, bridles, and gold, were all sold—and had been long before the Portuguese had begun to trade on the coast. Like the Mali, and indeed the Ghanaian, empire which had preceded that, the Songhai controlled trade between West and North Africa. As far as slaves were concerned, they obtained them from the land of the “pagans”—that is, the non-Muslims. There was a boast that, within a single day, a prince could bring back a thousand by raiding the south. The Songhai used them on royal farms when they were not selling them to the Arabs of the Maghreb.

The establishment by the Portuguese of a small trading post, feitoria, at Arguin, and the export thence of a few thousand slaves, seemed neither significant nor outrageous. Always the Portuguese would enter into negotiation with the rulers, either small-scale or grand, and these became as it were allies with the newcomers, jointly concerned to make profits from trade.

These peoples of the region south of the Sahara with whom the Portuguese were in touch were far from unsophisticated: they wove and used cotton and linen, they fished from well-built light canoes (an essential element in economic life), pottery had been practiced for centuries, they had recognizable chiefs and, of course, they traded. Cotton goods had long been an object of commerce in inland Senegambia: “Every house had its cotton bush,” an observer of 1068 had written, in regard to Mali, and “cloths of fine cotton” were exchanged, often for salt, the most sought-after product of the coast, in the view of the empires of the savannas of the interior, where there was none of it.15 Millet, fish, butter, and meat were also traded, as were dyes from indigo. On the upper river Sénégal, gum from acacia trees was well established in the markets. The fact that the banana, which seems to derive from Asia, had reached West Africa before the Europeans suggests an international interconnection of great range.

As befitted an imperial people, the Songhai used gold for money, though without any inscriptions; elsewhere, cloth (in Timbuktu, the turquidi cloth of the Hausa city of Kano), bars of salt, cattle, dates, and millet were employed as substitutes. Horses had been bred for hundreds of years; they were to be seen in West Africa as early as the tenth century A.D. Cities on the Niger, such as Segu, Kankan, Timbuktu, and Djenné, as well as Gao, numbered over ten thousand in 1440, some being perhaps as large as thirty thousand. The Hausa cities of Katsina and Kano, on its high rock, had perhaps a hundred thousand each. Other settlements had been established along the edge of the forest in the south, such as Bono-Mansu and Kong. All had substantial markets, even if the houses and mosques were mud-built.

The smelting of iron and steel in West Africa was similar to that in Europe in the thirteenth century, before the advent of power driven by the waterwheel. SenegambiaII had iron and copper industries, and the quality of African steel approached that of Toledo before the fifteenth century. These metals equipped most African households with knives, spears, axes, and hoes. Goldsmithery was of a high quality: “The thread and texture of their hatbands and chainings is so fine that . . . our ablest European artists would find it difficult to imitate them,” a Dutch captain wrote in 1700.16 It is true that the West Africans did not have wheeled vehicles, but those were still rare in Europe. Nor did they use horses for carrying goods long distances, since they were vulnerable to the tsetse fly in the forests near the coast. But it would be false to depict West Africa, at the moment of its contact with Portugal, and Europe, as lived in by primitive peoples. In many respects, they were at a higher level than those whom the Spaniards and Portuguese would soon meet in the New World.

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A new character to Portuguese exploration was given by the early settling in West Africa of traders from Lisbon, including some exiled criminals, who set themselves up on the estuaries of rivers, sometimes making homes for themselves in the interior. A few settled in villages where they took black girls as wives, and they and their mulatto descendants often joined African society fully, taking part in the appropriate celebrations, abandoning Western clothes, tattooing their bodies, and becoming every year less European. These so-called lançados (lançados em tierra, men who had thrown themselves onshore), or tango-mãos (a European trader who had had his body tattooed), were resented by the Portuguese authorities, principally since they were able to escape all the regulations which the Crown imposed on overseas trade, including taxes. But the lançados were in general well received by the Africans, who went out of their way to make them happy: in return they were naturally expected to conform to their hosts’ customs.

Casual sexual relations seem to have begun early between the Portuguese and the Africans: Valentim Fernandes wrote, in 1510, “If one of our white people arrives at the house of a black, even if it is the king, and asks for a woman or a girl to sleep with, the man there gives him several to choose from, and the whole thing is done in friendship and not by force.”17

The slaves imported from Guinea were received, with all other goods from Africa, by the Casa da Guiné in Lagos. An elaborate ritual for reception was formulated, including inspections and paying of duty before sale. It was at that time supposed that the country suffered from a shortage of laborers. So African slaves were soon being bought by bishops and noblemen, artisans and court officials, and sometimes even by workingmen. By 1460, the holding of black slaves had become a mark of distinction for Portuguese households, as it had been in the past for Muslim ones; and Africans were from the beginning preferred to the “good for nothing, rebellious and fugitive” white slaves (Muslims)18—unless they were black Muslims, as were many Wolofs. Africans, after all, were usually potential Christians. Had not one of the three kings, Balthasar, been black?

African slaves began to perform many functions in Portugal: they became ferrymen in Lisbon and other cities, or were hired out for heavy physical labor, as stevedores or as builders, in hospitals or in monasteries. Some slaves were to be found in sugar plantations, though these were not very successful in Portugal: the cane took too much richness from the soil, and plantings could not be repeated. Slaves were sometimes also employed as interpreters in Lisbon and on ships going to Africa; in theory at least, when one of these slaves secured four slaves for his owner, he would be given his freedom.

When it was realized that the Africans liked music, African bands of drummers and flute-players were encouraged in Lisbon. These slaves brought to Portugal a little of their music and some of their dances, and many maintained their own language, adapting it to create a pidgin Portuguese, fala da Guiné or fala dos negros. Some soon adapted to a purer Portuguese—especially, of course, those born in Portugal. Slaves were from now on to be seen at Portuguese ceremonies. In 1451, black dancers performed at the wedding by proxy of the Infanta Leonora, Prince Henry’s niece, to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. A slave posing as a black monarch from Senegambia sang in African-Portuguese at the wedding of the Infanta Joana in 1455 to King Enrique IV of Spain (an ill-fated wedding, as it turned out). Some Portuguese masters freed their slaves at their death. Others seduced them (though that was illegal) and freed any subsequent children, sometimes obtaining legitimization for them. Every variety of sexual relationship was practiced with black slaves; and a few white women took them as lovers.

•  •  •

Portugal secured approval from successive popes for most of these activities. First, in 1442, the Venetian Pope Eugenius IV approved Prince Henry’s expeditions to Africa (in the bull Illius Qui). Since other European monarchs had shown themselves unenthusiastic about joining in such an adventure, and since the Portuguese were incurring many expenses, as Prince Henry’s representatives in Rome insisted, Pope Eugenius did not hesitate to grant to Portugal exclusive rights over her African discoveries. Then, in the 1450s, Popes Nicholas V and Calixtus III gave an even warmer approval for the undertakings in three further bulls.

No two popes were more different in manners than these. The first was a great humanist, the second was austere; the first was a patron of the arts, the second was concerned to assist his relations. One was a Genoese, the other a Valencian. But their policy towards Portugal in Africa was much the same—possibly since neither gave much time to the question.

Nicholas V—Tommaso Parentucelli, a native of Sarzana, on the riviera in the Genoese republic—was the son of an impoverished doctor. He had been librarian to the bishop of Bologna, Niccolò Albergati, whom he had succeeded. No pope since the Carolingian era built as much as Nicholas. He conceived the idea of building a new basilica of Saint Peter, inspired the translation of innumerable Greek texts into Latin, and founded the Vatican library: an institution that lasted even longer than the Portuguese slave trade.

Calixtus III was a septuagenarian Spaniard, born Alfonso de Borgia, from Játiva near Valencia, a professor of canon law, a royal counselor, and for many years archbishop of Valencia, a city which then had an important market for slaves. Borgia had been a severe bishop but, though in no way a humanist, he was also known as generous and kind, especially, admittedly, to his nephew, the future Pope Alexander VI, to whom he gave the purple at the age of twenty-five.

Nicholas tried to enlist Christendom to unite against the threat of Islam. When this attempt failed, he issued the bull Dum Diversas in 1452, which allowed the king of Portugal to subdue Saracens, pagans, and other unbelievers—even to reduce them to perpetual slavery. This clause was obviously intended to include the natives of West Africa. Nicholas followed that bull with Romanus Pontifex, of January 8, 1454, which approved what Prince Henry and the Portuguese had done up till then, hoped that native populations might soon be converted to Christianity, and gave formal support for a Portuguese monopoly of trading with Africa—not just the region of Ceuta but all the territory south of Cape Bojador. The conquests in the latter lands were to be perpetually Portuguese, as well as “all the coast of Guinea and including the Indies”—the last word then indicating, more or less, everywhere supposed to be on the way to China. The bull approved of the conversion of the men from Guinea. It also supported Henry’s desire to circumnavigate Africa and find a new way to India, and spoke of the benign consequences to be expected from enslaving pagans.19

This bull was solemnly proclaimed in the Cathedral of Lisbon, in Portuguese as well as in Latin.

Between the emission of the first and second of the bulls, Constantinople had fallen to the Turks, leaving the pope the uncontested first prince of Christendom (a Russian cardinal, Isidore, had been captured and sold as a slave after that catastrophe, though he had reached Rome after six months). The fall of Constantinople had one unexpected consequence: it stimulated the Genoese, whose trade in the Black and Aegean seas was seriously interrupted if not destroyed, to intensify their interest in the West and the Atlantic (Venetian business was less affected, since it had concentrated on Egypt). So the Genoese now financed the development of alum deposits at Tolfa, near Rome, to make up for the loss of those at Phocaea, near Smyrna; they invested in new plantations of sugar cane in the Algarve, in Andalusia, and then in Madeira. Nothing suggests a direct connection between the merchants of Genoa and the Genoese pope. All the same, the family of that prince of the Church was in commerce, and Nicholas must have been aware of the interests of his fellow citizens.

His successor, Calixtus III, issued the bull Inter Caetera in March 1456. That agreed that the administration of the new Portuguese dominions and interests should be directed by the Order of Christ, the knightly association of which Prince Henry the Navigator was the leader.

These bulls represented a triumph for Portuguese diplomacy: Prince Henry had been alarmed at Spanish interference in what he looked on as his, or Portuguese, waters. The king of Castile had in 1449 given a license to the duke of Medina Sidonia, the lord of the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the river Guadalquivir reaches the Atlantic, to exploit the land facing the Canary Islands, as far south as Cape Bojador. In 1454, a Castilian ship bound for Guinea was seized by the Portuguese. The Castilian King Juan II protested. The Portuguese replied that Pope Eugenius had agreed that Guinea was theirs. Prince Henry’s diplomats in Rome prevailed on the pope to say that he knew that Portugal had conquered Africa as far as Guinea: a wildly imaginative concept. They also spread the rumor that it was impossible for any ordinary boat to beat its way out of the Gulf of Guinea and return to Europe. They sought too to reserve all the charts for their own use, and seized ships without a license, and hanged the crews. A Spanish captain named de Prado whom the Portuguese found selling arms to the Africans was burned alive in order to discourage others. Such actions did not entirely prevent Genoese and Spanish interlopers; and Diogo Gomes, sent to West Africa by Prince Henry to establish good relations with the rulers, reported in 1460 that these foreign merchants were damaging Portuguese trade: “For the natives used to give twelve Negroes for one horse, now they gave only six.”20

All these famous bulls underwriting the Portuguese endeavors were decided upon because of the need to act forcefully against Islam, seen, after the fall of Constantinople, as now menacing Italy itself, as well as Central Europe. Calixtus III bound himself by a solemn vow to recover Constantinople and restore the Christian position in the eastern Mediterranean. He did his best to organize a last crusade to achieve that aim. The schemes of Prince Henry fitted into that plan. All the same, it will always seem surprising that it should have been a pope from Spain, Calixtus III, who confirmed the grand destiny of that country’s despised neighbor, in Africa and beyond.

IThe Azanaghi had remained in touch with Europe through trade with the Muslim kingdom of Granada; thence, thanks to Genoese merchants in Málaga, they imported so many white china cups made in Venice that these became almost a currency.

IIThe region between the two rivers Sénégal and Zambia.

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