Modern history


I Herded Them As If They Had Been Cattle

“Twenty-two people . . . were sleeping, I herded them as if they had been cattle towards the boats.”

Diogo Gomes, c. 1460, on the river Gambia

THE PORTUGUESE search for new lands, and the discovery of new peoples and crops, continued during the 1450s, even though Prince Henry’s practical mind was increasingly on his business interests in Madeira and in the Azores. Thus an uninhabited volcanic archipelago some three hundred miles to the west off Cape Verde was glimpsed in 1456 by the Venetian Alvise Ca’da Mosto on his second voyage, sailing under Portuguese protection.

These Cape Verde Islands became, after 1462, an essential part of the Portuguese enterprise in Africa. The largest of the islands, given the name of Santiago, was soon colonized and cultivated. The beneficiaries of the discovery were an experienced captain, Diogo Afonso, a squire of the household of Prince Henry’s brother Fernão, who discovered most of the islands; and a Genoese, Antonio di Noli, governor of the islands until his death in 1496.

Within a generation, cotton was planted. But the main value of these settlements was to hold slaves from the African coast facing them, and the islands established a protectorate over the region for that purpose. They were soon inhabited by mulatto lançados.

In 1458, meantime, Prince Henry had dispatched Diogo Gomes, with three caravels, to negotiate treaties with the Africans. His mission was to assure the rulers that the Portuguese would henceforth not steal slaves nor anything else on a regular basis, but would barter for them, like honest men. He was also to arrange for visits from Africans to Portugal. Gomes made his way even farther up the Gambia than his predecessors had done, as far as the then legendary market city of Cantor, two hundred miles from the sea, completely under Songhai rule. When the news came that “the Christians” had arrived, many neighboring peoples sent curious observers, and Gomes was given a vivid indication of the quality of the gold which might become available there. He also received a great many presents, including ivory. He had some curious religious conversations, in the course of which one king, Nomimansa, who ruled the headland by the mouth of the river, boldly declared himself a Christian, without more ado. Gomes, of course, also took back some black slaves. He seems to have gone beyond his own self-denying ordinance not to kidnap: he recalled that he took “twenty-two people who were sleeping, I herded them as if they had been cattle towards the boats. And we all did the same, and we captured on that day . . . nearly 650 people, and we went back to Portugal, to Lagos in the Algarve, where the prince was, and he rejoiced with us.”1

A new expedition of discovery in 1460, the last mounted during the lifetime of Prince Henry, and led by Pedro de Sintra, discovered a point five hundred miles beyond the Gambia, which was named Sierra Leone, apparently because of the shape of the mountain there. Henry was dead before he could hear of this.

As well as slaves, the Portuguese were still interested in gold, ivory, and the peppery “Guinea grains” which came from the stretch of territory to be known in consequence as the Grain Coast, covering modern Liberia. Portuguese captains negotiated for these on the river Gambia, and Genoese merchants of Lisbon marketed them as a substitute in Europe for the peppers obtained through Venice from the East Indies. As for gold, it could be bartered for easily enough at Cantor, on the Gambia.

The goods exchanged with African leaders were European and Mediterranean, not only Portuguese. Cloth taken to Africa by the Portuguese came from Flanders, France, even England. Damask delighted the Africans. Some wheat was carried from Northern Europe. Brass goods came from Germany—especially “armilles,” bracelets, which began to be made in Bavaria specially for this trade, and there was also a demand for monstrous ornaments of solid brass, and brass pots and basins, often later melted down and recast according to indigenous tastes. Glass came from Venice in the form of beads. Spiced wine from the Canaries or Jerez in Spain, was also popular, as were knives, hatchets, Spanish swords, iron bars, conch shells from the Canaries and, especially, copper rods, for which the appetite of some African communities was insatiable. Candles were as interesting to Africans as they later were to the Mexicans, and many African monarchs became fond of trumpets. Finally, one of the great favorites in many harbors of West Africa in the early days of the slave trade were “lambens,” striped woolen shawls made in Tunis or Oran, which had been known to the West Africans before, thanks to the Sahara caravans. All these goods were easily obtained in Lisbon or, if not, in Antwerp, and carried from there by the ubiquitous Genoese.

After the journey of Pedro de Sintra to Sierra Leone, and the death of Prince Henry in 1460 (he left only eleven slaves), exploration was discontinued for ten years. The Portuguese settled down to the commercial exploitation of the territories which they had already discovered. King Afonso V seemed more interested in regulating the trade which Prince Henry had made possible than in expanding it. He was also concerned with the conquest of Morocco. At the same time, some of the slaves in Portugal seemed for a time to be giving some modest trouble. In 1461, for instance, the representatives to the Cortes (the Portuguese parliament) of the city of Santarém, forty miles up the Tagus from Lisbon, complained that, to serve the feasts which the slaves of the town organized to celebrate Sunday and other religious festivals, some chickens, ducks, and even lambs had been stolen, and plans for escape had been hatched. So the Cortes forbade the slaves to hold such parties. Preventing black Africans from assembling in groups would be an obsession in Portugal for generations.

All the same, the black slaves of Portugal continued to take part in religious ceremonies, fitting in with the customs of the country—dancing in churches being one of them. There was a brotherhood of the Virgin of the Rosary, a specifically black community, in Lisbon by 1460.

The most interesting economic development was the growing prosperity of Madeira. Sugar cane had been planted successfully there in 1452, by Diogo de Teive, on the initiative of Prince Henry, to whom de Teive was an equerry. The cane was brought from Valencia, which had grown sugar while it was still under Muslim rule. Several merchants belonging to the best commercial families of Genoa—Luis Doria, Antonio Spinola, Urbano and Bautista Lomellino, Luis Centurione—came from Seville to establish plantations. The Islamic advance in the eastern Mediterranean, after all, was threatening the Venetian sugar plantations in Crete and Cyprus; the Crusaders’ plantations in Palestine had long been lost to Islam; and Sicily, a producer of sugar from cane for several generations, was also menaced. Portuguese sugar plantations had never fulfilled their promise. Now Madeira seemed the best alternative. Well-watered terraces were, therefore, built, some by guanche slaves, from Tenerife; and African slaves were introduced there at much the same time as cane—the famous marriage between sugar and slaves, which has played such a tragic part in history, being celebrated for the first time in this Atlantic island. As would happen in Barbados and elsewhere in the Caribbean two hundred years later, the earlier-established farmers of other crops were driven into bankruptcy.

The sugar mills in Madeira used a modern system of two rollers, powered by water, men, oxen, or horses, cogged to one another so that the cane could be squeezed between them. That method had been devised in Sicily.

By 1460, sugar was already being exported from Madeira to Flanders and to England; by 1500, the island would have about eighty sugar mills (and over two hundred growers of cane) and be the biggest exporter of sugar in the world, producing annually a hundred thousand arrobas of white sugar.I Most planters by then were Portuguese, but there remained a few Florentines, Flemings, and Genoese, while the Lomellino family of Genoa were responsible for the marketing of the crop.

Another crop carried by the Genoese to Madeira was the Cretan Malvoisie grape, which led to the production of the great wine of that name—Malmsey wine, to the English—which has never lost its charm, and was sometimes carried to Africa as another export for exchange with slaves.

Yet one more economically promising island under Portuguese rule was now Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands whose settlers had gained for themselves the right to collect slaves from the coast of Africa facing the archipelago. They soon extended their range to include the Wolofs on the river Sénégal. Because of its good security, Santiago would become the biggest slave depot (“factory”) of the sixteenth century, and the various tiny Portuguese bases on the coast—on, for example, the river Cacheu—became in effect colonies of that island. But efforts to turn one or another of the Cape Verde Islands into centers of sugar cultivation, on the model of Madeira, were unsuccessful. Rainfall was unreliable, and even the well-protected Santiago seemed at risk to Spanish attack. The little sugar grown there came to be used exclusively for making rum, which thus began its great history as a commercial product traded on the African coast.

A modest consideration of the philosophy of capturing and holding these new African slaves began too. There was, for example, A Garden of Noble Maidens, a guide for young ladies, written about 1460 by Fray Martin Alfonso de Córdoba, an Augustinian friar (who, judging from his name, was probably a converted Jew, a converso). This collection of pious precepts was commissioned by Isabella, the Portuguese queen of Spain, niece of Prince Henry, and mother of Queen Isabella the Catholic of Spain, who read it as a girl. On the subject of slavery, Córdoba argued that “the barbarians are those who live without the law; the Latins, those who have law; for it is the law of nations that men who live and are ruled by law shall be lords of those who have none. Wherefore they may seize and enslave them, because they are by nature the slaves of the wise.”2 The argument would later be rejected by Queen Isabella when considering her American indigenous subjects. But it governed her attitude to black and Moorish slaves.

There was one somewhat ambiguous condemnation of the new trade in slaves in these years, this time from papal authority. The intelligent, farsighted, and cultivated Pius II, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, wrote on October 7, 1462, to a titular bishop of Ruvo in Italy (who had assumed responsibility for Portuguese Christians in West Africa) in which he criticized the slave trade in terms which obviously applied to the Portuguese in Guinea. Taking a position somewhat different from that of his predecessors, Nicholas V and Calixtus III, Pius threatened severe punishments to all who should take new converts into slavery.II But the pope did not condemn the slave trade as such; he only criticized the enslaving of those who had been converted who, of course, were a tiny minority of those brought back to Portugal;III and other evidence about Pius’s acceptance of slavery in Italy shows that the pontiff was not censorious about slavery in general. He was, after all, a great Renaissance prince; the Renaissance implied the recovery of the practices and traditions of “the Golden Age,” of antiquity; and antiquity, as has been amply shown, never questioned slavery, nor the slave trade, on humanitarian grounds. Indeed, it relied on it. Thus painters of the Renaissance would depict slavery as a normal part of modern, as of classical, life. Carpaccio in 1496 seems to have painted a black slave rowing a gondola in his Healing of a Possessed Man. The revival of the slave trade was to be an integral part of the recovery of the ideas of antiquity.

On the death of Prince Henry, responsibility for Africa and the Cape Verde Islands was given to the Infante Fernão, his nephew; but he was uninterested, as was his brother King Afonso V. The latter eventually handed over the opportunity, and the responsibility, for Africa to a well-known entrepreneur of Lisbon, Fernão Gomes, for an annual payment of two hundred thousand réis, on the interesting condition that every year he explore another three hundred miles (one hundred leagues) of new coastline. This unusual scheme was remarkably successful. Starting from Sierra Leone, captains sailing under Gomes’s direction swiftly found the Grain Coast (southern Sierra Leone and what is now Liberia) and then, sailing directly east, the Ivory Coast (Cape Palmas to Cape Three Points, the modern Côte d’Ivoire); and the coast that the Portuguese at first called El Mina,IV where they were at last close to gold mines, those of the Akan forest, which had been developed by the Dyula (Mandingo) traders in the fourteenth century; most of their product had hitherto been carried north to Europe by those same Dyulas across the Sahara. The territory eventually became known as the Gold Coast (running about two hundred miles east from Cape Three Points to Cape Saint Paul).

Fernão Gomes, father of a new generation of explorers—and slave traders—was already a rich merchant of Lisbon when he was offered this great opening. He had served in the Ceuta campaign as a boy, as later in that of Tangier, had traveled to Africa, and even came to dance well the sad African dance, the mangana. When he was later granted a coat of arms, he took the device of three heads of Africans on a silver background, each with golden rings in the ears and nose, and a collar of gold round the neck; his descendants were known as Gomes da Mina.

Farther east, beyond the Gold Coast lay the so-called Slave Coast (Dahomey and Togoland, between Cape Saint Paul and Lagos), though no slaves were taken from there till the sixteenth century. The people had no tradition of maritime activity, because of the heavy surf and the long sandbar that there runs parallel to the coast for some two hundred miles. Farther still to the east, where the land begins to turn southward, lay the dangerous Bight of Benin, into which five rivers ran: the so-called Rio Primeiro (the First River), the Rio Fermoso (the Beautiful, or the Benin, River), the Rio dos Escravos (the Slave River), the Rio dos Forcados (the Swallowtail River), and the Rio dos Ramos (the Creek River).

By 1475, the Portuguese were to be found not only buying slaves in the estuaries of these waterways, for transport back to Portugal or Madeira, but also taking them to be sold to Africans at Elmina, where they were traded for gold—usually gold ornaments—for “the gold merchants gave twice the value for them obtained” in Portugal,3 and the African merchants preferred, or insisted on, receiving part of the price for the gold in slaves.

This trading in the Gulf of Benin was managed on the African side by two peoples of the coastal region, the Ijo and the Itsekiri, who bought their slaves at inland auctions or sold criminals of their own community. For a time, the leaders of the powerful state of Benin itself stayed apart from, and may even have been unaware of, this Portuguese coastal activity, for their merchants mostly traded with the interior, not with their poorer cousins on the sea.

In 1471, one of Gomes’s lieutenants, Fernão do Po, discovered, in addition to the delta of the Niger, and a little beyond it eastwards, an island which he called Formosa, the Beautiful, though it was subsequently called after him (Fernando Po, as it has become known in Spanish), inhabited by a people called the Bubis. Other captains, João de Santarém and Pero de Escobar, discovered uninhabited islands which they christened O Principe (January 17, 1472), Ano Bom (January 1, 1472), and Sao Tomé (December 21, 1471, first called San Antonio), to the south. They then crossed the equator. Either in 1475 or 1476, the year when Gomes’s contract ran out, one of his captains, Rui de Sequeira, reached a cape which he named for Saint Catherine, well south of the river Gabon. By now the verb “to discover,” descobrir, was coming to be used for the first time in connection with these remarkable explorations.

All these journeys were difficult, with currents which assisted the captain during the outward, south and eastward passage, but made the return dangerous; the polestar disappeared near the equator and, near the shores, there were mists and many dangerous shallows. The achievements of the Portuguese in these years were, therefore, all the more remarkable. Still, Gomes, however far his men had gone, would not have been able to fight off Spanish and other interlopers; so it was no doubt as well, for Portugal at least, that the heir to the throne, Prince João, in 1474 asked for, and gained, the African proprietorship. This revived a much-needed royal interest in Africa.

The Spaniards were, indeed, still exploring Africa. Despite the papal reservation of the entire coast to Portugal in the 1450s, Diego de Herrera from Seville, successor to the Medina Sidonias as controller of the three eastward-facing islands of the Canaries, with his son Sancho, had begun to make systematic raids on the neighboring coast of Africa. From there, they seem to have repeatedly kidnapped Berbers. Perhaps this adventurer made forty-six African landings in all, sometimes, as in 1476, carrying back in a single ship 158 “Moors.”

The demand for African slaves was growing in Spain. In 1462, for instance, a Portuguese merchant, Diogo Valarinho, was given permission to sell slaves from Lisbon in Seville. (Most were originally from the coast between the river Sénégal and Sierra Leone, probably Wolofs.) By 1475, there were enough black slaves in Spain to demand a special judge for blacks and mulattos (loros). This magistrate, Juan de Valladolid, himself a black, had previously been attached to the Court.

But this trading with Spain was not popular in Portugal: the parliament of the country, fearful of losing control over the new labor force, complained to the king of the practice of selling black slaves abroad. They were speaking in what they conceived to be the interests of Portuguese agriculture. A special use, for example, had been found for Africans in draining marshes. A few black slaves were still working on Portuguese sugar plantations established in the Algarve by Genoese merchants, such as Giovanni di Palma, to whom a property had been given as long ago as 1401, on condition that he plant sugar. But the Portuguese king benefited from the trade to Spain, and sales of slaves continued. A Czech traveler, Václav Sasek, noticed in 1466 that the king of Portugal was making more money selling slaves to foreigners “than from all the taxes levied on the entire kingdom.”V,4

The commercial interest in slaves made it understandable that, when the monarchs of Castile and Portugal went to war with one another, in the 1470s, the former was even more free with licenses to Spanish captains to break into Guinea. Numerous journeys were made there from Seville and the ports of the Rio Tinto, bringing back slaves as well as gold and ivory. “Everybody was scheming to go to that country,” wrote the Castilian chronicler Hernando del Pulgar, a friend of the Court.5 On one such occasion, a Spanish captain from Palos, the port whence eventually Columbus would sail to the Caribbean, set off to Senegambia and traded some slaves for a cargo of brass rings, small daggers, and colored cloths. The Spanish captain invited the African ruler concerned in these negotiations to dine aboard his ship; the African accepted, with his chief advisers and some of his brothers. As happened on several other occasions in the long history of the traffic in slaves from West Africa by Europeans, the guests were captured and carried off to Spain. There the African ruler insisted on his eminent position and talked so persuasively to Gonzalo de Stúñiga, the commander of the fort of Palos, that he was sent home to Africa, and some of his relations were also later exchanged. (But the remainder of these slaves were marched to Seville, a long enough journey, and sold there.) Another Castilian, Carlos de Valera, set out with a fleet of twenty to thirty caravels and brought back four hundred slaves in 1476; he also captured Antonio di Noli, the Genoese governor of Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands—for whom his friends paid a ransom. Both the duke of Alba and the count of Benavente sent forty-five-ton ships to Elmina the same year; how many slaves they brought back is unknown, but Benavente’s captain brought back an elephant, much admired in Medina del Río Seco for many years. A Catalan, Berenguer Granell, and a Florentine, Francesco Buonaguisi, were also conceded licenses by the queen of Castile to trade in Guinea in 1477, while the Catholic kings themselves sent an armada of twenty caravels in early 1479, under Pedro de Covides. To show the seriousness of the interest, Fray Alfonso de Bolaños was named as special nuncio to convert the infidels “in the Canaries and in Africa and in all the Ocean Sea.”6

These Spanish adventures did not all prosper. Thus, in 1475, one Castilian vessel, crewed by Flemings, set off for Guinea to look for slaves, but the whole ship’s company was captured by Africans and, apparently, eaten. The royal fleet, with all its stores provided by the merchants Granell and Buonaguisi, was seized by the Portuguese. In 1479, Eustache de la Fosse, of Tournai, set off for Guinea, on the Mondanina, a Castilian ship. He recalled from Mina: “They led us many women and children which we bought, and then we resold them there” (an early testimony of slaves’ being sold, as well as bought, in Africa). The exchange was that two slaves—a mother and her son—were bought in Sierra Leone for a barber’s basin and three or four large bronze bracelets; and they were sold for twelve or fourteen weights of gold at Shama, at the mouth of the modern Ghanaian river Pra.7

But, in January 1480, four Portuguese ships commanded by Diogo Cão, subsequently one of the greatest Portuguese explorers, surrounded the Mondanina, and captured de la Fosse and his merchandise. The Fleming was condemned to death in Portugal for going to Guinea without permission, but he escaped and made his way home to Bruges.

All the same, three or four Spanish expeditions a year were successful in the late 1470s and brought back black Africans for the Spanish domestic market.

Nor were Spaniards the only interlopers: English merchants wanted to enter the African trade in 1481, and were only excluded, after a special Portuguese embassy to King Edward IV in London which thereby must be seen as having delayed the beginning of the English slave trade several generations.

The difficult relations between Spain and Portugal were regularized in 1480 when, at a treaty of peace signed at Alcáçovas, near Évora, in the Alentejo, in return for Portugal’s surrender of all claims to the throne of Spain, the queen of Castile recognized the Portuguese monopoly in Africa: indeed, the Spaniards also accepted Portuguese control of commerce in Fez, Madeira, the Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands. Spanish ships would thenceforth not venture without permission into “the islands or lands of Guinea.” In return, Portugal would leave the Canary Islands, as well as a stretch of African coast facing it, between Cape de Aguer and Cape Bojador, to be exploited by Castile.

This was more of a Portuguese triumph than it seemed at the time, and it permanently affected the history of Africa and the slave trade.

Spain saw the treaty both as a license to fish for her much-desired hake off the coast of Africa, and as an approval to continue Herrera’s slaving expeditions in the same territory. There, opposite Fuerteventura, the Spaniards built a small fortress, Santa Cruz de la Mar Pequeña, which acted as a center for much small-scale slave-trading in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Las Palmas became an important slave market. When Diego García de Herrera died in 1485, his sons and his son-in-law continued his work. They did generally keep, though, to the zones where Castile was legally entitled to trade. Only a few ventured to the south to Sénégal. Sometimes, too, thenceforward, Portuguese captains would stop at the Canary Islands on the way home, despite their Spanish administration; and a few black slaves previously taken to those islands entered the Portuguese dominions in that way. After the establishment of the Cape Verde Islands as a major center for Portuguese trade, both Canary Islanders and Spanish traders from Seville would often go there to buy black slaves (the brothers Fernando and Juan de Covarrubias, from Burgos, for example, would soon have their own factor there). Another source of slaves for Andalusia was the raids which the Christian knights of Castile, especially from Jerez, made on the coast of the Maghreb. Similar raids were made by the Portuguese, operating from Ceuta.

One consequence of importing these slaves was to inspire the Canary Islands to grow sugar much as Madeira had done, especially in Tenerife, capital being contributed not only by Genoese and Portuguese but also by German bankers, such as the Welsers of Augsburg. The first sugar mill was set up in 1484, the islands began to produce as much sugar as Madeira in the early sixteenth century, and African slaves were soon used there on a large scale.

One or two Italians sought to enter this tempting Guinea trade by overland journeys. For example, Antonio Malfante, a determined merchant from Genoa, reached Tuat, a group of oases of which Tamentit is capital, acting for the Centurione bank; and a Florentine, Benedetto Dei, who worked for the rival bankers Portinari, set himself up for a time in the 1470s in Timbuktu, selling Tuscan and Lombard fabrics.

The Portuguese, meantime, were establishing themselves ever more firmly on the coast of Africa. Prince João became King João II in 1481, and, henceforth, Portuguese adventure was part of an interesting innovation: monarchical capitalism. João was called “the perfect prince,” and he almost deserves that title, being not only a modern ruler in the school of his contemporaries Louis XI of France and Henry VII of England, but he was also the great-nephew and spiritual heir of Henry the Navigator. In African developments, his policies were consistent and far-reaching, returning to the exploratory tradition of Prince Henry, without, however, having to think of the implications for his own properties.

This monarch’s first move in Africa was spectacular. In 1481, the first year of his reign, Diogo d’Azambuja, an experienced official who had long served the royal family, was dispatched to build a fortress at Elmina on the Gold Coast (São Jorge da Mina), the first substantial European building in the tropics. Azambuja appeared offshore with a hundred masons and carpenters, as well as quantities of timber, bricks, and lime, and, above all, stone. The purpose was primarily to check European interlopers, but the place was also close to the auriferous river Ankobra, and to a road leading to the gold supplies in the Akan forests. It was on the border of two small local principalities, those of Komenda and Fetu.

King João took the decision to go ahead with this investment against the advice of his chief advisory council, whose members thought the place too precarious. Azambuja had, however, investigated the coast before he chose the site, a promontory at the mouth of the bay. A beach to the east provided an excellent landing place for ships of up to three hundred tons; careenage could be carried out to the northwest, on the river. The castle much increased the safety of Portuguese fleets, for ships no longer had to lie offshore for weeks while the African traders bartered slowly; at least on this coast, henceforth, goods brought from Portugal could quickly be carried into the castle, and the cargo for the return journey—including slaves—could be held in storerooms. The stay of a merchant ship could be much shorter. That reduced both costs and the risk of disease. Being on the sea, Elmina had few mosquitoes and thus (though the interconnection was not understood) little malaria. Fresh water was maintained, in a brick-built reservoir, with pipes contrived to lead directly to ships’ barrels.

The corner towers were solid, built on Italian designs to resist bombardment from, say, heavy artillery. New salients in the form of Italian-style bastions were added in the next few years. Portugal soon maintained a governor, a factor, and a garrison of fifty troops.

A local prince, Caramança (King Ansa)—it is unclear if he was a king of Komenda or a nobleman—had been reluctant to allow this establishment, as might have been expected, but Azambuja secured his grudging agreement—a foretaste of many subsequent arrangements between Europeans and Africans over the centuries. Elmina was self-consciously a royal establishment: private merchants were not allowed near it.

A few other, smaller, Portuguese trading posts were soon established nearby, at Shama, Accra, and, seventy miles west of Elmina, Axim, of which the last named was built as a fort in 1503-8 (Shama was given a fort in 1560). Though the justification of these fortresses was the pursuit of gold and the defeat of Spanish pretensions, they were all soon being used as depots for captives, many of whom were held there for long periods. Some slaves continued to be bought from people in the delta of the Niger and sold to local African merchants. Others were held for work at the fortresses: in the blacksmitheries, in the carpenters’ shops, and in the kitchens.

At home, Lagos on the Algarve was abandoned as Portugal’s main African port, and matters were regularized in Lisbon for the reception of African goods, including slaves. In 1473, a law had been introduced providing that all slaves brought from Africa were to be taken first to Portugal, not sold elsewhere first. The requirement for such a law suggests that many Portuguese captains were selling elsewhere—perhaps in Seville, perhaps in Valencia. After 1481, all ships setting off for Africa were also asked to register in Lisbon, in the Casa da Mina, a converted warehouse on the ground floor of the royal palace, on the waterfront. A subsection of this, the House of Slaves (Casa dos Escravos), was founded in 1486, in the Praça da Tanoaria, also on the Tagus, with João do Porto as its first director. This royal official was named the “receiver of all Moors and Mooresses and whatever other things which, God willing, may come to us from our trade in Guinea.”VI,8

These institutions, influenced by Genoese precedents (and themselves influencing Spain after 1500), were responsible for ensuring that the slaves reached the markets, that duty was paid, and that permits to trade in the first place were issued. About a thousand slaves a year were probably still being shipped to Portugal, though, since the imports were irregular, the figures could have been higher; no records seem to have survived the famous and destructive earthquake of 1755.

The likelihood is that many of the slaves continued to be sold in Castile, even if they were first registered in Lisbon; and, in 1489, a Portuguese merchant, Pedro Dias, established himself in Barcelona, actively selling slaves from Guinea. (One buyer explained that he had bought from Dias a black woman and her daughter, who had been captured in a “just war.”9)

The explorations continued. Gomes’s captains had been dismayed to find that, after the delta of the Niger, the African coast ran south for as far as anyone could see, so that the route to India was still none too close.

In 1486, the Portuguese sent João Afonso Aveiro to explore further the five “slave rivers” of the Benin coast which seemed to the previous voyagers at once so full of menace as well as of commercial promise. By that time, the explorers had learned something of the kingdom of Benin itself, probably through buying slaves who had the information. The requirements of the slave trade at Elmina also dictated a greater need for knowledge of where the slaves which the Portuguese captains had been buying came from. Ozulua, the oba (king) of Benin, had also learned something of the pretensions of the remote Portuguese monarch who was claiming a monopoly of trade from Europe to West Africa, who seemed to be so indefatigably interested in finding the whereabouts of a certain Prester John (who was of the same Christian religion), and who had recently had the impudence to name himself “lord of Guinea”—though the title would have meant little to the ruler of Benin.

Aveiro found the “great city of Benin” a revelation, almost as Cortés, thirty-five years later, was astounded by Mexico-Tenochtitlán. He was also interested in the “tailed peppers” of Benin, which he rightly thought would be a better competitor for Indian pepper than malaguetta. Aveiro was glad too to hear of a king in the East, the oghene, who concealed himself behind silk curtains and apparently held the cross in veneration, to whom even the obas of Benin customarily paid reverence: surely that must at last be Prester John? Oba Ozulua, after a talk with the explorers, agreed to send “a man of good speech and wisdom,” the chief of Ughoton—the port of Benin, as it were—to Lisbon to become acquainted with the Christian way of life.

This chief of Ughoton did go to Lisbon and returned, bringing to his king an (alas, unknown) “rich present of such things as he would greatly prize,” having agreed, on behalf of the oba, that a trading center should be established at Benin. Aveiro returned with him to set up this outpost.10

A contract to trade on the Benin river between 1486 and 1495 was leased by the Crown to a Florentine banker long resident in Lisbon, Bartolommeo Marchionni. Probably he carried slaves back from the Slave River directly to his plantations in Madeira as well as to Lisbon, or sold some in Seville, where he also had many commercial operations.

There was one other Portuguese political intervention on the African coast in these days, but far to the north, on the river Sénégal. There, in 1486, a dispute occurred in the succession to one of the Wolof monarchies. King Bemoin asked for help, and “the Perfect Prince” João agreed to give it, on the condition that Bemoin convert to Christianity. The Portuguese sent missionaries, but Bemoin vacillated. The emissaries were ordered home. Bemoin then panicked and, sending King João a hundred slaves, begged his European friends to continue their help. Before that could be forthcoming, Bemoin was forced to flee from his throne, and took refuge in Arguin, whence he was carried to Portugal. There he was baptized João II and awarded a coat of arms. He returned to Sénégal, accompanied by Pero Vaz da Cunha, an intemperate courtier, with the support needed to establish a fortress for himself. But no sooner had they reached the territory of the Wolofs than Cunha accused Benoim of treachery and had him executed. The former returned to Portugal without more ado. The affair had no immediate sequel.

In 1486 the Portuguese began the settlement of São Tomé, the “large and magnificent” island, always with “the benefit of a fine fresh breeze,” on the equator, in the Gulf of Guinea, facing the river Gabon. This island had been discovered fifteen years before, by Santarém and Escobar, but it now received a formal letter naming it a captaincy. There were no indigenous African inhabitants. The first settlers were apparently deported Portuguese criminals, but Alvaro de Caminha, the third governor, took with him two thousand “young Jews”—that is, children separated from their parents. These were the children of Jews expelled from Spain and enslaved by the king of Portugal since their parents had not paid enough to ensure their residence in his territory. Caminha was also given a license to import 1,080 slaves over five years to serve the plantations which the Court hoped would be established. Most of these came from Benin or one or another of the five “slave rivers” nearby. He also brought a few sugar specialists from Madeira.

From the earliest years, these plantations grew sugar cane, making use of the many streams to provide power for water mills. As had once occurred in Crete and Cyprus under Venetian direction, and on Madeira and the Canaries more recently, all used slave labor. São Tomé thus constituted one more stepping-stone between Mediterranean and American sugar development: a real harbinger of the Caribbean. In 1500, to encourage further Portuguese settlement, a monopoly of trading slaves and other goods with coastal Africans from the mainland opposite was granted to the colonists of São Tomé; and, in the early sixteenth century, slaves would also be assembled at the island, to be taken up the coast of West Africa on a journey of thirty days or so to be sold at Elmina (for a time, a slave ship with 100 to 120 captives on board would leave São Tomé for Elmina every fifty days).

Long before these developments—indeed, just after the building of Elmina, in 1482–83—Diogo Cão, an old associate of Prince Henry, from an old family of the northern province of Tras-os-Montes, the captain who had captured the Mondanina in the war with Spain in 1480, set off to continue the voyages of exploration. Sailing south from Santa Catarina, which had been reached by Rui de Sequiera seven years before, he anchored first off the beautiful Bay of Loango, then the trading port of the powerful kingdom run by the people known as the Vili; and next, to the south, he found the colossal river Congo, which he called first Rio Poderoso, then Rio do Padrão—for he left behind on the estuary at Mpinda a stone or wooden column, a padrão, which he had specially brought for the purpose.11

After a few months of local exploration, which included some journeys upriver, and some ineffective conversations with the Sonyo people, Cão set off again south for what is now known as Angola.

Leaving another column at Cabo de Santa María, south of Benguela, he returned to Portugal with slaves from there, along with other presents, not to speak of some Mwissikongo hostages, whom he had seized as a guarantee of the safety of his own expedition. He had failed, however, to carry out his purpose of circumnavigating Africa, though it was supposed, on his return to Lisbon, that he had been “close to the Arabian Gulf.”

In 1485, Cão went back to Angola and sailed still farther to the south, this time leaving other columns at a point which he named Montenegro, quite near Cabo de Santa María, and at Cabo Cruz, in Damaraland. He also returned the hostages whom he had taken on his earlier voyage, and ascended the mainstream of the Congo for nearly one hundred miles, navigating the whirlpool later known as Hell’s Cauldron. After some time, he entered into a complicated relationship with Nzinga, the king of Congo (Kongo), a more substantial ruler than any whom he or his countrymen had hitherto found in Africa. That monarch’s capital was Mbanza Kongo, fifty miles east of Hell’s Cauldron and about thirty miles south of it. Congo was a Bantu state which had been established in the fourteenth century. The king lived in a palace in the center of a maze and was attended by drummers and trumpeters using ivory instruments; if he ate with his fingers, he ate well, as did, separately, his queen, who was customarily surrounded by slaves; when she traveled, they clicked their fingers like castanets. The provincial subdivisions of Congo were sophisticated, and there was a currency consisting of nzimbu shells found on the island of Luanda, though sometimes raffia-palm cloth was used as well. The monarchy, a relatively recent establishment (in that way comparable to the empires of the Mexica and the Inca in America), subsisted on a complex system of tribute. The Congo used both copper and iron, and the women made salt by boiling water. Slaves were well established as one of several kinds of tribute, but the monarchy had not been tempted to trade them on the large scale which the trans-Sahara route made possible for the rulers of Guinea.

Cão (he may have made three journeys, not just two) returned to Portugal with more slaves, as well as an emissary of the Congolese named Caçuta who, baptized in Lisbon as João da Silva, soon learned Portuguese and returned with an ambassador of Portugal, Gonçalo de Sousa. The Portuguese formally recognized the Congolese monarch as a brother-in-arms and an ally. They tried to convert the people by sending missionaries and sought to educate some Congolese young men in the fundamentals of Christianity at the Monastery of São Eloi and elsewhere in Lisbon. Craftsmen, agricultural laborers, masons, and even housewives were sent from Portugal to Congo to give lessons in carpentry, building, and housekeeping while, in the 1490s, two printers from Nuremberg traveled to São Tomé, probably intending to work for the Congolese. Finally, King Nzinga was baptized as King João I on May 3, 1491, along with six chiefs who took the names of Portuguese noblemen.

This conversion represented a triumph of Portuguese endeavor, but did not fulfill its promise. Congolese Christianity was marked by a merger of African with European saints and images, not the conquest of the former by the latter. Another consequence, though, was the development of a new source of slaves for Portugal.

Cão died after his voyages to Congo and so, in the end, it was not he but Bartolomeu Dias who set off in 1487 on the famous journey from Lisbon to find India. Some of the royal counselors thought that the voyage would be too expensive and that Portugal would do better to continue to trade slaves and seek gold in the kingdoms bordering the Atlantic than to venture into the unknown of the Indian Ocean—if indeed that sea existed. But, benefiting from the achievements of his predecessors, especially those of Cão, Dias sailed straight to Congo, steering clear of the Gulf of Guinea, and left a column at Cabo da Volta (modern Lüderitz, in Namibia). His fleet was blown round the Cape of Good Hope, and he then sailed north along the coast of East Africa as far as Cabo Padrone (where he left another column) before his crew insisted on returning. Only on his way back did they see that “for so many ages unknown promontory,” the southern cone of Africa.

The main sources for the African slave trade to the Americas for 350 years, from the Bay of Arguin to beyond the Cape of Good Hope, were thus discovered by Europeans five years before the Genoese Columbus set off on his famous voyage. The Portuguese also knew by 1492 how the rivers Gambia and Sénégal served as connections with a rich empire far inland, and that the Congo was a colossal waterway. Five years after Columbus’s first voyage, the often underestimated East African sources of slaves were also found, when Vasco da Gama, en route for India, stopped at such important future slaving ports as Quilimane, Kilwa, Malindi, and Mozambique Island—indeed, to observe that, in these “very large and beautiful” cities, a flourishing trade in black slaves was already carried on. Mombasa, for instance, employed five hundred archer slaves, much as Athens had once done—except that these were black.

All the same, the Portuguese knowledge of Africa was confined to the coast. The interior was still, and would continue to be for many generations, barred to them by malarial mangrove swamps and impenetrable rain forests.

As far as the home country was concerned, a routine had been established, which would be emulated in respect of journeys to America: the right to carry slaves was given to a succession of privileged merchants, who were obliged to pay an annual tax established by the Crown, which was thereby committed to the enterprise.

Part of the reason for the Portuguese success in these early dealings was that they were prepared to act as middlemen carrying all kinds of goods along the coast in their excellent caravels. The Portuguese could thus be seen in some ways as intruding effectively, if brusquely, into an already established commercial network. Leo the African would later describe, in his geography, written in Rome for the Renaissance Pope Leo X, how the kings in West Africa particularly liked rosaries made from a bright-blue stone which the Portuguese took them from the Congo.

All the black slaves traded in Portugal, Spain, and Africa were regarded then as just one more form of commodity and, though prized, not as a specially unusual one. Treaties had by then been established with most of the kings or other leaders on the West African littoral, to whom a succession of Portuguese monarchs would regularly send presents. Portuguese merchants made substantial profits from the slave trade; and though the details are missing, in 1488 King João told Pope Innocent VIII, the Genoese Giovanni Cibò, that the profits from the slave trade were helping to finance the wars against Islam in North Africa. Meantime, numerous African aristocrats or princes were to be found in Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century—probably more so than at any time later.

In Spain itself, the institution of slavery was given an impetus by the last wars between Spain and the Muslim monarchy of Granada. Thus, in 1481, the successful Moorish attack on Zahara, in the foothills of the Sierra de Ronda, led to the enslavement of several thousand Christians; in reply, King Ferdinand enslaved the whole population of the nearby rebellious city of Benemaquez. He did the same when he conquered Málaga in 1487: a third of the captives were sent to Africa, in exchange for Christian prisoners held there; a third (over 4,000) were sold by the Spanish Crown to help to pay for the cost of the war; and a third were distributed throughout Christendom as presents—a hundred went to Pope Innocent VIII, fifty girls were sent to Isabella, the queen of Naples, and thirty to Leonora, the queen of Portugal. There is a record of a consistory held out side Rome in February 1488, at which Pope Innocent distributed his share of captives as presents to the assembled clergy.VII

After the end of the war in Granada, in 1492, Queen Isabella had several female Muslim slaves in her service; and a traveler would note that the marquis of Cádiz, one of the heroes of that conflict, had the same on his estates. It was, therefore, appropriate that the decisive division within the Moorish kingdom of Granada, which led to the Christian triumph, should have derived from the affection of the penultimate monarch there, Abdul Hassan, for a beautiful Greek slave, Zoraya.

The trade in slaves from the Canary Islands was also prospering. Although, in the 1470s, Queen Isabella had declared the natives to be under her protection and free from enslavement, the inhabitants of the island of Gomera were in 1488 reduced to slavery, after what was seen as a rebellion; and the same occurred in Gran Canaria in 1493, when Alonso de Lugo conquered that island and made at least twelve hundred slaves of the inhabitants. He probably enslaved even more in Tenerife. The rebellions were scarcely serious affairs, and the punishments were out of proportion to the protest. Genoese merchants living in Seville or Sanlúcar de Barrameda seem to have sold these Canary Islanders.

But the slave trade in Seville, in blacks and Muslims as well as in Canary Islanders, seems to have been dominated by Florentines: for example, Bartolommeo Marchionni and the Berardi brothers, friends of Columbus (though there were even a few English: Robert Thorne and Thomas Mallart, for example). In 1496, the Berardis concluded a contract with Lugo after the conquest and colonization of the smallest island of the Canaries, La Palma: slaves, cattle, and other goods were to be shared half-and-half between them and the conquerer.

The dominant personality in this traffic in slaves at the end of the fifteenth century was undoubtedly Bartolommeo Marchionni, of Florence. A member of the Marchionni family which had traded extensively in Kaffa, in the Crimea—a great source of Tartar slaves in the early fifteenth century—he had slave trading in his blood. He had gone to Portugal in 1470 as garzone, office boy, to the Cambini family, merchant bankers of his home city, which had many connections with Lisbon, as with the Medici bank: one of the fathers of the firm, Niccolò di Francesco Cambini, for example, had been the Medicis’ representative in Naples in the early years of the century. The Cambinis in Lisbon dealt in leather from Ireland, sugar from Madeira, silk from Spain, not to speak of grain from Sintra and Olivenza (then part of Portugal), and no doubt some of their goods were supplied to captains sailing for Africa to barter for slaves. Marchionni, fitting in easily among the other Florentines in the great city on the Tagus, such as Girolamo Sernighi and Giovanni Guidetti, made money in the late 1470s, when Spain and Portugal were at war. Perhaps he was inspired to move into slaving by Antoniotto Uso di Mare, a Genoese who had served Henry the Navigator in the 1450s by buying Africans on the river Gambia; he died in 1462—while serving as an agent for the Marchionnis in Kaffa. At all events, Bartolommeo Marchionni helped to finance some of the “Perfect Prince” João’s expeditions to Africa. So did his fellow Florentine Tommaso Portinari, much to the disgust of the latter’s master, Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent, for Portinari left him many debts. Marchionni then established sugar plantations in Madeira. In 1480, the king of Portugal allowed him and Girolamo Sernighi to be listed as citizens of Portugal, a rare concession at that time. The same year, the king sold to Marchionni the right to trade slaves from Guinea and spices for the sum of forty thousand cruzados. Thus began the slaving career of one of the most protean of merchants, the range of whose activity would not be equaled in the four centuries during which the traffic lasted. Marchionni’s license, which included the right to trade elephant tusks, was repeated in 1486, this time covering the Slave River in the Gulf of Benin, and it was later extended to 1495, in return for further large payments.VIII

Marchionni had agents in Seville, João and Juanotto Berardi, as early as 1480, with privileges guaranteed by the Catholic kings. These Florentines were friends of Columbus and were later also agents in that city of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici of Cafaggiolo, the head of the younger (and subsequently the dominating) branch of the Medicis. Marchionni had too a representative in Florence (Guidetti), especially concerned with the sale there of “teste nere.”

In the late fifteenth century, the average import of black slaves to the market of Valencia alone was 250 a year. As usual, Marchionni had Florentine agents acting for him in that prosperous city, in this case the brothers Costantino and Cesare de’ Barchi. The former sold over 2,000 African slaves between 1489 and 1497, apparently all Wolofs. (They came via Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands, where the Barchis had a concession.) Some continued to reach Valencia direct in Portuguese ships which, illegally, evaded contact with Lisbon.

Occasionally, there were acts of piracy against these slave vessels, and the Catholic kings even once had to pronounce against some Basque marauders (“Biscayans or Guipuzcoans”) who seized a ship belonging to “our dear” Marchionni, with 127 slaves on board. (The expression suggests that Marchionni’s relations with the Catholic kings were almost as good as those he had with the monarch of Portugal.)

After 1497, the slave market slumped in Valencia, fewer than ten slaves a year being sold by Cesare Barchi. But, all the same, Barchi had successors in the city, who also worked for Marchionni, such as the Portuguese João de Brandis and the Spaniard Antonio Jacobo de Ancona, with slaves from Benin figuring among their cargoes. There were also substantial sales of Africans in Valladolid, Toledo, and Medina del Campo, as well as in Barcelona and Seville.

The German traveler Thomas Münzer, briefly in Lisbon in the 1490s, thought that all slaves sold in Portugal for export “passed through Marchionni’s hands, being afterwards sold on all the southern coasts of Spain or Italy.”12 Münzer exaggerated: between 1493 and 1495, about 3,600 new slaves were registered with the Casa dos Escravos in Lisbon, while the number that can be attributed definitely to Marchionni reached only 1,648. Still, he was by then the largest entrepreneur in the field. Marchionni was thought to be “the richest banker in Lisbon,” an intimate of the king, in “the best position to know all his secrets.” Assuredly, his properties in Madeira used slaves from the Canary Islands as well as from Africa.

Marchionni was interested in everything. He provided a letter of credit to King João which enabled the intrepid Afonso de Paiva and Pero da Covilhã to go to Ethiopia in 1487; he owned the Santiago, one of the ships taken by Vasco da Gama to India in 1498; in 1500, he provided another ship, the Anunciada, which sailed with Cabral on the second Portuguese journey to India, discovering Brazil on the way (the Anunciada was later used in the Valencian slave trade). Marchionni invested heavily also in subsequent voyages to India and, in 1501, the fleet of João da Nova not only included ships partly owned by Marchionni but carried his first representative, Leonardo Nardi, to the East; and it was also apparently Marchionni who suggested to King Manuel of Portugal that his fellow Florentine, already known as a great cartographer and explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who had been living in Seville as another correspondent of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, and who had already been once to the New World, should go back there, this time on Portugal’s behalf, in 1501. This he did; and Marchionni probably financed that great expedition which discovered so much of Brazil and convinced Vespucci, and soon the world, that the Europeans had encountered a new continent, not an outlying cape of India or China. The career of this extraordinary individual is a reminder that Max Weber and R. H. Tawney were mistaken in thinking that international capitalists were the product of Protestant Northern Europe. Yet his personality is elusive. No portrait of him survives, nor does any anecdote which illuminates his character. All the same, it will not seem surprising that, in the next century, it should have been this same Florentine Marchionni who would provide the first substantial supplies of slaves that the king of Spain would allow to be sent to the New World, which had by then been discovered by a Genoese.13

IAn arroba was equivalent to about 12 kilos (261/2 pounds).

IIHis phrase was “Tum ad Christianos nefarios, qui neophytos in servitutem abstrahebant, coercendos, tantum scelus ausuros censuris ecclesiasticis perculit.”

IIISo the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967, vol. 13, p. 264) is misleading when it claims, “The slave trade continued for four centuries, in spite of its condemnation by the Papacy, beginning with Pius II on October 7, 1462.”

IV“El Mina” may be a corruption of “A Mina,” “the mine” in Portuguese, but more likely it comes from “el-Minnah,” Arabic for “the port.”

VThe names of some of the Spanish merchants concerned in buying these slaves and reselling them (Hernán de Córdoba, Alfonso de Córdoba, Johan de Ceja, perhaps really Écija, and Manuel de Jaén) suggest that they were conversos.

VISlave duties were substantial. There was first a vintena, a 5-percent duty on all goods including slaves; but there was also a quarto, or 25 percent, always taken in kind. When shippers of slaves began to be charged these duties in the Cape Verde Islands or São Tomé, other duties were charged in Lisbon—for example, the dízima and sisa.

VIIThe fall of Málaga also meant that the well-established Genoese merchants there, such as the Centuriones and the Spinolas, selling European goods to Muslim traders (English woolen goods as well as paper from Genoa), had to adapt. Most left for Seville.

VIIIMarchionni paid 6.3 million réis for each year that he held a contract, 1493-95, a 1,000-percent increase on the previous term.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!