The complex societies that emerged in the Americas were made possible by an agricultural revolution that included the establishment of crop systems, the domestication of animals, and the development of tools. These developments had occurred 4000—3000 B.C.E. in the Fertile Crescent (see Map 1.1) in southwest Asia and in China. The increased productivity in these areas ensured population growth and allowed attention to science, trade, politics, religion, and the arts. Over millennia, knowledge from these civilizations made its way northward and westward into Europe, and at the height of the Roman empire in the early centuries C.E., Europe was part of dense global trade networks that connected the peoples of Europe, Africa, and Asia. With the decline of Roman power in western Europe, however, those connections broke down, and Europeans turned inward. It would take many centuries for European societies to recover. When they did, motivated by a desire to gain access to the riches of the East, they began to search for ways to regain their connections to the larger world.
The Mediterranean World
For several centuries before 1500, Islam proved one of the most dynamic cultural, political, and military forces in the world. By the ninth century, Islamic (also known as Muslim) regimes controlled most of southwest Asia and North Africa and conquered parts of the Iberian peninsula. The Muslims’ greatest competitors were the Ottoman Turks, not European Catholics (Map 1.1). Still, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Catholic leaders launched several military and religious campaigns to reclaim the Holy Land for the church. Later known as the Crusades, these campaigns largely failed in establishing Christian settlements in the East and exacerbated conflicts with Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities. But they enhanced the roles of Italian merchants, who profited from both outfitting Crusaders and opening new trade routes to the East. Moreover, these campaigns inspired explorers and adventurers throughout Europe.
Medieval European elites were first introduced to goods and ideas from the East by merchant adventurers such as Marco Polo. He traveled to Cathay (his name for China) during the 1270s and published his Travels in 1292. Describing his adventures along the Silk Road, Polo introduced Europeans to “burning rocks” (coal), spices that preserved meat, and other wonders of the Far East.
Europeans also learned of successful civilizations in the Middle East, where inhabitants had managed to survive droughts and other ecological crises, largely because of their productive economic systems. In the Mediterranean world, this productivity depended on technological advances in irrigation and navigation and on adequate labor in the form of slavery. Earlier European societies as well as the Aztecs, Incas, and Maya had put conquered peoples to work as slaves, but none compared to the vast network of slave-trading centers that fueled agricultural development in the Middle East. And it was the productivity of agriculture—developed centuries earlier than in Europe or America—that allowed societies along the southern Mediterranean, in northern Africa, and in southwest Asia to excel in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and the arts.
The Mediterranean World, c. 1150-1300 The Mediterranean Sea sat at the center of dynamic religious, political, and commercial networks. Crusaders traveled from Europe to Turkey, Arabia, and Persia, hoping to spread Christianity among Islamic peoples. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo and other adventurers followed the Silk Road deeper into Asia, returning with goods, technologies, and diseases from the eastern Mediterranean, India, and China.
Medieval European states proved far less adept at staving off human and environmental disasters than their counterparts to the south. Besieged by drought and disease as well as wars and peasant rebellions, rulers across the continent expended most of their resources on trying to sustain their population and protect their borders. Even launching trade with Asia led to disaster: In the 1340s, the bubonic plague was carried from Central Asia to Middle Eastern and European seaports by rats stowed away on ships. Sailors who contracted the disease at sea also spread the infection far and wide. From the 1340s to the early fifteenth century, the plague—later called the Black Death— periodically ravaged European cities and towns. During the initial outbreak between 1346 and 1350, about 36 million people—half of Europe’s population—perished. At the same time, France and England engaged in a century-long war that added to the death and destruction.
By the early fifteenth century, the plague had retreated from much of Europe, and the climate had improved. Only then were European peoples able to benefit significantly from the riches of the East. Smaller populations led to an improved standard of living. Then rising birthrates and increased productivity, beginning in Italian city-states, fueled a resurgence of trade with other parts of the world. The profits from agriculture and commerce allowed the wealthy and powerful to begin investing in painting, sculpture, music, and literature and to pay jewelers, potters, and other craftsmen for their wares. Indeed, a cultural Renaissance (from the French word for “rebirth”) flourished in the Italian city-states and then spread to France, Spain, the Low Countries, and central Europe.
The cultural rebirth went hand in hand with political unification as more powerful rulers extended their control over smaller city-states and principalities. In 1469, for example, the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon led to the unification of Spain. By 1492 their combined forces expelled the last Muslim conquerors from the Iberian peninsula. Promoting Catholicism to create a more unified national identity, Isabella and Ferdinand also launched a brutal Inquisition against supposed heretics and executed or expelled Jews and Muslims. This reconquest of the Iberian peninsula fueled the revival of trade with North Africa, India, and other Asian lands.
Yet Italy controlled the most important routes through the Mediterranean, so leaders in Spain and Portugal sought alternate paths to riches. Their efforts were aided by explorers, missionaries, and merchants who traveled to Morocco, Turkey, India, and other distant lands. They brought back trade goods and knowledge of astronomy, shipbuilding, mapmaking, and navigation that allowed Iberians to venture farther south along the Atlantic coast of Africa and, eventually, west into the uncharted Atlantic Ocean.
Portugal Pursues Long-Distance Trade
Cut off from the Mediterranean by Italian city-states and Muslim forces in North Africa, Portugal looked toward the Atlantic. Motivated by dreams of wealth and a desire to challenge Muslim power, Portuguese rulers sought another route to India and the Far East. Although a tiny nation, Portugal benefited from the leadership of its young prince, Henry (1394—1460), who launched an effort to explore the African coast and find a passage to India via the Atlantic Ocean. Prince Henry—known as Henry the Navigator— gathered information from astronomers, geographers, mapmakers, and craftsmen in the Arab world and recruited Italian cartographers and navigators along with Portuguese scholars, sailors, and captains. He then launched a systematic campaign of exploration, observation, shipbuilding, and long-distance trade that revolutionized Europe and shaped developments in Africa and the Americas.
Prince Henry and his colleagues developed ships known as caravels—vessels with narrow hulls and triangular sails that were especially effective for navigating the coast of West Africa. His staff also created state-of-the-art maritime charts, maps, and astronomical tables; perfected navigational instruments; and mastered the complex wind and sea currents along the African coast. Soon Portugal was trading in gold, ivory, and slaves from West Africa. By the time Prince Henry died in 1460, his ships had ventured as far east as the Canary Islands and Cape Verde and as far south as Sierra Leone.
In 1482 Portugal built Elmina Castle, a trading post and fort on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana). The castle served as a launching point for further expeditions and as protection against Spanish competitors. Five years later, a fleet led by Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, on the southernmost tip of Africa, demonstrating the possibility of sailing directly from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Vasco da Gama followed this route to India in 1497, returning to Portugal in 1499, his ships laden with cinnamon and pepper.
By the early sixteenth century, Portuguese traders wrested control of the India trade from Arab fleets. They established fortified trading posts at key locations on the Indian Ocean and extended their expeditions to Indonesia, China, and Japan. Within a decade, the Portuguese had become the leaders in international trade. Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands competed for a share of this newfound wealth by developing longdistance markets that brought spices, ivory, silks, cotton cloth, and other luxury goods to Europe.
Elmina Castle, 1603 This engraving by Johann Theodor de Bry depicts the fortress of Sao Jorge da Mina, known as Elmina Castle, on the African Gold Coast. Built in 1482 at the order of King John II of Portugal, the fort served as a supply base for Portuguese navigators and housed thousands of Africans bound for slavery in the Americas. The Granger Collection, New York
With expanding populations and greater agricultural productivity, European nations developed more efficient systems of taxation, built larger military forces, and adapted gunpowder to new kinds of weapons. The surge in population provided the men to labor on merchant vessels, staff forts, and protect trade routes. More people began to settle in cities like London, Bristol, Amsterdam, and Venice, which became important commercial centers. Slowly, a form of capitalism based on market exchange, private ownership, and capital accumulation and reinvestment developed across much of Europe.
African slaves were among the most lucrative goods traded by European merchants. Slavery had been practiced in Europe and other parts of the world, including Africa, for centuries. But in most times and places, slaves were captives of war or individuals sold in payment for deaths or injuries to conquering enemies. Under such circumstances, slaves generally retained some legal rights, and bondage was rarely permanent and almost never inheritable. With the advent of large-scale European participation in the African slave trade, however, the system of bondage began to change, transforming Europe and Africa and eventually the Americas.
European Encounters with West Africa
In the 1440s, Portuguese ships began to trade along the West African (or Guinea) coast. The Portuguese established bases in port cities like Benin to collect trade goods, including slaves, for sale in Europe. The slave trade expanded with the building of Elmina Castle and by the early sixteenth century had increased significantly. Initially, Africans were viewed as “exotic” objects and were often put on display at courts or for popular entertainment. Increasingly, however, African slaves were put to work in households and shops or on large estates.
Still, Europeans were most familiar with North Africa, a region deeply influenced by Islam and characterized by large kingdoms, well-developed cities, and an extensive network of trading centers. In northeast Africa, including Egypt, city-states flourished, with ties to India, the Middle East, and China. In northwest Africa, Timbuktu linked North Africa to empires south of the Great Desert as well as to Europe. Here African slaves labored for wealthier Africans in a system of bound labor long familiar to Europeans.
As trade with western Africa increased, however, Europeans learned more about communities that lived by hunting and subsistence agriculture. By the mid-sixteenth century, European nations established competing forts along the African coast from the Gold Coast and Senegambia in the north to the Bight of Biafra and West Central Africa farther south. The men and women shipped from these forts to Europe generally came from communities that had been raided or conquered by more powerful groups. They arrived at the coast exhausted, hungry, dirty, and with few clothes. They worshipped gods unfamiliar to Europeans, and their cultural customs and social practices seemed strange and often frightening. Over time, it was the image of the captured West African slave that came to dominate European visions of the entire continent.
As traders from Portugal, Spain, Holland, and England brought back more stories and more African slaves, these negative portraits took deeper hold. Woodcuts and prints circulated in Europe that showed half-naked Africans who looked more like apes than humans. These images resonated with biblical stories like that of Ham, who sinned against his father, Noah. Noah then cursed Ham’s son Canaan to a life of slavery. Increasingly, European Christians considered Africans the “sons of Ham,” infidels rightly assigned by God to a life of bondage. This self-serving idea then justified the enslavement of black men, women, and children.
Of course, these images of West Africa failed to capture the diverse peoples who lived in the area’s tropical rain forests, plains, and savannas. By the fourteenth century, agricultural productivity in the region fueled population growth and the rise of both city-states and trade networks. The Yoruba people developed walled towns ruled by obas, many of whom were women, who served as religious and political leaders. To the south lay the highly centralized kingdom of Benin. Its warrior king, Euware, had conquered some two hundred villages to create his kingdom and then used his power and wealth to promote trade and patronize the arts. Nearby the Igbo people rejected kingships in favor of title societies composed of wealthy men, women’s associations tied to kinship, and hereditary organizations that created cohesion among competing groups. Despite their political and social differences, the Yoruba, Beni, and Igbo traded with one another and with more distant African kingdoms.
In addition to these powerful kingdoms, smaller societies based on farming or herding existed across western and central Africa. These communities were sometimes conquered by expanding kingdoms and their members sold as slaves within Africa. But once trade developed with Portugal, Spain, and other nations, these communities were increasingly raided to provide slaves for European markets. As the slave trade expanded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it destabilized large areas of western and central Africa, with smaller societies decimated by raids and even larger kingdoms damaged by the extensive commerce in human beings. As early as 1526, Afonso, the king of the Kongo people and a convert to Christianity, begged the Portuguese to end the slave trade: “Merchants are taking everyday our natives, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives.”
Still, rulers of the most powerful African societies helped shape the slave trade. For instance, because women were more highly valued by Muslim traders in North Africa and Asia, African traders steered women to these profitable markets. At the same time, African societies organized along matrilineal lines—where goods and political power passed through the mother’s line—often tried to protect women against enslavement. Other groups sought to limit the sale of men.
Ultimately, men, women, and children were captured by African as well as Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English traders. Still, Europeans did not institute a system of perpetual slavery, in which enslavement was inherited from one generation to the next. Instead, Africans formed another class of bound labor, alongside peasants, indentured servants, criminals, and apprentices. Slavic-speaking workers imported from areas around the Black Sea were especially prominent on sugar plantations in the Mediterranean region. Indeed, the term Slav became the basis for the word slave. When the Ottoman Turks cut off access to Slavic laborers, Europeans increased their slave trade with Africa.
Distinctions among bound laborers on the basis of race had not yet fully developed. Thus affluent Europeans condemned pagan rituals, sexual licentiousness, and ignorance among both Slavic and African laborers. They also considered such traits common among their own peasants. When the English entered the African slave trade in the 1560s, via the privateer John Hawkins, they quickly put their own spin on such comparisons. In the sixteenth century, they viewed both Africans and the conquered Irish as “rude, beastly, ignorant, cruel, and unruly infidels.”
REVIEW & RELATE
• How and why did Europeans expand their connections with Africa and the Middle East in the fifteenth century?
• How did early European encounters with West Africans lay the foundation for later race-based slavery?