Post-classical history

Chapter Ninety-Two


Perpetual Slavery

Between 1415 and 1455, the Portuguese send slave ships to West Africa, and the pope gives them permission for conquest

DECADES BEFORE, the war between France and England had thrust tendrils into the Spanish peninsula; those tendrils had rooted, and now were growing thorny fruit of their own.

The former John of Aviz was now John I of Portugal, and John of Gaunt’s English daughter Philippa was his queen. In Castile, the nine-year-old great-grandson of Enrique of Trastámara ruled as John II. After the Portuguese victory at Aljubarrota, the two countries had remained at war for another twenty-six years; not until October 1411 was a truce finally reached.

Now Castile and Portugal were carrying on a new struggle: for trade, for wealth, and for the islands that lay in the Atlantic to the west.

So far, Castile was winning. In 1402, the French adventurer Jean de Béthencourt had landed in the Canary Islands “with the view of conquering the islands, and bringing the people to the Christian faith.” He hoped for glory, chivalric deeds of daring, and plenty of loot; his expedition, chronicled by two Franciscan priests who accompanied it, immediately captured some of the inhabitants, an African tribal people known as the Guanches, and brought them back to the port of Cadiz to sell as slaves.

Béthencourt, seeing the opportunity for even more glory than he had originally intended, had then gone to the court of Castile and asked young John II’s father to recognize him as king of the Canary Islands, vassal to the throne of Castile. The Castilian king agreed: “It shows a very good intention on his part,” he told his court, “to come to do me homage for a country which, as I understand, is at two hundred leagues distance, and of which I never heard before.”1

Before long the Guanches were almost extinguished, taken to Europe as slaves; the Canary Islands, repopulated by Castilian peasants brought over to farm and fish. Castile now boasted brand-new territories in the Atlantic, and the Portuguese—always vigilant against Castilian ambitions—looked to expand their own reach.2

John I of Portugal decided on the target: the port city of Ceuta, on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Ceuta was then in the hands of the North African sultan of the Marinids, one of the dynasties that had taken up the space left by the disintegration of the Almohad empire at the end of the thirteenth century. Fighting against the Marinids had at least two advantages. The battle could be pitched to his people as an extension of the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of Muslim-taken territories, which had stalled on the Spanish peninsula thanks to the stubborn resistance of the Muslim kingdom of Granada; this was less fraught than mounting an attack on another Christian nation. And it would occupy his sons. He had five legitimate sons, and in 1415 they ranged in age from thirteen to twenty-four; that was a lot of young ambitious male energy that needed to be pointed in the right direction.

Queen Philippa herself died just before the assault force was launched. The royal chronicler of the Portuguese court says that she roused herself from her bed, just before her death, when she heard the north wind blowing, and exclaimed, “It is the wind for your voyage!” A month later, the Portuguese ships, her three older sons on board, had arrived at Ceuta to assault the city.3

After a single day, the Marinids abandoned the fight. John of Portugal led the attack himself, with his heir and oldest son, Edward, at his side; twenty-year-old Henry and his twenty-two-year-old brother Peter fought together on the other wing. After the defenders fled, the mosque of Ceuta was thoroughly scrubbed out, refitted with Christian altars and crucifixes, and cleansed with consecrated water, and all three princes were knighted by their father there. “It was a splendid thing to see, for they were all large and well formed, and were dressed in clean clothes, and wearing their swords,” writes the court historian Gomes Eanes de Zurara.4

The Marinids had not tried very hard to hold Ceuta, but they were also unwilling to give the Portuguese an undisturbed beachhead into their empire. They launched constant attacks; John I spent a tremendous amount of money defending it, and in 1418 he was forced to send an army under his third son, young Henry, to help lift a Marinid siege of the city. The year after, he appointed Henry to be Ceuta’s permanent governor.5

Ceuta was turning out to be an expensive disappointment; Marinid resistance made it impossible to use the city as a base for expansion into the north of Africa. So Henry made it his business, while holding Ceuta secure, to also find another path for trade. He had always wished, says Zurara, “to know the land that lay beyond the isles of Canary and that Cape called Bojador, for that up to his time, neither by writings, nor by the memory of man, was known with any certainty the nature of the land beyond that Cape.”6

He used Ceuta as a base to send out ships into the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and then south towards Cape Bojador. It was not an easy mission to sell.

He sent out many times, not only ordinary men, but such as by their experience in great deeds of war were of foremost name in the profession of arms, yet there was not one who dared to pass that Cape of Bojador and learn about the land beyond it, as [Prince Henry] wished. And to say the truth this was not from cowardice or want of good will, but from the novelty of the thing and the wide-spread and ancient rumour about this Cape, that had been cherished by the mariners of Spain from generation to generation . . . that beyond this Cape there is no race of men nor place of inhabitants . . . no water, no tree, no green herb—and the sea so shallow that a whole league from land it is only a fathom deep, while the currents are so terrible that no ship having once passed the Cape, will ever be able to return.7

For twelve years, Henry sent out ships, year by year. Portuguese colonists settled on the Madeira Islands, and Portuguese ships raided Marinid ports. But despite Henry’s promise of enormous reward, none of the captains were willing to venture past the Cape.

IN 1433, JOHN I DIED. Henry’s older brother Edward was crowned king of Portugal, at the same time that yet another Portuguese ship sailed from Ceuta, bound west-southwest. Its captain, Gil Eannes, got as far as the Canary Islands and then, “touched by the self-same terror,” turned north. Henry resupplied his ship and then sent him back out. “You cannot find,” he told Eannes, “a peril so great that the hope of reward will not be greater.”8

Fortified with this promise, Eannes finally pushed past the cape. He returned with the news that the dreaded territory below was entirely unlike anything that had been rumored; he had seen calm seas, a long fertile coastline, and no people. Further reconnaissance ships reported the same, although one found footprints of men and camels. Henry sent yet another expedition, with instruction to land horses on the shore and ride inland until they sighted humans. The riders found no sign of villages or settlement before they grew afraid and turned back.

Political turmoil brought a temporary end to Henry’s expeditions. His brother the king declared war on the North African Marinids, despite the lukewarm support of Portugal’s lawmaking assembly, the Cortes; Henry, more enthusiastic than the Cortes, offered to lead an attack on the important port city of Tangier. With him, he took his brother Ferdinand, the youngest of John I’s sons, now aged thirty-five.

As it happened, the governor of Tangier was the same Marinid official who had been governing Ceuta at the time of its conquest by the Portuguese. He had learned from his defeat; he opened the gates of Tangier to draw the Portuguese army in, and then sent a detachment around behind to trap them in front of the city.9


92.1 Portuguese Explorations

When yet more Marinid reinforcements arrived, sent from the Marinid sultan in Fez, Henry was forced to give up. He managed to negotiate the freedom of most of his men by promising to give up Ceuta, but he was obliged to leave Ferdinand and twelve other Portuguese knights as hostages to assure the city’s surrender.

But the Cortes refused to honor Henry’s promise. Ferdinand remained in miserable captivity in Fez, chained in a cell at night and forced to do backbreaking work with other prisoners during the day.

Edward died eleven months later—of plague, according to some accounts; of a deep despair and guilt over his brother’s fate, according to others. His six-year-old son Afonso became king of Portugal, with Edward’s widow Eleanor and his brother Peter of Coimbra as uneasily cooperating co-regents.

Henry, back in Ceuta, was powerless to negotiate Ferdinand’s release; and in 1443, the youngest Portuguese prince died in captivity. By then, Henry’s expeditions had resumed. He had settled Portuguese families on the Azores, the cluster of islands west of Portugal. And his men had finally come face-to-face with the inhabitants of the African coast: “black Moors,” whom they had immediately taken prisoner. The captives, brought back to Portugal, were sold as slaves in Lisbon and went for a startling good price. “When people saw the wealth which the ships had brought back, acquired in so short a time and seemingly with such ease,” says Zurara, “some asked themselves in what manner they too could acquire a share of these profits.”10

Now Henry had no shortage of captains willing to sail south past Cape Bojador: “some to serve, others to gain honor, and others with the hope of profit.” His brother Peter of Coimbra, regent for the young King, granted Henry the exclusive right to control all trade that went out south of the cape, and Henry offered yearly rewards to expeditions that pushed into unknown territory. Captain after captain sailed down the western coastline, searching for new inlets, new rivers, and more slaves. Kidnapping and exploration went hand in hand; Portuguese ships would anchor off a new stretch of coast, the men would go ashore, and if they found villagers, they would capture them and bring their prisoners back on board. If not, they would sail farther south, making a note of what they saw. The chronicler Zurara describes one such voyage; a party of Portuguese sailors, landing on a new stretch of coast,

saw some Guinean [West African] women who seemed to be collecting shellfish on the shore of a little inlet. They seized one of the women who must have been about thirty years old, with her son who was two, and also a young girl of fourteen. . . . The strength of the woman was astonishing because the three men who seized her had great trouble getting her into the boat. So one of our men, seeing the slow progress they were making . . . had the idea of taking her child and carrying him to the boat, so that her maternal love made her follow him. . . . From this place they continued for a certain time until they found a river up which they could venture in their boat. In the houses they found there, they captured a woman and, after they brought her to the caravel, they returned once more to the river.11

The human traffic had trickled back into Portugal a little at a time, but in 1444 Henry sponsored a spectacular mass arrival of slaves into the Portuguese city of Lagos, a public-relations event headed by the sea captain Lançarote de Freitas. Six ships, one of them piloted by Gil Eannes, sailed past Cape Blanc and went ashore hunting for slaves. Charging into the West African forests with the battle cry “Santiago, São Jorge, and Portugal!” (“Saint James, Saint George, and Portugal!”), they captured at least 250 slaves and killed many more.12

They sailed into Lagos on August 8 and unloaded the crowd of slaves in the city’s marketplace; Henry himself was waiting there on horseback, ready to receive one-fifth of the slaves as his personal tribute, and perhaps also measuring the success of his dramatic staging. The chronicler Zurara was there as well, watching with his own eyes. “Very early in the morning, by reason of the heat,” he writes, “the mariners began to bring-to their vessels, and, as they had been commanded, to draw forth the captives.”

Placed together on that plain, it was a marvellous sight to behold, for amongst them there were some of a reasonable degree of whiteness, handsome and well-made; others less white, resembling leopards in their colour; other as black as Ethiopians. . . . [S]ome had sunken cheeks, and their faces bathed in tears, looking at each other; others were groaning very dolorously, looking at the heights of the heavens, fixing their eyes upon them, crying out loudly . . . others struck their faces with their hands, throwing themselves on the earth. . . . [Now] came those who had the charge of the distribution, and they began to put them apart one from the other . . . to part children and parents, husbands and wives, and brethren from each other. . . . [T]he mothers enclosed their children in their arms and threw themselves with them on the ground, receiving wounds with little pity for their own flesh so that their children might not be torn from them! And so, with labour and difficulty, they concluded the partition.13

Zurara, moved by the suffering of the captives, comforted himself by reflecting that they were still better off than before, when they had lived in “damnation of souls . . . like animals.” Now, he concludes, they are “dressed . . . fed . . . loved and turned with good will to the path of the Faith.” Their captivity had brought them into a Christian land where they would hear the Gospel; this was all to the good.14

BY 1452, the trade in slaves and other African goods had grown so fast (“yearly 3,500 slaves and more,” the geographer Duarte Pacheco Pereira wrote, some decades later, “many tusks of elephant ivory, gold, fine cotton cloth and much other merchandise”) that the king of Portugal decided to protect his country’s interests in Africa by appealing to the pope.15

Young Afonso V had finally come of age four years before, forcing his uncle and regent Peter of Coimbra to give up control of the government; when Peter tried to fight back, Afonso’s troops defeated him in a pitched battle at the river Alfarrobeira, during which Peter was struck through the heart with an arrow.16

Now in control of his own throne, Afonso V confirmed his uncle Henry’s right to administer the slave trade. He then appealed to Rome to recognize the throne of Portugal as conducting, in Africa, a crusade: a holy war against the enemies of the Church, an assault on the powers of darkness.

Eugene IV had died in 1447; the Italian Nicholas V now sat on the papal throne. After brief consideration, he agreed to Afonso’s request. On June 18, 1452, he issued the papal bull Dum Diversas, giving Afonso “full and free power, through the Apostolic authority . . . to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and . . . to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”17

In perpetuam servitutem: the bull had placed the papal seal of approval on the enslavement of the African captives. In all likelihood, Nicholas V was thinking more about the Turks than about the West Africans, since the bull simply gave Afonso the right to search out and enslave all pagans and seize their land. But three years later, when he confirmed the bull once more in the charter Romanus Pontifex, he took the further step of outlining the geographical areas in which Afonso could seize and enslave. Because the kings of Portugal had spent so much “labor, danger and expense” in sending “swift ships” to Africa, and because this had “caused to be preached to them the unknown but most sacred name of Christ,” and because this had “gained for Christ” the souls of so many, the entire Portuguese enterprise was now protected by the Church. Only the Portuguese could sail to West Africa, preach the gospel, and bring Africans back to Europe.

Fearing lest strangers induced by covetousness should sail to those parts, and desiring to usurp to themselves the perfection, fruit, and praise of this work . . . or should teach those infidels the art of navigation, whereby they would become more powerful and obstinate enemies to the king . . . and the prosecution of this enterprise would . . . perhaps entirely fail [with] great reproach to all Christianity; to prevent this and to conserve their right and possession . . . none, unless with [Portuguese] sailors and ships . . . and with an express license previously obtained from the said king . . . should presume to sail to the said provinces or to trade in their ports or to fish in the sea. . . . [T]hese islands, lands, harbors, and seas . . . do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors . . . in order that [they] may be able the more zealously to pursue . . . this most pious and noble work . . . the salvation of souls.18

The conquest of the West Africans had been transferred into the realm of the holy; their enslavement had become their salvation; and their sale baptized as a righteous duty. It was the most devastating expansion yet of the ideal of crusade.


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