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Portuguese Slave Trade

Portuguese maritime overseas exploration and expansion in the 15th century took on two directions.  The first was towards the southern coast of West Africa where the Portuguese initially participated in kidnapping raids, bringing several Africans back to Portugal. They soon realized that by establishing diplomatic relations with local kings, they could penetrate the interior of Africa and carefully observe lands, rivers, and other natural resources, thus gaining intelligence on Muslim activity.  The Portuguese, like their commercial rivals, the Spanish, were trying to break the Muslim monopoly over trade between Europe and eastern Asia.  The Portuguese explored the Atlantic coast of Africa and established links with the peoples and kingdoms of the sub-Saharan regions of Guinea, Ghana, Dahomey, and the Congo.  Explorers and adventurers soon became very active in expeditions in search of gold, pepper, tusks, slaves, profitable trade routes, and more importantly converting native populace to Christianity.  In addition to seeking new trade routes to India and China, the spreading of Christianity into new lands also became a powerful justification for material Portugal and Spain.  By 1492, trade with West Africa’s Gold Coast provided two-thirds of Europe’s supply of gold (4).  The second direction was toward the islands of the Atlantic Ocean such as Cape Verde, Sao Tome, Madeira, Canary, and the Azores.  Many of the islands were uninhabited or had small villages.  Sugar consumption in Europe was steadily growing and the demand for sugarcane labor drastically changed the nature of Portuguese slavery.  It went from domestic servitude to plantation slavery.  In 1500, Portuguese mariner Pedro Alvares Cabral sighted Brazil and stopped there briefly.  The Portuguese did not have much interest in Brazil at first, but when French and Dutch sailors began to visit the Brazilian coastline, the king of Portugal granted large tracts of territory to nobles in the expectation that they would develop their new lands. (2) Governors were dispatched to oversee construction of sugarcane plantation along the coastline.  By the middle of the 16th century, entrepreneurs recognized Brazil’s importance as a profitable leg of the sugar trade.  The Portuguese and the Spanish, as well as the rest of Europe, saw the New World as land to exploit and the native “infidel” people to subjugate.  The New World ballooned European wealth.  Vast amounts of stolen gold, silver, precious gems, and other natural resources contributed in the construction of decorative cathedrals and churches with spires in the Iberian Peninsula, as well as the Vatican.  The pace of European exploration and navigation technology quickened after 1415 when Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, also Dom Henrique, conquered the small Moroccan port of Ceuta.  He was the son of King John, also known as Don Juan, and his English wife, Princess Phillippa.  By age twenty-five, he was governor of the southern coasts of Portugal as well as Master of the Order of Christ.  Prince Henry soon sponsored a series of voyages down the west coast of Africa and began to map its coastline.  The Battle of Ceuta was a turning point because it was the first time in centuries that a European nation had taken over African territory. Access into the Mediterranean Sea, which had been formerly dominated by Arab and African fleets, was not possible.  In 711 A.D., an African general Jebel Tarik, also known as Tarikh ben Zaid, led an army into Spain, which had remained under the domination of Africans, Berbers, and Arabs for seven centuries (1).  Prince Henry the Navigator took an active interest in inaugurating Portuguese oceanic exploration and expansion.  This would later inspire the maritime nations of Europe to do the same.  His sponsored voyages led the Portuguese to claim the islands of the Atlantic Ocean.  This system of island hopping put the Portuguese fleet further south and in a position to claim economic superiority in the early stages of European.  The Portuguese had the most maritime experience along the coast of West Africa and connections with local kings.  They monopolized the outward flow of slaves brought from the interior and controlled the price of slaves brought into the new world (3).  By the mid-sixteenth century, African slaves were used in the island colonies of Madeira and the Canaries.   Prince Henry is best known for introducing maritime technology and information to Europe, “discovering” the Madeira and Azores Islands of the Atlantic, and sending ships to circumnavigate Africa and beyond.  Without maritime technology, Portugal’s influence on European overseas expansion and colonization would not have been possible.  Henry received his oceanic understanding from African and Arab (or Moors) sailors, who retained their knowledge from the great University of Salamanca, Spain. For centuries African and Arab mariners had traveled into the Indian Ocean and as far as China to trade.  Portuguese sailors in the late 15th century encountered Arab sailors using simpler and more effective instruments for determining latitude and longitude (2). 

Seasonal westerly wind patterns served as maritime conveyor belts, well known to Christopher Columbus, cousin of Prince Henry, before his world altering encounter with the Arawak people of the Bahama Islands on October 12, 1492.  Columbus was privy to ancient oceanic knowledge and may have even have possessed detailed maps such as the Piri Reis maps. The Piri Reis maps are extraordinary since they contain exact geographical information of land masses underneath the ice at the southern tip of South America.  Conventional American history would like you to believe that brave Christopher Columbus set sail across an unpredictable and dangerous ocean with the blessing of King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, and God.  Sailing to the New World was nothing new for the Africans along the West Coast, but for Europe it was.  Columbus was just the first sponsored European spokesperson to confirm and claim the lands beyond the Atlantic Ocean, which were now fair game.  That is, as soon as they could land and declare ownership.  Conquest, plunder, and the genocidal extinction of the indigenous population was necessary in order to implent the European way of life, which was their original goal.  

 

Once Prince Henry compiled a body of practical knowledge about the sea, winds, and currents, he set out to start his map-making and charting schools.  Europe had entered a new era of navigational possibilities.  European sailors, previously with no understanding of longitude and latitude, were now able to travel east and west without getting lost. Prince Henry’s knowledge of Africa was further enhanced when he came into contact with Jewish traders who spoke of grand and majestic cities in Africa’s interior. Through his African contacts he was able to acquire a cache of maps that were mostly written by Jewish gold dealers who had been dealing in the Western Sudan and the coast of West Africa (1).  They were the major gold dealers in between Spain, the Mediterranean states, and the nations of in Africa, particularly Western Sudan.  Stories of wealth and gold in cities such as Timbuktu only widened Henry’s ambition to explore the African continent.  Sadly, wherever the European went he brought death and destruction.  The European invasion of Africa, the West Indies, and the Americas altered the people’s way of life and civilization profoundly.  Traders, warriors, missionaries, and adventurers forced new political, social, cultural, commercial, and religious patterns over four continents.  Ironically, Christianity played a major role in the inhumane treatment and justified behavior towards non-Europeans.  Religion by itself would not have been able to influence the horrid global economic order that was taking place.  Equally important are the social and political structures that identify and unite people into a common cause.  A unified state encourages progress, civic duty, and state responsibility.  During the period from the early Portuguese maritime exploration and expansion up until the secularization of the modern state, Europe was able to “synthesize” (1) various economic, political, and cultural forms.  The nations of Europe fighting less for religious ideals, took advantage of market conditions and the accumulation of capital.  Slavery saw the rise of European capitalism.  European banks along with joint-stock corporations, kings, monarchs, and popes controlled lands, resources, and labor. They established large-scale trading that operated over a large geographical area. The European had other advantages, which included weapons and technology.  They had guns, a large fleet of ships with sailors and soldiers, but more importantly was their no sentimental value for non-Europeans.  The atrocities committed by the Portuguese and Spanish go beyond description.  Verbal or written representation cannot be relied upon as accurate representation.  The cruelty unleashed on the inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere was the result of Europe’s centuries old warfare.  Incessant warfare, sadism, treachery, fratricide, abduction, lawlessness, an obsession with the supernatural, coupled with monarchial indifference and the Vatican’s hold on the masses through spiritual horror, created an impenetrable mindlessness.  This unpleasant environment defined the character of the Europe and man’s inhumanity to man generational.  “Sharp iron frames prevented victims from sleeping, lying, or even sitting.  Braziers scorched the soles of their fee, racks stretched and shattered their limbs, [and] suspects were crushed to death beneath chest filled with stones…” (4).  The end result was the European was able to successfully conquer most of the known world because of its militaristic order and savage minds.  The Arawak and Taino people of the West Indies, unable to stop the Spanish, were butchered by the thousands.  Their children were fed to starved war-dogs and their small bodies used to test the sharpness of the Conquistador’s blades.  The systematic enslavement of the African civilization and genocidal extermination of the people of the Western Hemisphere was initiated by the Catholic nations of Portugal and Spain.  The rivalry for the control of the Atlantic slave trade would later be taken over by the more business conscious and efficient Protestants of Holland and England through a series of wars fought on the high-seas and several continents.  Portugal’s ruling class, monarchs and merchants enriched by the lucrative sugar and slave trade exercised significant economic and political power.  In 1498, Vasca de Gama rounded Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, which opened new trade routes to India and China, severing the Muslim trade monopoly into Asia.  Portugal also claimed the new territory of the New World within the scope of the Papal Bull of 1455, which authorized Catholic nations to “reduce to servitude all infidel people”.  In order to appease hostilities arbitration was needed.  They sought the assistance of the Vatican.  It was a logical and natural choice in an age when the papacy was still unchallenged by person or kingdom. The Christian Church was independent of any earthly powers.  The Vatican, with its hierarchy of popes, deacons, and bishops, believed that the church, like God, was perfect and incapable of reform.  Ecclesiastic authority successfully kept the masses on the straight and narrow path through fear and spiritual agony.  Fear of the devil had a stronger impact than the love of Jesus or God (4).  Europe was effectively ruled by an aristocracy of traditionally privileged families and nobles, enterprising merchants and traders, and the Catholic Church.  Collectively, they sought to gain power and wealth by taking advantage of the insurmountable resources in the New World and by exploiting the people of Africa and the West Indies.  The ruling elite of Western Europe had a mutual understanding of greed, which spawned a horrific enterprise in the trading and shipping of human cargo.  The enslavement of the African race and genocidal campaigns towards indigeneous peoples of the Bahama Islands was capitalisim at its earliest stages.  It became a necessary evil that maintained the inward flow of wealth and absolute power to European treasuries. 

 

 

Jose R. Castilla III.

  

1.      Christopher Columbus & the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European capitalism: Author: John Henrik Clarke.

 

2.      Traditions & Encounters:A Global Perspective on the Past., Vol. II: From  

1500 to the Present. 2nd edition: Jerry H. Bentley & Herbert F. Ziegler.

 

3.      Africans in America: American’s Journey through Slavery: Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith, & the WGBH Series Research Team.

 

4.      Who Built America? Working People & the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Cutlture, and Society. Vol 1., From Conquest & Colonization through 1877. Christopher Clark & Nancy A. Hewitt: Worth Publishers. 

 

5.      A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and The Renaissance – Portrait     

                                      of an Age. Author: William Manchester.

 

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