By Margaret Kamba and Dr Tony Monda

THE role of the Portuguese in slave trade can never be underestimated. 

Their determination to overpower and maintain their grip and dominance on the slave trade industry went unopposed for over a century in which their tactics ensured an unending supply of the slaves and a constant flow of the profits. 

The wrong notion that black people did not feel pain or anxiety was one of the things that kept the Portuguese on this profit-making mission while the Pope’s authorisation made the Portuguese even more heartless and racist. 

The Portuguese’s entrance into slave trade was through a man named Prince Henry the Navigator, known for his endeavours in seeking new lands and sources of revenue for his country.

His motives for these far-reaching expeditions were mixed, among them to increase the Holy Faith that souls might be saved, to find a way to the gold riches of the fabled Wangara and to probe and outflank Moslem power in Africa with the help of a mysterious character, thought to live for ever, called Prestor John.

A description of this man in the book The Slave Trade: The story of Transatlantic Slavery by Oliver Ransford shows Prince Henry as a man whose drive for discovering Africa led him abandoning his set out mission of acquiring gold, ivory and spices to embarking on slave trade for his country.

He is still regarded as an originator of the so called Age of Discovery and the Atlantic slave trade. Although he was neither a sailor nor a navigator, he sponsored a great deal of exploration along the west coast of Africa. 

That is why his navigators were among the first to capture slaves on the west coast of Africa. 

In 1441, two Portuguese navigator-explorers Antao Goncalves (Above) and Nuno Tristao, headed an expedition that delivered 10 captives from Africa to Europe.

In 1441, two Portuguese navigator-explorers, Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão, headed an expedition that brought back to Europe 10 captives from Africa.

Gonçalves was the first European to buy Africans as slaves from black slave traders while Tristão, a knight of the household of Portugal’s Prince Henry, known as ‘the Navigator’, was believed to be the first European to reach the region of Guinea on the coast of West Africa.

Among other Portuguese rulers, Henry the Navigator, the organiser of Portuguese expeditions to Africa, sanctioned the importation of Africans, ostensibly to convert them to Christianity.

Gonçalves, considerably younger than Tristão, was sent by Henry the Navigator to explore and hunt the Mediterranean monk seals along the West African coast. 

After he had filled his small vessel with seal skins, Gonçalves, on his own initiative, decided to buy some Africans to take back to Portugal.  With nine of his crewmen, Gonçalves bought an Azenegue Berber and a black tribesman who had worked as a slave for the Berbers. 

Nuno Tristao

By this time, Tristão had arrived at the same place, and the two joined together for another slave purchasing expedition.

Gonçalves, by chance, captured a solitary young camel-driver; the first native encountered by the Portuguese since the expeditions began in the 1420s. Tristão, who had one of King Henry’s Moorish (black) servants on board, to act as an interpreter, is said to have interrogated the captive camel-driver whose information led them to a small Berber fishing camp nearby. 

The Portuguese attacked the fishermen, taking 10 captives, one of them an Azenegue chief — the first African slaves to be taken by the Portuguese back to Europe.

Some of their captives are said to have assured their captors they would be ‘handsomely rewarded’ if they returned them to Africa. 

Gonsalvez shipped the captives back to Africa where he received in exchange“…ten blacks, male and female, from various countries…” and various goods including “… a little gold dust.”

Several of the slaves, with an impressive entourage, were sent as a gift to Pope Eugene IV.  The others were sold in Lisbon at an extremely high price.

In 1442, Gonçalves embarked on another expedition, taking the Azenegue chief he had bought the year before.  He hoped to barter the chief for a number of Azenegue slaves.  Again, he received 10 slaves, some gold dust and a large number of ostrich eggs in exchange. 

Following the first profitable sale of Africans, Portuguese sailors began to bring back slaves from every voyage to Africa; such that from the late 15th Century, from the coastal areas embracing Senegal and Sierra Leone alone, 3 500 slaves, and at times even more, were carried off annually. 

Despite this, the Portuguese never found the Africans attractive. 

To them, they were simply inferior human beings who had to be used as beasts of burden.

The Portuguese soon expanded their trade along the whole west coast of Africa, holding a monopoly on all expeditions. 

Although the expeditions sent out by Prince Henry on behalf of the Portuguese were essentially a continuation of the Crusades, they were now flavoured with

 a desire for material gain. 

Unfortunately, because of the trade the Africans had done previously with other Europeans, they   at first welcomed Prince Henry’s emissaries. 

African rulers profited from this trade, waging war on neighbours or requiring tribute in the form of slaves, which they, in turn, bartered to Europeans for the exotic luxury items they supplied.

“When the supplies of gold were exhausted harmonious relationship ended as the Portuguese realised the only other valuable commodity were slaves.

Whatever goodwill remained disappeared when the Portuguese began kidnapping indiscriminately men women and children and shipped them across the sea.

If the Portuguese had experienced any feelings of conscience about enslaving their Africans, these quickly disappeared when Pope Nicholas V authorised them to ‘…attack, subject and reduce to perpetual slavery the Saracens, Pagans and other enemies of Christ southwards from Cape Bojador and including all the coast of Guinea.” writes Ransford.

Apart from establishing the coastal industries, they ended up going into the interior of African communities where they not only kidnapped, but took advantage of the communal wars.

This enabled them to end with a large number of slaves.

The captives were marched to the coast before they were shipped to Portugal.

To make sure they would not escape, two captives were chained together at the ankle while columns of slaves were tied together by ropes around their necks.

In accounts as enunciated by Ransford, the Portuguese despised the Africans even though they were making a lot of money from trading them as slaves.

Ransford says: “In any case the Portuguese did not find the Negroes particularly attractive: they were much blacker than any Africans they had seen before in Europe and their features were compared disparagingly with their own which they had come to equate with comeliness.”

Because the blacks became associated with slavery, whites looked down upon them because of their skin colour and not because of their religion as they did with the Moslems.

This marked the beginning of racism.

Since the Portuguese feared competition in the profitable slave trade, they kept their African discovery to themselves. They had no wish to face competition.

They maintained this monopoly for a century, setting up factories along the Guinea coast, collecting gold, ivory, pepper as well as slaves.

The slaves were shipped to Portugal where they were set to cultivate the country which had been laid waste during the Moorish wars.

Some slaves worked in domestic settings, while most worked hard labour in the mines and metal forges, while others worked at the docks loading and maintaining ships.

“At the end of this hundred-year period, it was calculated that the Portuguese province of the Algarve was almost entirely populated by Negroes or mulattos and that a tenth of Lisbon’s population was black,” writes Ransford .

The slave trade which before had been a relatively minor evil that transported a mere 500 Africans a year to Portugal,suddenly became a horror with the discovery of the West Indies and the Americas by other European powers

Portugal initially supplied these ‘new’ lands with slaves directly from Lisbon before taking them directly across the Atlantic Ocean from the African coast in ever increasing numbers

Even when slavery was abolished in 1761, Portuguese slave traders were clients in other countries where the trade was still rife. 

The Time Wake website also highlights clearly how the desperation of the Portuguese in the lucrative slave trade business made them stop at nothing. 

The records of the royal chronicler Zurara claim that 927 African slaves were brought to Portugal between 1441 and 1448, and an estimated 1000 black slaves arrived in Portugal each year afterward.

 A common estimate is that around 2 000 black slaves arrived in Lisbon annually after 1490.

Slave auctions occurred in the town or market square, or in the streets of central Lisbon. The sale of slaves was compared by observers as similar to the sale of horses or livestock. 

The laws of commerce regarding slavery addresses them as merchandise or objects. 

There was a period of time set upon purchase for the buyer to decide if he was happy with the slave he had purchased. 

Women slaves were used for breeding purposes which is why women of child-bearing age were captured. 

These women slaves could be freed if their masters chose to marry them. 

In some cases, black female slaves were raped with impunity to satisfy the sexual pleasures of their captors, resulting in many mixed-race offspring.

The atrocities and sexual abuse of the enslaved captives were widespread. 

Eventually, after a century, the Portuguese slave monopoly ended and the Guinea coast became a free-for-all among European nations.

When Spain surrendered her licence to supply slaves to the Americas to Britain, there followed a dramatic switch in fortunes.

Britain became the principal slaver nation.

The trade brought vast wealth to England, enabling her to finance her industrial revolution, making her emerge a European power to be reckoned with.


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