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New African
MAY 2000

Portugal, the mother of all slavers Part II

We conclude the piece on how Portugal gave birth to the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. Part I was run in the March issue.

Story by Dr Patrick Adibe and Osei Boateng

Contrary to the juicy tales told by European travellers to Africa before and during the slavery era, Africans were already polished traders when the Portuguese arrived.

"We must not reduce African societies to just villages," Dr Maulana Karenga, the African-American scholar, historian and professor in Black Studies, once told a conference in London. "We are talking about the destruction of empires, states and nations. Even if we just talk about West Africa, Dahomey was a state; Benin was a state; Ashanti was a state. And it is important not to see Africa as just a collection of underdeveloped villages. For this is part of the European lie to claim an undeserved and untenable superiority."

Dr Karenga continued: "When the European first came to Africa, he had to pay taxes and tribute on the coast and had to stay on the coast. And in Dahomey, they made him build his houses in mud, not in stone to show how impermanent his residence was. And he exchanged ambassadors where he could. He exchanged ambassadors not only with Songhai, but also with Angola, Congo and other states. It was at first a necessary mutual respect for policy.

"But eventually, Africa, an old centre of civilisation, began to decline and capitalism began to rise, and you have a shift then in the balance of power. And the Europeans began to strengthen themselves on the coast. And appropriating knowledge from Africa and Asia and synthesising technique, they began to shift the balance of power. They began to go inland."

It follows, therefore, that if the Portuguese had wanted to limit their "trade" to the normal commodities in Africa - gold, spices, etc - they could have done so, but no! They wanted to "buy" human beings!

As shown in Part I, the Portuguese king, Henry the Navigator, gave explicit instructions to his sailors in 1445 to "win over" the Africans so they could "buy" human beings, instead of kidnapping them as they had hitherto been doing. How anybody can "buy" a human being for a motley collection of a bottle of rum, a teapot and a thread of glass beads, and still call himself "civilised" and a "Christian", numbs the mind.

But that is what the Portuguese did. By 1488, they were making so much money from the slave trade that King Joao, with pride in his eyes, could tell Pope Innocent VIII that "the profits from the slave trade were helping to finance the wars against Islam in North Africa."

By 1506, the Portuguese monarch was earning over two million reis from the slave trade through taxes and duties. By royal decree, Portuguese settlers in the Americas (then called the New World) were given loans on easy terms, from 1531 onwards, to buy slaves to work their sugar plantations.

A touchy issue

As the profits mounted, the Portuguese elite and the rich put more investments into the trade. It is here that we come across a very touchy issue - the involvement of European Jews in the slave trade.

But as the facts must fall where they may, even Hugh Thomas, one of the greatest Western chroniclers of the slave trade who went to exceptional lengths in his 925-page tome on the slave trade published in November 1997, to disguise the involvement of European Jews in the slave trade, cannot help but say:

"The most important merchant of Portugal concerned in the slave trade in the mid-16th century was Fernando Jimenez who [was] based in Lisbon... Despite his Jewish ancestry, the powerful reforming Pope Sixtus V was so appreciative of his services that he gave him the right to use his own surname, Peretti.

"Jimenez's descendants were among the largest contractors in Africa - above all, eventually, in Angola. The Jimenezes were run close in wealth and influence by another New Christian [an euphemism for a converted Jew or converso], Emmanuel Rodrigues, and his family - including Simon, a dominant figure in the [slave] trade from Cape Verde."

Hugh continues: "Other conversos in the slave trade included Manuel Caldeira, whose great days were in the early 1560s, and who then became chief treasurer of the realm... It is true that much of the slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries in Lisbon [the glory centuries of the Portuguese slave trade] was financed by converted Jews, New Christians or conversos; though whether such a person is to be seen as a Jew is not something on which I should wish to pronounce."

Who can blame Hugh Thomas? The involvement of European Jews in the slave trade is almost a taboo subject, which only the brave talk and write about.

One of these brave people is Dr Yosef ben-Jochannan, an author of over 30 books. Ben-Jochannan is one of the greatest African-American historical researchers and Egyptologists that ever lived. He is a black Jew whose family root is in Ethiopia. Before October 1935, when Mussolini dropped the bomb and exterminated 4.5 million Ethiopian-Jews, there were 5 million of them in the country.

"Mussolini left us with only 500,000 of our people, and the world said nothing about it," Ben-Jochannan once told a conference in London. "My uncle, Prof Tammarat Emmanuel of Ethiopia's Hebrew Community went to the United States to beg aid from the American Jews against the Italians. They gave him a mere $432 and put him in a boat that took him across the Atlantic and through the Suez Canal!"

Ben-Jochannan is famed for his outspokenness and his original research into matters African. His book, The African Origins of the Major Western Religions is a masterpiece that would win awards anywhere had the subject matter been anything but...

despite his Jewish ancestry, Ben-Jochannan minces no words when discussing the involvement of European Jews in the slave trade. "Oh yes, it doesn't stop me from dealing with the fact that European Jews participated fully as Grandees (money changers) and as traders. They traded in Queen Isabella [the Catholic's] jewellery and things like that to get some money for the slave trade! That's history!"

He continues: "You can't deny that European Jews were, and are, part of European colonialism and imperialism. Where we made the mistake is to separate the two! European Jews are Europeans. When Europeans move, European Jews also move. They move not because they are Jewish, they move because they are white. They are Europeans, and that is a thing that we must understand, they have played a good game. And nobody wants to deal with the fact that Jews were equally slaveholders as well as Christians and Moslem Arabs... The Grandees did not worry about what they were financing the Spanairds for, to take us to the other parts of the West to enslave us."

Hugh Thomas even adds: "A few of these first sugar mills of Brazil were owned by converted Jews. Let us not exaggerate: Of about 40 mills in the region of Bahia whose owners can be identified in 1590, 12 were apparently New Christians. Yet the Inquisition thought that, in 1618, 20 out of 34 mills were so owned. Some of these individuals were no doubt practising Jews: the Holy Office discovered a synagogue on a plantation on the River Matoim, no distance from Bahia, in the 1590s."

Hugh continues: "The year 1651 also saw the Danes committed to begin an adventure in Guinea which would last over 200 years. The plan was conceived in Gluckstadt, a fortified city of Holstein on the Elbe (then part of Denmark), which had been renowned for its generous reception of Portuguese Jews. These seem to have taken the initiative in launching the Danish African trade, Simon and Henrik de Casseres being the first to receive 'sea passes' to go to trade at Barbados, from the patron of the city, Count Dietrich Reventlow."

Why they wanted Africans

One of the major factors that changed the face of the slave trade was the development of the plantation system in the Americas. Plantations - in this case sugar plantations - by their nature, employed a more rigorous productive routine and depended on a large pool of slave labour.

Africans were thought to have far more remarkable reserves of toughness and good humour than the native Americans, and thus, the Africans were considered more effective in the sugar fields, and the African women made good mistresses, cooks and nurses for the slave masters.

Says Hugh Thomas: "The men and women who created the great sugar boom in the world lived well... [Their] fortunes rested on sugar, and sugar on African slavery."

Three islands - Madeira, Cape Verde and Sao Tome played crucial roles in the Portuguese slave trade. After 1450, the Portuguese introduced irrigation methods and sugar mills on Madeira, increasing both productivity and the demand for slaves.

To meet this expanding demand, Portugal began massive importation of slaves. Soon, Cape Verde had become an important provisioning station for slaves headed for the Americas.

"Soaring European demand for Brazilian sugar and the unsuitability of Amerindian slave labour," says the Macmillan Encyclopaedia of World Slavery, "led to extensive imports of African slaves after 1570".

But one must be careful here. The so-called "unsuitability of the Amerindians" has often been used by Western historians to paper over the cold-blooded mass murder (genocide in today's parlance) of the native Americans by the European settlers whose main motive was to take Amerindian land.

After the near-total extermination of the Amerindians, the Europeans were left with no choice but ship in more Africans. This explains why, today, there are more people of African descent in Brazil than native Brazilians; in fact Brazil's black population is the second biggest in the world, after Nigeria.

Unofficial surveys in Brazil say of the country's 160 million people, a good 94 million (59%) are of African descent. Government figures claim only 45%, or 72 million are black, but even that is nearly half of the population.

By the 17th century, the Portuguese were gradually being displaced by their northern European competitors (especially the Dutch) from Elmina (after 250 years of Portuguese control of that huge slave headquarters in Ghana) and other points along the Benin coast.

But that, by no means, was the end of the Portuguese. They continued buying slaves some two decades after the legal abolition of slavery in Portugal in 1836.

Actually Britain had tried to cajole Portugal to agree to abolish the trade much earlier, but the Portuguese did it only half-heartedly. In January 1815, Britain had signed a treaty with Portugal in which London promised to pay Portugal 300,000 to compensate Portugal for the 30 odd Portuguese slave ships seized by the British navy in the five years to the treaty.

Britain also forgave Portugal a previous loan of 600,000. In return, the Portuguese agreed to stop their trade in slaves "everywhere north of the Equator" - meaning people from Gabon to Mozambique were still fair game.

Britain, in fairness, had tried to play the "good guys" here, but let nobody be fooled (again) by the oft-repeated claim that the British were the first to LEGALLY abolish the slave trade.

As Lord Anthony Gifford reminded the British House of Lords on 14 March 1996, in reply to the Viscount of Falkland who had heaped lavish praise on the British for being the first to abolish the trade: "My Lords," Lord Gifford had said, "the noble Viscount is interesting and erudite in his history, but I am sure he will accept that it was the Danes who were the first European nation legally to abolish the slave trade. We followed them six years later."

But never mind - that is history for you.

The total number of Africans shipped by the Portuguese is conservatively put at 4.2 million. This, in fact, excludes the millions that died on the tedious inland trek to the Portuguese ships, or their slave razzas on the coast, or during the horrible Atlantic passage.

The above estimate is based on Philip Curtin's census of the slave trade, which is popular with Western historians but widely ridiculed as gross under-estimations by many African and African-American historians.

For instance, the summary report of the UNESCO conference on slavery held in Haiti in 1978 acknowledged that: [Taking into consideration] factors such as losses during capture and land journeys across Africa, and deaths during the sea crossing, African losses during the four centuries of the Atlantic Slave Trade must be put at some 210 million human beings."

The African connection

As noted in Part I, Africans also traded in slaves with the Portuguese. Yes they did! Some writers have used this fact to blame African chiefs and merchants of collaboration in the slave trade.

First, it should be remembered that slavery existed in virtually all societies then, though it was mostly chattel slavery which should not be confused with the TransAtlantic and Trans-Saharan slave trade that had racist characters.

Europe itself had "indentured" its own people by dragging them from the jails and streets and sending them to the colonies in the Americas, after the Italian sailor in the service of Spain, Cristoforo Colombo (1451-1506) "discovered" America in 1492.

Colombo himself had an interesting history. "If you read his dairy," says Dr John Henrik Clarke, another of the great African-American historical researchers, "he says: 'As man and boy, I sailed up and down the Guinea coast for 23 years.' If you ask what Christopher Columbus was doing up and down the Guinea coast for 23 years, the only answer is that he was a slave trader among other things."

But, after he was credited with the "discovery" of America in 1492, and in tune with the ideals of the European Age of Enlightenment, it was deemed unchristian for a white man to enslave another white man.

"So the slavers went to the Africans," says Dr Maulana Karenga, the African-American professor in Black Studies, "and they were able to enslave the Africans because at this period in history, Africa was declining."

Remember it was in 1492, (as we reported in Part I), the same year Columbus "discovered" America, that Sonni Ali, the emperor of Songhay, one of the last great nation-states in West Africa, was drowned on his way home from a battle. After his death, there was a year of interruption and scramble for power, when nobody was on throne, until a commoner Abu Biki Ituri came to power.

As Dr Henrik Clarke has shown, Ituri "created the last of the great dynasties of the independent African nation-states before the encroachment of the slave trade that spread inland into Africa."

Ituri's domain "covered a massive area larger than the continental limits of the United States," says Dr Clarke. "There were only two universities in the world now - the University of Sankore in Timbuctoo and the Salamanka in Spain. My main point in relating this is that while the slave trade was starting along the coast of Africa, in inner West Africa a great nation-state was going through its last years." This made it easier for the slave trade to flourish.

Second, because racism was unknown at the time, most of the Africans involved in the trade did not have any black consciousness, but regarded the slaves as people from remote nations, who had either been captured in wars or committed serious crimes. At the time there were no formal prisons as such in West and Central Africa. The Africans therefore regularly "deported" serious law-breakers to "faraway lands" or villages as punishment.

Third, some of the African chiefs fiercely resisted getting slaves from their areas, except serious miscreants. Selling such people into slavery was considered a more humane way of punishing them than outright executions.

There were also numerous incidents where the Portuguese (and their European cousins) deliberately incited war among the Africans in order to capture slaves. Sometimes the Europeans used force when the Africans resisted. The frequent military resistance had serious implications for the local African economies because channelling local labour into war, meant that manpower was diverted away from agriculture and other social engagements as procreation. That is one reason why Africa is still so sparsely populated.

In Benin, for instance, despite the circumstances in which the Oba (King) found himself, he managed first to cunningly restrict the export of male slaves from his kingdom, and later completely prohibited their exportation.

There is an even more famous example of where an African king's resistance to the slave trade was equally famously rebuffed by the Portuguese king, Joao III. In 1526, the Congolese king, Affonso I, who had converted to Christianity, changed his name and learned to read and write Portuguese, complained to Joao III whom he considered his "friend", about the severe depopulation of Congo by the Portuguese slavers.

"Each day," Affonso wrote to the Portuguese monarch, "the traders are kidnapping our people - children, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our family... The corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves."

You would think that a "civilised Christian" like Joao III, would be moved to halt the depopulation of Congo. But he didn't! He rather wrote back to his "friend", Affonso, in these words:

"You tell me that you want no slave-trading in your domains, because this trade is depopulating your country. The Portuguese there, on the contrary, tell me how vast the Congo is, and how it is so thickly populated that it seems as if no slave has ever left."

And they say the Europeans stayed on the coast, and the Africans sold their own people!

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