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.
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."
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
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
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.
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!"
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."
"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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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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