The Slave Trade

Portugal was initially attracted to Black Africa by its gold, previously exported to the Islamic countries. The Portuguese, however, soon discovered a second African product attractive to Europeans, namely slaves.

Though slavery in Africa differed from that known to Europeans, the tradition of exporting slaves to the Arab countries was an old one in large parts of the continent, particularly Sudan. This tradition seems to have facilitated somewhat the organization – during the 1400s and 1500s – of regular purchases of slaves by the Portuguese from a large part of West Africa, particularly Senegambia, a long-standing economic partner of the Maghrib. The Portuguese, who penetrated farther and farther inland in the south-eastern part of West Africa, successfully applied the trade methods used in Senegambia. Realizing success depended on the cooperation of local chiefs and traders, they worked to interest them in the slave trade. The Portuguese also realized that such trade would lead to increased fighting between peoples and states, because prisoners of war soon became the main subject of the trade. The Portuguese soon abandoned their moral objections to the slave trade, believing, as did many in Europe, that it enabled blacks to reach salvation whereas had they remained in their own countries, they would as non-Christians have been damned to eternal perdition.

Soon another argument for the slave trade was propounded – that blacks were descended from Ham , who had been cursed, and for that reason were condemned to permanent slavery. Such ideological motivations should not be underestimated. It should be added here that black slaves appeared in Europe at a time when trade in white slaves from the Black Sea zone was almost dead. From this time on slaves were identified as Negroes, other representatives of the black race being unknown.

Throughout the 1400s and early 1500s, the main market for African slaves was Europe, particularly Portugal and the Spanish countries and, to a certain extent, islands in the Atlantic such as Madeira, the Canaries, the Cape Verde Islands and subsequently St Thomas Island — although the number of slaves transported to these islands was limited by the small size of the islands themselves. The main incentive for the slave trade in Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands and, in particular, St Thomas Island was the introduction of the cultivation of sugar cane and cotton.

Slavery could not develop to any great extent on the European continent because there was no economic reason for it. The Africans who were brought into Portugal and the Spanish countries were mainly employed as domestic servants or semi-skilled artisans in the towns. There is no evidence that Africans played an important role in agriculture, the foundation of Europe’s economy.

M. Malowist (Poland): specialist in the economic and social history of the Late Middle Ages and early modern times; author of various publications and articles on the subject; former Professor of History, University of Warsaw; former member of Clare Hall, Cambridge and visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Deceased.

Source: General History of Africa Vol.V. [Editor: B.A.Ogot] Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Chapter 1. The struggle for international trade and its implications for Africa.

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