European Role In The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade In the late 15th century, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to extensively explore the African Coast. Yet, as long ago as 600 BC, a group of Phoenician sailors commissioned by Egyptian King Necho II is said to have sailed around Africa (starting through the Red Sea and returning through the Straits of Gibraltar). Archaeological record even shows Greek sailors exploring the coasts of Africa as far back as 200 BC. Even though the Europeans were neither the first nor the only ones to come to this vast continent, they most profoundly interacted with and influenced the cultures and lives of the Africans with whom they came in contact.
Before the late 15th century, Europeans were neither economically nor politically able to set up and maintain a long distance trading relationship. The feudal states of the European countries were just beginning to unite at the time, and the heads of these states had neither the funds nor the inclination to trade with distant peoples. They received all the goods they needed from trade in the Black and Mediterranean Seas. In addition, changing political patterns in the Middle East forced the Europeans to seek a different route to the Orient.
WHY THE PORTUGUESE WERE FIRST TO GO TO AFRICA
The Portuguese were the first to establish a lasting commercial tie between Europe and Western Africa because of religious, political and commercial reasons. Some scholars believe the Portuguese wanted to be the middlemen in the trade between Asia and Europe. The Arabs who had this lucrative position took advantage of it by charging high tariffs on goods coming from Asia and Africa. As middlemen, the Portuguese expected to gain the political power in Europe they had been denied since they were so small. Other scholars feel the Portuguese were looking for grain and gold which could be found in African cities. As they continued to discover the West African Coast though, the Portuguese hoped to reach India by sailing around Africa. Hoping to secure some of the Trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, and slaves monopolized by their enemies the Moors, they organized trade to the west Coast of Africa
SLAVERY COMES NATURALLY TO PORTUGUESE
By the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese and Spanish had expelled the Moors from their countries. The fall of Grenada in 1492 forever ended Muslim rule in Iberia. Exhilarated by their achievement, the Iberians were then prepared to chase the Moors from Northern Africa as well. Due to this rivalry between the Europeans and the Moors, the Portuguese were accustomed to black slave labor. Each group enslaved prisoners of war. In 1500, there were thousands of Moorish slaves in Portugal; so the Portuguese slave trade with the West Africans was a continuation of earlier contact. The additional slave labor also helped to alleviate the hard pressed labor market.
Slavery in Portugal in the early 15th century was mostly domestic, and slaves could buy their own freedom. The Mediterranean world was far more linguistically and religiously diverse than northern Europe and had known slavery throughout the course of human history. Slaves were considered human in the Mediterranean area. North America slave owners would develop theories of black slaves as half animals and not truly human beings in order to justify their brutality. Blacks were considered the lowest wrung of society.
INITIAL PORTUGUESE EXPLORATION OF WEST AFRICA
Prince Henry the Navigator initiated the search of the West African coast. Due to his efforts, by 1460 the Portuguese had explored the coast of Africa all the way to Sierra Leon. By 1498, Vasco de Gama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Trade with the coastal West African middlemen included cowry shells and hardware (cooking pots and brass pans and iron rods) in exchange for the gold, slaves, ivory, pepper, gum Arabic, and ostrich feathers. The Portuguese purpose was not to colonize, but to establish a secure trading relationship. They traded on African terms. Since there was some resistance to European infiltration, and the coastline was unsuitable to large boats, the Portuguese often based themselves on Islands off the coast of the continent and at coastal ports. They set up factories--commercial trading posts-- guarded by forts , spread their religion and grew sugar. Portuguese captains often married local women and had mixed race children who completely upset the societal hierarchy. These mixed race children often thought of themselves as superior to their African counterparts served as middlemen in the trade. The initial load of black slaves arrived in Portugal in 1441.
EFFECT OF PORTUGUESE PRESENCE IN AFRICA
Even though they had a very diminished role in the trade on the coast of west Africa by the end of the 17th century, the Portuguese did leave a small mark on the coastal peoples with whom they came in contact. European trade with the coastal Africans attracted many Africans from the interior and diverted the flow of trade across the Sahara to the Atlantic Coast of West Africa. This shift contributed to the fall of the Sudanese states. The Portuguese also left their names of places all along the coast--Cape Verde, Cape Palmas, Sierra Leone, El Mina. They introduced many new world crops into West Africa and expanded trading opportunities. They also left their slave castles which often changed hands in the battles between the European states for control of the slave trade. Portugal's inability and general unwillingness to control more of the African regions than they did was a testament to the powerful kingdoms in the Africa and the self-centered nature of European explorers. Profit and discovery drove the Portuguese to explore. Navigational and ship building advances helped them to achieve their goals. However, the complex societal structures of the African societies helped them to trade as equals with their European traders.
By the end of the 17th century, the Dutch had succeeded the Portuguese in the domination of the West African Trade. The Dutch were serious and determined to control the African trade. They armed their boats and captured Portuguese forts along the coast. The drive which had led to the development of a complex canal and lock system to control flooding in their country as early as the 15th century, led them to dominate the Portuguese trade. By the 17th century the Dutch had a forty boat fleet which traded on the West African Coast year round. This fleet belonged to the Dutch West India Trading Company. This company, a national venture, was well-organized and well-funded, unlike the ventures of the other European countries. At this point in time, the trading expeditions of the other countries were controlled by individuals who had no success in making inroads into the Portuguese dominated trade. The Dutch also succeeded in replacing the Portuguese because they had no interest in colonizing or converting the people to Christianity. The Dutch dominated the trade from 1600-1700.
The 16th century was a period of marked growth in Europe which allowed the Europeans to discover the African Coast on their own and to expand their trading network. The engraving, pottery, textile-making, shipbuilding and metal trades flourished in many European countries, but the Dutch were especially skilled and advanced in their technological discoveries. They relied on their fishing and trade, but their drainage engineering for increased reliance on agriculture was a technological advancement symbolic of Dutch technological advancement.
ENGLISH AND FRENCH SUCCESSION TO DUTCH POSITION IN AFRICA
In spite of their dominance in the West African trade in the 17th century, the Dutch were not invincible. The French and English, adopting Dutch tactics, encroached on the Dutch monopoly of the region. They, too, created companies for the organization of trade to Africa and built new forts. But, most devastating to the Dutch was the passage of the Navigation Acts which forbade the importation of slaves into English and French colonies. Part of the Dutch success as traders was that they role as middlemen for other European counties. Denied this role, the Dutch suffered great loses of power in the slave trade.
Throughout the first half of 18th century, France and England battled for control of the Guinea Coast. In Lower Guinea, the British`s main adversary was the Dutch. But when the Dutch Company was liquidated, the British soon gained control of the entire Ivory, Grain, and Gold Coasts. France, Britainís main adversary in Upper Guinea, soon lost interest because of lack of profits. The sparsely populated Upper Guinea coast did not provide enough slaves. In addition, interior ethnic groups were very hostile to European influence. By the mid-18th century, Britain had full control of West African trade. In addition, the British won the Assiento, the sole license to ship black slaves from Africa to Spanish controlled territories in America, in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. British dominance in the slave trade began a new period of change in the European/African relationship. The English would begin to explore, conquer and rule African peoples. The Age of Trade shifted into the Age of Colonization.