Portugal and the African Slave Trade



  • 1441: Start of European slave trading in Africa. The Portuguese captains Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão capture 12 Africans in Cabo Branco (modern Mauritania) and take them to Portugal as slaves.
  • 1444: Lançarote de Freitas, a tax-collector from the Portuguese town of Lagos, forms a company to trade with Africa.  He lands 235 kidnapped and enslaved Africans in Lagos, the first large group of African slaves brought to Europe.
  • 1452: Start of the ‘sugar-slave complex’. Sugar is first planted in the Portuguese island of Madeira and, for the first time, African slaves are put to work on the sugar plantations. Slavery as an institutional becomes more official when Pope Nicholas V issues Dum Diversas, authorizing the Portuguese to reduce any non-Christians to the status of slaves.
  • 1454: Pope Nicholas V issues Romanus Pontifex, a bull granting the Portuguese a perpetual monopoly in trade with Africa. Nevertheless, Spanish traders begin to bring slaves from Africa to Spain.
  • 1461: The first of the Portuguese trading forts, the castle at Arguin (modern Mauritania), is completed.
  • 1462: The Portuguese colony on the Cape Verde Islands is founded, an important way-station in the slave trade. And in Seville, Spain, the government allows Portuguese slave traders to begin operations
  • 1481: A Portuguese embassy to the court of King Edward IV of England concludes with the English government agreeing not to enter the slave trade, against the wishes of many English traders.
  • 1481-86: Diogo da Azambuja builds the castle at Elmina (modern Ghana) which was to become the most substantial and the most notorious of the slave-trading forts in West Africa.
  • 1483: Diogo Cão discovers the Congo river. The region is later a major source of slaves.
  • 1485: Diogo Cão makes contact with the nation of Kongo and visits its capital, Mbanza Kongo. He establishes relations between Portugal and Kongo.
  • 1486: João Afonso Aveiro makes contact with Benin and Portuguese settle the West African island of São Tomé. This uninhabited island off of West Africa becomes a major sugar operation populated by African slaves.
  • 1487-88: Bartolomeo Dias rounds the Cape of Good Hope and explores the Indian Ocean and the East African coast.
  • 1502: Juan de Córdoba of Seville becomes the first merchant to send an African slave to the New World. Córdoba, like other merchants, is permitted by the Spanish to send only one slave. Others send two or three.
  • 1505: In Santo Domingo (modern Dominican Republic), the first record of sugar cane appears.
  • 1509: Columbus’s son, Diego Cólon, becomes governor of the new Spanish empire in the Carribean. He soon complains that Native American slaves do not work hard enough.
  • 1510: the systematic transportation of African slaves to the New World begins when King Ferdinand of Spain authorises a shipment of 50 African slaves to be sent to Santo Domingo.
  • 1513: Juan Ponce de Leon becomes the first European to reach the coast of what is now the United States of America (modern Florida).
  • 1518: Charles V grants his Flemish courtier Lorenzo de Gorrevod permission to import 4000 African slaves into New Spain. Slave trade is formally escalated and thousands of slaves will be sent into the New World

By the mid 1500s, Spain, Holland and England become highly involved in the slave trade, taking over where the Portuguese end, but Portugal played a critical role in opening up the African Slave trade and its ports and methods would result in severe poverty, war and tears on the African continent and tragedy in the New World.

Pope Nicholas V issues Romanus Pontifex  – An excerpt From the Bull Roma the document that endorsed Portugal’s early domination of the slave trade

Image of Pope Nicholas V

This Pope wrote the Bull granting African slave trade rights to Portugal

“And so it came to pass that when a number of ships of this kind had explored and taken possession of very many harbors, islands, and seas, they at length came to the province of Guinea, and having taken possession of some islands and harbors and the sea adjacent to that province, sailing farther they came to the mouth of a certain great river commonly supposed to be the Nile, and war was waged for some years against the peoples of those parts in the name of the said King Alfonso and of the infante, and in it very many islands in that neighborhood were subdued and peacefully possessed, as they are still possessed together with the adjacent sea. Thence also many Guineamen and other negroes, taken by force, and some by barter of unprohibited articles, or by other lawful contract of purchase, have been sent to the said kingdoms. A large number of these have been converted to the Catholic faith, and it is hoped, by the help of divine mercy, that if such progress be continued with them, either those peoples will be converted to the faith or at least the souls of many of them will be gained for Christ… But since, as we are informed, although the king and infante aforesaid (who with so many and so great dangers, labors, and expenses, and also with loss of so many natives of their said kingdoms, very many of whom have perished in those expeditions, depending only upon the aid of those natives, have caused those provinces to be explored and have acquired and possessed such harbors, islands, and seas, as aforesaid, as the true lords of them), fearing lest strangers induced by covetousness should sail to those parts, and desiring to usurp to themselves the perfection, fruit, and praise of this work, or at least to hinder it, should therefore, either for the sake of gain or through malice, carry or transmit iron, arms, wood used for construction, and other things and goods prohibited to be carried to infidels or should teach those infidels the art of navigation, whereby they would become more powerful and obstinate enemies to the king and infante, and the prosecution of this enterprise would either be hindered, or would perhaps entirely fail, not without great offense to God and great reproach to all Christianity, to prevent this and to conserve their right and possession, [the said king and infante] under certain most severe penalties then expressed.” from the Romanus Pontifex Bull

Introduction –

Spices were valued items in Europe because they preserved food, added flavor, and they made medicines and perfumes. Moluccas were a chief source of spices. Most spices were found in the Spice Islands, or present-day Indonesia.

Prince Henry the Navigator led the way in sponsoring exploration for Portugal, a small nation next to Spain. He discovered and claimed Madeira and Azores, islands to the west and southwest of Portugal. In 1415, Portugal expanded into Muslim North Africa, it seized port of Ceuta on the North African coast. Henry saw great promise in Africa. The Portuguese wanted to and did convert Africans to Christianity from their practiced Islam or tribal religions. There was possible promise in Africa because Africa could have sources of riches the Muslim traders controlled. An easy way to reach Asia was to go around Africa. Prince Henry gathered scientists, cartographers, and other experts to design ships, prepare maps, and train captains and crews for long voyages. Sadly, in 1460, Henry the Navigator died. Eighteen years later, in 1488, Bartholomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa, known as the Cape of Good Hope. It opened the way for a sea route to Asia.

Vasco da Gama, in 1497, followed in Dias footsteps, he took four ships around the Cape of Good Hope. He had big plans to go further. It was a ten-month trip for him to reach the great spice port of Calicut on west coast of India. Da Gama lost half of his ships and a lot of sailors died of hunger, thirst, and scurvy. These many trips confirmed Portugal’s world power status.

Ferdinand Magellan was a minor Portuguese nobleman. In September of 1519, he left Spain with 5 ships to find a way to reach the Pacific Ocean. He reached the coast of South America and he explored each bay in hopes to find a path that goes through to the Pacific. In November 1520, he entered a bay at the southern tip of South America and found a passage later to be known as the Strait of Magellan. Magellan renamed the sea to Pacific, a Latin word for peaceful. Magellan didn’t want to go back the way that his crew came because he wanted to explore more. It took much longer than they were thinking it would take. It took four months to get back to Europe. In March 1521, the crew reached the Philippines where Magellan was killed. September of 1522 the survivors reached Spain. His crew was the first to circumnavigate, or go around, the world. A sailor by the name of Antonio Pigafetta said, “I believe of a certainty that no one will ever again make such a voyage.”

The Portuguese were accustomed to having black slaves as a result of the Moorish influence and a perpetual labor shortage in the country. But slaves in general had been common in the Mediterranean and were considered human. Slaves could buy their freedom and were often released when estates were settled.


Prince Henry the Navigator Prince Henry established a school for the study of navigation, mapmaking, and shipbuilding. This would allow sailors to better guide their ships and to come up with new ship designs. He helped devise the caravel, a lighter ship that would enable sea captains to sail further and faster. During the two-year period from 1444 to 1446, Prince Henry intensified the exploration of Africa, sending between 30 and 40 of his ships on missions. The last voyage sponsored by Prince Henry sailed over 1,500 miles down the African coast. It took fourteen voyages over a period of 12 years until a ship finally reached the equator.

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. The Portuguese established successful trade routes and traded on African terms. Aware of the resistance to European infiltration, and a coastline unsuitable to large boats, the Portuguese often based themselves on nearby coastal Islands and at coastal ports.

The Portuguese established 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 and served as middlemen in the slave trade. The initial load of black slaves arrived in Portugal in 1441.


The Portuguese trading with 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 that 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 mid 1500s, Spain, Holland and England become highly involved in the slave trade, taking over where the Portuguese end, but Portugal played a critical role in opening up the African Slave trade and its ports and methods would result in severe poverty, war and tears on the African continent and tragedy in the New World.

The Triangular Trade was the three-legged international trade network. It went back and forth through the Atlantic Ocean. It linked: Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The first leg was where the merchant ships brought goods from Europe to Africa, such as guns, cloth, and cash. In Africa, the merchants traded those goods for slaves. The second leg was when slaves were transported to the Americas from Africa. When in America, the enslaved Africans were exchanged for sugar, molasses, and other products manufactured at plantations. The third leg was where the merchants carried goods from the Americas to Europe where they were traded at a prophet for the merchants going to Africa. The European merchants gave out sugar, molasses, cotton, furs, salt fish, rum, and less important products. The triangular trade was very profitable and made the merchants working very wealthy. It also made the industries supporting the trade wealthy. All of this led to successful port cities such as Nantes, France, Bristol, England, Salem, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

The Middle Passage was the second leg of the triangular trade route. For the slaves, it was a horrible passage. Most of the Africans were taken from their inland villages and forced to march to coastal ports, they were bound with ropes and chains, sometimes to one another. They were forced to walk very long distances to the ports and maybe forced to carry heavy loads. Many died during the journey, some even tried to escape, but failed and were punished. The survivors were restrained in pens and warehouses in ports until ships arrived. The ports that kept the slaves restrained were Elmina, Ghana, Goree, and Senegal.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: