Portugal, the Slave Trade
and Afrocentrism
Portugal. When asked about the country, many if not most North Americans wouldn't know what to say. It wouldn't be surprising to find in the mouths of the few that know anything about Portugal, the words "slave-trade".
Portugal has been often single handedly blamed for the slave trade and for the misfortunes of the millions of unfortunate Africans that were taken away from their homelands. This is a rather simplistic and incorrect (and yet common) approach to a rather complex problem, which is why I chose to address it.
Why were the Portuguese so strongly involved in the explorations and in trade?
In the XV century, Portugal benefited greatly from its political situation and from its geographical location. In 1383, the last Portuguese king of the first dynasty died without a male heir, and worst of all, his only daughter was married with the king of Castille who was obviously eager to get his hands on his wife's home country. Most of the Portuguese nobility wasn't willing to fight for independence, but the bulk of the Portuguese people was. The people elected a half brother of the late king Ferdinand as their king, who would be later known as John "The Great". Abandoned by a substantial portion of his own noblemen, the new king resorted to the support of merchant class. In 1411, when the peace treaty was finally signed, the merchants saw their position strengthened, while the old aristocracy was weakened. John saw himself with a military aristocracy eager to prove its shaken loyalty to its king. Not only that, but John also had a huge idle army which had to be occupied at the risk of becoming rebellious. John was left with three options: either declare war on Castille, invade Sicily, or invade Morocco. The last option was chosen, and thus Ceuta was conquered in 1415. This date marks the beginning of the Portuguese Empire.
Ceuta was chosen due to its economical role in North Africa: the city was a major trade center. After conquering the city, the comparatively poor Portuguese aristocracy found itself emerged in all the wealth that were considered ordinary commodities in the Moorish lands. For starters, it was in Ceuta that the Portuguese became acquainted with spices and interested in the spice trade.
The first Black slaves
Shortly after the conquest of Ceuta, Portuguese explorers started exploring both the Atlantic ocean and the African coastline. In 1434, the Portuguese explorer Gil Eanes sails south of the Cape Bojador for the first time. Shortly after, the Portuguese explorers bring a few black Africans back to Portugal as evidence of their findings. The first few black Africans were actually very well taken cared of and in many cases they were baptised and educated. In 1441, the explorers Nuno Tristão and Antão Gonçalves bring to Portugal a Berber nobleman called Adahu that informs the Portuguese of Mali and of Guinea. Despite being extremely well treated, by 1443 this nobleman started missing his homeland. After promising to bring 10 Black slaves in exchange for himself and his two companions, Adahu is returned to his homelands. 1443 - and not 1441 - marks the entrance of the Portuguese into the slave trading business. Antão Gonçalves brought the first ship with a slave cargo to Portugal in that same year after docking in Lagos. Since the Pope had given Prince Henry 20% of all the commodities traded south of the Bojador, his one fifth of the first slave cargo was given to the Church. One of those became a Franciscan monk and is told to have led a holy life in the S. Vicente monastery.
According to the XVI century Portuguese historian Azurara, "these unfortunate ones [the slaves] started gaining large bellies [from being over fed] and eventually became sick [due to the seasoning]". These first batches of slaves were not poorly treated. As soon as they were baptised, they were treated decently. Many never adapted to the weather, and eventually died. As paradoxal as it might seem, to the medieval man, enslaving people (as long as it enabled their baptism) was seen as doing God's work. Religion always played a key role in the Portuguese explorations, and after this initial frenzy with the arrival of Black slaves, the interest for the slave trade remained small for several decades. Prince Henry was a lot more interested in maintaining good relations with the African natives, as his main interest was to reach India and disrupt the Muslim spice monopoly.
Adahu's experience is excellent to explain the role of the Portuguese in the slave trade. It would be extremely unfair to single handedly blame Portugal for the misfortunes of millions of enslaved black Africans. In all honesty, the Portuguese were middlemen. Although a few Portuguese led expeditions to capture villagers are recorded, the vast majority of the slaves brought to Europe and to the America's were captured by Black Africans themselves. Many Black African kings would be more than happy to trade their war booty for European processed goods. The Black slave trade is the responsibility of the Africans that sold their enemies and of the Muslims and Europeans that bought them. When I say Europeans, I say Portuguese, Spaniards, French, English, Dutch, Danes, and Germans.
Although often blamed by many for the slave trade, few people know that the most blamed country was actually the first country in the world to abolish slavery (2 of April of 1761).
Was Portugal ever 10% black?
This lie is quite common in both Afrocentrist and Nordicist circles. The reasoning behind this lie is the historic record that mentions that in 1550, 10% of the populations of Lisbon and Évora was made of Black slaves. Extreme Afrocentrists and Nordicists in particular, usually decide to assume that 10% of Lisbon means 10% of the whole country. It obviously doesn't, and it especially didn't in the XVI century.
First of all, the majority of the Portuguese population of the XVI century was living not in big cities, but in villages. XVI century Europe was still mostly rural, and it would remain rural until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (which incidentally never happened in Portugal). By 1550, Lisbon had less than 5% of the Portuguese population, and it was almost 5 times as large as the second city of the realm. This means that the majority of the Portuguese population in 1550 never even saw a Black African.
This doesn't mean that there wasn't any absorption of slave blood, there obviously was, namely in Southern Portugal. It should be mentioned that the Portuguese gene pool does not have male Negroid markers, which means that the notion that Portuguese women were fooling around with their slaves in the hay, existed only in the imagination of White supremacists. The Portuguese population does have female Negroid markers, but in small amounts. The ordinary Portuguese has about 3% Negroid DNA, and according to a recent genetic study, most of it is much older than the slave trade. There were however, a couple of pockets in Southern Portugal where the number of slaves was larger, and where therefore the proportion of Black DNA is probably higher. The ordinary Portuguese looks completely European, as I am sure everyone will agree after looking at this set of photo galleries.
I have to say that it is interesting to notice that both Nordicists and extreme Afrocentrists state that Portugal was at a time 10% Black. While the Nordicists blame this imaginary race-mixing frenzy for the downfall of the Portuguese empire, the Afrocentrists are trying to "get a piece of the action" of Portuguese History and achievements, without realising that they were actually helping their worst (and very real) adversaries.
Refuting Kemp
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