2/3/10 - the crusaders and the altantic slave trade

In today's excerpt - Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator, is now praised as the one whose vision and sailing innovations made possible the great Atlantic explorers that rounded the Cape of Good Hope and discovered America—and the one who made his efforts because his status as a noble required him to 'carry out very great deeds'. The truth is less inspiring—he and his successors sent forth sailors down the coast of Africa to bring a trading fortune to the king, thus launching the very first of what became the Atlantic/West African slave trade. Worse, this enormously profitable slave trade was justified as an essential part of new Great Crusade against the Moors 'the infidel' and the 'sect of Mahomet' (Muhammad). And the heartbreaking misery of slaves was justified because their souls were to be saved as they were converted to Christianity:

"Prince Henry wanted to make a name for himself as a Crusader doing battle with the Moors, and by sending his men against the Africans of the Sarahan coast, and by describing his battles with them to the rest of Europe as a succession of triumphant conquests against the Moors, he could do just that. [A 1441 voyage he commissioned] represents a landmark event in history: the moment when the official Portuguese slave trade in Africa can be said to have begun. ...

"Later that year, after the first small cargo of African slaves had arrived in Portugal (ten of them, probably Berbers), Henry recognized that his sailors had opened the door to something big. ... As Portuguese sailors began bringing slaves back to Europe, Henry realized that he stood to make great profits by eliminating the Arab and Genoese middlemen who had for so long dominated the North African slave trade with Europe. [His hagiographer] Azurara claimed that Henry also had a loftier goal in mind as he began to oversee the capture and enslavement of more and more Africans: 'salvation for the lost souls of the heathen.' Henry was doing his captives a favor. 'For though their bodies were now brought into some subjection,' Azurara explained, 'that was a small matter in comparison of their souls, which would now possess true freedom for evermore.' ...

"Skeptics in Portugal who had previously complained about the great expense of Henry's African ventures developed a sudden change of heart when they noticed 'the houses of others full to overflowing of male and female slaves'; overcome with envy, Azurara wrote, they had to 'turn their blame into public praise.' ...

"The easy pickings along the Saharan coast [soon] disappeared. Africans living along the Saharan coast knew to flee inland at the sight of Portuguese ships. Slavers and profit seekers sponsored by Henry therefore had to press farther and farther south in search of unsuspecting victims, and the result was inevitable. In 1444, a Portuguese squire named Diniz Diaz put out to sea, and according to Azurara, 'he never lowered sail till he had passed the land of the Moors [now Morocco] and arrived in the land of the blacks [the modern-day countries of west Africa].'

"But it wasn't just merchants and sailors who had noticed Portugal's African discoveries. For decades the Portuguese had worked hard—and successfully—to convince the Church that their raiding trips along the West African coast were part of an organized Crusading campaign against the Moors. Prince Henry was instrumental in this effort, and indeed nobody in Portugal had better credentials for the job. From 1419 until the end of his life, in 1460, he led Portugal's branch of the Order of Christ (a successor organization to the Templars), and in that capacity he wrote to the Church in Rome repeatedly with reports of his valiant efforts to wrest West Africa away from the infidel.

"The news from Portugal pleased the Church. During the first half of the fifteenth century, a succession of popes issued a series of official decrees, or bulls, giving religious sanction to the Portuguese conquest of all African territories not already in Christian hands."


Toby Lester


The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name


Free Press a division of Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2009 by Toby Lester


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