they held their heads low, faces bathed in tears -- 4/20/15

Today's selection -- from The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith. For centuries before the encroachment of Europeans, the slave trade was a huge business in Africa. Tribes in the central Sahara, lacking in gold, salt and other precious commodities, made the slave trade their principal source of wealth, trading over four million slaves from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries CE, sometimes in caravans of over 10,000 camels. In 1444, Europeans entered the business, beginning a lucrative practice that eventually sent millions of slaves to Europe and the Americas:

"Under [Prince] Henry's direction, Portugal pioneered major advances in shipbuilding and navigation. The Portuguese fleet was equipped with newly designed caravels, which were highly manoeuvrable and ideally suited for reconnaissance along unknown coasts.

"Year after year, Henry sent expeditions southwards along the African coast. His aim by now was not only to outflank the trans-Saharan routes and gain direct access to the goldfields but to search beyond for the land of Prester John, said to be cut off from the rest of Christendom by the Muslim powers that controlled north Africa.

"The exploration of the west African coast was swift and dramatic. In 1434, a Portuguese crew sailed around Cape Bojador and returned safely against the wind. ... [By] 1445, Portuguese mariners reached the mouth of the Senegal River which traditionally marked the boundary between the Berber and Arab tribes of the Sahara and 'the Land of the Blacks'. They called the local inhabitants there 'Guineus' after the Moroccan Berber word for 'blacks'.

"The volume of trade that the Portuguese managed to pick up was initially meagre. In their dealings with Arab and Sanhaja merchants, they bartered textiles, clothing and wheat in exchange for luxury items such as antelope skins, ostrich eggs, civet musk, gum Arabic and small quantities of gold dust. They loaded up large quantities of seal skins and seal oil. And they also dabbled in the slave trade, acquiring some slaves through barter and others in clashes and raids on the local population.

"The trade in slaves soon turned out to be the most profitable part of their business. In 1444, a Portuguese official, Lancarote de Freitas, backed by a consortium of merchant-adventurers from the Algarve port of Lagos, mounted an expedition of six caravels to islands on the Arguin Bank with the express purpose of capturing slaves. In a ruthless attack, armed mariners seized some 235 men, women and children, most of them from poor Idzagen fishing families, killing those who resisted. The captives were crammed on board the caravels and kept bound in filth and stench for six weeks on the return voyage to Lagos.

"The Slave Trade" by Auguste François Biard, 1840

"Their arrival onshore on 8 August 1444 became a public spectacle, watched by crowds of Lagos residents. Prince Henry himself was on hand to supervise the proceedings, mounted on a horse. The captives were marched to an open space outside one of the town gates and divided into five groups. One group of forty-six of the best slaves was set aside for Henry for his share of the booty. The remainder were either retained by their new owners or put up for auction. The event was described by a court chronicler, Gomes Eanes de Zurara, in the Chronicle if Guinea:

These people, assembled together on that open place, were an astonishing sight to behold ... Some held their heads low, their faces bathed in tears as they looked at each other; some groaned very piteously, looking towards the heavens fixedly and crying out aloud, as if they were calling on the father of the universe to help them; others struck their faces with their hands and threw themselves full length on the ground; yet others lamented in the form of a chant, according to the custom of their native land, and though the words of the language in which they sang could not be understood by our people, the chant revealed clearly enough the degree of their grief. To increase their anguish still more, those who had charge of the division then arrived and began to separate them one from another so that they formed five equal lots. This made it necessary to separate sons from their fathers and wives from their husbands and brother from brother. No account was taken of friendship or relationship, but each one ending up where chance placed him ...

"Dividing them up proved difficult:

For as soon as the children who had been assigned to one group saw the parents in another they jumped up and ran towards them; mothers clasped their other children in their arms and lay face down on the ground, accepting wounds with contempt for the suffering of their flesh rather than let their children be torn from them ...

"According to Zurara, a total of 927 'infidels' were shipped to Portugal from west Africa between 1441 and 1447. Henry justified the trade by claiming that its only purpose was to make Christians of infidels and pagans; any 'inconvenience' suffered by a converted slave in this life, he argued, was insignificant compared to the benefits of eternal salvation that conversion to Christianity brought."


Martin Meredith


The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor


PublicAffairs a Member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2014 by Martin Meredith


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