The Story of the Land of Your Sojourn, Part VIII:Portuguese Voyages and the Beginning of the Atlantic World
By the late 1400s, Western Europeans had everything they needed to start building a new world centered on the Atlantic Ocean – a world in which Western Europe would begin its multi-century climb from being a cultural and political backwater region to dominating the globe.
Contact with China had given them paper, gun powder, and the inspiration for block printing (leading to the invention of the printing press in Germany in the 1450s). Contact with the Arab world (largely via the Crusades) had given them new sailing technology, awareness of a new cash crop (sugar), and renewed access to many ancient Greek and Roman writers, whose writings had been preserved by neighboring Islamic empires. Meanwhile, new techniques developed inside Europe meant that iron and steel could be produced in vast quantities of good quality.
In short, Western Europeans now had the ability to map and navigate the globe in new ways (people knew the world was round), they had new ships capable of sailing longer distances and in more dangerous waters, and they were starting to acquire the military superiority needed to build and maintain trans-Atlantic empires.
It was the Portuguese who would be the first to set sail into the Atlantic to help create this new “Atlantic World” –although, that world was still oriented toward the eastern part of the ocean at this point. Yet, even before a permanent connection between “Old” and “New” worlds was established through the voyages of Columbus, we can identify through early Portuguese exploration three themes that will come to dominate the Atlantic World: trade, slavery, and conquest.
As I mentioned last entry, initial forays into the Atlantic Ocean were designed to reestablish direct trade routes with Asia. In 1488, a Portuguese sailor named Bartolemeu Dias managed to sail around the southern tip of Africa. Dias’ accomplishment meant that a sea route with Asia was no longer wishful thinking. Another Portuguese sailor Vasco de Gama built upon Dias’ accomplishment, reaching India a decade later. The Portuguese eventually established a series of colonies and fortresses along the Indian coast, facilitating greater trade with Asia.
But the Portuguese were also interested in establishing trade ties with West Africa. They hoped to reorient the wealthy West African gold trade away from eastern land routes and towards the western coast. Portugal also hoped to tap into the existing West African slave trade, especially once the Ottoman trade blockade (see previous entry) made it harder for Western Europeans to important Slavic peoples for forced labor.
Although Portugal did establish Angola in West Africa, we are not yet at the point in history where Europeans are powerful enough to carve up the continent. For the most part, Portugal had to be content (for now) with building trading posts along the west coast and negotiating trade with local rulers.
To meet European demands for slaves, Western African kingdoms reoriented an existing slave trade that had sent prisoners of war, criminals, and debtors eastward to Islamic trading partners. However, European demands for slaves rather quickly outpaced the volume of slaves normally available, causing destabilization of the African West coast and the interior in important ways. The first Portuguese slaves arrived in Portugal in 1441. Demands for African slaves in Europe itself was never particularly high, but, again, they became more popular as the Ottoman trade blockade cuts off access to eastern Slavic peoples. By the 1490s, probably no more than about 2,000 African slaves were entering European markets each year. It was the labor demands of the New World that would cause the trade to explode, as we will see later.
The Atlantic Slave Trade tapped into preexisting notions of slavery and warfare in Africa. Slaves were the only major form of private, revenue-producing property widely recognized in much of West Africa (land was not privately owned). However, slavery as practiced in West Africa was not inherited, nor could it be passed on to children. Slaves caught up in this new developing European system of slavery that historians sometimes call “New World Slavery” (because of the importance of New World labor demands to its development) experienced slavery in ways different from what their own cultures practiced. Over time, New World Slavery would evolve to become perpetual, inheritable, and based on race. We will see a similar story play out in portions of North America later; some Native American cultures also had systems of slavery before contact—though these, too, differed in important ways from New World Slavery.
To support its growing trade empire, Portugal also engaged in conquests that marked the beginning of the first phase of Western European expansion. As I mentioned earlier, Portugal established multiple colonies in India, some of which it maintained until the latter half of the twentieth century. Portugal also began to conquer several islands off the coast of West Africa, though the conquest of some islands would be completed by other European powers. Some islands, like the Canary Islands, provide easy slave raiding opportunities, as well as jumping off points for trade with the West African coast. Because of the limitations of existing sailing technology, it was actually easier (and safer!) for ships from the Iberian peninsula to head out into the Atlantic a ways before veering back toward the African coast. Other islands, like the Madeira Islands, housed large Portuguese sugar plantations—precursors off the vast sugar plantations that would later develop in Brazil.
As the end of the fifteenth century drew to a close, Portuguese domination seemed assured. They had reestablished trade with Asia. They had reoriented the flow of West African trade goods. Plus, they served as the middle men for the still small, yet growing Atlantic Slave Trade. To top it all off, papal decree granted them exclusive rights to colonization and trade with Africa in exchange for promises to spread Christianity there.
But their Spanish neighbors on the Iberian Peninsula began to look for ways overcome the Portuguese stranglehold on trade. Spain would get its chance when Christopher Columbus visited the royal court. It is to that story that we will turn next.