Saturday, June 11, 2005

04: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 4

It took time, of course, over a century, in fact, to absorb the information provided by Marco Polo, process it, and figure out the possible ramifications. When the book was first circulated, European seafaring skills were probably just a bit ahead of the science they would eventually need to sail the deep blue waters of the world. Handicapped thus, they were at the mercy of the Arabs from Gibraltar to the Levant, north into Turkey, and east across the sands of the ancient Babylonian civilizations into Persia. Any trade coming from the east would almost by necessity, pass through Arab hands, in order to reach Christian Europe. And the Christians had been warring on the Arabs in the Holy Lands since the very end of the 12th Century. The price of spice, silk, and incense, just went up.

The 15th Century saw the end of almost 800 years of Moorish occupation in Spain, and science finally began catching up to the needs of Western Civilization. Use of a compass for navigation -- its first recorded use in China in the 11th Century -- slowly made its way west along the Silk Road, through Arab lands, reaching the west in the early to mid 14th Century. Used in conjunction with the ancient device known as the Astrolabe, mariners could, with some precision, finally navigate on open and unknown waters. In the Mediterranean, even if one were out of sight of land, if one sailed a straight course in any direction one would eventually make a known landfall. In the Atlantic, it was well nigh the end of the 15th Century before astronomers actually made believers out of mariners, and the royalty of Europe, finally convincing them that the Earth was round, and not flat, and that one could not sail over the edge of it. Once that particular hurdle was overcome, and in spite of what the great guardian of knowledge, the Church, was insisting, the exploration of the Earth was on in earnest.

Portuguese shipbuilders began to construct a new type of sea-going vessel, the caravel, capable of carrying slightly larger cargos than the coastal traders then in use, but with the shallow drafts necessary for traveling up estuaries. It was in these ships that Columbus made his first voyage to the New World.

But exploration started with Infante Dom Henrique, Duke of Viseu. He was the son of King John I of Portugal, and Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of Britain’s John of Gaunt (Ghent). Prince Henry acceded to a leadership position in the Order of Christ, the organization that grew from the Portuguese branch of the crusaders known as the Knights Templar. In this wealthy position, Henry started a school for navigators and cartographers at Sagres on Cape St. Vincent at the very tip of southern Portugal. Henry was then put in charge of exploration for Portugal. As an incentive, when his brother, Duarte, ascended the throne on the death of their father, Henry was promised a 1/5 share of all profits from new discoveries and ensuing trade. Thus, European exploration and colonization was born.

The first voyages were short. Rediscovery and colonization of the Madeira Islands occurred in 1420. The Azores were next in 1427, and further colonization took place. Three years later the Cape Verde Islands were discovered, but in 1434, one of Henry’s captains, Gil Eanes, became the first European to sail down the west coast of Africa past Cape Bojador. This breakthrough was crucial, and Henry’s captains began to exploit it. Using the new caravel, the captains kept pushing south along the west coast of Africa: Capo Blanco in 1441, and in 1443 a fort was built at the Bay of Arguin, an outpost for staging later expeditions to the south. By 1444 they had pushed south of Cape Vert, and were below the Sahara.

Then began one of the most horrible events in human history. Once below the Sahara Desert, Henry’s captains began rounding up Africans as slaves, and taking their gold. The riches of the gold and slaves brought the minting of the first Cruzados (Crusade) coins and financed an enormous expansion in Henry’s fleet of ships. In the next few years, Henry had forty ships sailing in and out of Lagos. More importantly, this sudden burst of riches lit the fires of exploration and colonization in the other Royal houses of Europe.

Within several decades of Prince Henry the Navigator’s death in 1460, Bartolomeo Dias sailed his caravel around the Cape of Good Hope (1488), and ten years after that, Vasco DaGama sailed to India. Shortly after that, another Portuguese explorer, Pedro Alvares Cabral crossed the Atlantic and discovered Brazil (1500). One of the captains who sailed for Henry’s school for a while after Henry’s death, sailed a voyage of exploration and adventure in 1492, and discovered the “New World”. Christopher Columbus thought he had found China. What he found instead, was a whole new world of lush vegetation, towering mountains, naked savages, and a wealth that has yet to see its limit.

And to provide the muscle for the exploration of these new lands, slaves were gathered from the coast and interior of Africa.

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1 comment:

  1. First, I need to tell you I am of African Descent (Black)--I hate the term African-American.

    I agree that in our eyes what the Portuguese perbetuated upon the Africans was horrible; nothing is pretty about slavery. But it must be understood that the Europeans had the help of African peoples in initiating and continuing this chapter of human servitude. Africa then and through much of history was a different place than it is today. The borders that exist now where mostly drawn by Europeans. The peoples of Africa moved about continually to eke out livings in very volatile environment. Excess population was rare and when found was often used as slaves. The value system was different because people understood that the land could only support a limited number; any "aliens" or those who existed at the edge of given society were converted to slavery as a matter of practicality.

    Do keep in mind that the type of slavery was different in Africa--even the slaves understood the root of their plight. Slaves could be freed if circumstances changed. Europeans, who had a history of bellicose and cruel behavior dating back many centuries, used their inherent tendencies when they met other cultures and thus acted in the only ways they knew of.

    Of course, some knew the cruelty suffered on others, but were limited by distance to control much of it. Spaniards were equally cruel against Amerindians, but imported diseases killed too many to make them useful. Hence, the Africasn became more desireable; they had relatively more contact with Europeans and had accumulated necessary immunities.

    A good book to read about this is "Africa, A Biography" by John Reader.

    Good luck with your blog!

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