Sunday, June 12, 2005

05: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 5

The Portuguese captains trained and sent out by Prince Henry the Navigator, built forts on the Ivory (modern Cote D’Ivoire), Gold (Modern Ghana) and Slave (Modern Togo, Benin, and Part of Nigeria) Coasts of Africa. The first one below the Sahara built by the Portuguese captains was on the Gold Coast, and was called Sao Jorge da Mina (Saint George of the Mine), and was built at a location where gold had been mined previously.

Each time one of the captains stopped on the relentless exploration of the West Coast of Africa, a fort or depot was left behind, to be resupplied later by following ships. These were built to provide shelter, fresh water, and food, timber (for ship repair), and at more advanced locations, a chapel for worship. Many of these forts became the great cities of Western Africa, such as Abidjan, Accra, and Lagos – names that would go down in history as the ports from which so many African slaves departed their homeland for death or lifelong servitude, starting in 1441 with the first African slaves carried to Portugal.

The Portuguese did this because it was profitable, it supplied a cheap labor source, and because Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) issued a Papal Bull on January 8, 1455 that allowed the Portuguese “to subject to servitude, all infidel peoples”. A second Papal Bull in March “granted to Prince Henry, as Grand Master of the Order of Christ in Portugal, all lands (and peoples) discovered or conquered form Cape Bojador, in Africa, to and including the Indies.”

Thus made right by Papal Bulls, the slave trade was on, and not just by the Portuguese. Spanish ships had been following the Portuguese down the west coast of Africa, looking for the Portuguese slave ports. This is why the Portuguese built forts. The Spanish were successful enough to establish several ports from which they eventually drew an untold number of slaves for the New World. Clearing land on a new continent is very hard work. Slave labor was expendable, and a nearly inexhaustible supply was at hand across the Atlantic on the underbelly of West Africa, known in particular as the Bight of Benin in the Gulf of Guinea.

Slaves provided the labor for the Portuguese gold mines in West Africa, and for the Spanish silver mines in Peru. Slaves provided the household staff for the Royal Governors of conquered territories, called colonies. Slaves did the menial work in the new worlds being conquered first by the Portuguese, then by the Spanish, and later by the English, French, and the Dutch, thus allowing the white Christians to carry more skilled laborers, artisans, and of course, monks to “spread the word of Christ.” This exploitation of human beings would continue, greatly augmented by the United States once it came into existence, until it was finally and completely outlawed in the western hemisphere in 1888, the final holdout being Brazil. Nearly four and a half centuries of slavery had robbed Africa of tens of millions of people, many of whom never even lasted to see their next landfall, once aboard a transport ship.

On occasion, some would escape, and some escapees gathered together in remote areas of the New World and created small enclaves. Indeed, on more than one occasion, when he was stealing the Spanish treasure shipments piled along the coast of Panama, Sir Francis Drake was aided willingly by some of these escaped slaves, who would do anything to hurt their hated former Spanish masters.

But the art of slave trading was reduced to a science by the Americans. An estimated 20 million Africans were transported from Africa to the West Indies or to American ports. An estimated 9 million never finished that voyage, succumbing to disease, injury, starvation, shipwreck, or just being jettisoned over the side while chained together, so the ship would have enough food and water to finish the voyage. In this triangular trade, the ships would leave their European ports and travel to Africa, where they would pick up slaves, then proceed across the Atlantic where those slaves would be exchanged for cotton, tobacco, furs, or West Indies spices, and take those cargoes back to their original European ports. Each leg of the triangle would reap generous profits for the owners of the ships, and those who sailed them. The science was divided on one issue, however. Slaves packed so tightly in ships that they could not roll over often succumbed to disease in great numbers. The alternative, “loose packing”, carried fewer slaves, but lost less to disease. The so-called “Middle Passage”, named for the portion of the trade triangle where the slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas, quickly developed a following -- sharks that had learned that human meat might soon be readily, and plentifully available.

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