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9-08-2015, 16:51

Europeans in Africa: slavers and sugar growers

At fi rst, the impact of European voyages along the west coast of Africa was not much stronger than in Asia. Tropical diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and sleeping sickness killed Europeans quickly, so that Portuguese traders often stayed only a short while, as close to the coast as possible. They set up permanent fortifi ed trading posts, but relied on existing trading networks to buy and sell goods. The kings of Portugal made treaties with the rulers of West African states such as Benin, Oyo, and Kongo, supplying them with wool and silk cloth, tools, and weapons, in return for gold, cotton cloth, ivory, and slaves. A few missionaries ventured further inland, fi rst searching for the Christian kingdom of Prester John, and when they never found it, working to convert the people they did meet. They had the greatest success in the kingdom of the Kongo, a powerful state including parts of what is now the Republic of Congo, Zaire, and Angola. Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries gradually learned Kikongo, so that they could hear confessions and preach in the local vernacular; the fi rst book printed in a Bantu language was a bilingual catechism in Portuguese and Kikongo, written in 1556 and printed in 1624. Kongo was ruled by the manikongo , or king, who had both religious and political power and appointed governors for its six provinces. Converts to Christianity included the manikongo Nzinga Nkuwu ( ruled to 1506), who took the Christian name João I, the same name as the king of Portugal. The next manikongo , Nzinga Mbemba, whose Christian name was Afonso I ( ruled 1506–43), was raised as a Christian, and worked to convert his subjects to Christianity. Many of the ideas of Christianity – a heavenly realm, priests with special powers, an initiation ritual involving water and signifying rebirth, angels and demons – were similar to religious ideas already present in West Africa, which meant it was not diffi cult for people to accept Christian teachings. The rulers and Kongolese church leaders revised Christian ideas and practices according to their own values, just as Europeans had done when Christianity fi rst spread north from the Mediterranean. Christianity became an important part of Kongolese culture, with so many churches in Mbanza, the capital of Kongo, that people called it “Kongo of the Bell.” At the same time as Christianity was spreading in the Kongo, another import was beginning to have disastrous effects – sugar. Sugar cane is native to the South Pacifi c, and was taken to India in ancient times, where farmers learned to turn cane juice into granules that could be stored and shipped easily. It then went to China and the Mediterranean, where islands such as Crete, Sicily, and Cyprus had the right kind of warm, wet climate for growing sugar. The Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa also had this kind of climate, and shortly after they were discovered by Europeans, sugar growing and processing began here. Producing sugar takes both expensive refi ning machinery and many workers to chop and transport heavy cane, burn fi elds, and tend vats of cooking cane juice. This means that it is diffi cult for small growers to produce sugar economically, and what developed instead were large plantations, owned by distant merchants or investors. The earliest sugar plantations in Europe and Africa were worked by both free and slave workers from many ethnic groups, but by the 1480s the workers in many sugar plantations, especially those on the Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa, were all black African slaves. Columbus saw the possibilities of sugar fi rst-hand when he lived on the island of Madeira, and he took sugar cane cuttings to the Caribbean on his second voyage. The fi rst sugar mill in the western hemisphere was built in 1515 in what is now the Dominican Republic. Brazil also had the right kind of climate, and by the middle of the sixteenth century investors from all over Europe were setting up sugar plantations there. By 1600 Brazil was Europe’s largest source of sugar, and sugar had become a normal part of many people’s diets. Per capita consumption in England was several pounds per person per year, still tiny compared with modern sugar consumption (the United States has the world’s largest per capita sugar consumption, at about 150 pounds a year), but much more than it had been in the Middle Ages, when sugar was such a luxury that people thought of it more as a drug than as a food. Sugar may not be physically addictive, but the human demand for sugar seems insatiable, as long as the price is low enough. Slavery and shipping kept the price of sugar low. Sugar growers in the Caribbean and Brazil fi rst tried to force native peoples to do the back-breaking labor that sugar demands. In the Caribbean, Spanish settlers ( encomenderos ) were given rights to compel native labor in the encomienda system, but the native peoples either died or ran away. Few Europeans were willing to wield machetes and haul cane in the hot sun for any amount of wages. The solution was the same one that had worked on the Atlantic islands – import enslaved Africans and set up huge plantations, where large numbers of workers supplied the sugar cane to keep complicated refi ning equipment running all the time. Slave- traders from West African coastal areas went further and further inland to capture, buy, or trade for more and more slaves. Some rulers tried to limit the slave trade in their areas, but others profi ted from it, and raiders paid little attention to regulations anyway. They encouraged warfare to provide captives, or just grabbed people from their houses and fi elds. The slave trade grew steadily, and fi rst thousands and then tens of thousands of people a year, the majority of them men and boys, were taken from Africa to work on sugar plantations. For 350 years after Columbus’s voyage, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic. Slaves were marched from the interior of Africa to the coast, where they waited in locked pens to be loaded on to ships. On board, they were crowded into the fi lthy, stinking space below the decks, sometimes with not enough room to sit up. Food and water were limited for everyone on the ship, and even more so for slaves, who also suffered beatings and brutal treatment at the hands of the crew. On early slave trips as many as half the slaves died on the trip across the Atlantic – later called the “middle passage” – though in time mortality declined as ship-owners realized they could make better profi ts if they kept the slaves alive. At every stage, slaves resisted their capture by refusing to work, sabotaging equipment, running away, or rebelling. In most islands of the Caribbean and on the South American mainland, communities of escaped slaves, known as “maroons,” came together in forested or swampy areas, free from the control of plantation owners or government offi cials. Slavery was a part of many societies around the world in 1500, but the plantation slavery of the New World was different from most other slavery in two ways. One of these was the fact that almost all the slaves were black, and almost all the owners and managers were white, so that plantation slavery had a racial element that slavery in other parts of the world did not. Both European Christians and Arabic Muslims saw black Africans as inferior, barbaric, and primitive, attitudes that allowed them to buy and sell African slaves without any concern. By linking whiteness with freedom and blackness with slavery, the plantation system strengthened these racist ideas; slaves became the ultimate Other, only barely human. In fact, plantation owners came to think of their slaves more as machines than human beings; like machines, slaves would wear out and need replacing. Brazilian owners fi gured that most slaves would live about seven years, and they calculated the costs of buying new slaves into the price they hoped to get for their sugar. Some Christian missionaries objected to this treatment, especially for slaves who had converted to Christianity, but offi cially the Catholic and later Protestant churches accepted slavery. Sometimes church leaders even praised slavery, saying that though it might make people’s lives on this earth worse, it gave them the opportunity of getting into heaven by becoming Christian, so in the long run they were better off. The second new thing about plantation slavery was how much it depended on the international trading networks created as a result of European voyages. Plantations were centered on the monocultural production of one commodity, fi rst mostly sugar, and later other crops such as coffee, indigo, and cotton, which meant that everything else needed on the plantation had to be imported. Ships that brought slaves to the Caribbean and Brazil – and later, in smaller numbers, to North America and the rest of South America – took raw sugar and molasses to Europe. Raw sugar was refi ned into white sugar in the Netherlands, and used to make sweet wine in Portugal and its Atlantic islands. One kind of sweet wine is still called Madeira, the name of the island where Columbus and his family had lived, and the site of the earliest European sugar plantations. Sugar and wine were shipped to England and other parts of Europe in exchange for cloth, manufactured goods, and machines. Ships took fl our and lumber from North America to tropical plantations, and on the way back carried molasses, which was processed into rum. Rum and wine were on every European ship crossing any ocean, for they could be sold at a profi t almost anywhere and were part of the crews’ daily rations. West Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean formed three points in what is often called the “triangle trade” of the Atlantic, which will be discussed in greater detail in chapters 12 and 13; any leg of this triangle offered opportunities for wealth. Slavery is often perceived as a very backward system, in contrast to modern industrial factories, but in many ways plantations were factories, mass-producing one specifi c thing to be sold as widely as possible. The slave trade by itself did not bring spectacular profi ts, but the plantation system was an essential part of a business

SOURCE 19 Afonso I of Kongo writes to John III of Portugal

In the 1520s, the Christian king of Kongo, Afonso I, wrote a series of letters to King John III of Portugal asking him to limit the importation of European goods and stop the enslavement of his people, and commenting on other matters. These are the fi rst extant sources that discuss the effects of European actions from an African perspective. João did answer Afonso, but did nothing about the slave trade. Sir, Your Highness should know how our Kingdom is being lost in so many ways that it is convenient to provide for the necessary remedy, since this is caused by the excessive freedom given by your agents and offi cials to the men and merchants who are allowed to come to this kingdom to set up shops with goods and many things which have been prohibited by us, and which they spread through our Kingdoms and Domains in such an abundance that many of our vassals, whom we had in obedience, do not comply because they have the things in greater abundance than we ourselves; and it was with these things that we had them content and subjected under our vassalage and jurisdiction, so it is doing a great harm not only to the service of God, but the security and peace of our Kingdoms and State as well. And we cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the mentioned merchants are taking every day our natives, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives, because the thieves and men of bad conscience grab them wishing to have the things and wares of this Kingdom which they are ambitious of; they grab them, and get them to be sold. And so great, Sir, is the corruption and licentiousness that our country is being completely depopulated, and your Highness should not agree with this nor accept it as in your service. And to avoid it we need from those your Kingdoms no more than some priests and a few people to teach in schools, and no other goods except wine and fl our for the holy sacrament. That is why we beg of Your Highness to help and assist us in this matter, commanding your factors that they should not send here either merchants or wares, because it is our will that in these Kingdoms there should not be any trade of slaves nor outlet for them [emphasis in original] … Many of our people, keenly desirous as they are of the wares and things of your Kingdoms, which are brought here by your people, and in order to satisfy their voracious appetite, seize many of our people, freed and exempt men, and very often it happens that they kidnap even noblemen and the sons of noblemen, and our relatives, and take them to be sold to the white men who are in our Kingdoms; and for this purpose they have concealed them; and others are brought during the night so that they might not be recognized. And as soon as they are taken by the white men they are immediately ironed and branded with fi re, and when they are carried to be embarked, if they are caught by our guards’ men the whites allege that they have bought them but they cannot say from whom, so that it is our duty to do justice and to restore to the freemen their freedmen, but it cannot be done if your subjects feel offended, as they claim to be. (Translated in Basil Davidson, ed., The African Past [Boston: Curtis Brown, 1964], pp. 67–8. Reprinted by permission.) network that provided steadily increasing wealth for European merchants and investors. During the sixteenth century, European governments expanded their navies to help control pirates and built more and better seaports, making trade a bit more secure. By a century after Columbus, captains, investors, and government offi cials knew they were still taking risks with ocean voyages, but the possibilities of profi t usually outweighed those risks. The slave trade had dramatic effects on West Africa, encouraging warfare and destroying families and kinship groups. In fact, one in fi ve African-Americans may descend from people who were originally from the kingdom of Kongo. Eventually the slave trade weakened the authority of the manikongo , and Kongo broke apart into smaller states; this took more than a century, however, for the Kongo was actually at its largest and most powerful during the reign of Garcia II (ruled 1641–61).

 

 

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