World History 2 44 - 3.4.2 The Arrival of Europeans

Europeans had long known that there were three ancient trade routes through the Saharan Desert. In the western Sahara, the route ran from Taghaza to Timbuktu. Farther east, a second route connected the oasis town of Ghadames with trade centers in Hausaland. Finally, there was a route connecting the major Mediterranean port city of Tripoli with Bornu in the Central African interior. Centuries of caravan trade along these routes had not, however, made them any less hazardous. Thus, those who knew the routes and the location of key cities and oases, and who appreciated the inherent risks of Saharan weather patterns, were in the best position to control and profit from trans-Saharan trade. It was therefore in the best interest of the Muslim and Arab travelers and caravanners who possessed this knowledge to monopolize it. To share it would undercut their profits. Consequently, European maps of the African interior remained sketchy; distances were mere estimates, and the locations of important cities such as Timbuktu and Kano were a matter of guesswork. Add to this the threat of raids and the possibility of a hostile merchant population, and to Europeans the undertaking of a trans-Saharan journey by themselves seemed likely to be disastrous.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, pressures mounted on European powers to boost their sources of national wealth—an urgency inflamed by the discovery of the Americas and the expense of traveling and setting up competing colonies there. Increasingly, European states desired to circumvent the intermediaries who controlled the trade in exotic luxury goods and vital raw materials, such as Chinese silk, Indonesian spices, and African gold. It was no easy matter to wrest control from these merchants, whose monopolies were often supported by kingdoms and states that benefited from it. The challenge was quite severe for poorer European states, such as Portugal.

When the Portuguese began their voyages along the West African coast, their immediate goal was not to discover a new trading route to India; rather, it was to secure West African gold. Europeans had been aware of the region’s goldfields since the fourteenth century, when Sudanic gold had been imported as a raw material to mint European coins. By the mid-fifteenth century, the Portuguese had made inroads along the Senegambian coast, raiding Amazigh settlements on the island of Arguin (an extension of the trans-Saharan trade routes), taking captives to be enslaved on Iberian plantations, and exploring along the Senegal and Gambia Rivers in search of sources of gold. These ventures mark some of the earliest attempts at direct European involvement in trans-Saharan trade.

The Portuguese monarchy also hired explorers such as Alvise Cadamosto, a Venetian slaver sent to scout the region of Senegambia. These efforts gave the Portuguese an opportunity to develop a clearer sense of the scope of trans-Saharan trade, including interactions with the Wolof, who sold enslaved people along the interior trade routes in West Africa. A few decades after Cadamosto had met the vassal kings of Mali in the Gambia region, the Portuguese established Elmina (“the mine”), a fort on the African coast south of the Akan goldfields. Located in present-day Ghana, Elmina was a fortified trading post from which the Portuguese traded copper, brass, and cloth with Africans for Akan gold. The mines at Akan also relied on enslaved workers, whom the Portuguese bought from Benin and then sold to Mande-speaking Dyula traders. By the turn of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese had also entered West Africa’s cowrie-shell currency market, providing shells along with luxury goods to the regional market in exchange for still more gold. Progressively, they diverted traffic away from the centuries-old trans-Saharan trade routes and along the West African coast.

The Portuguese first laid eyes on São Tomé and Príncipe, a pair of islands in the Gulf of Guinea, in the 1470s. By 1500, they had successfully settled both, which were prized for their strategic location off the West African coast and for their tropical climate and volcanic soil, ideal for planting and harvesting sugar. It was not long before large-scale sugar plantations sprang up on the islands and the Portuguese entrenched themselves in the Gulf of Guinea. The production of sugar is a notoriously labor-intensive process and requires a huge workforce. African chiefdoms and coastal intermediaries had demonstrated to the Portuguese their willingness to sell captives whom the Europeans could enslave as laborers where needed. Indeed, as the plantation economy on São Tomé expanded, its need for slave labor grew. By the early sixteenth century, the island was Europe’s single largest sugar supplier and home to a vast enslaved workforce, which the settlers obtained from Elmina.

Less than forty years elapsed between the Portuguese settlement of São Tomé and Príncipe and the first trans-Atlantic voyages of African captives who were sold into slavery in the Americas. Recognizing an opportunity to profit, chiefs on the African mainland engaged in raids against their neighbors to generate captives they could sell to the Europeans—first to the Portuguese and later to the Dutch, Spanish, French, and English. As competition rose among the European powers to establish trading posts along the West African coast, tensions flared among African polities as they either engaged in or resisted the growing trade in enslaved people.

Then, when Songhai, the largest and most powerful of the Sudanic kingdoms in the sixteenth century, was shattered by the Moroccan army at the Battle of Tondibi (1591), the situation in West Africa was permanently altered. Without a powerful central authority, a host of small states emerged whose chiefs saw the benefits of dealing directly with wealthy Europeans rather than through the centuries-old system of caravan trade. These developments resulted in a dramatic change in the size and scope of the trade in enslaved Africans, from a few thousand people in the sixteenth century to tens of thousands in the seventeenth, and for much of the next century, an average of about forty-five thousand people per year.

Link to Learning

Learn more about the trans-Atlantic slave trade as presented by National Museums Liverpool. Also learn about the role played by Europeans in the trade and life in West Africa before the trade.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax