(EUROPEANS to ASIA and AFRICA in the 1500s – continued)
To protect its trade, Portugal in the early 1500s built forts along Africa's coast. From their base on the island of São Tomé, the Portuguese set up a trading post at Gwato, enjoying successful diplomacy and trading for pepper and slaves with a small kingdom there called Benin. The Portuguese also brought with them to Gwato some missionaries, who baptized a small segment of the Benin population and taught a few people how to read and write.
The Portuguese also established a presence farther south, at São Salvador, in what was called the Kongo. The people in this area, the Bakongo, knew how to work metal, including iron, but their economy mostly involved the palm tree. From the fruit of the palm they made bread, and from the pulp of the fruit they derived oil for cooking and their skin. From the palm tree they also made wine and acquired fibers for mats, baskets, fishing snares, clothes, and the roofs of their homes.
Portugal and Jesuit missionaries developed friendly relations with the Bakongo people, especially their kings. The king of the Bakongo from 1506 to 1540 was Mbemba-a-Nzinga, also known as Afonso I. When a youth he had ten years of clerical instruction and had become a devout Christian. He had acquired an admiration for Christian values and European culture, and like European Christians he believed that slavery was a normal part of world affairs. Slave traders from São Tomé had followed the missionaries into Kongo, searching for slaves for Portuguese sugar plantations on São Tomé. King Afonso participated in the slave trade for the sake of revenue, but he was angered by the rapacity of the Portuguese slavers and their taking profits that he believed should be his.
Portuguese slave traders were devious in creating a greater supply of slaves. They convinced communities to rebel against Afonso's rule and then they used the rebellion as an excuse to make war against them, which created prisoners of war as a supply of slaves. And by the 1520s, slave trading had left Afonso's kingdom in turmoil, his authority undercut and some areas depopulated.
In 1522, the Portuguese took over the administration of Afonso's kingdom, while Afonso remained nominal king of the Bakongo. About 200 Portuguese were residing in São Salvador, and mixed Portuguese and Bakongo were increasing in number, some of them to fill government positions.
Afonso sent friendly letters to the king of Portugal, Manoel, complaining of the immorality and of the depredations created by Portuguese slave traders from São Tomé – letters that were confiscated in São Tomé. Afonso pleaded for more teachers, doctors and priests. He was a zealous Catholic and destroyed paganism where he could. He supplied his subjects with images of saints and crucifixes, and he built churches. His son was a bishop and was sneered at by Portuguese missionaries. Afonso's requests that reached Portugal were ignored. Manoel was more interested in developing his colony in Brazil.
Some among the Portuguese disliked the polygamy of the Bakongo, and they viewed the Bakongo as shameless regarding sins of the senses. They saw the Bakongo as uninhibited and lustful, the result, some of them thought, of the Bakongo eating food that was too spicy. And disapproval of the Bakongo extended to their fellow Portuguese – some of them clergy – who were taking black mistresses.
Critics of the Bakongo missed the self-imposed harsh controls on sexuality of the Bakongo. Boys and girls were kept apart from infancy, and both were instructed in self-control. In later adolescence they danced, and their dancing was symbolic of procreation. Their dancing shocked the missionaries, one of whom wrote that one did not describe "such things on paper."
Bakongo law concerning sexual misconduct was harsh. Adultery was considered a transgression against taboos and a tearing of the fabric of society. Those judged guilty of sexual promiscuity could be sold into slavery or wrapped in dried palm leaves and burned alive. There were incidents of adolescent boys and girls hiding together and experimenting, but defloration of a girl was considered harm done to the girl's family, and that family was allowed restitution or revenge of some sort. And the Bakongo considered homosexuality a transgression and punished it.
The attitude of Portuguese toward Bakongo morality gave them a rationale for making slaves of blacks in general. They believed that blacks were better off as slaves under the control of morally superior Europeans than left to run free – similar to Aristotle's claim concerning Greeks and their slaves.
In 1518, English traders began sailing south along the Atlantic coast of Africa, seeking gold, ivory, camwood, pepper and wax, and in the 1530s French, Flemish and Dutch traders followed the English. In mid-century, English trading companies sent several expeditions to Africa's Atlantic coast. The leader of one such expedition was John Hawkins, who tried stealing slaves rather than trading for them, but this proved too much trouble. He acquired slaves from trade, as planned, and in the Americas he sailed into Spanish ports and applied an aggressive sales technique: he threatened to burn the town down if it refused to buy his slaves.
The French arrived along Africa's Atlantic coast not long after the English, hoping to trade textiles, alcoholic drink and metal goods for pepper, hides, palm oil, gold and ivory – the French less interested in selling slaves in the Americas. The French may also have brought guns for trade, in conflict with Portugal's desire to keep guns out of the hands of Africans. The French were not as interested as the Portuguese in controlling the Africans. They were at war with the Portuguese. They looted Portuguese ships and drove the Portuguese from their position at the mouth of the Senegal River.
Copyright © 2001-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.