Why Africans? A Perfect Storm of 159 Years

As a student of American history in college my ongoing questions were, ” Why Africans became the slave of choice in the Western Hemisphere. How and why was their enslavement so pervasive?” Responses ranged from physical: easier to identify; hardier than indigenous and European people; socio-political: their governments and institutions did not have the required international power and structure to protect their members; cultural: they were the pagan “other,” associated with darkness and evil. Over the years none of these explanations have fully satisfied me. Not until this project and the in depth research it requires do I have a satisfactory answer: The transatlantic slave trade was the perfect storm that took almost 160 years to develop. It would take 447 years to dismantle and officially abolish (1441-1888). At one point or another everyone involved was culpable – Europeans, Africans, Arabs, Catholics, Christians, Muslims, Jews and many others. The track for this gathering storm is provided below:

1441 – Pope granted permission to Portugal to conduct a slave trade on the west African coast. He also dispensed complete absolution to anyone who died in battle on the African coast, primarily Morocco and Mauritania. This followed Prince Henry, the Navigator’s, forays down the west coast of Africa.

1444 – The first African slaves were brought to Europe by the Portuguese directly from Mauritania (no trade routes, no intermediaries, no Muslim go-between). This was simply select and purchase.

1492 – Columbus “discovered” America on behalf of Spain.

1494 – The Treaty of Tordesillas, sponsored by the Pope for his wealthy and powerful Iberian patrons established the line of demarcation of the “New World” which also included Africa. Spain was granted the Caribbean, Central and South America; Portugal, with a later adjustment of the line, received by power of the “Holy See” Brazil and what seemed to be more valuable at the time of the treaty, the monopoly on the African slave trade.

1502 – Juan de Cordoba of Seville was granted by permission of Ferdinand and Isabella the right to send African slaves to the Caribbean. Only one or two at a time were shipped, and only from Europe, not directly from Africa.

1504 – Captured Africans were brought to the court of King James IV of Scotland.

1505 – First record of sugar cane being grown in Santo Domingo, Hispaniola

1509 – Diego Colon, the son of Christopher Columbus and governor of the Spanish empire in the New World complained that native Americans were poor laborers, euphemism for slaves.

1510 – King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella authorized systematic shipment of African slaves to Santo Domingo. Fifty were sent in the first transport.

1512 – Laws of Burgos were initiated to regulate relations between the Spanish and native Americans. They were revised repeatedly but initially were in response to Las Casas’ publication on the mistreatment of the indigenous people and his eventual recommendation that Africans be substituted as slaves for the colonies.

1511- 1513 – Casa dos Escravos (the official Portuguese government slave trade agency) in Lisbon sold more than 1,200 Africans in this two year period.

1513 – Ponce de Leon arrived at the Florida coast.

1516 – Sir Thomas More argued that his ideal society would have slaves but they would be local convicts or condemned criminals from other nations acquired in large numbers, sometimes for a small payment, but usually at no cost. The source of his slaves would not be prisoners of war, by birth or purchases from slave markets.

1518 – Charles V of Spain granted Flemish merchant Laurens de Guemenot permission to import 4,000 Africans to Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. This is a flash point since thousands were sent each year. Because of the expense related to sending these people from Europe, Guemenot eventually could not continue the trade and sold his license to the Italians in Genoa who traded with the Portuguese to maintain a steady supply of Africans.

1521 – Aztec empire was overthrown and Mexico came under Spanish rule.

1524 – Three hundred Africans were taken to Cuba to work in the gold mines.

1526 – Germans became involved in the slave trade.

1527 – Sugar production was recorded in Jamaica with mills worked exclusively by African slaves.

1528 – Estaban (Estevanico) a Morrocan became the first recorded African slave to set foot in North America. He explored Florida,Texas and New Mexico.

1529 – King Charles V, the Emperor of Austria and King of Spain, granted time specific licenses to his favorite merchants to transport Africans from Europe to the New World. In that year a license was given to a Dutchman.

1530 – Juan de la Barrera of Seville transported slaves directly from Africa to the New World. Before that time all had passed through Europe initially.

1532
(a) Martin Afonza de Souza established the first Portuguese colony at Sao Vicente, Brazil where sugar production began immediately.
(b) William Hawkins of Plymouth, England was first British mariner recorded to visit the west African coast.
(c) Pizaro conquered the Incas in Peru.

1538 – The Asiento de Negros was formally established as an African slave trade monopoly to be controlled by Spain.

1539 – De Soto with 1,200 men of whom approximately 50 were African slaves conducted a disastrous expedition into territory that eventually would become Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas.

1541 – Jacques Cartier established the first French colony (Canada) in the New World.

1555
(a) In response to Spanish pressure, Queen Mary of England forbade English involvement in Guinea.
(b) A small group of Africans were brought from present-day Ghana to London by merchant John Lok who wished to become involved in the African slave trade. He was “test marketing.”
(c) Norman and Breton sailors under the command of Nicholas de Villegagnon founded the first French colony in South America (close to Rio de Janeiro).

1556 – Considering their city to be over run by Africans, citizens of Genoa attempted to prevent trading in slaves.

1562 – John Hawkins of Plymouth, England was the first English sailor to trade in African slaves (300). He transported them illegally to the Spanish colonies. He is credited with initiating the English slave trade, and introducing the potato and tobacco to the British.

1569 – Tomas de Mercado published Practices and Contracts of Merchants which criticized how the slave trade was conducted.

1571 – The Parlement of Bordeaux, France set all “blacks and moors” in the town free, declaring slavery illegal.

1573
(a) The Spanish declared native American slavery forbidden by law.
(b) Bartolome Frias de Albornoz of Mexico published The Art of Contracts which challenged the legality of the slave trade.

1575 – Paulo Dias de Novaes established the Portuguese colony of Sao Paulo de Luanda in Angola which became a major slave trading port supplying the huge Brazillian market.

1579 – With the Union of Ultrecht the United Provinces of the Low Countries, now known as The Netherlands, joined to create a republic free of Spanish rule. It became a slave trading nation and colonial power.

1580 – Portugal and Spain became united under Philip II of Spain creating the Iberian Empire that was the most important colonial power and largest African slaver trader at the time.

1588 – The defeat of the Spanish armada by the British propelled England into maritime sovereignty and helped realize her potential as a colonizer in the New World.

1594 – L’Esperance of La Rochelle is the first French ship recorded as participating in the slave trade although on a small scale they may have been involved since the 1540s.

1595 – Philip II of Spain granted Pedro Gomes Reinal, a Portuguese merchant, near monopoly in the slave trade. This agreement was to transport 4,250 African slaves annually to Spanish America, with an additional 1,000 slaves provided by other merchants.

1596 – Queen Elizabth I sent a letter complaining, “there are of late divers blackmoors brought into this realm, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie… Her majesty’s pleasure therefore ys that those kinds of people should be sent forth of the lande.” A group of slaves were rounded up, in compliance with her wishes, and given to a trader.

1600 – King Phillip III of Spain outlawed the use of native Americans as slaves in any of the Spanish colonies.

With hardly a moral whimper, basically in the name of power and profit, the African slave trade like a tropical depression off the African coast picked up pressure and intensity as it traveled across the Atlantic, becoming a Category Four hurricane when it hit the Americas. It would take another two hundred and eight-four years to see its total abolition. All the above events occurred by 1600 – several years before Pensacola, St. Augustine, Jamestown or Plymouth were established. We continue to live in the storm’s aftermath.

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