European Exploration and African Slavery before Columbus


We turn our attention to Europe, Asia and Africa, which Europeans would consider “the Old World” once they’d discovered “the New World” of the American continents. (However, you might want to remember that in Columbus's time Europeans knew almost nothing about Africa or Asia.)

Let us begin by very quickly reviewing European history:

When the western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, Western Europe entered a period justifiably called “the Dark Ages” (though scholars no longer use that term): population declined, literacy nearly disappeared, no one could achieve control or bring peace to any large area. But from the tenth century or so (thanks in part to the Vikings, who "discovered" America long before Columbus), European civilization began to revive. From that point on, this period should certainly not be called “the Dark Ages.” Through the Crusades, Europeans learned more about the world, acquiring new technology and a desire for foreign goods such as spices, and soon trade was flourishing. New centers of wealth and political power appeared in cities such as Venice, Madrid, Antwerp, London and Paris. By the fourteenth century, some Italian intellectuals were confident enough to declare that they were bringing about the rebirth (“Renaissance”) of classical civilization.

In reality, Europeans were about to achieve heights of wealth and knowledge surpassing even the Roman Empire, and the wealth Europeans were able to extract from the Americas would be one of the main reasons.

That exploration began during the fifteenth century when Portugal launched multiple attacks against the Muslims of North Africa. They also explored the Atlantic coast of Africa looking for the source of the gold that crossed the Sahara Desert on its way to the Mediterranean world. For this exploration, the Portuguese invented a new kind of ship, the caravel, notable for its small size.

The Portuguese eventually found “the Gold Coast” of Africa, and soon they also got involved in the African slave trade and developed sugar plantations on some small Atlantic islands near Africa. Africans traded slaves among themselves on a relatively small scale before the Portuguese arrived. At first the Portuguese just participated in that trade. Then they used some of the slaves on their plantations. Later, the trans-Atlantic slave trade would be on such a large scale that it would even transform West Africa.

Plantations played a very important part in American history. A plantation is a farm producing a product (such as sugar, tobacco, or cotton) for export to a distant market. From the fifteenth century until the revolutions of the 1800s and the American Civil War, slaves did most of the work on the plantations, while the owners of the plantations often grew enormously wealthy.

This kind of farm was first developed by the Portuguese on Atlantic islands near Africa, such as the Canary Islands, the Azores, Madeira, Cabo Verde, and São Tomé. The Canary Islands had been inhabited by a people known as the Guanche, who had somehow reached there around 2000 BCE with wheat, sheep, and so on. They were enslaved by the Portuguese to grow sugar for export to Europe, and their culture disappeared by assimilation. That will become a familiar pattern in the Americas.

Those first sugar plantations had an enormous impact on world history: a century later the Portuguese and then other European nations replicated them on a much larger scale on islands in the Caribbean and in Brazil. Europeans transported African slaves to the New World primarily to grow sugar.

As the Portuguese participated in the African slave trade and then began enslaving Africans on their own plantations, the idea of “race” was just beginning to take shape in Western European cultures. This is an important point: in the Middle Ages and earlier periods, the idea of race wasn’t very important to Europeans—nor, for that matter, was the idea of nationality. These are such important ideas the modern world that it’s often hard for us to imagine how our ancestors saw the world. But during the Middle Ages Western Europeans cared more about religion as an identity—the didn’t divide the world up into white and black people or into Europeans and Africans but into Christians, Jews, and pagans. By the time of the Portuguese exploration of Africa, they’d added “Muslims” as a category, though they conceived of Islam by analogy to Christianity and so they called Muslims “Mohammedans.” Of course they were not unaware of regional differences in appearance, but religion was more important to them. (They didn’t know much about Asia yet, but when they found out about Asian cultures they regarded most Asians as “pagans.” Later they added categories like Buddhism and Hinduism to their worldview, and now paganism is no longer a category used by most people. Similarly, when Europeans first encountered Native Americans, they categorized them as pagans.)

Meanwhile, the Portuguese were not content simply to grow sugar on a few islands, trade slaves, and get gold. Having got that far, they began hoping to find a route around Africa to India, because trade goods from India and the Indian Ocean—especially various spices—had enormous value in European markets. The Portuguese explorers initially had no idea how large Africa is, and it took them several decades to find its southern end, but in the late fifteenth century Bartolomeu Dias finally succeeded at getting around the “Cape of Good Hope” into the Indian Ocean. They didn’t actually reach India yet, but they knew they way lay open to them. However, a certain Italian sailor believed he could get to Asia faster along a different route….

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Jonathan's Guide to US History: AP Track
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