Wednesday, February 03, 2010 2/3/10 - the crusaders and the altantic slave trade

In today's excerpt - Portugal's Prince Henry
the Navigator is now praised as the one whose
vision and sailing innovations made possible
the great Atlantic explorers that rounded the
Cape of Good Hope and discovered America -
and the one who made his efforts because his
status as a noble required him to "carry out
very great deeds." The truth is less
inspiring - he and his successors sent forth
sailors down the coast of Africa to bring a
trading fortune to the king, thus launching
the very first of what became the
Atlantic/West African slave trade. Worse,
this enormously profitable slave trade was
justified as an essential part of new Great
Crusade against the Moors, 'the infidel' and
the 'sect of Mahomet' (Muhammad). And the
heartbreaking misery of slaves was justified
because their souls were to be saved as they
were converted to Christianity:

"Prince Henry wanted to make a name for
himself as a Crusader doing
battle with the Moors, and by sending his men
against the Africans of the
Sarahan coast, and by describing his battles
with them to the rest of Europe
as a succession of triumphant conquests
against the Moors, he could do just
that. [A 1441 voyage he commissioned]
represents a landmark event in history: the
moment when the official Portuguese slave
trade in Africa can be said to have begun.

"Later that year, after the first small cargo
of African slaves had arrived in
Portugal (ten of them, probably Berbers),
Henry recognized that his sailors had opened
the door to something big. ...

"As Portuguese sailors began bringing slaves
back to Europe, Henry realized that he stood
to make great profits by eliminating the Arab
and Genoese middlemen who had for so long
dominated the North African slave
trade with Europe. [His hagiographer] Azurara
claimed that Henry also had a loftier goal in
mind as he began to oversee the capture and
enslavement of more and more
Africans: 'salvation for the lost souls of
the heathen.' Henry was doing his
captives a favor. 'For though their bodies
were now brought into some subjection,'
Azurara explained, 'that was a small matter
in comparison of their
souls, which would now possess true freedom
for evermore.' " ...

"Skeptics in Portugal who had previously
complained about the
great expense of Henry's African ventures
developed a sudden change of
heart when they noticed 'the houses of others
full to overflowing of male
and female slaves'; overcome with envy,
Azurara wrote, they had to 'turn
their blame into public praise.' ...

"The easy pickings along the Saharan coast
[soon] disappeared. Africans living along the
Saharan coast knew to flee inland at the
sight of Portuguese ships. Slavers and profit
seekers sponsored by Henry therefore had
to press farther and farther south in search
of unsuspecting victims, and the
result was inevitable. In 1444, a Portuguese
squire named Diniz Diaz put out to sea and,
according to Azurara, 'he never lowered sail
till he had passed
the land of the Moors [now Morocco] and
arrived in the land of the blacks [the
modern-day countries of west Africa].'

"But it wasn't just merchants and sailors who
had noticed Portugal's
African discoveries. For decades the
Portuguese had worked hard - and successfully
- to convince the Church that
their raiding trips along the West African
coast were part of an organized
Crusading campaign against the Moors. Prince
Henry was instrumental
in this effort, and indeed nobody in
Portugal had better credentials for the
job. From 1419 until the end of his life, in
1460, he led Portugal's branch of
the Order of Christ (a successor organization
to the Templars), and in that
capacity he wrote to the Church in Rome
repeatedly with reports of his
valiant efforts to wrest West Africa away
from the infidel.

"The news from Portugal pleased the Church.
During the first half of
the fifteenth century, a succession of popes
issued a series of official decrees,
or bulls, giving religious sanction to the
Portuguese conquest of all African
territories not already in Christian hands."

Toby Lester, The Fourth Part of the
World, Free Press, Copyright 2009 by Toby
Lester, pp. 184-196.


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