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portugal slaves trade guinea

Portugal is noted as the first modern European country to have large numbers of black slaves. As one of the major sea powers of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, Portugal also shipped and sold large numbers of African slaves to other parts of the world. Not surprisingly, the issue of slavery has shaped racial tensions between Portugal and Africa. It dominated Portuguese colonialist practices and prompted Africans to hold hostile attitudes toward the Portuguese. Other offensive colonialist practices also complicated race relations between blacks and whites in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Cape Verde.


Southern Europe had a tradition of slavery that dated to ancient times. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Portugal enslaved captured Muslims as Christians engaged in the Reconquista (the recapturing of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims). Beginning in the 1440s, voyages sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator and his successors brought black slaves from Africa to Portugal. The 1455 papal bull Romanus Pontifex issued by Pope Nicholas V justified these activities by authorizing the Portuguese monarch to subdue all “enemies of Christ” wherever they were and to keep them in perpetual slavery. The Portuguese African trade evolved from raids along the African coast that began in 1441 to more peaceful exchanges with African chieftains and merchants by the 1450s.

The trade in African slaves soon extended from Mauritania to the area along the upper Guinea coast. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the trade extended to the Congo and Angola. Most of the slaves gathered from the African mainland were transported back to Portugal and then sent to Spain or South America. Slaves were also imported from Guinea and sent to Cape Verde. The island of São Tiago (Santiago) in the Cape Verde archipelago became a distribution center for slaves on their way to the Americas. São Tomé later assumed this role. In the upper Guinea area, Portuguese traders, entrepreneurs, and degredados (exiles) penetrated into the interior. Called lançados (outcasts), they often settled in African villages. The lançados served as intermediaries in the slave trade and frequently left Euro-African descendants who acted in the same capacities.

The Portuguese slave trade is divided into four periods. In the Guinea wave of the sixteenth century most of the slaves came from both upper Guinea (Senegal River to Cape Palmas) and lower Guinea (Volta River to Cape Catarina). In the seventeenth century, the Portuguese pulled slaves from equatorial and central Africa, particularly Angola and the Congo, as well as Guinea. By the eighteenth century, the Portuguese slave trade expanded to the Gold Coast (Ghana) and the Bight of Benin. In the nineteenth century, Portuguese slaves came predominantly from Angola and Mozambique.

In the eighteenth century, the slave trade came under attack from within Portugal. The Marquis of Pombal pushed through legislation that eliminated the slave trade. On September 19, 1761, legislation halted the transportation of slaves from Africa to Portugal. On January 16, 1773, legislation passed to emancipate black slaves living in Portugal. Existing slaves, however, remained in bondage for the remainder of their lives. Slavery continued in Portugal, although slave traders were often prosecuted.

In the nineteenth century, changing European opinion gradually eliminated Portugal’s involvement in the international slave trade. In 1854 all slaves that were the property of the Portuguese government were freed. Two years later, all slaves owned by Portuguese town councils, religious organizations, and churches were freed as were all children born of slave mothers. Finally, the Portuguese government, headed by the Marquis of Sá da Bandeira, enacted a law on February 25, 1869, to abolish slavery in Portugal and all of its colonies.

The end of the slave trade removed the most obvious purpose for Portugal’s presence in Africa. These colonies lacked effective Portuguese administration for other purposes. In Guinea, the Portuguese had comparatively little presence. In Angola, Portuguese control existed little beyond the ports of Luanda and Lobito. In Mozambique, apart from the virtually autonomous prazos (agricultural estates) that were developed starting in the seventeenth century along the basin of the Zambezi River, Lisbon’s authority could be found only on Mozambique Island, at a few points on the Indian Ocean coastline, and in isolated riverine strongholds.

These Portuguese administrative and commercial outposts were chiefly supervised by a heterogeneous Creole population. In Cape Verde as well as São Tomé and Príncipe, the majority of the population was Creole. In Mozambique, the Creole elite engaged in trade with India and eventually succeeded in taking control of the Zambezi prazos . The concept of a Portuguese empire in Africa in the late nineteenth century was problematic because of this dominant Creole presence. Portuguese merchants and adventurers continued to view the remnants of Portugal’s South American empire as their natural source of operations and accordingly devoted their energies and resources to Brazil.


Meanwhile, Portugal had lost most of its territory in Asia, but the decline of Portugal’s East Asian empire increased interest in its African colonies. The increasing push by other European countries to engage in African imperialism also pulled the Portuguese to Africa. During this phase, Portugal focused on expanding its outposts in Africa into nation-sized territories to compete with other European powers on the continent. It had mixed success. Portugal lost its claim to the Congo in the 1880s to Belgium, largely as a result of diplomatic maneuvering. Yet it won arbitration in the 1870s when the French president ruled for Portugal against British complaints over its control of Delagoa Bay in Mozambique. The bay formed a major outlet for the rapidly developing Transvaal and constituted a very useful piece on the political chessboard upon which the partition of Africa was played out. Portugal lost an attempt in 1890 to establish a single colony across the breadth of Africa by connecting Mozambique and Angola when Britain politically blocked the effort. The Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1891 formalized Portugal’s imperial borders in Africa with a fairly relaxed definition of “effective occupation.” The treaty, however, also required Portugal to exercise systematic control of its African colonies and to expand the Portuguese presence in Africa.

The African colonies played a critical role in the Portuguese economy. They provided a protected market, supplying raw materials at prices cheaper than the world market rates and buying Portuguese products that had a low world demand. Foreign exchange earnings from exports and services also reduced the chronic deficit on Portugal’s balance of trade. To safeguard the advantages brought by the colonies, the Portuguese had to protect the white population in Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) Africa against possible African competition by the policy of economic segregation. Numbers of impoverished whites had emigrated to the colonies. The immigration relieved population pressure in Portugal, one of the most crowded and poorest countries in Europe. Of equal importance to Portugal, the white settlers provided a bulwark against rebellious Africans and covetous Europeans in neighboring African countries. Accordingly, whites were congregated in the cities or other places of critical economic importance. They pressured Portugal to defend their interests with edicts that favored whites over Africans and Creoles.

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