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Roots of the Atlantic Slave Trade
The Roots of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Key locations in Spain and Portugal

In the autumn of 2003, the Lifeline Expedition took place in Spain and Portugal. Those nations, the closest to Africa, were the first to capture and enslave Africans to work in the Iberian peninsula and later to work in the Americas. Through the research prior to the expedition and all that we learned during the expedition itself, we gained some fresh insights into the origins of the Atlantic slave trade, which have implications for the relationship between Europe and Africa today. In this report, I will describe the significance of four key locations, not in the order in which we visited them, but rather in the order of historical sequence in relation to the slave trade.


Lagos was an important port in the fifteenth century, not far from Sagres, where Prince Henry the Navigator led the Portuguese maritime enterprise. In 1444, he encouraged the first major European slaving voyage, sending six ships under the captaincy of the revenue officer of Lagos, Lançarote de Freitas. Prince Henry furnished each ship with a banner of the Order of Christ.  The whole journey is well described in The Chronicles of Guinea by Azurara. Here is an excerpt describing the capture of the Africans in what is now Mauritania -

" We saw the Moors with their women and children coming out of their huts as fast as they could, when they caught sight of their enemy. Our men, crying out St James, St George and Portugal, fell upon them killing and taking all they could. There you might have seen mothers catch up with their children, husbands, their wives, each one trying to flee as best he could. Some plunged into the sea, others thought to hide themselves in the corners of their hovels, others hid their children underneath the shrubs that grew about there, where our men found them. "

The Portuguese attacked several other villages, and returned with no less than 235 captives. They were taken to Lagos in Portugal, and on the 8th August 1444, the captives were disembarked and marched to a meadow on the outskirts of town. And there was held Europe's first slave market. Azurara was there, and was moved by the terrible treatment of the Mauritanians:

"What heart, even the hardest, would not be moved by the sentiment of pity on seeing such a flock; for some held their heads bowed down, and their faces were bathed with tears; others were groaning grievously, lifting their eyes to heaven, fixing them upon the heights, and raising an outcry as though imploring the Father of Nature to succour them; others beat upon their faces with their hands and cast themselves at length upon the ground; others raised their lamentations in the manner of a chant, according to the custom of their country; and although the words uttered in their language could not be understood by us, it was plain that they were consonant with the degree of grief.

   Then, as though the more to increase their suffering, came those who were commanded to make the division; and they began to part them one from another in order to form companies, in such manner that each should be of equal value; and for this it was necessary to separate children from their parents, and women from their husbands, and brothers from brothers. There was no law in respect of kinship or affectation; each had perforce to go whither fate drove him.......consider how they cling one to another, in such wise that they can hardly be parted! Who, without much travail, could have made such a division? So soon as they had been led to their place the sons, seeing themselves removed from their parents, ran hastily towards them; the mothers clasped their children in their arms, and holding them, cast themselves upon the ground, covering them with their bodies, without heeding the blows which they were given..."

Prince Henry was present at the slave-market and received his fifth share, which he gave to the Church - in this way he believed the Africans could be saved from perdition. After this voyage, the Order of Christ began to grow steadily richer as the African trade prospered.

When we walked in the yokes and chains in Lagos with the Lifeline Expedition, we started by the port and overlooking it is a statue of a monk (St Gonzales of Lagos) lifting high the cross above the port. It was very clear in so many ways that a strong religious motivation lay behind the endeavours of Henry the Navigator and many of his fellow countrymen. The Lagos Trading Company, which also sponsored this voyage, was dedicated "for the service of God and the infant Henry."

Lagos is obviously a very significant place to confess the sins of Europe towards Africa. We used the Chronicles of Guinea at different points as we walked into the city. It is significant that this powerful description of what happened on this first slaving voyage was written by someone who knew it was a great evil and had a heart of compassion. From the beginning, Europeans rationalized slave trading in a variety of ways, but here there is a recognition that it has no justification.

There is an old slave market, which is now an art gallery at the place where the slaves were sold. Here we confessed and prayed together - representatives from Portugal, Angola, Brazil, Martinique, France, USA and UK. It felt as if we were breaking fresh ground in dealing with this event. However we sense that more needs to be done here, perhaps with at least one representative from Mauritania. Could it be significant that this is a nation where slavery still persists today?


On January 8th 1455, a papal bull entitled Romanus Pontifex and issued by Pope Nicholas V, was read in both Latin and Portuguese in Lisbon Cathedral. This was a document of enormous importance because it entirely vindicated what had started in Lagos and Mauritania in 1444. It permitted Prince Henry -

 to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.

Here was the greatest authority figure in Christendom strongly encouraging slavery. A major justification for this was the possibility of conversion.
Many Guineamen and other negroes, taken by force, and some by barter of unprohibited articles, or by other lawful contract of purchase, have been sent to the said kingdoms. A large number of these have been converted to the Catholic faith, and it is hoped, by the help of divine mercy, that if such progress be continued with them, either those peoples will be converted to the faith or at least the souls of many of them will be gained for Christ.
Here is a justification for slavery at its roots, which continued to be used until recent times.

Lisbon was certainly involved in the Atlantic slave trade very early, at least by 1512 and indeed it was frequently Portuguese traders who supplied African slaves for the Spanish colonists. The Portuguese established the first trading fort in West Africa at Elmina in present day Ghana and were taking Africans to work in the plantations in Madeira and Sao Tome. Over the centuries, ships from Lisbon carried more slaves to the Americas than any other European port, possibly as much as four million.  

When we walked in the slave coffle in Lisbon, we were joined by three Portuguese young people and we also had representatives from Brazil, Guinea Bissau and Angola. We realized how appropriate it was to have young people especially when we considered that the Portuguese slave trade had, by the nineteenth century, largely become a trade in children and young people.
We began in the Praza de Commercio. This was close to the waterfront and was where the House of Guinea and the House of Slaves existed before the 1755 earthquake. We walked on to the cathedral and in view of the papal bull described above, stood there for a few moments in silence. From there we walked to the city hall, where we were received by a representative of the mayor. We sensed that Lisbon is a city that has not acknowledged this aspect of its history - there are no apparent acknowledgements in the museums or elsewhere.

The most important monument in Lisbon, which perfectly captures the spirit of the Age of Discovery, is the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (the Monument of the Discoverers) in the historic district of Belem. This huge fifty metres high structure was built in 1960, the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry's death. To the south the monument thrusts like a caravel across the River Tagus. Prince Henry stands at the prow, holding a miniature caravel and gazing towards Africa. Along ramps on the eastern and western flanks, 32 significant players in the Age of Discovery press on following Prince Henry's lead. Amongst the navigators are three friars, crosses lifted high, urging on the adventurers in the Crusader spirit. The brochure for tourists describes the northern side in this way -
The whole area above the entrance to the monument is a taken up with the representation of a sword decorated at the hilt by the cross of the house of Avis, symbolizing both the force of arms and the Christian faith.

The inescapable reality conveyed here is that the cross is a sword and the sword is a cross.  

Palos de la Frontera

Palos is close to the city of Huelva in the south west corner of Spain. It is famous because it was from this place that Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492. One of the team members of the Lifeline Expedition was Leo Lobo Pinzon, who is a direct descendant of Martin and Vincent Pinzon, who owned and captained some of the ships in the fleet.

Christopher Columbus is of course a controversial figure and many Christians, particularly in America, have pointed to certain passages in his diaries as indicative of evangelistic motives. The evidence about this is however contradictory. What is certain, but not very well known, is that in a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella during his first voyage, he told them that, with their help, he could give them "slaves as many as they shall order." On his second voyage, he loaded the ships with five hundred Indian slaves. On the last leg of the voyage, "about two hundred of these Indians died," a passenger recorded, adding, "We cast them into the sea." So in this way, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was launched at first from west to east. (Information from JA Rawley in "The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade" page 3.) Later Columbus wrote, "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity, go on sending all the slaves that can be sold." It is likely that the underlying motive  for his passion about enslaving Native Americans was that he believed it was the quickest way to cancel the debts he had incurred on his voyages.

We walked in the yokes and chains through the town, including a visit to the town hall where we were welcomed by the Deputy Mayor. We then walked down to the place where Columbus sailed from. The public fountain, built by the Muslims in the fourteenth century, where they drew fresh water for the voyage, is still standing. This place had a very special atmosphere, perhaps because in this Muslim building, we could sense the continuity from the spirit of the Crusades to the Age of Discovery and the birth of the Atlantic slave trade. We knew this was an important place to pray. In the journal I wrote as follows...

Our histories, as people from Africa, the Americas and Europe are all bound up with what started in this place in 1492. Surely Columbus and his colleagues carried with them a spirit of European arrogance and greed. This well is dry now. Could the spiritual dryness in Europe today be related to the centuries of European dominance and greed? These are the things we were confessing and praying about here.

As we finished praying, Leo poured all his water out as a prophetic act. Then a beautiful thing happened - a man we had never met before came and freely gave us several bottles of water!


Seville is significant as it was the first place from which Africans were taken across the Atlantic to the Americas as slaves. This might initially seem surprising as we might suppose they would have been captured in Africa and transported directly. Here is the explanation from Aristocrats and Traders: Sevillian Society in the Sixteenth Century by Ruth Pike :

After the discovery of the New World the constant demand for a source of cheap labour to work the mines and plantations of America increased the flow of Negroes into Seville during the sixteenth century. The city soon became one of the most important slave centres in Western Europe, second only to Lisbon. In fact the first Negro slaves introduced into the New World came from Seville, and some of them had been born in that city. During the first decades of the sixteenth century, the Spanish monarchs, anxious to keep the colonies free from religious taint, insisted that the slaves sent to America be Christians -- that they should have been born in Spain or have resided there long enough to be baptized. In 1510, for example, King Ferdinand gave permission to ship as many as two hundred slaves from Seville for sale to the settlers of Hispaniola or for work on the royal properties there. Eventually slaves were shipped directly from Africa to America, though they continued to come to Seville as well. (pages 174-175)

It is abundantly clear that greed was again the prime motivation for all that took place in Seville at this time.

An acquisitive society was emerging, and a spirit of gain overwhelmed the city. Greed for money and dissatisfaction with social and economic status became the common affliction of all Sevillians. The riches from the New World seemed to cast a spell over the whole town."" ( Pike page 21)

When we walked for the first time in the yokes and chains in Seville, we were very aware that this was a very significant action in this place. Maximo Alvarez and Tere Isbell were in the coffle to represent Spain. Outside the Archivo de Indias, we were met by several people from the press and TV - for the next 40 minutes or so there were some excellent interviews. They also saw a Spanish person ask forgiveness from slave descendant Monette Tapa. Some of them were still with us as we prayed at the site of the Casa de Contratacion where slaves from Africa were registered and as we knelt down and prayed on the banks of the Guadalaquiver River.
The next day there were photos and articles in a number of newspapers including ABC and El Pais. On that day we also walked in chains a second time, focusing firstly on the cathedral as we acknowledged courageous priests who opposed the slave trade and refused to hear confession from slave traders, but also acknowledged the general complicity of the church in the trade. We then walked through the Jewish quarter of Santa Cruz and went to a plaza with a cage in the middle, where at one time slaves were apparently put on display. This was unusual as the normal way of selling slaves in Seville was in this manner...

Throughout the century, merchants, sea captains, and others brought slaves to the Sevillian market, located in the heart of the business district. Here slaves were bought and sold amidst the noise and bustle of street vendors hawking their wares and future conquistadors recruiting men for their New World expeditions. Apparently they were not exhibited and sold at the block as was the custom elsewhere. Instead a group of slaves and their owner would go about the streets accompanied by an auctioneer who called out to onlookers offering them for sale. (page 175)

At this cage, Nicki Caulfield, our representative from USA, suggested that Tere and Monette should reach their hands through the cage from either side and they were just able to hold hands together. It was a simple but very powerful visual image, which was a great aid to our prayers. We then received a phone call and we were asked to go to the city hall where we were to be received by one of the city councillors. He was a delightful man and so welcoming. We had presented him with a copy of the Liverpool apology for the slave trade and he told us that he would take this up at a council meeting and that he would arrange a press release. He said we would hear from him. He too, as a representative of the city apologized to the slave descendants for the sin of Seville's participation.

We knew this was a significant breakthrough and we took off the yokes and chains there with great rejoicing. Both Monette and I had experienced back pain in the previous week and on this day it went.  A few days before my Psalm for the morning was 129, which includes the curious phrase "The ploughman has ploughed upon my back." Perhaps it is not without significance that working on the slave plantations was back breaking labour.  


The inescapable conclusion from our visit to these root places is that the Crusader spirit was very much alive and well at the time of the origins of the Atlantic slave trade. It is as if that spirit, which had formerly been directed eastwards towards Jerusalem is now directed southwards towards Africa and then westwards to the Americas. As I have already stated, as far as these origins are concerned, the cross is a sword. It is impossible to exaggerate the extent of the ‘offence of the cross', especially to Africans of the Diaspora, many of whom are aware of this. I quote here from an African American history site, which quotes the situation after the slaves had been captured on that first voyage in Mauritania -

When the battle was over, all praised God for the great mercy He had shown them, in that He had willed to give them such a victory, and with so little damage to themselves. They were all very joyful, praising loudly the Lord God for that He had deigned to give such help to such a handful of His Christian people.

This comment then follows :

Thus did Europe first bring the "glad tidings" to the African. It did not take long to ascertain that the spiritual consolation derived from converting the African to Christianity had its utilitarian counterpart. He made an excellent labourer.
It is vital that white Europeans fully acknowledge and confess the realities of this great offence. It is striking to realise that triumphing in that combination of Christian faith and force of arms is not merely a thing of the past. The erection of the Monument to the Discoverers was as recent as 1960 and the new statue of St Gonzales of Lagos was erected in 2002!
Accompanying the Crusader spirit, we also noted in particular greed, arrogance and superiority. If we are to heal the historic wounds of injustice, it must be with a determination to counter the greed and in a spirit of deep humility.

David Pott June 2004

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