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
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
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
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
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