The European slave trade: the destruction of Africa by Portugal

The arrival of the Portuguese in Africa marks the beginning of the end of 4800 years of the Kamits’ (Blacks) glorious history. They came to Africa with the consent of the Vatican in order to enslave Africans and steal their wealth. The Portuguese destroyed methodically and violently Kongo dia Ntotila (the empire of Kongo), the very rich East African coast and the Southern African lighthouse which was the gigantic empire of the Mwene Mutapa (Monomotapa); Black people resisted heroically.

Vatican – Painting of Nicolas V in 1454
Vatican – Painting of Nicolas V in 1454

‘We had formerly – with letters among other things – granted King Alphonse with the whole ability – amongst others – to attack, to conquer, to defeat, to reduce and to subject all Saracens (it is to say Blacks), pagans and other enemies of Christ, wherever they are, their kingdoms, their duchies, principalities, domains, properties, piece of furniture and real, all the goods they possess; to reduce them into permanent servitude, to take those kingdoms, duchies, lands, principalities, properties, possessions and goods which belong to these unfaithful Saracens and pagans (…)’ [1].

By these words, the pope Nicolas V confirmed, on January 8th 1454, the authorization granted to Portugal to start the European slave trade and the destruction of Africa. Pope Calixtus III, successor of Nicolas V, added in 1456 “The whole Guinea, to the Indies” [1]. It was in the framework of a pretended mission of evangelization that Portuguese could enter in a very rich and civilized Africa with the missionaries. European explorers have left testimonies about the civilizations they were to destroy.

Illustration of the arrival of Europeans in Africa Unknown author
Illustration of the arrival of Europeans in Africa

Unknown author

The German historian Leo Frobenius said about the Kongo empire (Angola-Congos-Gabon) and the African East coast – which, already in the eleventh century, used to trade with Australia – that ‘In the Kingdom of Kongo, the crowd was all dressed with silk and velvet clothes. There were great and well organized states down to the very last details. There were powerful sovereigns and wealthy industries. They were civilized to the bone! It was the same in the eastern Africa countries like Mozambique for example’ [2]. As the east African saying goes ‘one could reach ivory beds through silver stairs’.

This is what Europeans said about the Mwene Mutapa (Zimbabwe-Mozambique-Botswana-South Africa-Zambia) which already used to trade with China during the tenth century: ‘The palace is big, magnificent. At the entrance there are huge gates watched by the guards of the emperor. The outdoors are reinforced with towers and the indoors divided in several spacious rooms embellished with cotton carpets which color brightness compete with the brilliance of gold, if we believe some geographers. There were golden pulpits, painted and enameled. There were ivory candelabrums suspended with silver chains; this represented one of the beauties of those splendid rooms. Its China dishes are circled with gold branches’ [3].

They also said ‘In Monomotapa, the kings (…) wear long silk dresses weaved in the country. They wear on the side a brush hook with an ivory handle. Common people wear cotton hessian. And important ones wear floral indienne embroidered with gold’ [4].

About Mozambique, which was a part of the Mwene Mutapa, they said: ‘Two senhores of the country came to see us. Very proud, they completely disliked what we offered. The first one wore an embroidered silk fringe coat and the second one was entirely dressed with a green silk outfit. We understood by the signs they were making that the young man who was with them, was coming from a distant country and had already seen big boats alike ours’ [5].

So, this is what the Europeans found in Africa. In 1482, the Portuguese entered in the empire of Kongo which was at that time under the rule of Nzinga a Nkuwu, who, through the legendary African hospitality did not see their intentions. The Portuguese really showed who they were under the rule of Nzinga Mbemba – the successor and son of Nzinga a Nkuwu – who later became Afonso I by embracing Christianity; and thanks to their fire arms – which Africans did not have – they would brutally change the course of the African history.

The destruction of Kongo dia Ntotila

Nzinga Mbemba (Afonso I) emperor of Kongo. Illustration by Carl Owens for Anheuser Busch
Nzinga Mbemba (Afonso I), emperor of Kongo.

Illustration by Carl Owens for Anheuser Busch

The Mwene Kongo (emperor of Kongo) Afonso I sent many young people – scholarship students of the government of Kongo, among which his own children – to study in Europe. His son Henry (Henrique) was ordained bishop there.

As he wanted his country to progress as faster as possible, the Mwene Kongo asked for Portuguese missionaries and technicians. But the Portuguese started to spread their control gradually. The Portuguese apparently had the intention to drag on Kongo dia Ntotila into a technological inferiority and into a relationship of vassalage with their country. Therefore they refused to sell the Mwene Kongo ships that would allow him to satisfy his wish to develop international trade. They also monopolized all his international relations.

The strong presence of the Europeans allowed the beginning of the raids for the slave trade in the empire of Afonso I, who refused slave trade in his country. He complained about the fact that some of his cupid subjects were collaborating with the slave traders, among which were the Portuguese missionaries. Some would help to kidnap their own fellow countrymen in exchange of religious objects. He demanded he who he considered his Christian brother, the king John III of Portugal (João III of Portugal), so that the Portuguese consumption goods could be withdrawn, but his request remained unanswered. The Mwene started then a resistance. The Portuguese stirred up plots and assassination attempts against the officials and destroyed the political apparel of the empire.

High dignitaries and members of the royal family were kidnapped and deported. Afonso I escaped from an assassination attempt stirred up by 8 Portuguese people, in 1540 during an Easter Sunday mass. A bullet crossed over his royal tunic. At the end of his reign, in 1543 at the age of 87, Nzinga Mbemba-Afonso I broke off from Portugal. The empire of Kongo, devastated by the slave trade got to war against Portugal. But its technological inferiority obliges the government to ask the other Europeans weapons. These Europeans refuse unless the Kongolese government sells its own subjects. ‘Collaboration or death’.

After more than a century of resistance, the royal army was eventually defeated in 1665, before the definitive demise of Kongo dia Ntotela around the end of the eighteenth century. The great capital Mbanza Kongo with its beautiful and colorful markets, became a landmark for animals where there were nothing but poor and naked people.

The destruction of East Africa

After sacking ships at the surroundings of Zanzibar in 1503, the Portuguese attacked Kilwa in 1505 and started to build a fortress. The same year, they threated Mombasa, but they met resistance. The inhabitants, supported by their other African allies, fought against the Portuguese in the streets of the city, up to the palace of the king. The Portuguese took the palace by storm and forced the king to surrender. The city was sacked and burned. On the northern side, Barawa suffered the same fate. In 1528 Mombasa was attacked anew. The Portuguese demolished the city after 4 months of sit-in. In 1569 Mombasa repopulated itself anew.

As for Kilwa, it was ‘almost deserted but kept on trading ivory with Comoros and the interior of the continent’. All the cities – but Malindi – between Mogadishu (Somalia) and Kilwa (Tanzania) had welcomed a Turkish ship as well as the message of the Turkish Major Mir’Ali Bey. The Portuguese replied with a punitive expedition, especially in Faza near Paté and in Mombasa where the inhabitants resisted. Before they were defeated, they imposed heavy losses to the Portuguese. The city was demolished anew and the king’s head was cutted and taken to Goa (India) to be exhibited.

Vestiges of the Swahili civilization on the coasts of Tanzania and Kenya
Vestiges of the Swahili civilization on the coasts of Tanzania and Kenya

In 1588 the Turkish came back with five ships and the Portuguese responded in 1589 sending a stronger fleet that defeated the Turkish. In the meantime, the Zimba, who came from the interior, practiced ravages. The Portuguese when then towards the north and took it out on Lamu who had supported the Turkish. The nearby island of Manda was attacked and its capital Takwa was sacked. Malindi took hold of Mombasa with the support of the Sejegu people.

The Portuguese imposed the prince of Malindi on Mombasa. The Portuguese captain and his garrison were also transferred from Malindi to Mombasa. Malindi then weakened. In 1631 the Sultan of Mombasa commanded the killing of all Portuguese settled in their fortress. Kilifi (between Mombasa and Malindi) attacked Malindi. Malindi won the battle, what caused the decline of Kalifi. The decline was general with the exception of Paté.

Vestiges de la civilisation Somali
Vestiges of the Somali civilisation

The destruction of Mwene Mutapa

In 1505, the Portuguese built their first fortress in Solafa (current Mozambique). As it was in Kongo, their strategy consisted in entering in the empire pretending that it was for religious reasons. The first missionaries reached the banks of the Zambezi river around 1560. After having concisely converted himself to Christianity, the emperor – who apparently found out what was going on – ordered to kill the missionary Gonzalo da Silveira. The Portuguese attacked the inland of the country as soon as 1569. Between 1569 and 1573, the Africans inflicted the Portuguese 800 human losses out of 1000 soldiers. Between 1573 and 1574, they lost again 200 out of 400 soldiers.

In 1629, The Portuguese defeated the emperor Mamvuru Mutapa, but the empire resisted. They took advantage of the quarrels for power helping the emperor’s opponents. One of them, Mavhura, accepted to sign an agreement with the Portuguese that would place his territories under European vassalage, in exchange of their support to conquer the power. The Portuguese started to enslave the Africans on the lands they conquer. War and rebellions generalize; migrations increased, the empire split up and the region became a bloody battlefield.

The Mutapa Mukombwe succeeded to create a coalition which defeated the Portuguese and expelled them out of several of their possessions after the wars of 1680 and 1690. But the damages inflicted to the empire were irreparable. The legendary empire of the Southern Africa would fall.

Vestiges de l'empire du Mwene Mutapa (Zimbabwe)
Vestiges of the Mwene Mutapa

Hotep !

By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

Notes :

  • [1] La traite négrière européenne : vérité et mensonges (The European slave trade: truth and lies); Jean Philippe Omotunde – page 57.
  • [2] Nations nègres et culture (Negro Nations and Cultures); Cheikh Anta Diop – page 343.
  • [3] La traite négrière européenne : vérité et mensonges (The European slave trade: truth and lies); Jean Philippe Omotunde – pages 75 & 76.
  • [4] Idem, page 74.
  • [5] L’Afrique doit s’unir (Africa must unite), Kwame Nkrumah – pages 20 & 21.
  • La traite négrière The European slave trade: truths and lies; Jean Philippe Omotunde.
  • Théorie de la révolution africaine (Theory of the African revolution), volume 1; Jean Pierre Kaya.
  • Afrique noire, sol, démographie et histoire (Black Africa, soil, demography and history); Louise Marie Diop-Maes.
  • Government of Zimbabwe
  • West Chester University
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