The terrorism of European slave raiders and the destruction of Africa

“Most studies and textbooks on the slave trade focused on the 18th and 19th centuries, a time when the slave trade had become the main activity in Black Africa (…) This historical approach has always avoided an analysis of the military and other means deployed by European slave traders in the 16th and 17th centuries to defeat African kings and elites who resisted, and to put docile and corrupt leaders in their place.

Thus, this image of Africa selling its own children has always been based on a lack of knowledge of the particularly brutal means put in place by Europeans to demolish empires that were prosperous, to exterminate any resistance to invaders” Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe “Traite des Noirs, Traite des Blancs”, pages 138-139.

After 4,000 years of Pharaonic period and 1,500 years of Upper Imperial period, the arrival of the Portuguese in Africa marked the beginning of the end of the glorious history of Black people. Of all the European nations that enslaved Africans, they were the ones who initially caused the most damage. Sent by the Vatican, they set about destroying African civilizations for two centuries. It is this period that constitutes THE turning point in our history and whose serious consequences we are experiencing to this day, which is what we are talking about here. The Africans of the time and their kings resisted heroically.

Pope Nicholas V

“We have once, by previous letters, granted King Alfonso, among other things, the full and complete power to attack, conquer, defeat, reduce and subdue all Saracens (Blacks), pagans and other enemies of Christ wherever they may be, with their kingdoms, duchies, principalities, domains, all properties, whether personal or real, owned and possessed by them, to reduce their persons to perpetual servitude (…) to take over and make use of these said kingdoms, duchies, lands, principalities, properties and possessions of these Saracens (Blacks) and pagan infidels”[1].

It was with these words that Pope Nicholas V confirmed, on 8 January 1454, the authorization given to Portugal to begin the European slave trade and the destruction of Africa. His successor Pope Calixtus III, in 1456, specified “From the whole Guinea and beyond to India”[1]. It was therefore within the framework of an alleged evangelizing mission that the Portuguese entered a rich and civilized Africa with their missionaries. The Europeans thus left descriptions of the civilizations they were about to destroy.

Illustration of the arrival of Europeans in Africa
Unknown author

About the Kongo Empire (Angola-DR Congo-Congo-Gabon) and the East African coast which in the 11th century traded with Australia, German historian Leo Frobenius said “In the kingdom of Congo, a swarming crowd, dressed in silk and velvet, large well-ordered states, down to the last detail, powerful rulers, opulent industries. Civilized to the bone marrow! And very similar was the condition of the countries on the eastern coast, Mozambique for example”[2]. There was a saying in East Africa: “Ivory beds were accessed by silver ladders.”

About the Mwene Mutapa Empire (Zimbabwe-Mozambique-Botswana-South Africa-Zambia), which traded with China in the 11th century, they also said: “The palace is large, magnificent, flanked by towers outside with four main doors; the inside enriched with cotton tapestries, enhanced with gold and rich and superb furniture (…) One enters through four large gates where the Emperor’s guards take turns as sentinels. The outside is fortified with towers and the inside divided into several spacious rooms furnished with cotton tapestries where the liveliness of the colours competes with the brightness of gold (…) golden, painted and enameled pulpits and ivory candlesticks hanging from silver chains are one of the beauties of these sumptuous apartments. The dishes are made of porcelain surrounded by golden branches”[3].

They further said “In Monomotapa, Kings (…) wear a long dress of a silk cloth fabric in the country; they wear on their sides a cloth with ivory (…) Regular people dress in cotton canvas and the upper class in gold embroidered Indians”[4]

About Mozambique, which was part of the Mwene Mutapa, they stated : “Two seniors came to see us. Very haughty, they appreciated nothing of what we gave them. One of them was wearing a coat with an embroidered silk fringe, and the other senior’s was entirely made of green silk. We understood through their signs that a young man who was with them came from far away and had already seen large boats similar to ours.” [5].

In the 14th century, Arab traveler Ibn Battuta said about the city of Kilwa in Tanzania, in the black Swahili civilization, that it was the most beautiful city in the world. So that’s what Europeans found when they arrived in Africa.

In 1482, the Portuguese entered the Kongo Empire, which at that time was under the reign of Nzinga a Nkuwu. The King, through the legendary African hospitality, was not cautious enough about them. Thanks to the firearms that the Africans did not have, the Portuguese, then an emerging power after being recivilized by the Blacks of North East Africa and the Arabs, brutally changed the course of the African history.

The destruction of Kongo dia Ntotila (the Kongo Empire)

At the death of Nzinga a Nkuwu, his son Mpanzu a Kitima, hostile to Europeans and rejecting Christianity, was crowned Mwene Kongo (Emperor of the Kongo). The Portuguese then mounted an insurrection to install his brother Nzinga Mbemba, converted under the name of Afonso I. King Mpanzu was killed on the battlefield as he faced this coalition. Afonso became Mwene Kongo.

Nzinga Mbemba Afonso I, Emperor of the Kongo.
Illustration by Carl Owens

Completely overwhelmed by Christianity, Afonso sent young citizens – government scholars, including his children – to study in Europe. His son Henrique was ordained bishop.

The Portuguese gradually extended their control over the empire, to the point of reigning with the King. Their strategy was to put Kongo dia Ntotila at a technological disadvantage and in a vassal relationship with Portugal. They refused to sell ships to the Mwene to satisfy his desire to develop international trade. They also took control of his international relations.

Their strong presence allowed the beginning of the slave raids. Afonso refused to allow slavery to be organized in his country. The King strongly condemned the fact that some of his greedy subjects were collaborating with the slave traders, including Portuguese missionaries. Some Kongo people collaborated in exchange for religious artifacts. Afonso did not understand how Christians whom he saw as perfect beings could engage in raids.

Through several letters to King Joao III of Portugal whom he considered as a brother, King Afonso protested as he was outraged and insisted that Portuguese consumer goods be withdrawn; just for him to only receive indifferent responses from Joao. Faced with this finally not so submissive King, the Portuguese fomented plots and attacks against members of the government and destroyed the Empire’s political apparatus.

High dignitaries and members of the imperial family were kidnapped and shipped. Afonso I himself escaped an assassination attempt, orchestrated by 8 Portuguese in the middle of the Easter Mass in 1540; a bullet having crossed his royal tunic. At the end of his reign in 1543, Nzinga Mbemba Afonso I had divorced from Portugal. The emperor died at the age of 87, as Joseph Ki-Zerbo said, without ever having understood what was happening.

Struck down by the slave trade, the Kongo emptied itself at an exponential rate and really entered into a war against Portugal. After more than a century of resistance, the royal army was definitively defeated in 1665. The great capital Mbanza Kongo and its large colorful markets of that time, was nothing more than a landmark for animals where poor and naked people were met.

The head of King Antonio I of Kongo, defeated by the Portuguese at the Battle of Ambuila, captured and beheaded in 1665. The Kongo Empire died with him.

The destruction of the Swahili and Somali Kingdoms

Louise Marie Diop-Maes said that: “After looting ships around Zanzibar in 1503, the Portuguese attacked Kilwa in 1505 and began building a fort. The same year, they threatened Mombasa, which resisted. With the help of African allies, the inhabitants fought against the Portuguese in the alleys of the city, all the way to the King’s palace. Having stormed the palace, the Portuguese forced the King to surrender. The city was ransacked and burned down. Further north, Barawa suffered the same fate. In 1528, Mombasa was attacked again. After 4 months of occupation, the Portuguese razed the city to the ground. In 1569, Mombasa was repopulated.

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

As for Kilwa, it was “almost deserted but still trading ivory with the Comoros and the interior.” Except Malindi, all the cities between Mogadishu (Somalia) and Kilwa (Tanzania) had received a Turkish ship and the message from Turkish commander Mir’Ali Bey. The Portuguese responded with a punitive expedition, particularly in Faza near Paté and in Mombasa, whose inhabitants resisted and inflicted heavy losses on the Portuguese before they were crushed. The city was again razed to the ground and the King’s head taken away and exhibited in Goa (India).

In 1588, the Turks returned with 5 vessels and the Portuguese retaliated in 1589 with a more powerful fleet which destroyed all the Turkish boats. In the same time, the Zimba people came from outside to wreak havoc. The Portuguese sailed towards the north and retaliated against the Lamu people as they had supported the Turks.

The neighboring island of Manda was attacked and its capital city, Takwa, was ransacked. Malindi took over Mombasa with the Sejegu people’s help. The Portuguese imposed Prince Malindi to Mombasa. The Portuguese captain and his garrison were transferred from Malindi to Mombasa. Malindi then declined. Kilifi (between Mombasa and Malindi) attacked Malindi. Malindi won over Kilifi which was later defeated. Except Paté, the decline was general.” [6]

Vestiges of the Somali civilization

The destruction of the Mwene Mutapa Empire (Zimbabwe)

In 1505, the Portuguese built a fort in Solafa (Mozambique). Like in Kongo, the strategy was to enter the Empire through religion. The first missionaries arrived on the banks of the Zambezi around 1560, and after a brief conversion to Christianity, the emperor – who had obviously understood what was at stake – had the missionary Gonzalo da Silveira killed. The Portuguese attacked the hinterland.

Between 1569 and 1573, Africans inflicted 800 deaths on Europeans per 1000 soldiers, then 200 per 400 in 1574. In 1629, Emperor Mamvuru Mutapa was defeated but the Empire continued to resist. The Portuguese took advantage of power disputes to favor Mavhura. He agreed to put his territory under the authority of the Portuguese in exchange for their help in conquering the throne. The Portuguese enslaved Africans in the conquered lands. War and rebellions were widespread and migrations intensified. The Empire was disintegrated and became a bloody battlefield.

The Mutapa Mukombwe succeeded in creating a coalition, defeating the Portuguese in 1680 and 1690. But the harm done to Zimbabwe was irreparable. The legendary Southern African Empire would collapse.

Ruins of the Mwene Mutapa empire

By : Lisapo ya Kama (the text of this article is open to copy and reproduction, under the condition to mention “source :” at the end of the article. The authorization is only for this article) 

Notes :

  • [1] La traite négrière européenne: vérité et mensonge ; Jean Philippe Omotunde – page 57.
  • [2] Nations Nègres et Culture ; Cheikh Anta Diop – page 343.
  • [3] La traite négrière européenne: vérité et mensonge; Jean Philippe Omotunde – pages 75 & 76.
  • [4] Ditto, page 74
  • [5] Africa must unite, Kwame Nkrumah – pages 20 & 21.
  • [6] Afrique noire, sol, démographie et histoire, Louise Marie Diop-Maes – pages 206 & 207.
  • Théorie de la révolution africaine, tome ; Jean Pierre Kaya
  • Government of Zimbabwe
  • West Chester University
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