When did Europeans begin trading for African slaves?

By the beginning of the 15th century Portugal and Spain were powerful countries that had dominance of the seas. By controlling trade along the African coast, they began to trade its goods for African slaves. But why did they become involved in this trade? And how can this be seen as a turning point in our topic?

You can download the worksheet below. If you are unable to download the worksheet, complete the tasks in the yellow boxes below.

– I can describe how European countries began trading for African slaves.
– I can analyse how this early form of slave trade encouraged racist ideas amongst Europeans.
– I can interpret three sources to explain which racist ideas were starting to develop in the 15th century.

– Moor = Somebody of Islamic African descent. These people were from Northwest Africa.
– Colony = An area of the world that is controlled by another country.
– The ‘New World’ = The term given to the Americas by Europeans. It was called this because the Americas were only discovered in the mid-1400s.

In two sentences, sum up what Europeans thought about African people in the medieval period. Think back to the pictures you saw of Saint Maurice and Musa Mansa.

Saint Maurice, a European medieval knight (left), and Musa Mansa, the medieval king of the Empire of Mali (right).

TASK ONE: Why did Europeans start to trade for African slaves?

Read the information below on how Portugal and Spain became involved in trading for slaves in Africa. Answer the following questions when you have finished:

1) Which Portuguese leader funded Portugal to explore Africa?
2) How did Portugal ensure it was unchallenged in Africa?
3) Explain how tribes determined how people lived in Africa in the 1400s.
4) Why did African slavery seem like a good idea to Spain and Portugal when they began trading in slaves?
5) CHALLENGE – What two things can you infer from Source A about the early slave trade?

Why did Europeans start to trade for African slaves?

How did Portugal become involved in African trade?

In the fifteenth century, Portugal was becoming a major world power. They were in a constant state of war with the Muslim Arabs of North Africa who they also competed with for trade along the west African Coast.

The Portuguese King, Henry the Navigator, sponsored many voyages to explore the coast of Africa and get direct access to resources like gold, dyes and horses. This led to Portugal becoming even wealthier than it already was.

Soon, Portugal had dominance of the African coastline. It constructed castles along the coast to ensure it held onto this power. Castles such as Elmina Castle in Ghana were built to ensure Portugal had permanent control of this new territory.

Why did Portugal eventually become involved in the trade of African slaves?

African society was extremely complex. In fact, people from Africa at the time would not consider themselves to be ‘African’. There were thousands of tribes, and these tribes determined the way in which African people lived. Some tribes had cultures of servant-hood, whereby certain people in the tribe would work for others higher up. Some tribes captured people from other tribes at time of war and kept them as slaves. Others had no culture of slavery at all.

Eventually, when Portugal and Spain looked to trade with certain tribes, they found that they could receive African slaves in return. This seemed beneficial to them, as these people could be sent back to Europe to work for very little money.

Over time, Portugal and Spain became reliant on slaves from Africa. They sent these slaves all over the world to help develop their colonies in the Americas. As early as 1526, King Afonso of Kongo, who had previously enjoyed good relations with the Portuguese, complained to the king of Portugal that Portuguese slave traders were kidnapping his subjects without asking him, and this was leading to his tribe loosing too many people. Soon, Europeans would travel to Africa to round up anyone they could for slavery and not trade for them at all.

SOURCE A: A diagram of the early slave trade by the end of the 16th century.

TASK TWO: Racism and the early slave trade.

I would like you to think about the following question:

How might the attitudes of Europeans towards African people change once they have made Africans their slaves?

Try to give an answer to this question in three sentences. You may wish to use some of the following words in your answer:

Encourage / led to / superior / hatred / hierarchy / racism

SOURCE B: A European ship arrives to collect African slaves.

TASK THREE: How did early African slavery encourage racism amongst Europeans?

Look at Source C below. It is an extract from a man named Zurara, a Portuguese writer who traveled with Portuguese slave traders in Africa in the mid-1400s. Consider the following once you have read it:

1) How does Zurara describe the differences between ‘white’ Moors and ‘black’ Moors?
2) What does this suggest about how views of Europeans towards Africans was changing in the 1400s?
3) Does Zurara feel any sorrow for these people? Why?
4) CHALLENGE – If Zurara feels sorrow for these people, why might the Portuguese be carrying on with enslaving these African people?

The captive placed together on a field were a marvelous thing to behold, because among them were some who were reasonably white, handsome and respectable; others, not so white mulattoes (mixed-race); others as black as Ethiopians, so deformed of face and body that it seemed to those that guarded them that they were gazing upon images of the lowest hemisphere.

But what human heart, no matter how hard, would not be stabbed by pious (moral) feelings when gazing upon [them]? For some had their head held low and their faces bathed in tears as they looked upon one another…

SOURCE C: An extract from Zurara’s Chronicle from 1460. Zurara was a Portuguese writer who traveled with Portuguese slave traders. In his description, a group of people had been captured by the Portuguese in a raid in North Africa.

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