European Conquest & Commerce in Africa

By 1444 Portuguese expeditions reached Cape Verde (off the coast of modern Senegal) and had made contact for the first time with the tribes of western Africa. The Portuguese established permanent settlements in the Cape Verde Islands and continued to venture southward. A brisk trade in gold and slaves soon developed with the Mandingo people of western Africa, Moslems whose king had been converted to Islam in the eleventh century and who ruled over a well-established and highly organized state. By the fourteenth century, Mandingoland had grown to encompasse much of western Africa and extended eastward as far as Lake Chad. Yet, by the time the Portuguese arrived the Mandingoes had been displaced by their rivals, the Songhay (whose origins were at Gao on the Niger River in what is now the nation of Mali).

Under the leadership of Askia Mohammed, the Songhay made a determined effort to unite the Moslem world against further encroachments by Christian Europeans. The Songhay nation went through a rapid period of modernization, and Askia Mohammed's policies greatly encouraged the intellectual life of his people. Thus, here in western Africa, was a nation-state that rivaled in sophistication and socio-political structure any other to arise during this early period of the second great era of empire-building. Historian John H. Franklin describes this society at its height of power, as well as its unfortunate but rapid decline:

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a distinctly Sudanese literature was emerging. At the University of Sankore black and white youths studied grammar, geography, law, literature, and surgery, while in the mosques Askia and his subjects studied the religion of Islam in order that they could more effectively practice and promote it.

Civil wars, massacres, and unsuccessful military expeditions followed the reign of Askia, who was dethroned by his oldest son. Although there were brief periods of revival the empire was definitely declining. The Moors viewed the Sudan covetously and began to push down across the desert. With Spanish renegades as their allies, the Moroccans overthrew the Songhay state and began their own brief rule in Timbuktu.

Slavery was hardly a new practice to Africans but became extensive during the periods of Moslem conquest, then blossomed into an important element in African-European commerce after Portuguese adventurers and traders began bringing African servants back to Europe. Conditions in Europe did not, however, require that Africans or any other race be enslaved and brought to work in the European fields or factories. As Franklin explains:

There was never any profitable future for Negro slavery in Europe. ...[T]he large white population that was dispossessed of land by the enclosure movement in England and on the Continent was in search of employment. If there were jobs to be filled, these impecunious Europeans claimed them for themselves. ...It was the New World with its vast natural resources and its undeveloped regions that could make slavery and the slave trade profitable, if indeed it could be profitable anywhere.

In the Americas, where land was readily available at very low cost, few Europeans could be attracted of their own free will to labor long for the benefit of another landowner. Although many of Europe's landless poor were sent to the Americas under arrangements that amounted to quasi-slavery, their numbers proved insufficient to meet the growing needs of the landowners. A captive labor pool was needed to make absentee landownership or large-scale, commercial agriculture a profitable venture. The Spanish and Portuguese exploited and in the process decimated the indigenous populations in the mines and plantations of the Caribbean. As replacements, by the early 1540s some ten thousand Africans were captured and shipped westward each year.