ACCORDING to legend, the Carthaginians discovered West Africa centuries before Christ, and exchanged their manufactured wares for the products of the region by means of the process of barter, called the" Dumb Trade." After the Carthaginians disappeared from the stage of history, West Africa sank back into the mists of the unknown. For almost two thousand years all that was known of the region was derived from the faint echoes that came across the Sahara telling of powerful Moslem kingdoms, and from the faded traditions of a great river which flowed east to join the Nile. By the end of the fourteenth century the tide of Africans invading Europe had turned and was beginning to ebb. As a result of the Moorish Wars large areas of the Iberian peninsula had become waste and untilled, and the whole land was under-populated. There was land in plenty, but labour was scarce. Accordingly the landed proprietors began to purchase slaves on a large scale to cultivate their empty estates. Slaves were at first procured from the North African Moors, but as the supply was insufficient, efforts were made to tap more productive sources. To this end Dom Henrique of Portugal (13941460), latterly known as Prince Henry the Navigator, began sending ships southwards along the Atlantic coast of Africa in the hope of procuring slaves in large numbers. He shipped horses on board to enable the sailors to hunt down their human prey on the Saharan coast, and great was the rejoicing in Lisbon as each succeeding cargo of African natives was landed. The rejoicing was not
29 merely mercenary, because the people of that day saw in the slaves, men and women once fettered III heathenism now offered the liberty of Christianity. In addition to slaves, the Moors of North Africa had purveyed gold and ivory and spices, and the desire to tap the sources of those commodities directly was another lodestone attracting the Portuguese ever southward. Dom Henrique seems also to have had the vague ambition of discovering the western Nile which was fabled to reach the land of the mythical Prester John and of the Eastern Christians, and thereby of turning the flank of the Moslem phalanx which was advancing into Europe by way of Asia Minor. Dom Henrique himself had little or no thought of reaching India. His utmost desire was to establish a Portuguese Empire on the Guinea coast, and in the second half of the fifteenth century this Empire was founded. After his death in 1460, great achievements led to higher ambitions, and finally Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape and reached India in 1497. Thereafter the Empire on the Guinea coast became a matter of secondary importance to the Portuguese. l
The nature of the West African trade continued for centuries as it had commenced. The most important export was that of slaves, then came that of gold, and thirdly came that of such commodities as ivory, spices. dye-woods, bees-wax and gum. 2 As time went on the export trade in slaves grew to such an extent on account of the huge demand from America for strong, cheap and docile labour to run plantations that all other export items were dwarfed in comparison. 3 This demand seemed,
while the trade lasted, to be quite inexhaustible, since the New World was opened up more and more throughout the period under European auspices. It was the Slave Trade which made the importance of West Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and caused to be highly prized forts which would otherwise have been esteemed heavy liabilities. Naturally the Slave Trade was not a good preparation for the trade in inanimate commodities that was to follow. It must be remembered, however, that war and slavery existed in West Africa before and qUlte apart from any interference on the part of Europeans, whose function was to aggravate an existing evil. The demand for slaves dimimshed after the exploitation of tropical and sub-tropical America reached its climax, and with the legal abolition of the Slave Trade by the various civilised countries in the first half of the nineteenth century the export of slaves from West Africa gradually slackened.