Thursday, July 07, 2005

Slavery and Myths of the 'Age of 'Discovery'

I have been reading an excellent new book by Malyn Newitt, the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King's College London. A specialist on Lusophone Africa, he decied it had been some time since an history had been published of Portugal in the Age of Discovery, so he has written a strong, powerful and thoughtful tome by Routledge (that ever faithful publisher of non-bestseller academic books) entitled History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400-1668. I highly recommend people with an interest in the history of the Age of Discovery or of the Portuguese Empire to read this book.

Now what is the one story that all European history textbooks cover about Portugal? It's that Prince Henry the Navigator ushered in the Age of Discovery by encouraging the exploration of the West African coast and beyond. And that he did so for a mixture of the honor and joy of discovery and trade with the Orient. Well, Newitt's book is a very accessible compilation of a lot of recent research by Portuguese- and English-speaking scholars alike that completely skewers all of these long-held and cherished myths.

Before I continue, I realize that some of these revelations may be considered offensive by some Portuguese, many of whom are very proud of their country's history. I would remind them in advance that Newitt does not deny that the Portuguese made any important discoveries, nor does he demean the bravery of those explorers. Also, slavery was an accepted practice in many societies of that era, and so applying today's standards to that time would be somewhat unfair. But he points out misallocations of credit where they are due, particularly in the case of the Infante Enrique (Prince Henry) and the motivations for the voyages.

As for the motivations of the voyages, Newitt writes:

"The ideology of [Portugal's] feudal armies was still that of chivalry and crusade. Fidalgos sought the formal honour of knighthood...the main reason for the expedition against Ceuta in 1415 [which was considered the starting point for the Age of Discovery - Ed.] had been the desire of the Infantes (princes) to be knighted on the field of battle rather than at a tournament. In his Cronica dos feitos de Guine, [Zurara] tells stories of the armed men in the service of the Infante Dom Henrique (Henry the 'Navigator') receiving the accolade on the beaches of western Africa after a slave raid. The idea of the crusade against the Moors was also prominent in the ideology of soldiers who often sought the justification for what they were doing in the traditional language of crusading - none more so than Dom Henrique himself. However, a knighthood was not just a military honour. It could carry with it membership of one of the Military Orders with their vast corporate wealth and the expectation of being rewarded with the grant of a commandery, town or castle in the control of the knights."

So basically, Newitt makes the convincing argument that the soldiers and nobles wanted to crusade to gain status and honour, which translated also into material gain. He goes on to say:

"Behind the language of chivalry and honour was the reality of what military activity meant in practice. War was expected to pay for itself and to provide the major pathway to a prosperous career. Lack of resources at the disposal of the Crown had always meant that...the army's pay were met from the proceeds of confiscations, ransoms or plunder. Nobles for their part had to reward their followers, with the result that the search for plunder, ransoms and slaves became so important that it often determined the whole thrust of a campaign. The voyages of 'discovery' down the coasts of Africa, organised after 1430 by the Infante Dom Henrique and other noblemen, were openly and explicitly a series of raids designed to obtain slaves for sale or important 'Moors' who might be ransomed."

So there it is - the first voyages of Discovery organized by Prince Henry were actually mainly slaving expeditions. And the reason they kept going further down the coast was because after a successful raid, villages on that part of the coast would move inland to avoid becoming enslaved and would defend themselves better; consequently the Portuguese corsairs and such had to go further down the coastline for easy prey that would be surprised. Rational economic decision-making was a major factor in the 'discoveries' after all.

Tune in tomorrow for "Prince Henry the Navigator?"

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