Black history in Europe, a short story

Wed, 1441-12-01

*African (Black) history in Europe from 1400 is briefly recalled on this dates Registry.

To address the story of black people in Europe, certainly addresses the history of slavery and the history of European colonialism. The relationship between the two continents began with mutual respect and curiosity. For the last 600 years Africans, African-Americans, African-Europeans, Europeans, and European-Americans are still paying for the results. The history begins, as so much in the modern world, with the business expansion of European culture.

While Europeans had always known about Africa, they hadn't known much. Their desire to make money made Africa interesting. The first real substantial relationships Europeans forged with Africans were with the Islamic civilizations and traders of North Africa. These two groups had been in sporadic but undefined contact all through the European Middle Ages. In the fifteenth century, the major Islamic civilizations were beginning to decline in power, but not in their impressiveness. The Europeans were amazed by what they saw, especially in the Sudanese empire.

The modern history of Europe and Africa is overwhelmingly saturated with Europeans forcibly deporting Africans into European states. Equally Europeans forced political, social, religious, and economic practices on Africans during the colonial period and afterwards. Europeans were as much interested in African culture as they expected the Africans to be interested in theirs. All the contemporary evidence implies that they saw the Africans as equal partners in civilization, government, and commerce. The Africans, it seems, also believed this. During this heady period at the start of the cultural exchange between the two hemispheres, Africans regularly came to Europe to study Western culture; in 1518, for example, Henry of the Congo traveled to the Vatican and became the first bishop of the Congo. All this would change, however.

The two hemispheres were headed for a collision. The tragedy that broke this initial historical pattern was slavery, and slavery, in a great irony of history, was driven by the discovery of a new hemisphere in the west. The European trade in human goods begins right at the start of European relations with Africa. This initial slave trade, however, was small. The trade itself had begun long before the Europeans ever cast a jealous eye on the land of Africa. The Islamic civilizations and traders of North and Western Africa had a booming traffic in black slavery as they marched slaves across the Sahara to regions in the east. Surprisingly, though, slavery was not racially based in most of human history; racial slavery, that is, slavery that is predicated on race as a way of separating slave from free, is a creation of the seventeenth century. Slavery has been a constant in human history.

The only period of time in which slavery has not been a major part of the human experience is within the last two hundred years. Slavery has one and only motive: economic. Slave labor is cheap labor; it is purchased at the price of the survival of the laborer. It is not necessarily efficient labor, however, for people do not really invest themselves in coerced work. Most of human history is characterized by low production economies; these low production economies produce just enough to survive for the majority of the workers in the economy. In such an economy, slavery, or coerced labor, is one of the most common solutions to maintain a large, low productive economy.

Throughout most of human history, slaves were drawn from conquered populations and defeated armies, and many slaves were simply sold (or sold themselves) into slavery by the rulers or their families. These people were slaves by virtue of being slaves; there were no racial, ethnic, or physical markers of slavery or subsistence servitude. Such was the situation that the Europeans encountered and traded in. When the Portuguese forged contacts with the Islamic civilizations and traders of North Africa, they diverted much of this trade to Europe, including the Muslim traffic in black slaves. The Portuguese, however, were not satisfied with trade with North Africa and pushed down the western coast of the continent.

In 1441, a group of Portuguese in West Africa discovered a village of black natives and, to make some money, attacked them and kidnapped as many as they could. As a result began the European traffic in black slaves. By 1854, the Portuguese were importing thousands of Africans per year into Portugal to work as indentured servants. This traffic, however, was far different from the character of the later slave trade. Technically, the Africans were not slaves; they were indentured servants. After a period of service they were freed. It was not possible to be born a slave in Portugal. The children of indentured servants were free.

This would be the case throughout the sixteenth century. Also, slavery was not racially based. The Africans kidnapped by the Portuguese were baptized, many were educated, and they all integrated into the lower classes of Portuguese society. Africans and Europeans intermarried; to this day, most Portuguese are of mixed blood. This early trade in human lives was relatively small.

Two things, however, would change history. The discovery of America precipitated the need for huge amounts of subsistence labor, and the development of high production agricultural economies in America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries greatly changed the face of the African slave trade and its aftermath.

Reference: Washington State University