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Wed, 12.01.1441

Black History in Europe, a story

the Strait of Gibraltar

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

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

While white-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 throughout the European Middle Ages. In the fifteenth century, the major Islamic civilizations began 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 afterward. 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 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 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, morphed into the seventeenth century. Slavery has been a constant in human history.

The only period in which slavery has not been a major part of the human experience is within the last two hundred years—slavery's main motive: economics.  Slave labor is cheap; it is purchased at the price of the survival of the laborer. However, it is not necessarily efficient labor for people do not invest themselves in coerced work. Most of human history is characterized by low-production economies; these economies produce just enough to survive for most 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. They defeated armies, and many slaves were sold (or sold themselves) into slavery by the rulers or their families. These people were slaves by 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 of Black slaves.  However, the Portuguese were unsatisfied with trade with North Africa and pushed down the continent's western coast to create the Middle Passage.

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, European traffic of black slaves began.

Over 900 African slaves were brought to Portugal between 1441 and 1448, and an estimated 1000 black slaves arrived in Portugal each year afterward.  These Africans were put 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 impossible to be born a slave in Portugal, and 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 all were 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 conquering of South, Central, and North 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 considerably changed the face of the African slave trade and its aftermath.  The 1884 Berlin Conference followed this and opened Europe's era of colonization of the African continent.

The British Nationality Act of 1948 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom on British nationality law. It defined British nationality and created the status of "Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies" (CUKC) as the national citizenship of the United Kingdom and its colonies.   This law ushered in the Windrush Generation.  These were Blacks from British colonies who journeyed a generation to Europe in the 20th century.

The Act, which came into effect on January 1, 1949, was passed in consequence of the 1947 Commonwealth conference on nationality and citizenship, which had agreed that each of the Commonwealth member states would legislate for its citizenship, distinct from the shared status of "Commonwealth citizen" (formerly known as "British subject").  The UK passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, about twenty years later.  This was pushback against the influx of non-white citizens in that part of Europe. Similar legislation was also passed in most of the other Commonwealth countries.  The Act formed the basis of the United Kingdom's nationality law until the British Nationality Act 1981 came into force in 1983.  Most of its provisions have been repealed or superseded by subsequent legislation, though parts remain in force.

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