1441 The Beginning of the Slave Trade

By the time ship designers in Sagres were ready to launch the caravel, Henry had come out of the doldrums caused by his brother Fernando’s imprisonment and returned to his quest to sail under Africa. He hoped at the least to find the River of Gold and Prester John. Unfortunately, his explorers were more interested in the African slave business.

The aboriginals living along the west coast of the Sahara were, in general, brown-skinned people belonging to the Berber and Tuareg nations. Aboriginals living below the Senegal River, where the Sahara ended and the green foliage began, were black-skinned, and belonged to the Melli [Mali], Wolof, and Songhai nations. The Latin word for black is nigrum. From that word came the term Negro, which, in the fifteenth century, was used to describe Black Africans, and Niger, which was used to name the river where they lived.

In 1441, Henry sent a young chamberlain(1) named Antão Gonçalves to hunt for more monk seals at the river “marked by the large rock that looked like a galley-ship.” Gonçalves reached the river, dropped anchor and, with a small party, rowed a shoreboat inland. However, instead of catching seals, the party captured a “naked man carrying an assegai” and his Berber woman slave.

When Gonçalves and his captives returned to the mother ship at the mouth of the river, they found Henry’s friend Captain Nuno Tristão anchored there. He stood on the deck of his brand new caravel, her white sails blazoned with the bright red cross of the Order of Christ.

As we said, Tristão was highly ranked in the Order of Christ, much superior in rank to Gonçalves. He had come to collect Gonçalves to help him look for – big surprise – the River of Gold and a passage to India. To serve as interpreter for his investigation, Tristão brought along with him a Moroccan slave who spoke Arabic. However, the interpreter could not understand either the naked man or his woman slave.

Gonçalves and Tristão set out to capture more slaves. With twenty soldiers, they trekked to “a faraway hill” where they had seen “tawny-skinned” people moving about. The tiny Portuguese army killed three of the Berbers and captured ten. When they brought the captives back to the ship, the interpreter was able to communicate with one of them, who introduced himself in Arabic as Adahu. The Portuguese suspected Adahu was a noble because he spoke “with a note of authority.”

Adahu told the Portuguese that the other prisoners spoke a language called Azenequry. They were probably Tuaregs or Berbers. Tristão was so pleased that Gonçalves had finally captured some natives for Prince Henry, that he knighted him on the spot.(2)

The next day the Portuguese set a trap. They left the Moroccan interpreter and an Azenequry woman on the beach, hoping to lure out more natives, whom they would capture. But instead, the Portuguese themselves were ambushed. 150 Azenequry, many of them on horses and camels, attacked the hiding Portuguese, snatched the Moroccan and the Azenequry woman from the beach, and, after nearly killing the Portuguese, rode away.

Only somewhat defeated, Gonçalves left for home with Adahu and half the Azenequry slaves. Tristão would head the other way. But first, “as cool as if he were on the sands of the Tagus, he careened(3) his caravel at low tide to clean her bottom.”

Carrying the rest of the slaves in his hold, Tristão sailed south to fulfill his mission to explore the frontier beyond Cabo Branco for the Rio do Oro. Named for the white cliffs, Cabo Branco meant White Cape [Cabo Blanco in Spanish]. 25 leagues [86 miles] south of Cabo Branco, he reached the busy, inhabited island of Arguim. The small island was tucked inside an inlet just offshore from today’s Mauritania. Arguim was occupied by Berbers who centuries earlier had overrun the aboriginal Bafours in most parts of Mauritania. [Arguim will later become the first Portuguese outpost for trading with the Arabs, Tuaregs, and slave-raiding Negro kings from the Guinea coast.] Tristão and his men caught fifteen men from the island and fourteen naked natives who had the misfortune of paddling by Tristão’s ship in a dugout canoe.

When Tristão finally arrived home, Henry hailed him as the new Alexander the Great. Meanwhile, Gonçalves had already been applauded. Henry had been so happy with Gonçalves that he promoted him to be his private secretary. [In the Order of Christ, that was a huge advancement.]

Adahu found plenty of people in Henry’s court who could speak Arabic. While Henry ordered fine European clothes made for him to wear and tried to make him feel comfortable, Adahu negotiated a deal with Gonçalves. If the Portuguese captain would take him to his homeland, he would ransom himself and two of the Azenequry men for ten Negro slaves.

The Portuguese were just learning about the Arabian slave-trading business. They had learned that the Negro Africans came from a place farther south in Africa than the Portuguese had yet sailed. They learned that Arab traders liked the Negroes better than the Tuaregs and Berbers from the north because they were “more docile” and “willing to work.”

Gonçalves transported Adahu back to the river marked by the galley-shaped rock. He hoped Adahu would help him seek information on how far it was to the Indies. Maybe Adahu could ask the natives if anyone knew how to reach the kingdom of Prester John.

Adahu, dressed in his fancy new clothing, showed Gonçalves where on shore to debark him and the two Azenequry men. But as soon as the three Africans reached the beach, they ran away into the thicket. Gonçalves stood on the deck of his ship kicking himself for being so gullible.

However a week later, Gonçalves learned that Adahu had kept his word. A Moroccan Arab riding a white camel arrived to the beach accompanied by an Arab negotiator called an alfaqueque. This alfaqueque was an official of the Moor’s entourage employed to conduct the business of ransoming prisoners as slaves. The alfaqueque informed the Portuguese that in exchange for Adahu and the two men, the Portuguese could select ten men and women slaves from a group of one hundred men and women who were marshaled out to the beach. Some of the slaves were brown-skinned and some were black. Some had European-like features.

The slaves were not all the Portuguese would receive. The alfaqueque threw into the bargain a small sack of gold dust, an ox hide shield, and three ostrich eggs.

Gonçalves made his choice of slaves, collected the gold dust, shield, and eggs, and scurried home in triumph with his loot. From then on, the Portuguese would call the river marked by the “galley-shaped rock” the Rio do Oro. Henry praised the ostrich eggs, which he feasted upon in Sagres, “as fresh as hen’s eggs.”

In June of 1443, Prince Henry received some tragic news. His brother, Prince Fernando, the youngest of the Illustrious Generation, who had been held captive in Tangier for eleven years, died. The Muslims had hung him upside down on a wall so the residents of Tangier could throw stones at him. Prince Fernando would be remembered as Fernando the Holy Prince.

That same year, Prince Henry’s cousin, King Henry VI of England, awarded Prince Henry the English Order of the Garter [knighted him] for his efforts toward exploration.

The First African Trading Company

Portuguese merchants finally began to take Prince Henry of Portugal seriously. In 1444, the merchants in Lagos formed a trading company equipped with six caravels. They applied to Henry for a license to trade for slaves in Arguim and islands beyond. Each ship flew the banner of the Order of Christ.

On their first mission, the Portuguese captured or bought 225 slaves. Some were “white or fair,” some were “well proportioned,” some were “black as Ethiops.” The morning after the slaves arrived in Lagos, still weak from the voyage, the traders lined them up to be distributed equally among the company’s investors. Henry was to receive a fifth of the cargo(4). Mounted on a powerful horse, and accompanied by his retinue, he watched the proceedings.

Some of the slaves “kept their heads low, their faces bathed in tears.” Some “groaned grievously” and looked up pleading to their god in the heavens. Others threw themselves to the ground. During the division “fathers were parted from sons, husbands from wives, and brothers from brothers.” Having no need of slaves himself, Henry distributed his allotment of the wretched people among his retinue.

[Established as Europe’s first slave market, the arched enclosure where the auctions took place is known today as the old Casa da Alfándega [Customs House]. The building now contains an art gallery.]

Even though Henry’s motive for exploring Africa had not been to capture humans, he believed that by taking these people out of heathen Africa, and away from the Muslims, he was rescuing their souls, “which otherwise would have been lost.” Friars of the Order of Christ immediately introduced the slaves to the Christian religion. Henry observed that the Negroes tended to turn to Christianity more often than the Berbers. He allowed the captives who accepted Christianity a relative amount of freedom and respect compared to those who did not [in other words, they were not required to wear iron shackles].

Meanwhile, Henry continued to focus on finding a route to the Indies. That summer he sent Gonçalves and two other captains south in two caravels, instructing them to sail as far as they could go and not stop to raid for slaves. Henry sent a squire named João Fernandes with them. Even though a squire was the most junior rank in the Order of Christ, Fernandes had learned several African languages while serving as a captain in Morocco. Henry wanted Fernandes to help Gonçalves obtain information about a variety of things:

  1. The geography of western Africa
  2. How to reach the Indies
  3. How the Arabic trade routes functioned
  4. The source of the gold transported by caravans to the markets in Cairo and Fez [south of Ceuta], and
  5. How to find Prester John.

Against Henry’s order, Gonçalves stopped south of the Rio do Oro expecting to purchase slaves. He found the natives so suspicious that they would not do business with him. He left Fernandes at the river to carry out his exploratory mission, and then he, Gonçalves, returned to Sagres. The only thing Gonçalves took back with him was “an old Moor” he had come across. The old Moroccan offered to share what information he could about his home country to the Portuguese.

Nuno Tristão Reaches Guinea

During that same year, 1444, Nuno Tristão sailed on his own mission to a point just short of the Senegal River, home of the Negro Wolof nation. The beaches were fringed with palms and backed by lush green forests, a much more habitable place than the Sahara Tristão had been following for hundreds of miles. Tristão captured some Wolof people, and on his way home, snatched twenty-one Berber people. In his report to Henry, he described how he had reached Terra los Guineas [the Land of the Blacks], hence the sub-Saharan country became known as Guinea.

The Senegal River

In 1445, Dinís Diaz, an aging explorer who did not want to “go soft in the well being of repose” [go soft in the head when he retired], sailed a caravel south and broke the distance record by passing Cabo Branco by almost 500 miles. “Following the sweet water,” he reached a cape he called Cabo Verde [Green Cape] because of the luscious green vegetation. He captured and enslaved four black men.

On his return trip, Diaz tacked in and out of the beaches looking for João Fernandes. Fernandes showed up near the Rio do Oro. He had been living with wandering Berbers and Tuaregs who pastured sheep and camels along the coast. Feasting off fish and camel milk, he was in good health.

Fernandes had much to report. He would send news back to Henry that the Berbers and Tuaregs earned their living by capturing Black Africans to the south and selling them to the Moroccans to the north for wheat [which, of course, could not grow in the Sahara]. The Moroccans also traded with Arabs in the interior of Africa, exchanging wool and sheep hides for resin(5), amber(6), and civet(7). The central markets for this trade were Timbuktu and Gao, located at the southern edge of the Sahara where the caravan routes reached the green valley of the Niger River. The camel caravans also traded textiles, fish, kola [a caffeine-containing nut in the cocoa family] and – of great value – salt.

Fernandes had learned that the settlements where he stayed along the coast terminated the east-west Saharan trade routes. To travel over the trackless deserts, the nomadic Bedouin [Arabic for desert dwellers] guided themselves by the stars and the winds in the same way Portuguese mariners guided themselves over the seas. They also observed the flights of birds. For example, the swallows that left Portugal in the fall, wintered on the sands of the Sahara. Storks passing overhead were heading toward the land of the Negroes [south].

The most important information Fernandes had to share was that gold was “fairly plentiful among the herders who came from south of the mountains.” [It actually came from the upper Niger River and the Volta River.] The Portuguese had not yet found those mountains, but they would soon.

King Afonso V Married Prince Pedro’s Daughter

Back in Portugal, Prince Pedro, who was still acting as Regent for his nephew Afonso V, arranged for Afonso to marry his daughter, Isabel of Coimbra. Pedro hoped to retain control of the goings on in Portugal after Afonso reached his majority and became king. The first cousins, Isabel and Afonso, were both thirteen years old. [Eventually they became the grandparents of the future King João II.]

Álvaro Fernandes Passes Cabo Verde

The most celebrated shipping event [the largest of Prince Henry’s career] was an expedition of twenty-three caravels dispatched by the Lagos Trading Company to explore the Senegal River. Fourteen of those caravels had been sent by Co-Governors Zarco and Texiera from Madeira. One of those captains, Álvaro Fernandes(8) of Madeira (c1426 - c1475) was Zarco’s son-in-law [one account states nephew].

The mission was based on the centuries-old belief that the Senegal River was the western end of Egypt’s Nile River, promised by the Medici Atlas of 1351. The Portuguese still thought that all they needed to do to reach Ethiopia was follow the Senegel River through the interior of Africa.

Anonymous Genoese, Medici-Laurentian Atlas, 135.(9) [We added the red dotted line to highlight the river route and the Azores.]

The fleet’s instructions were to meet at Cabo Branco [probably the slave-trading markets on Arguim]. They were not to waste time raiding for slaves, but rather “show their might” to the Moors living there. In spite of those instructions, the trip, for the most part, was a major slaving raid with the exception of Zarco’s son-in-law Álvaro Fernandes, who broke another travel record that summer.

Fernandes landed at what he would call the “Cape of Masts,” a beach lined with palm trees that had no tops because the winds had blown them off. Fernandes found piles of elephant dung “as high as a man’s head.” He pushed south and was extremely excited when the coastline began to turn eastward as he reached the Gambia River. He thought he was sailing under the continent and about to reach the Indian Ocean. But then the coastline turned south again. Fernandes’ final stop was 110 leagues south of Cabo Verde, where he was driven away by a tribe of natives throwing poison-tipped assegais.

As a souvenir for Prince Henry, Fernandes carried home a pipe [thin container] of water from the “Nile” [which was really the Senegal]. Historian Gomes Eanes de Zurara (aka Azura, c1410–1474), from whose chronicle we learn about this event, stated, “Not even Alexander [the Great] drank water brought from [so far] a distance.] Prince Henry awarded Fernandes one hundred gold dobras, and Regent Don Pedro gave him another hundred.

The Death of Nuno Tristão

In 1446, Nuno Tristão traveled 60 leagues [about 207 miles] south of Cabo Verde, then up a great river that would be named after him, Rio Nuno. When he tried to set up a military base at one of the Negro towns, the villagers attacked, armed with poison-tipped spears. They killed Tristão and twenty of his men. They wounded all the rest except five boys, who had probably stayed on the ship. The wounded made it to the ship but were too weak to weigh anchor, so the boys had to cut the cables to release the ship and float away.

The ship drifted out to sea while the boys tried to figure out how to sail her home. As one by one the wounded men died, the boys threw their bodies overboard “to be entombed by the bellies of the fishes.” After sixty days, the ship came upon a pinnace [a flat-decked ship about twenty feet in length] commanded by a Galician freebooter [pirate]. After telling the boys they were off the coast of Sines [a hundred miles south of Lisbon], he guided them home.

Henry was devastated by the loss of his best friend. Henceforth he “took particular care of [Tristão’s] wife and children.”


  1. Chamberlains were royal officers who handled the management of a monarch’s household.
  2. This action indicates how highly ranked Tristão must have been in the Order of Christ. According to the website KnightsTemplar.org, the rankings start at the bottom with men younger than eighteen prepping to be knights called Squires, followed by: | Commander-at-Arms | Sergeant | Knight | Knight of Justice | Knight of Grace | Knight Officer | Knight Commander | Knight Grand Officer | Knight Grand Cross. Positions on the National Board include: prior, seneschal, marshall, secretary, almoner [treasurer], chaplain, researcher, sword bearer, banner bearer, viceroy, bishops, historian, and prelates.
  3. To careen, is to turn a ship on its side [in this case on the dry beach] to clean, caulk or repair the bottom of its hull.
  4. A fifth of the cargo was the same percentage Queen Elizabeth would receive of the booties from all her pirates and privateers].
  5. Resin is an often flammable sticky substance secreted by trees, like sap. Since it is not soluble with water, it is good for sealing the hulls of ships.
  6. Amber is hard, translucent fossilized resin produced by extinct coniferous trees of the Tertiary period, typically a yellow brown color. The Arabs prized amber more than silver for jewelry.
  7. Civet was a highly scented natural substance produced in the anal gland of a spotted cat also called a civet. Civet cats were native to Africa and Asia. The substance was used in the making of perfume.
  8. We do not know if Álvaro Fernandes was related to João Fernandes just mentioned.
  9. Anonymous Genoese author, second of eight plates known as the Medici Atlas (Atlante Mediceo) or the Laurentian-Gaddiano Portolan (Portolono Laurenziano-Gaddiano). Original held at Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana, Florence. Fascimile published 1881 as Portolano Laurenziano-Gaddiano di anonimo dell'anno, Illustrated by T. Fischer, Venice, 1351. {{PD-Old}}, Public Domain. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medici-Laurentian_Atlas_1351.jpg

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