Land of the Golden Trade - John Lang

The Rediscovery Of West Africa

Carthage perished, and with her downfall came an end for the time to the spirit which lives in them "that go down to the sea in ships, that do business great waters"; no more went her galleys forth king new lands; her day was done.

Rome fell, and the world slipped back far towards barbarism. Like all else, knowledge of navigation suffered, and men but crept along the coasts that were familiar to them, nor of their own will lost sight of land. Forgotten now was much that Tyre had known; a sealed book were the discoveries that Carthage made in the days of her magnificence. Geographically, for centuries the world lay fallow.

Was maritime enterprise aroused from her death like slumber by mere chance? Did the accident of some Biscayan trader, caught in heavy weather and carried, greatly fearing, far over the troubled waste of waters to sunny isles, reawaken the spirit of exploration? Did the world, by such freak of chance, light again on the Fortunate Isles of the ancients,—the Canaries, as we know them; or is it to late Thirteenth-Century Genoese enterprise that we owe their discovery? In the Conospimiento  (1345) the Madeiras are mentioned, as well as eight of the Azores, two of the latter under their present names. In the Laurentian Portolano  of 1351 they also appear. Was this knowledge of their existence due in the beginning to some storm-driven Biscayan? In any case, they were found.

By chance Madeira was discovered—or rediscovered. About the year 1344, in the reign of Edward III., it is said that a young Englishman, Robert Macham by name, eloping with a lady of high degree, or, as the old chronicler puts it, "with a Woman that he had stolen," took ship at Bristol for Spain, but in a great tempest scudded far to the south and saw no land till they sighted a pleasant, but then uninhabited, isle, now called Madeira. Here "they cast anchor in that haven or bay which now is called Machico after the name of Macham. And because his lover was sea-sick he went on land with some of his company, and the ship with a good wind did sail away." Marooned on this desert and unknown isle, the poor lady, unable to bear up, faded away and died—"died for thought," says the old record, by which presumably is meant that she brooded, and died, practically of home-sickness. "Macham, which loved her dearly, built a chapel or hermitage, to bury her in, calling it by the name of Jesus, and caused his name and hers to be written or graven upon the stone of her tomb, and the occasion of their arrival there. And afterward he ordered a boat made of one tree (for there be trees of great compass about) and went to sea in it with those men that he had and were left behind with him." It is said that in due time, "without sail or oar," they reached the coast of Morocco, which "the Moores which saw it took it to be a marvellous thing." Accordingly they seized Macham and his men, and gave them to their king as a curiosity, who presently passed them on "for a miracle unto the King of Castile." The information which Macham was able to give, it is said, "moved many of France and Castile to go and find the island"; but once more for a time it vanished from the ken of man.

But now the nations of Europe had begun to awaken, if as yet they stirred but drowsily. Spain laid hands on the Canaries, though thereafter, for a, time, with that she rested content. Then arose amongst the nations one destined to give back to the world all, and more than all, that it had lost. While Europe thus long lay asleep, Northern and Central Africa had been overrun by the Arabs, who traded and carried their religion, and with it the institution of slavery, even down to the banks of the Niger. Checked by the vast coastal forests, however, Mohammedan sway did not extend to the seaboard, lower down, at least, than about the latitude of Cape Verde. To Portugal, that David amongst the nations, it was left to rediscover those coasts which since the day of the Carthaginians had existed hardly even in tradition. France, it is true, lays claim to have been the first to rediscover the Guinea coast, but the claim is not supported by reliable evidence. In the year 1326 they say that a French vessel, storm-driven, running far to the south, sighted the African land, and that shortly thereafter there sprang up a regular trade between the Guinea coast and Dieppe. In 1382, says Villaut de Bellefond, who himself visited the Gold Coast in 1666, Rouen and Dieppe merchants sent three ships to explore the coastline, one of which vessels, the Vierge, went as far as a place which, from the quantity of gold there obtained by them, they called La Mine. This place, Villaut affirms, they occupied till 1484. But in 1481 the Portuguese built a fort at that place—Elmina, they called it—and there were then no traces of French occupation, no sign of the buildings which Villaut says the French erected. Villaut appears to base his claim partly on the fact that on the Gold Coast in 1666 he found villages bearing French names—Petit Dieppe, for example. But it is well known that Petit Dieppe and other places were founded by the French in 1616, and were presently abandoned. In any case, no contemporary historian makes mention of French West African trade or exploration in those early days; nor, when Portugal claimed the right to exclude foreigners from the Guinea trade on the ground of her own prior discovery, did the French then make any counter-claim. All the evidence of French discovery is evidence dating from Villaut's day and later. The claim was revived in Paris in 1728, when mention was made of a Deed of Association, said to bear the date 1365, signed by Dieppe and Rouen merchants, and entered into for the purpose of carrying on a trade with West Africa. Unfortunately, this interesting document—if it ever existed—was said to have perished in the fire which destroyed the Dieppe Town Hall in 1694 during the English and Dutch bombardment, when the town was reduced to ashes. If, however, such an agreement was at that period made between merchants of Dieppe and of Rouen, it is strange that Rouen should have no evidence to show on the subject. In this same fire also perished, it was said, evidence that a Frenchman, a sailor of Dieppe, reached the mouth of the river Amazon four years prior to the discovery of America by Columbus. Evil was the fate that placed documents so precious within reach of the perfidious English fleet! There is no evidence on which to base the claim of France to prior discovery of the Guinea coast; to Portugal belongs the undoubted honour.

In search of a route to India, as early as the year 1291 two Genoese galleys had sailed far down the West African coast, how far, no man may say, for the expedition vanished into the unknown, leaving beyond a certain point no trace. Years later men in Genoa had not ceased to pray for its safety. In 1375, also, a vessel sailed from Majorca in search of the fabled African "River of Gold." It, too, dropped over the edge of the world, perished in the "Sea of Darkness," as men deemed. So, before the year 1412, Cape Non on the coast of Morocco was looked on by European nations as the boundary of the possible, as far as navigation was concerned. Beyond that they dared not sail, though it is true that the Norman Baron, Jehan de Bethencourt, driven by adverse winds during a voyage to the Canaries, did once find himself off the African coast to the south of Cape Non, and somewhere in the neighbourhood of Cape Bojador.

Now at last, however, Portuguese sailors, becoming more venturesome, boldly rounded Cape Non and crept down as far as Cape Bojador. There they halted and returned, daunted by the fierce currents that sweep round that headland—currents, their fears told them, that were but the fringe of some bottomless whirlpool that presently would suck them into its insatiable maw. "Whoso rounds Cape Bojador," they said, "will never return."

And now appeared on the scene that man from whose brain and energy sprang results so great, not merely for his country, but for the world—Prince Henry of Portugal, "Prince Henry the Navigator." In character he was "pure and disinterested to a wonderful degree, and his life is well summed up in the motto which he took for himself, Talent de bien faire. He combined intense love of science with practical ability in peace and war. He had religious enthusiasm to carry him forward, and a calm steadfastness which made him content to sow, leaving to future generations the fruits of his patient work. Beyond all others he was the man who taught the European world to brave the perils and win the secrets of the great dim ocean, the first and well-nigh the noblest figure in modern history . . . Modern history dates from the Fifteenth Century. Its birthplace was Portugal; its father Prince Henry the Navigator."

Born in 1394, Prince Henry was the son of John I. of Portugal by his wife Princess Philippa of England, sister of King Henry IV. There was thus in his veins doubly a strain of the blood of rovers, for of the nations of Europe, those in the world's history that have left the greatest mark as explorers and colonisers have been Portugal and Britain. Is it too much to think that through his English mother he got that tenacity of purpose which enabled him to persevere in his course, no matter how disappointing the achievement, how discouraging the outlook?

It was at the taking of Ceuta by the Portuguese in 1415, (an event at which we read that King John of Portugal was "principally assisted by the English marchants"), that Prince Henry learned from Moorish prisoners that a country green and fertile, teeming with gold and ivory, existed far south of the land of the Moors, a country beyond the ken of Europe, beyond that burning region in the heart of Africa under whose fierce heat men deemed that human life could not exist. Seized by overwhelming desire to discover this terra incognita, thus to bring great honour and glory to his native land, Prince Henry on his return to Portugal set himself to study how best to carry out his project, neglecting no means whereby he might further his plans.

Out on the rocky headland of Sagres, (near neighbour to that Cape, St. Vincent, where so often the guns of Britain's navy have thundered in bitter earnest since Prince Henry's day) he built for himself an observatory. Here, with help of the leading Portuguese scientific men of that time, he pondered over maps, studied the heavens, prepared his plans. For over twenty years he alone bore the cost of every expedition that went forth. Ships were sent out by him, with orders to double Cape Bojador and thence to sail south; but long years passed ere success was his. The first effort was made in 1418, but the result of this voyage added nothing to the world's knowledge of Africa, for instead of holding its southerly course, the ship drove west from the coast of Morocco and made an unknown isle, which they named Porto Santo. In the following year the neighbouring island of Madeira was rediscovered, and steps were taken to establish colonies there and at Porto Santo. It is worthy of note that the first governor of the latter was Perestrello, father-in-law of Columbus, and that the latter himself spent some time in that isle.

Men grew bolder as their knowledge increased, and as they realised more surely that the bounds of ocean towards the setting sun were wider than had yet been traversed by the most adventurous of mariners. Influenced now by the unwearied promptings of Prince Henry, they began with greater courage to push westward. Hence, one of the islands of the Azores was rediscovered in 1431, an island close on a thousand miles west of Cape Rocca in Portugal. We have already seen that these islands, the Azores, appear with considerable accuracy in a map bearing the date 1351, and even thus far also do the Carthaginians of old seem to have voyaged in their day. In one of the group, Corvo, Punic coins are said to have been found.

But still Cape Bojador remained unconquered. Time and again Portuguese ships approached that dreaded headland; time and again they returned, baffled by their own fears, and discouraged. Then in 1434 one Gilianez, more bold than his fellows, ventured round, and returned to report a sea not more terrible than that to the north of the cape, a heat as little to be feared. But in the hearts of those who succeeded Gilianez, as they pushed south, dread reawakened. They found men with black skins. "See," said they, "how the terrible sun has scorched these unhappy wretches!" And to the same cause they attributed the woolly hair of the natives. The surf that fringed the shore, even in calm weather, raged as at home it had never been known to rage, the foam was whiter. "Look," they said, "the very ocean boils from the great heat!" And they hastened back to Prince Henry to report that, as their fathers had believed, so it was,—the land was unfit for habitation. But not thus was Prince Henry to be discouraged. In face of every obstacle, in spite of difficulties greater than in our day it is possible to realise, undismayed he clung to his project, firm in the belief that perseverance must be rewarded, not alone by the discovery of new lands, but even by the finding of a new route to the Indies.

And now Fortune's smile became less sour. In 1441 Antonio Gonzales and Nuno Tristan set forth to continue the work of exploration. Tristan succeeded in reaching the neighbourhood of Cape Blanco (lat. 20 37' N.), round which the Carthaginian galleys of Hanno had tossed ere they reached the island of Arguin. There Tristan kidnapped, and took home with him, several Moors. Now these men were, as it chanced, men of note in their own country, and the ransoms they offered in exchange for liberty were on a scale which tempted the Portuguese to restore them to their homes. In the following year, therefore, a ship was sent to land the captives on that part of the coast whence they had been taken; and to that arm of the sea where this transaction took place Gonzales gave the name Rio d'Oro, from the quantity of gold dust which was paid over by the friends of the ransomed ones. Negro slaves also formed part of the ransom, a novelty that roused endless excitement and wonder in Lisbon. Gaping crowds flocked around wherever the blacks appeared. And on those who were permitted to gaze at or to handle the gold dust, to run the yellow grains of gleaming metal through their fingers, the effect was as is ever the effect of gold on the average human being. Could they but get to this wonderful new land, what so easy as to bear away with them vast store of this shining dust? No more need they work; wealth beyond the dreams of avarice should be theirs.

Soon many vessels were on their way to this country of the golden sands, and the work, instead, as heretofore, of being the effort of one unaided man, rapidly became the national passion.

In 1443, Tristan, working for Prince Henry, discovered Arguin. In 1444 a private venture of six ships sent out from the port of Lagos attained as far south as the river Senegal, whence they brought a number of negro slaves; but running short of provisions, the expedition was forced to return without venturing farther afield. Then in 1445 Dinis Diaz passed the mouth of the Senegal, discovered Cape Verde, and returned bringing with him four negroes. Unlike those who had hitherto been brought to Europe,—slaves obtained from the Moors,—these four men were captured in their own country, a capture which bred, as such acts do breed, great trouble in the aftertime. For when, but little more than a year later, Nuno Tristan led an expedition up the river Gambia, his boats were surrounded, and he and all his men killed or wounded,—not one escaped unhurt. Nuno himself regained his ship, but died of his wounds, and there was left but a crew of four to navigate the vessel home, these four, men lacking knowledge, who knew not so much as in what direction to steer. To and fro they fared over the heaving face of the waters, fear gnawing at their heart-strings, despair pursuing them, as month merged into month and never the coast of Portugal loomed on the horizon. Haggard and wan, lean with anxiety, were they when home once more was gained.

Now at last, after all the years of endeavour, Portuguese mariners had found the country of gold and ivory of which Prince Henry dreamed so long. The Papal Bull of 1441, granting to Portugal possession of all lands discovered by her subjects between Cape Bojador and the Indies, for a time at least secured their ownership, and they pushed onwards diligently, ever making fresh discoveries. Alvan Fernandez skirted along the coast a hundred miles beyond the spot reached by Tristan—not, however, without the shedding of blood; and in 1445 and 1446, Cadamosto, a Venetian in the pay of Prince Henry, twice ascended the Gambia, trading for elephants' teeth and gold, fighting, and generally exploring the river more thoroughly than Tristan had been enabled to do. During the second voyage Cadamosto also discovered the Cape Verde islands.

But now came an end to the life of that man from whose energy and dogged determination had sprung results so great. "The grand impulse to discovery was not given by chance, but was the deeply meditated effort of one master mind." That master mind was now at rest, its energy for ever stilled. In November 1460, in his sixty-seventh year, Prince Henry died. "He was not destined to see the full results of his long unselfish devotion to the cause of science and discovery. But, ere he died, he had taught his countrymen their lesson; he had trained them to press on to the south, to reach year after year some new cape, some new river, some further landmark on the African coast. He had made the way comparatively easy for after-comers; for, by the time of his death, men's hearts were hardened and their imaginations fired to seek and to find new lands of promise."

With mainspring broken, the nation's work for a time fell out of gear; the hand which so long had guided the infant footsteps of navigation withdrawn, what wonder that those footsteps paused for a space and became less certain?

But the thirst for gold is a thirst not to be readily quenched; once a gold-seeker, always a gold-seeker. The work of exploration, if no longer a national undertaking, was soon again vigorously taken up by private enterprise, tempted by the yellow gleam of gold, and by the great profits to be made on those ventures. Farther and farther along the coast pushed the Portuguese. Almost as Prince Henry lay a-dying,—at least, at no great interval after his death,—and by an expedition of his planning, Sierra Leone with its splendid harbour was discovered. Then in 1469 the King, Alfonso, nephew of Prince Henry, leased the African trade for a period of five years to Fernando Gomez, on certain conditions, one being that at least one hundred leagues of coast to the south, beginning from Sierra Leone, should be explored each year.

Along the shores of the Gulf of Guinea sailed Gomez and his men, past the mouths of the Niger, past the Cameroons Mountains, and on down to the islands of Fernando Po, St. Thomas, and Annobon. It was during one of those voyages that the Portuguese first landed on the Gold Coast, at the place which they called Elmina, where gold was so plentiful that shortly it seemed to them a wise precaution to build there a fort for the better protection of their trade in that commodity. This is the spot which the French claim to have occupied till 1484; but when in 1482 the Portuguese laid the foundations of their stronghold, San Jorge da Mina, the place was innocent of all trace of the French, the only thing European found there, indeed, being a Portuguese sailor named Juan Bernardo, a gold prospector, who had lived some time in the country and could talk with fluency the language of the natives. To the expedition which sailed from Lisbon for the purpose of building this fort of San Jorge and a church at Elmina, Bernardo must have been little short of a god-send as interpreter.

The force despatched by King John II. to build and to garrison this fort included two hundred mechanics and labourers and five hundred soldiers, the whole commanded by Diego d'Azambuja. On landing, the commander despatched Bernardo to arrange a meeting with the paramount chief of the district. Meantime, the Portuguese, armed, but with weapons hidden under their clothing, marched in solemn state to the shade of a huge tree, near to the spot deemed most favourable for the position of their fort. There, the Royal Standard having been run up to a lofty branch, mass celebrated, prayers offered up for the success of the undertaking, d'Azambuja, clad in gorgeous uniform and wearing round his neck a heavy collar of gold, seated himself on a raised chair, or throne, between double lines of his troops, and awaited the coming of the African chief. Preceded by a band—whose music, we may assume, to European ears was more powerful than pleasant—the chief arrived. Bedecked from head to foot with plates of gold, a chain of the same metal about his throat, an infinity of little golden bells attached to his beard and to his woolly hair, the great man marched slowly onward, surrounded by inferior chiefs decorated only a little less richly than their sovereign. The king's body-guard, like their chiefs, were naked, save for scanty covering of monkey skins or palm leaves round the loins; for headgear, a helmet of skin closely covered with sharks' teeth lent stature and ferocity to men already, from their numbers, sufficiently formidable; for arms, they bore shield and spear, bow and arrow.

Portuguese missionary


Presents having been exchanged—on the part of the Portuguese, no doubt, rich gifts of beads and pieces of iron or of glass; on the part of the negroes, trifles of gold dust or ivory—d'Azambuja, through the interpreter, harangued the African king. He had come, he said, from a mighty monarch, whose power was boundless and beyond reach of his poor words to describe. It behoved the chief, therefore, to seek the friendship of this Potentate, to which purpose it were well that he should consent to the erection in his country of a fort where the speaker and his men might dwell in amity with the Africans. But before all this, and even more important, was his King's overruling desire to instruct the chief and his people in the True Faith,—("though I do not pretend," quaintly says de Faria, the Portuguese historian of the scene, "to persuade the world our only design was to preach").

The chief in his reply was diplomatic, rather than eager to welcome the strangers. He was sensible of the honour offered to him, and always, said he, it had been his wish to keep on the most friendly terms with the white men, and to help them to fill their ships; he was glad to see the white strangers, but hitherto those who had come to him had been men of little account, whose last desire was to make a lengthy stay with him once their ships were laden. Now the strangers were men who in their own land were great chiefs; they were led by one who claimed "descent from the Deity who created the day and the night," and they asked permission to build houses and to remain in his country. It was a poor place; they would get none of the things to which in their own rich country they were accustomed; there would be disputes and difficulties between the white men and the black. On the whole, it would be well that things should remain as they had been; when their ships were filled they should again depart.

He was a wise chief, this, and his words were words of wisdom. But naturally they did not please d'Azambuja; it became necessary to show the iron hand in the glove of velvet. Arguments, promises, bribes were tried, and not without effect; but the final argument, the argument that compelled the chief's consent, was the hint that that consent might chance to be done without.

Work on the fort, and on the chapel within the fort, was begun without delay; but at once arose trouble which all the commander's diplomacy and tact were at first powerless to assuage, and which ere the angry natives were mollified cost heavily in presents to the chiefs. There stood near the great tree under whose welcome shade the Portuguese had sheltered on first landing, a huge rock or boulder, of all things the source most welcome as a quarry for stone with which to build their walls. Accordingly, without thought or knowledge of possible consequences of their action, without consideration of possible native prejudice, the Portuguese workmen began the task of breaking up the rock. But it chanced that this giant boulder was in native eyes most sacred, the home, no less, of a powerful local god or fetish. The white strangers were committing sacrilege! "Kill! Kill!" rose the cry; and narrowly was bloodshed averted. Not once, but scores of times, has ignorance of native custom, or contempt for native prejudice, led to similar scenes, and seldom have the offenders emerged so cheaply from the fray as now did the Portuguese. Many a time, even in our own day, have such incidents ended in hideous massacre. Over often do tourists, and—with sorrow one must say it—more especially do certain British  tourists, give unforgivable offence by their worse than inconsiderate behaviour in mosques and other buildings which are sacred in the eyes of the natives of that land on which the tourist may at the time be bestowing the honour of his passing attention. The smoking of cigarettes in sacred buildings, the loud and blatant talk there of empty minds, the inconsiderate trampling amongst persons devoutly worshipping, (wrongfully perhaps, yet according to their lights), are outrages which frequently lead, and rightly lead, to trouble. But there be men among us who care for none of these things. Not readily do some of us tolerate the religion or the prejudices of others.

In no great space of time Fort San Jorge da Mina was made tenable; then, the chapel having been consecrated, d'Azambuja sent the fleet back to Portugal, whilst, with a garrison of sixty men, he himself for three years remained on the coast as Governor. This was the first permanent European settlement in West Africa; and this same Elmina is now one of the chief stations in the British Gold Coast possessions.

In 1484, Diogo Co, sailing along the coast in quest of the long-sought-for route to the Indies, discovered in about lat. 6 S. the mouth of the mighty Congo. On its southern bank he erected a pillar of stone, from which circumstance he called the river the Rio do Padrao; and, sailing on, he reached lat. 13 26' S., where on the Cabo do Lobo (now Cape St. Mary) he erected a second inscribed pillar. This stone has been recovered intact, and its inscription records that in the year 1482 the King "ordered this land to be discovered by Diogo Co." No further went this expedition, but in the following year Co, in command of three vessels, made his way up the Congo some ninety miles, and there, on the rocks, is still to be seen the inscription carved by his orders: "Thus far came the vessels of the illustrious King Joo of Portugal: Do Co, Po Annes, Po da Costa"; then a further list of names (one of them that of a man, Pero Escolar, who was afterwards pilot of one of Vasco da Gama's vessels), and some crosses. The date of the carving, 1485, can be fixed from the use of a certain Royal Coat of Arms which accompanies the inscription. On this occasion Co proceeded as far south as 21 50', where he again set up a pillar, calling the place the Cabo do Padro. This pillar, or cross, was found in 1893 and is now in a Berlin museum, but a facsimile of it has since, by order of the German Emperor, been erected on the spot from which the original was taken.

Diogo Co probably died here, for at this point he disappears from history; but ere the return of his vessels there came to Portugal an envoy from the powerful Chief of Benin, who by some information which he gave, aroused the dormant interest of the Portuguese King in the mythical "Prester John." The mysterious personage of whom the envoy spoke could be, the King believed, none other than the long-sought "Prester John," and he determined to verify his belief. To that end, searchers were despatched in divers directions, by land vi  Egypt and the Nile, by way of the Red Sea, by the coast of West Africa. In connection with the last, Bartholomew Dias was ordered to take charge of the expedition which the King designed should sail round the continent.

With two small vessels of fifty tons each, accompanied by a tender even smaller, Dias sailed in the year 1486, towards the end of which year he reached lat. 26 38' S. (where he set up his first cross, part of which is now in the Cape Town museum). Thence, out of sight of land, he sailed—or perhaps was driven—right down into "the roaring forties." And, after heading eastward many days in hope of picking up the land,—beating, like an early Vanderdecken, to and fro, sore buffeted by breaking seas and tempestuous weather, gazing weary-eyed on giant albatrosses eternally soaring, as it might be the souls of those dead in sin condemned till Judgment Day to wheel 'twixt storm-wracked sky and angry sea,—he set his course to the north, and in due time sighted a high coast-line, presently anchoring in what is now called Mossel Bay. Thence he worked his way along the coast to the Rio de Infante (now called the Great Fish River), where his crew mutinied and forced him to turn back. On the homeward voyage Dias first of modern navigators sighted Table Mountain, and the story goes that the southern point of Africa received from him the name of Cabo Tormentoso (the Stormy Cape), in token of the boisterous weather there experienced, but that King John, sanguine of the realisation of his dream of reaching the Indies by this route, re-christened it Cabo da Boa Esperana. Touching at San Jorge da Mina on the homeward voyage, Dias picked up another baffled seeker after the mythical Prester John—Duarte Pacheco, with whom African fever had dealt hardly as he essayed to reach that monarch's kingdom by way of one of the great rivers of West Africa. Unfortunate Dias! But for the timidity of his ships' crews there is little doubt that he would have anticipated his more famous countryman, Vasco da Gama, who, a few years later, was the first explorer to reach the Indies by way of the Cape of Good Hope. A little more courage on the part of his men, or, mayhap, on his part a little more of the masterful, unrelenting temperament that made da Gama feared, and the latter had never been hailed as the discoverer of the sea-route to the Indies.