Early European Contacts In Africa


By the second half of the 15th century European contries were now united under centralized governments by strong kings. These countries were Spain, Portugal, Britain and France. These kings were in support of discoveries in Africa and India. The Turks had in the 15th century blocked the Mediterranean and Black sea routes through which spices and other luxurious goods of Asia entered Europe. A need for a new route paved the way for exploration.

Renaissance; the need for knowledge. This period made people anxious and have thirst for knowledge, people wanted to know more about the world. A lot of voluntary organization side by side the government came out willingly to find out about the unknown parts of the World.

Instruments of navigation now became available, compass and astrolabe were two wonderful instruments got from the Chinese and Arabs and use for finding directions and positions both at sea and land. Sailors and explorers could use such instruments as guide to get to anywhere both at sea and land.


It is generally believed that the portuguese were the first to make a planned,systematic and effective exploration of the African coast.

The portuguese visits had unlike other European powers e.g. France and Britain lasting results on Africa because the first definite and sustained connections between Africa and Europe was established by the portuguese in the 15th century.

Motive of the portuguese exploration and the other European powers at their own different times cannot be separated. They all basically had the same motives, these were;

1. Commercial/economic or need for trade in the items like gold, spices, ivory and slaves.

2. Religious: They need to spread and establish christianity.

3. Political: The need to extend power to Africa, that is by acquiring colonies.

COMMERCIAL: They wanted to trade by sea with Africa to secure the trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory and slave which was then monopolized by the Moors and Arabs.

Also they wanted to reach india and spice Islands of the East of the sea route round southern coast of Africa. The portuguese also realised that the importation of Negro slaves into portugal would help to ease the strain in their hard pressed labour market.

RELIGIOUS: After the capture of ceuta (the Moorish city) in 1415 Prince Henry of portugal began to think of getting rid of the muslims in North Africa. In order to further extent this motive Henry tried to make alliance with Prester John in Ethiopia whom he believed will help in getting rid of the muslims in Africa. They were seriously determined to propagate Christianity and convert the people into Christianity.

POLITICAL: Portugal was a small country in Europe towards the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th century. So Henry wanted to make Portugal a leading European power. He hoped to do this by acquiring colonies in Africa and Asia. In this he thinks Portugal would acquire that power and importance which she could never get by influence in Europe. Thus colonization as one of the reasons.


The Trans-Saharan Trade: The Sahara may have deemed a barrier to face movement between North anbd West Africa, involving as it did a journey of about 1,500 kilometres across trackless waste, with the few Oasis where water could be obtained.

Even so for more than two thousand years, men have trekked over the desert, surviving the extreme heat of the day and bitter cold at the night. This must be always remembered when considering the history of West Africa. The desert was not impenetrable and across it came trade items and on one occasion, an army of conquest from North to West Africa (The Moroccan invasion of Songhai empire, 1591).

The camels ability to survive for days without water enabled men to carry goods and ideas across the inhospitable desert from North to West Africa.

The connection between North and West Africa and probably with other parts of Africa, Asia and Europe crossing through the Sahara desert is otherwise known as the trans-Sahara trade, this trade became very important indeed for it turned out to be one of the world’s most formidable barriers to communication and so linked the rest of Africa especially the Western Sudan with North African to their mutual enrichment.

Also, the trans-Saharan trade attracted the merchants of Europe to North African parts and supplied them, with the products of Africa, especially Gold. It was the desire to capture the trans-Saharan gold trade from North African middlemen, that later led to the exploration of the coasts of African by the portuguese in the 15th century.

More so, this trade brought with it the religion and culture of Islam which more than anything else profoundly influenced the political and social development of the sudanese empires and states.

The chief articles of trade imported into the sudan from the North were salt, copper for making tools and ornaments, brass vessels, glass beads, cloth and brocade, dried fish and dates, cowrie shells, books, horses, fire arms and armour and so on.

Salt was the most important and most valuable commodity imported into the Sudan. It was obtained from the salt mines in the Sahara, chiefly Taghaza, Taodeni and Bilma.

And the articles which the Sudanese gave in exchange for the above commodities were principally gold and slaves. Others were kolanuts obtained from the forest, ivory, honey, corn and skins.

The gold was obtained mainly from the regions of upper Volta, the gold producing area between the Niger and Senegal was known as Wangara.

Slaves were people captured during wars and raids and exported in large numbers to North Africa and South West Asia where there was a great demand for household slave.

The Niger Delta Trade: As we started in the motive for the coming of the Europeans to the coast of Africa, the main motive was trade from the 15th century onward.

Although before the coming of the Europeans, there was coastal trade in addition to the trans-Saharan trade in Nigeria, for instance, Benin was trading with the people of the coast from the Niger to the Volta in the famous “Benin cloth”.

It was the Dutch that took over this trade, they were first serving as middle men but eventually they destroyed the trade replacing the Benin cloth with indian textile.

The Delta trade can be divided into two basing our division on the types of items of trade that predominated at a given point in time; these were commodity trade and slave trade.

Commodity Trade: The portuguese, the Dutch and other European late comers were the first and foremost interested in the commodity trade.

Commodity trade was the trade in other items apart from human beings. These items were principally gold and ivory with small amout of pepper, grains and gum-Arabic. They were buying grains in present day liberia, ivory in Ivory-Coast, Gold in Ghana, Benin cloth and pepper from Benin.

Of the above items, the most important one was Gold. It is estimated that about 拢100,000 value worth of gold was exported annually in the 16th century in exchange with the below items; textile materials, beads, trinkets, looking glass and cowrie shells.

The gold collected from Africa was used for the minting of money in Europe. This trade in the Delta was done through the supervision of local rulers and their agents.

No wonder, therefore that the Oba of Benin was reported to be very fluent in the portuguese language by 1553. Trade in commodity was very peaceful, it saw no violence, and most of the wars were between the Europeans struggling for monopoly and domination. This was the trade Europeans engaged mostly from the 15th to the 17th century.

The Slave Trade: The trade between the European and the Africans during the era of the commodity trade was very peaceful in the Niger Delta Area. The trade in human beings which the European called Atlantic slave trade was started in 1441 by the portuguese because it was not taken seriously because the Europeans major concern was to get gold in the initial.

But with the discovery of American mines and the establishment of plantations there was need for a strong human labour. The plantation owners tried to use the labour of the white and the red indians but the died after a short time, at first they use the local red indians as their labour force but Spanish brutality, overwork and the ravage of European diseases soon decimated the indigenous population.

At the suggestion of Bartholome de las Cases, a christian Missionary, it was decided to import West African Labour.

Thus in 1510, royal orders were issued for the transport of fifty slaves from Spain to Hispaniola, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade had begun. The export process was speeded up in 1518 by the first delivery of slaves direct from the Guinea coast to the West Indies.

By 1530, these early trickles of slaves had become a flood, and by the end of the sixteenth century the main commodity sought by European traders in Africa was slaves.

The European mines and plantatiom owners were therefore demanding only younger men and women between the ages of 15-30 years.

The Organization Of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was big business employing men and large capital and was highly organized both in Africa amnd Europe. The commercial demand came from the Americans, the distributive from Europe, the Supply from Africa, the evolving of the term, ‘triangular trade’.

External Organization Of The Trade:

European business men equiped the ships with the tools of the trade; such as iron shackles and fetters to chain up the human cargo; feeding bowls and food containers, whips and special chisels designed to knock out front teeth so that slaves who tried to starve to death could be forcibly fed.

They then purchase trade goods for sale in West Africa which includes metal bars, knives, enamel bowls, guns, ammunition, spirituous liquors, cloths, clothing and trinkets such as mirrors and cheap, colourful jewelry. With these iteme, they set sails for the Guinea Coast where recieved in exchange.

In West Africa, the European merchants did very profitable business for indigenous traders had no idea of the actual value of these European imports in their countries of origin.

Shipmasters completed this transaction in West Africa as quickly as possible to avoid loss of life from tropical diseases.

They then crowded their slaves on board ship for the journey across the Atlantic, commonly known as the “middle passage”. Often the number of slaves grossly exceeded the capacity of ships to accomodate them decently.

In such circumstances, slaves might literally be laid on top of each other in the stuffy hold and only be taken up on deck for short exercise periods. With human beings treated less reverently than cattle, this was the worst part of the voyage.

In such unhygienic and brutal conditions, disease was likely to occur and to spread with alarming rapidity. Many a slave who left Africa never reached America.

Nor were the slave shippers immune from infection themselves and they knew that if the relaxed their guard over the slaves, they would break free and seize control of the ships.

Still the risks were worth it, for the ultimate profit per slave landed in America would be anything from 拢5 to 拢36 in contemporary money.

In the Americas, slaves were panned in the acknowledged slave markets to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Prospectively purchasers inspected the wares; they prodded slave stomach, looked at their teeth, peered into their eyes, pinched their muscles and guaged the working capacity of each slave.

Then the sale began and lot by lot the slaves passed into ownership of the highest bidders. The customers wealthy plantation and mine owners, or dealers trading to more remote markets-settled in local produce to be exported to Europe, gold, silver, tobacco, rice, ginger, cotton, precious stones and above all, sugar, rum and molasses were loaded into the holds for export at prices were below their marketable value in Europe.

There the merchants took in cash their total profit on the several distinct transactions. The size of the profit can be demonstrated by the reported success of the merchant of the city of liverpool in the years 1783-93. Their total net profit on the purchase and re-sale of about 303,00 slaves was no less than 拢2,360,000.

Internal Organization Of The Trade

European and later Brazilian, slave traders did not invest their capitals in vains to the Guinea Coast in the hope of finding slaves to buy. They knew the slaves would be available, and they knew where to buy them.

Along the Coast, there were a number of major slave ports such as Elmina, Cape Coast, Accra, Whydah, Porto Novo and the city-states of the Niger-Delta, and there were a host of other slave centres with which European merchants established successful and regular contact.

This slaving ports were linked by well-defined routes to the slave markets and capital cities of the interior such as Salaga and oke-oden; and Kumasi, Agomey and Oyo. The season for delivery at the coast were well known.

Sources Of Slaves

Where hazard lies in internal organization of the trade was the actual production of the slaves themselves. People became slaves by birth as penalty for a crime committed or as recompense for a family dept. Unwary travelers or workers on the outskirts of village farms might be kidnapped.

Powerful rulers also recieved annual quotas of slaves from subject peoples. But by far and away from the greatest proportion of slaves sold across the Atlantic were captives in recent wars and raiding sometimes, convicted criminals and some lazy members of families form basis or sources of slaves.

Slaves captured or bought in the interior were yoked together and marched towards the coast. And sold to the European slave merchants.

Legitimate Trade: Yet, there is a new commercial development int the Niger-Delta of Nigeria and there impact on the Coastal states and their hinterland.

By new commercial development, the change from an old trade to new one in which the parties involed felt it is a step forward for them. This means that the slave trade which was abolished because it was criminal, illegal and inhuman is not a good trade of earning profit, thus the growth of legitimate trade was encouraged.

In this case trade was on raw materials and manufactured goods (products) brought from Britian and other European countries. Thus there is a new commercial development , the items of trade in this type of commerce were; raw materials like cocoa, rubber, palm oil and kernel, cotton, groundnut, kola nut etc and these were got from the coastal states and their hinterland.

This new trade or legitimate trade as it is called was introduced by the British in place of the slave trade, the trade items were all exported to Europe.

Trade and commerce ensured a continuing link between Europe and Africa. In order to promote trade, the British as well as other Europeans who participated in the political affairs of African communities situated in the coastal areas.

In addition this shift in trade practices caused competition between the individual trading companies of Europe.

Legitimate trade has a lot of effect on the people of the coastal states and the hinterland. The pattern of the life of these people change from what it used to be when they had no contact with the Europeans.

The contact of the European on the coastal people had a lot of influence over the political economics, religious, social and cultural life of the people.

Economic: Trade now shifted to the coast, the old trans-Saharan trade route was gradually disintegrating. There was now a high demand for European goods i.e. Manufactured of finished products that were important from abroad. This include gin, soap, textile materials, margarine etc.

Our local industries are beginning to die out because the people now felt thet they could get whatever items they needed from the Europeans. Raw materials were the main export from the coastal states in exchange for the finished products which is of less value to the Africans.

Political: This new commercial development paves the way of colonization. The Europeans came in as the merchants, missionaries, politicians, etc.

It was the trade that made them feel they should have the whole ares of Nigeria under their jurisdiction (authority). For instance, lagos was conquered and occupied by the British in 1851.

Europeans powers now began to negotiate anti-slave trade treaties with chiefs of the area of West Africa under their influence. Thus the new commercial development i.e. Legitimate trade was made possible because of the coastal people; most of them got influence by the colonial masters.

Social: Life of the people ranging from general condition of living changed. Most people now consider old traditional ways of doing things out dated and uncivilized. Items of trade which reflected more on the European pattern of life were brought and sold for use in the coastal areas and the hinterland.

Religious: The role of the missionaries cannot be dismissed. In this regard, right from the period of exploration they were carrying out their dutyof converting people to Christianity.

It was the humanitarian mind of the abolition of slave trade and the emergence of legitimate trade that made it possible that is the abolition of slave trade in 1807.

Missionaries became teachers, part of the curriculum was teaching English, Arithmetics and writing at elementary level. They, because of the ill or evil nature of slave trade encourage legitimate trade which helped them in the establishment of centres of learning e.g. Schools, Churches and Mission Hospitals.

Culture: The items of trade seems to be a factor of acculturation. European culture which is solely characterized by western ideas and values was affected with the growth of legitimate trade, the new commercial development made it possible for the people of the coastal states able to exchange or get ideas from the Europeans.

In this, process having much closer contact (with the Europeans) the people at the coast upheld the European culture because of the thought that it was more civilized, educative and modern.

To sum it up, the new commercial development paved the way for international relations through trade with Africa.

Legitimate trade therefore can be said to have a lasting effect on the people of Africa especially those along the Coast and its hinterland. Their nearness to the coast changes all the aspect of their lives to suit the interst of the Europeans along these coastal lines.


The East African coast had been in contact with the outside world for centuries. It attracted merchants from different parts of the world but mainly from the southern Arabian peninsula and the Western India, later on china and portugal became involved in the coast of East Africa.

Every December the Monsoon winds begin to blow from the North East and continued with remarkable consistency until February and from April to September the process is reversed and the Monsoon blows from the South West.

What the Arab traders did was to get the “Dhows”, from December up to Jenuary the Oman merchants will sail from Southern Arabia to eastwards to India, then croos the Idian ocen to Afraca, and sail back after a few months.

The East African coastline was visited by ships trading in the Indian Ocean from very remote times. An account written in the first century A.D.

Mentions that there was a large port, possibly the Tanganyika coast, called Rhapta, where Arab merchants settled and intermarried with the Africa population.

No precise details are availabe concerned the early movements of people in East Africa, but there was no doubt that Bantu, Africans made their way to the coast, and that through them, the trade of the hinterland flow up the coast where Asians exchanged lances, hatchets, glass and so on for African ivory, tortoise-shell, rhinoceros-horn, gold and slaves.

There is no historical record as to when precisely merchants from Arabia and India began to settle on the east coast of Africa.

The immigrants learnt the language of Africans, married local women and were increasingly absorbed by the people among whom they settled.

In time commercial communities emerged. These were neither Arab nor African; they werw a mingling of many peoples-Arab, Bantu, India and even Persian. Through inter-marriage and social amalgamation a miscegenation of a culture known as the Swahili emerged, the swahili culture and language was basically Bantu tongue with strong Arabic influences which now forms a common language in much of East Afriaca and is widely spoken in the Congo also.

The East Africa coastal cities lived largely by trading in ivory and other African commodities.

Sofala also exported considerable quantities of gold and which was considered to be of the highest highest quantity for making sword blades, these goods were taken to India and China by Arab ships which in return imported chinese porcelain and Indian and Chinese cloths.

The arrival of the portuguese, inspired by a mixture of greed and religious enthusiasm, brutally pillaged the cities and largely destroyed their trade.

Until the coming of the Oman ruler, Sayyid said, to Zanzibar in the nineteenth century infused new life into the old trading system.

East African Coast And Early European Contact

The success of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage around the tip of Southern Africa set in motion a series of events which assured centuries of economic and political interest as the three forces sought dominance. These three forces were the Africans, Arabs and Europeans.

Rivalry between the Africans and Arabs was not new and was tempered by the fate of their historical, genetic and cultural relationship.

As we have noted, the rulers of the city-states in East were for the most part of Omani Arab descent.

On his second voyage to India in 1502, Vasco da Gama stopped at kilwa and under threat of burning the town, compelled the Sultans to acknowledge the supremacy of the portuguese king and pay an annual tribute.

A similar fate came to Lamu, Oja and Brava in 1506; and the next year the town of Mozambique was taken.

After the fall of the latter, serious colonization was undertaken, as a fort, hospital, church and living quarters were established. It was hoped that Mozambique would thrive on trade from Sofala, but it emerged as a secondary trading centre and after 1550 became the portuguese East African headquarters.

The most steadfast resistence on the Southern coast came from Mombasa which was attarked and plundered by the portuguese in 1505 and 1528. Although it recieved assistance from two Turkish in 1585 and 1587. The city thus became a headquarters for portuguese officials and a main port of call for its vessels.

The Imam of Omani assisted several of the coastal states and attack Fort Jesus, which finally fell in 1698. Having been dejected in the persian Gulf in 1622, the portuguese were now forced to concentrate their efforts on the Southern East African Coast.

Official portuguese settlements were planted in kilwa and Sofala, in addition to the town of Mozambique Trade Monopoly was rigidly enforced causing Arabs and Indians to migrate to Madagascar and elsewhere in reality, like the Arabs , their influence only encompassed the coast where over the years miscegenetion resulted in a class of Mulattoes between the Mass of Africans at the lower level society were hardly more affected than during earlier years.

The portuguese like the Arabs, encouraged trade not to have penetrated beyond the coast.

Although Sofala was attacked in 1506 and ambushes against portuguese units occurred thereafter, generally relations developed between the coast and the interior.

The portuguese had already established their position south of the Zambezi, in attempt to secure greater control over the Sofala gold trade, they penetrated the interior to sena in 1531 where a swahili settlement already existed.

None of these ventures proved very successful, but there did emerge the prazo, by the Dominicans and Jesuits. These planters collected head taxes, dealt in slaves, and for years were the most powerful local forces in the region.

Portuguese dominance in overseas exploration, trade and settlement did not long go unchallenged by other European powers. The first french ship rounded the Cape in 1529, the first English ship in 1580, and the first Dutch ship in 1595. These were the three powers who became the principal competitors of portugal, not only in East Africa but in Africa generally, and in the non-European World.

The economic factor was clearly manifested in the similar approaches; the European powers took in Africa and the world. The English initiative led to the organization of the East India company in 1602, and the french in 1664.

With the regular dispatch of armed trading fleets from these powers, portugal’s political and economic influence collapsed in most East African areas except the Southeast.

One result of the Dutch concerntration on the orient was that Britian and France became the principal competitors along the coast of East Africa between Ethiopia and Mozambique.

In the interior of East Africa, the fertile area of the inter-lacustine region was a natural centre of African civilization. Legend speaks of mysterious people called the Bachwezi and an ancient kingdom of kitwara. Whatever the truths of the legends may be, the discovery of ancient earthworks shows that powerfu states existed there in remote times.

In more recent periods the area saw the rise of the series of related kingdoms, Bunyoro, Ankole, Buganda, Toro and Busoga.

Bunyoro, one of the oldest was for long the most powerful, but during the eighteenth century of the newer state of Buganda with its highly centralized force began to get the upper hand.

Further south in the mountainous areas around Lake Kivu ther were the two powerful kingdoms of Rwanda and Urundi, each ruled by an aristocracy of cattle keepers, probably of Nilote descent.