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  • European Competition and Cooperation in Pre-Modern Globalization:"Portuguese" West And Central Africa, 1500-1600
  • Christopher Ebert (bio)

In 1559, the Portuguese Ambassador in Valladolid wrote to the Portuguese crown regarding information he had received about illegal trade on the Guinea Coast of Africa. Various reports indicated that ships had been leaving harbors of the Algarve and Andalusia for Tenerife in the Canary Islands. From there, they were sailing to the Guinea Coast in order to trade.1 This was in clear violation of agreements between the kingdoms of Castile and Portugal, which allowed the Portuguese the exclusive right to trade on the coast of Africa. Furthermore, according to the Ambassador, Martim Correia da Silva, Portuguese residents of the Algarve and the Canary Islands were complicit in this trade. This was a further violation, because even within the Kingdom of Portugal, trade to Africa was not free. Rather, it was contracted out to specific merchants who operated within a system of a royal monopoly.

The Kingdom of Portugal claimed exclusive rights in the southern Atlantic sea lanes, and this right had been acknowledged by papal decree in 1455.2 Whether or not merchant communities outside of Portugal would recognize these claims is another question, but, without a doubt, the crown attempted to enforce its monopoly as much as possible and restrict interlopers and competitors. Portuguese merchants were well established on the coasts of West and Central Africa, with trading outposts and rudimentary settlements ranging from Arguim to Angola. Given extremely limited resources, Portuguese trading settlements centered on strategic trading crossroads, especially mouths of rivers giving access to inland resources, such as the many rivers flowing to the Guinea Coast, or the Volta River, from which gold moved down to the Mina Coast. The system to exploit and control this trade was fundamentally driven by the revenue requirements of the Portuguese crown. It evolved throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, responding to changing conditions and historical contingencies both in Africa and Europe. Finally, the Portuguese 'monopoly' was decisively [End Page 53] breached, initially by ships from the Dutch Republic in the early seventeenth century.

A substantial amount of evidence, much of it emanating from Portuguese sources, shows the colossal extent of the failure of the Portuguese to prevent non-licensed traders from penetrating the sea-lanes of Africa throughout the sixteenth century. This is a subject which by now has also received substantial treatment in secondary sources, including the works of Ivana Elbl, P.E.H. Hair, Avelino Teixeira da Mota, and John K. Thornton.3 What scholars have generally failed to do is adequately explain why the Portuguese were so unsuccessful in maintaining a monopoly in Africa and why other groups of traders were able to evade the Portuguese restrictions. While the causes of Portuguese weakness may seem apparent, I believe the nature of European competition has frequently been misinterpreted.

One solution to this problem has been to credit competition from other mercantile 'nations.' Indeed, scholarly discussion about early European trade in Africa has generally favored the analytical framework of competition along supposedly 'national' lines.4 This has followed when scholars have 'read back' national narratives, or in some cases posited the existence of mercantilism before the seventeenth century, a dubious proposition no matter what the definition of mercantilism. These kinds of approaches have sometimes also followed from an uncritical reading of primary sources. Documents emanating from Portuguese crown officials showed the desire to keep out the merchant shipping of groups such as the 'French,' 'Flemish,' or 'English,' even though they surely did not understand these designations in a modern 'national' sense. Other accounts from Portugal's competitors in Africa also present problems of interpretation. The narrative accounts of early writers such as Linschoten and Hakluyt were at least partly intended to further a larger political agenda. Dutch and English authors in the later sixteenth century wrote in the context of war with Spain, which incorporated Portugal after 1580. Such writers—even when eyewitnesses—were as much polemicists as transcribers of history, and they wrote versions that were intended to incline contemporary policy makers towards state involvement in mercantile activity. In order to do so, they symbolically enlisted the past...


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