McGowan: Slavery in Historical Perspective

April 10, 2024

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

For people with an interest in history, traveling to another country is like being in an adult playground, so much that is new and different, so much to learn. Such was the case with my recent experience in Portugal.

For one thing, I had little understanding of the outsized role Portugal played in the “Age of Discovery,” roughly the years 1400 to 1800. People and museum signs proudly state that Portuguese explorers ushered in the “Age of Globalisation.” (Portuguese spelling) Explorers, supported by Portugal’s leaders, set sail from the country’s Atlantic coast to parts unknown.

Infante D. Henry, the king’s son, made only one voyage but became known as Prince
Henry the Navigator because he oversaw the maritime discoveries and exploration by Portuguese sailors. Those adventurous sailors and traders took their language to Africa, Asia and the Americas. One consequence is that Portuguese, the language, is the seventh most spoken language in the world.

The language can be heard in Africa and South America, especially Brazil, largely the
result of colonization and the slave trade. Caravels, the fleet ships the Portuguese used for transporting light cargo, initially traveled south to the west coast of Africa and joined the thriving, centuries-old slave trade. The slave traders shipped the “cargo” to the town of Lagos (long A, long O, S sounding like ‘sh’), the center of Portugal’s slave trade. The first slave ship arrived in 1444, more than three centuries before the Declaration of Independence.

Lagos had a museum in the old slave-trading square. Displays showed the history of
slavery, including the mass grave just outside the city walls, discovered in 2016. The site had bodies in odd positions, suggesting that the dead were simply tossed into a pit. Many had hands and feet bound by manacles and chains.

The Fort Sagres Exhibition Center, which announces “Europe starts here” since it is the
farthest western point on the continent, also accounted for Portugal’s slavery experience. An explanation at one display said that “In 1453, the chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zurara wrote an emotional account in his “Cronica dos Feitos da Guine” (The Chronicle of Discovery and Conquest of Guinea) detailing how children were wrenched from their mothers’ arms during the harrowing separation into groups of the first slaves to arrive at the port of Lagos.” The explanation noted the pit in Lagos “where several skeletons were found with their hands still tied.” The explanation added that “Once the Portuguese had developed the slave trade … the black slave trade quickly spread to all other European countries that had colonies in America.”

Knowing the history, a thinking person should conclude that Portugal is owning up to its
miserable past regarding slavery with such a display. A thinking person would observe that the slave trade predated the founding of the United States by hundreds of years. A thinking person should also conclude that the Portuguese started the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Finally, a thinking person would understand that the Portuguese were the buyers of slaves, Africans were the sellers.

That last fact, that Africans were the procurers and sellers of Africans, may finally be
reckoned with by blacks and whites alike. Boston University historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton believe that 90 percent of the slaves sent to the New World were enslaved by other Africans. People were captured and enslaved during tribal warfare and then sold to European slave traders.

The esteemed Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, remarked on the “complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible …” These “elites” may have overseen the partnership, but Africa’s indigenous population did the capturing and procuring in the same way slave traders did the buying and transporting.

Adaoli Tricia Nwaubani wrote in a 2019 Wall Street Journal about the time “When Slave Traders Were African.” She observed that many of today’s blacks in America are reconciling their identity with the legacy of their ancestors.

What I learned in Portugal and from a bit of research is that people and media with little sense of history simplify the history of the slave trade. When they bifurcate the history by saying “whites are bad, blacks are good,” they fail to acknowledge the complicit role of Africans in the slave trade. The Fort Sagres Exhibition Center and the Lagos Slave Museum explain the history and “own” Portugal’s history.

I daresay that were the history of the slave trade more completely presented to people here in the States, the amount of racial hostility would diminish. Travel to different countries helps people to understand another country but it also helps people to understand their own country’s history better. However, they must be open to learning.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. Citations viewable at


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