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Slave Trade Begins, European

The European slave trade began after Jean de Bethencourt’s discovery of the Canary Islands for Spain in 1402. He and some of his men captured the native Guanches and took them from their home to become slaves in Europe. Eager to get a colony of their own, the Portuguese, too, ventured to Africa for slave raids. They captured West Africans and sold them in Europe during the mid-1400s.  These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History during that time.

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The Canaries: Forgotten Islands

The Canaries are a group of islands located around 62 miles off the coast of Morocco. The Greek geographer Strabo mentioned the islands in his Geography as the “Islands of the Blest.” The Carthaginian sailors visited the islands when they dominated Africa, while Lusitanian sea captains visited the Lanzarote and Fuerteventura islands during the Roman times.

The Numidian king Juba II also sent explorers to the island. After their voyage, they reported to the king that the “Fortunate Islands” were uninhabited but abundant in sugarcane. They also found a stone temple on the island, while explorers of the Canaria reported seeing large dogs. They later brought these dogs back to their king. The island they visited was also abundant in apples, pine nuts, dates, papyrus, and honey.

The Muslim sailors and explorers from Al-Andalus named the islands “Khaledat.” Apart from accidental landings made by sailors and pirates, the Canary Islands were largely forgotten. In 1341, King Alfonso IV of Portugal allowed the Genoese navigator Nicoloso de Recco to explore the Canary Islands. He reported that he saw a lot of goats and other animals in the Canary Islands when he returned to Europe.

He also reported seeing the first inhabitants of the Canary Islands and they would later be called as the Guanches. The Guanches were related to the Berbers of North Africa, and they were ruled by a “prince.” Some of them were friendly and dared to swim out to the ships, but the few brave souls were carried off to Europe by de Recco’s men. They also saw a stone statue which they removed from its place and carried it off to Lisbon.

The Castilian captain Francisco Lopez landed in the Canary Islands after rough seas brought his ship there. He and his men befriended some natives, and they stayed there for seven years. For some reason, the natives turned on them and killed some of the captain’s men. The occasional merchants and pirates were the only ones who ventured into the islands since.

Jean de Bethencourt and the Start of the Slave Trade

Jean de Bethencourt explored the Canary Islands in 1402.

In 1402, the French nobleman Jean de Bethencourt assembled a group of men to explore the Canary Islands. He and his men left La Rochelle in France on May 1, 1402, and sailed to Corunna. From there they sailed to Cadiz, then to Graciosa in the Azores, and finally to the island of Lanzarote where they built the Rubicon fortress. They ran out of provisions and de Bethencourt’s men started to rebel, so their leader decided to leave and return to the continent for provisions. De Bethencourt left one of his men as temporary leader of the crew in Lanzarote.

De Bethencourt traveled to the court of King Henry III of Castile with the Guanches that he captured upon his return to Spain. He also asked to be recognized as the “king” of the Canary Islands, and in return, he would acknowledge the Spanish king as his overlord. Pleased with de Bethencourt’s discovery of the islands, King Henry III agreed to his offer.

The king commanded de Bethencourt to return to the islands and convert the native Guanches to Christianity. De Bethencourt also established colonies in the islands of Ferro and Palma in the years that followed. He returned to Spain where he was given a letter of commendation by the king. He traveled to Rome where the pope received him warmly. He returned to France after his trip to Rome and lived there until his death in 1422 or 1425.

The lucrative Spanish slave trade stopped briefly when Pope Eugene IV issued a papal bull which forbade the capture and enslavement of the Guanches. The papal bull also commanded that the Guanches should be freed and returned to their homes. Anyone who defied the bull would be punished with excommunication.

The Portuguese, too, took part in the European slave trade in the early 15th century. To even up the score, the ambitious Portuguese started their own African campaign by conquering the Marinid-held stronghold of Ceuta in 1415. It was in Ceuta that the Portuguese first heard of the trans-Saharan gold and slave trade. The Portuguese prince Henry (later called the Navigator) became curious. He told his men to go to the Western African trade centers, but crossing the Sahara desert was a big challenge. He then decided that his men should travel by sea. Portuguese ships sailed closely along the northwest coast of Africa in search of these trade centers. The explorers found miles and miles of uninhabited coast until they finally met native Africans.

Motivated by profit, Henry’s sailors captured hundreds of West Africans and brought them to Portugal to be sold as slaves. This practice continued for many years. The slave trade even prospered after Pope Eugene IV granted Prince Henry of Portugal the right to raid non-Christians of West Africa on the pretext of a holy crusade. Muslims and pagans were fair game, and they were all sold as slaves in Europe. By 1444, hundreds of West African men, women, and children landed in Lagos in Portugal after they were captured by the Portuguese and sold into the European slave trade.


Picture by: Baltasar Moncornet (16??-1668), Public Domain, Link

Bontier, Pierre, Jean Le Verrier, and Richard Henry Major. The Canarian: or, Book of the Conquest and Conversion of the Canarians in the Year 1402 by Messire Jean de Bethencourt, Kt. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1872.

De, Abreu De Galindo Juan, George Glas, James Dodsley, Robert Dodsley, and Thomas Durham. The History of the Discovery and Conquest of the Canary Islands: Translated from a Spanish Manuscript Lately Found in the island of Palma: With an Enquiry into the Origin of the Ancient Inhabitants: to Which is Added, a Description of the Canary Islands, Including the Modern History of the Inhabitants, and an Account of their Manners, Customs, & Trade. London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley in Pall-mall, and T. Durham in the Strand, 1764.

Gambier, J. W. The Guanches: The Ancient Inhabitants of Canary. 1896.

Saunders, A. C. de C. M, A. A Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal, 1441-1555. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Thomas, Hugh. The Slave trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

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